What Remains of Edith Finch is a brilliant accomplishment. It’s also a game that repeatedly fails to live up to its potential in serious, heartbreaking ways. Until now, I’d never realized it was possible to be both at the same time.
Billed by developer Giant Sparrow as a playable collection of short stories exploring death, the game does its level best to defy categorization, but most people will find it easiest to lump in with first-person narrative-focused games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture—”walking simulators,” as all the cool kids say.
On the surface, the comparison is useful enough, especially given the commonalities with Gone Home in particular. Like Fullbright’s critically acclaimed coming of age tale, What Remains of Edith Finch primarily follows the young woman of its title as she returns to her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest, picking through her family’s belongings to piece together lives she never fully understood.
Past that, the parallels quickly begin to dry up. For one thing, Edith isn’t uncovering the drama of mundane suburbia. Those family members? Yeah, they’re dead, quite possibly as a result of a centuries-old curse. Whereas Gone Home shot for vérité, What Remains of Edith Finch has its sights set on an intriguing blend of H.P. Lovecraft and magical realism.
Plus, that “walking simulator” label proves even less fitting here than usual, since basic navigation quickly falls into the background as far more interesting and varied ideas take center stage. In a formally ambitious, almost literary twist, the game spirals in and out of nested frame narratives, shifting in time and place and perspective to allow players to directly experience each family member’s story whenever Edith finds the necessary journal or letter. Every new vignette presents its own imaginative way of interacting with the world, and while no two are exactly alike, they all share the same minimalist language of control. Without any onscreen button prompts, you quickly grasp what the sticks and triggers will do in any given scenario, usually seamlessly. It’s unbelievably audacious. It works. Game design has rarely packed so many moments of wondrous discovery into so few hours.
The Finch estate, for the most part, impresses as well. Yes, it’s a glorified corridor, and you’re still technically just looking for the red switch to open the red door so you can go fight more demons. But as far as glorified corridors go, it’s a pretty well-disguised one. The level design puts enough thought into the ways you’re gated off and the secret passages you need to use to advance that the contrivance feels almost charming. The sense that some off-kilter mystery is hiding in every wall, just beneath the veneer of normalcy, somehow fits the tone.
The hallways and rooms are sumptuously detailed, overstuffed with family photos, books, and countless other gewgaws that illuminate the lives of their inhabitants. Walk into any bedroom, and you’ll quickly gather what archetype its owner falls into. The space-obsessed kid. The rebellious punk. The military man. The pot-smoking, burnout gamer. You’re free to debate the shortcomings of gaming’s tendency to rely so heavily on environmental storytelling—and there are plenty—but there’s no question Giant Sparrow makes effective use of it here.
But you already read the first line of this review, so you know the lovefest is going to end eventually. We’ve now reached that portion of tonight’s program.
All of those accomplishments I outlined above exist in service of the game’s story. Certainly, some of them are the story, at least in part, because gameplay and visuals are crucial elements of storytelling in any game, this one included. But What Remains of Edith Finch really, really wants you to know that the conventional story stuff, the words and the gradually unfurling plot, are the important thing. The constant narration, whether from Edith or the authors of the documents she finds, is literally placed front and center, as floating, handwritten text within the environments. (An admittedly neat touch.) The game will even pull your view towards the words when they appear, partially wresting away control, as though to shout, “You don’t want to miss this.” Gameplay success offers no visceral satisfaction. It doesn’t try to. Your reward is the next chunk of narrative. When it’s all over, the text that appears onscreen reads “A story by Giant Sparrow.” Not a game. A story.
What Remains of Edith Finch is not a particularly well-written story. It contains good writing, to be sure. I’m not here to fuss about clunky word choice or awkward phrasing. Truthfully, I didn’t notice any. Moment to moment, everything works, and some lines are quite affecting. Taken as a whole, though? It’s not so hot.
You may want to take a moment to brace yourself, because I’m about to engage in some world-class pedantry. Ride it out. I assure you it’s all in the interest of making a broader point.
Edith Finch should not be named Edith Finch. To be clear, that’s not a matter of personal taste. The Finch family depicted in the game traces back to Odin Finch, who left Norway for America with his only surviving heir, Edie. (All of this is almost immediately shown on the family tree that adorns the game’s pause screen, so I’m not really spoiling anything.) She brought along her husband, Sven, who is buried in the family graveyard under a headstone that reads, for reasons that are never explained, “Sven Finch.” All their kids? Finches. Maybe he took her name when they married. Maybe two unrelated people with the same last name just happened to end up together. Crazier things have happened. Maybe the world of the game follows different rules, and family names here are passed down from the mother.
Except their son, Sam, married outside the family, kept his own name, and passed it on to all of his own children, Edith’s mother Dawn among them. Dawn, in turn, married a man named Sanjay Kumar and gave birth to Edith and her two brothers, all of whom… also got the last name Finch. We’re told Dawn and Sanjay are happy together up until his untimely death, several years after the birth of their last child. (And on his grave marker, for the record, he is still “Sanjay Kumar.”) Barring some unspoken ad hoc arrangement that cropped up twice in three generations, Edith Finch should be Edith Kumar.
I know this is petty. She’s Edith Finch because that’s the name Giant Sparrow chose for her. The messy provenance, presumably, is because someone decided that it was cleaner for all the family members to share a name, and that the story wouldn’t work as well if Edith’s only connections to the Finch lineage ran through men.
At best, it’s a bit lazy, this bending of the rules to match a pre-existing vision without offering even the pretense of explanation. At worst, it stinks of erasure. Edith and her siblings can be biracial, thereby fulfilling the diversity quota, but only if their father, already the scantest presence within the game, does not pass on his name.
I’m harping on this, yes, but only because it was, for me, the most obvious symptom of a larger disease. The Finches, we learn, were famous throughout Norway for their misfortune for 500 years. Finch is not a Norwegian name. (Immigrants, sure, but 500 years is a long time, and for most of it Norway had incredibly specific naming conventions.) The power is out, but then it isn’t, because it’s night now, and I guess just this part of the house has solar panels, and no one turned out any of the lights when they left. A letter from a psychiatrist that narrates one of the stories switches between addressing its intended recipient in the first- and third-person to recount an event that said recipient is physically present for. That same letter, in serving as narration for an event unfolding onscreen, describes in a fairly detailed way an event set in someone else’s mind right before their death, ostensibly because they told the psychiatrist exactly what they were going to imagine before they actually imagined it. This makes very little sense.
Taken individually, none of these are fatal. You can explain away most of them without too much effort, even if the game doesn’t bother to try. But it adds up. The grand vision is at war with the details.
Once you notice this, it becomes glaring that swaths of the game are not actually presented in a way that feels true to its story or its world. Too much attention has been paid to the desired player response and how best to generate it, and too little has been paid to the why and because that are the fundamental building blocks of storytelling. The characters-narrating-the-future thing, though never as egregious as the example above, comes up more than once. First and foremost, everything must be a performance for the player, across any boundaries of time, space, or internal logic.
If this all seems unfair, well, I’m inclined to disagree. What Remains of Edith Finch asks the player to take it seriously—that is, as a serious work. The game isn’t exactly subtle about its literary aspirations. Around half of the books you’ll see in the Finch home are real works, and it’s clear almost immediately that they represent the game’s inspirations. Numerous references to Jorge Luis Borges and the genre he inspired, magical realism. The pioneering fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany. Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace. The King in Yellow, House of Leaves, Pastoralia. That is not a list of references you include if you want to be taken lightly. That is a sprawling, ballsy statement of intent.
Given the game’s main influences, Giant Sparrow should understand that the magic of magical realism and the disquieting friction of Lovecraftian horror both rely on the sense that something otherworldly is infringing upon a world very much like our own, or at least on one with a clearly-defined set of rules. If you don’t bother to establish a sense of what that reality is, you lose that crucial sense of balance.
Let me put it another way. There’s a reason we loathe invisible walls in games. They represent the breach of an implicit bargain between the creator and the player. The one that says, If you impose arbitrary limits to funnel me towards the one specific destination you have in mind, you owe it to me to do the bare minimum to cover it up. Put up a fence. Send a shark to eat me if I wade too far out. But don’t just tell me that the rules no longer apply if I stray too far away from what you planned. Don’t squander my goodwill by forcing me to ignore something you could so easily have fixed or papered over. Save it for the big stuff. That’s what I’m getting at. What Remains of Edith Finch is full of invisible walls. They’re just not in the gameplay.
Nothing in the game suffers from being fenced in so much as the characters. Human beings are strange, knotted-up things, and it’s the little incongruities, the unexpected specifics, that make the fictional ones feel poignantly alive. Sadly, most of your time with the Finches is spent with rushing towards impending doom so fast that any details become a blur. Only two or three of them ever manage to break out of those simple, first-impression archetypes during their stories. As a result, you’re never mourning their death, not really. You’re mourning death as a concept. Of course it’s sad when a father dies, or a daughter, or a brother, or a child. But that’s not real, earned sentiment. It’s sentimentality.
Even Edith never really blossoms as a character. I’m not going to spoil the context of the narrative she’s writing, the one you see and hear unfold as she explores the house, but suffice it to say that there’s little reason for any dramatic flourish. And yet, a sizable chunk of what Edith says is just spooky foreshadowing in service of setting up all the supposedly big secrets that are to come. You spend more time with her than anyone else in the game but over that span learn next to nothing about her personality, her quirks, her desires. She enjoys fingerless gloves and ominous posturing, I guess? By the time the credits roll, the game makes absolutely certain you know what remains of Edith Finch. Trouble is, it doesn’t say much about what was there to begin with.
Well, so what, right? Countless writers, Jorge Luis Borges not least among them, have shown you don’t need strong characters, or much in the way of characters at all, to build a great story. But, at least in Borges’ case, you do need a great idea, something crazy and sweeping and insightful enough to fill that void at the center. Beyond the novelty of its technical and structural accomplishments, I am not sure What Remains of Edith Finch has any great ideas.
In a story that is ostensibly about life and death, the closest thing we get to a thematic statement, delivered by Edith in the game’s closing moments, is essentially a rephrasing of the bromide that lives on bedroom posters of teenage girls everywhere: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I doubt that In Search of Lost Time, Infinite Jest, or any of the other books scattered around the Finch house would be regarded as great works if they ended with an invitation to “dance like there’s nobody watching.”
Listen, I’m really not trying to be mean here. I respect what Giant Sparrow has accomplished too much to write it off as all bad. But I also respect it too much to blindly praise it when it fails in ways that so obviously waste its potential. In fact, I respect the game so much that, for the past four days, I have been trying to wrestle something semi-coherent onto the page for more hours that I care to admit in public. I have done serious, time-intensive research, all in the hopes of trying to decide just how I feel about this game. I bought the developer’s first game and played through the entire thing, just to see if that might help. It didn’t, much. I have written and rewritten and rewritten so much about What Remains of Edith Finch that I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a love letter or some kind of unhinged manifesto. Then again, maybe it can be both.
|Publisher: Annapurna Interactive • Developer: Giant Sparrow • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.25.2017|
What Remains of Edith Finch masterfully shows that narrative-driven games can tell stories in creative ways without sacrificing gameplay. Ultimately, though, the experience is let down by the story itself, which doesn’t do much of anything interesting with its characters or subject matter.
|The Good||Exceptional, imaginative design that proves games focused on telling stories don’t need to neuter gameplay.|
|The Bad||Writing isn’t on nearly the same level, so the story ultimately fizzles.|
|The Ugly||“Guys, what if there’s this whole arc about a missing child, and then at the end it turns out it’s just cross-promotion?”|
|What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Annapurna Interactive for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|