A heart-breaking and touching exploration of a fated family, explored through excellent story-telling and character development.
For the last few years, several developers have created first-person interactive experiences, or ‘walking simulators’ as they have come to be known. Despite these varied attempts, few have made a lasting impression on players, leading to many throwaway experiences. After all, it’s a tough genre to crack, relying on both pacing and direction being on point, as well as a well-written narrative that can hold the player’s attention. Both these feats are not easily achievable.
Then we have What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), the second title by Giant Sparrow, developers of The Unfinished Swan (2012). You begin the game trekking down the driveway to the Finch household, a lopsided residence which is almost towering – due to the numerous extensions made to cater for the additional members of the Finch family that have come and gone over the years. You read from a diary which serves as one of the game’s main ways for delivering the story. As you read, text appears on the screen and key lines are indented. Once inside the house, the real story begins.
In order not to spoil anything, the bedrooms in the Finch house have been sealed-off by Edith’s mother, Dawn, following the untimely demise of each family member. You will explore each of the bedrooms, accessing them via a series of secret tunnels and passageways, built into the house by family patriarch, Odin Finch.
Whilst What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t a graphical powerhouse by any means, the devil is in the detail. The interior of the Finch house is strewn with little oddities: plates piled by the sink, takeaway leaflets lay open on the kitchen counter and boxes are piled in the hallway from when Edith and her mother left the house hurriedly seven years before the game starts. Simply put, the house feels like it was once lived in and long left alone.
The real stars of the show are the Finch family bedrooms, designed in such a way to give a sense of the family member’s personality. As they have been sealed-off, the rooms have been untouched since their deaths, which makes each room feel like a shrine. In each room, you will find a document, be it a diary entry, letter to another family member or even to themselves. Once found, you will be taken to the very moment they died and get to live out the experience. Whilst some show their death as it happened, some take a much more fantastical, surreal and implicit approach. In either case, some of the deaths are heart-breaking and even when you can predict what will happen, they pack a real punch to the gut when they do.
What is also striking is that each moment is presented in a distinct way. One example is the death of Barbara Finch, a former B-movie child-star who has since fallen from fame. Her death is played out in a cell-shaded, comic book style, akin to old Creep Show comics and features the theme tune from Halloween. This, and the other bizarre and surreal means of telling the Finch family stories, prevents the game from becoming stale.
Credit is also due because in such a short space of time, Giant Sparrow have managed to make each member of the Finch family feel real. You get a sense of their insecurities, their failings and aspirations. It makes you feel more for their deaths as their stories are so touching and relatable. When combined with the visual story-telling by way of the trinkets and personal belongings found in their rooms, it feels masterfully delivered. A great example of Giant Sparrow’s visual story-telling prowess comes after witnessing the death of a family member called Walter. They show you one thing during the flashback, but by exploring the scene of his death, you find that it was not only impossible, but you figure out how he really died.
It is a shame that the game only lasts two-hours, simply because of how invested I became in the Finch family. I wanted to know and learn more about them because I came to care. The power behind What Remains of Edith Finch is that each story contains a universal truth about human nature, making them relatable. The aforementioned gut-punch moments are by way of the realisations you have, served by Giant Sparrow’s stellar delivery of the narrative. As such, Giant Sparrow have managed to tell a succinct and well-crafted story in just two-hours, which many would struggle to put across in ten – a testament to the quality of direction and pacing in What Remains of Edith Finch.
The game also has a shaky start in terms of performance. When playing on PC, I noticed considerable frame-rate drops and texture pop-in when approaching the house in the first five minutes of the game. This persisted no matter what settings I played on. However, the game becomes more stable once inside the house and, given that is where most the story takes place, this isn’t that big of a deal.
What Remains of Edith Finch also employs a beautiful soundtrack to heighten these emotional moments, and is even more effective for how sparsely it is used. When exploring the house, you are left with ambient sounds such as the creaking of floorboards and birdsong emanating from outside the house. It adds to the sense of isolation that What Remains of Edith Finch often evokes, which is fitting, given how intimate an experience this game is.
When it comes to first-person, interactive games, What Remains of Edith Finch is up there with the very best, and earns that space by its excellent, well-written story and the varied means of delivering it’s narrative. It is a tale that harks on the themes of grief, acceptance of one’s own mortality and of the people who fill your life.