Because of Your StoriesThoughts on “What Remains of Edith Finch?” by Giant Sparrow
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.