What Remains of Edith Finch? is a walking simulator and a frame story. It’s
tragic and beautiful and best experienced alongside a friend or two. If you
haven’t played, and any of that sounds promising to you, then I suggest you
stop here and go play it. The spoilers below are minor, but the less you know
to start, the better.
The environment is beautiful and detailed. Books, heirlooms, photographs, and
other knick-knacks fill Edith’s childhood home. For all its absurdity, the
house feels surprisingly authentic–like a real creation of DIYers. The bizarre
architecture has an unexpected effect on the experience: your winding path
through the maze effectively masks the game’s linearity.
Somewhere around the halfway point, my Mom turned to me and asked, “why isn’t
this a movie?” It was a good question; with gameplay reduced to such simple
interactions, it can be hard to see how this medium serves the story more than,
say, an animated film.
We soon came to appreciate how “simple” doesn’t mean “devoid of emotion.” The
input mechanics were clearly designed to support the narrative of each tragedy.
Dragging yourself forward as a sea monster makes you feel sinister and
grotesque. Snapping pictures on a hunting trip makes you feel oblivious to
the emotional needs of your companion. Simultaneously navigating a fantasy land
and a dreary day job makes you feel anxious and unhinged. Unfortunately, this
phenomenon cuts both ways. Similarly-imaginative controls are sometimes
required for mundane operations like opening doors, but there, they distract
from the experience rather than enhance it. However effective, though, it’s
probably a mistake to get too hung up on the physical input itself.
The real power of the minimal gameplay comes from its effect on pacing. By
putting the audience completely in control, the creators eliminated any sense
of urgency, supported agency in the process of discovery, and made unlimited
space for reflection. That last part is particularly apparent if you play with
a friend; unlike in a movie, there’s almost no bad time to stop and talk. I’m
new to the “walking simulator” scene, but this appears to be a strength of the
genre rather than Edith itself. Even so, the creators deserve credit for
fostering symbiosis between format and content.
…especially when the content is so compelling! The stories vary not just in
control scheme but in visual style, mood, and duration. You quickly learn to
suspend your expectations when a new one starts, which would be exciting if the
context wasn’t so tragic. Somehow, though, the overall effect is neither
dreadful nor voyeuristic. Maybe it’s because Edith addresses you directly, or
maybe it’s the emotion in her voice, beautifully performed by Valerie Rose
Lohman. Whatever the cause, the game plays
to your sympathy more than any darker emotion.
Where Gone Home was stilted by the amount of closure it
provided, and Virginia was disappointingly
vague about much of its content, Edith found
balance in its conclusion. The central themes are solid, and they’re
well-served by subtler details that leave room for personal interpretation.
It’s lingered in my mind through the days since I finished it, and I don’t
expect it to go anywhere anytime soon.