If you played What Remains of Edith Finch without looking at who made it, you’d still probably come away thinking that it was a lot like Unfinished Swan.
Giant Sparrow — which did indeed make Unfinished Swan, as well as this one — wears that aesthetic continuity on its sleeve. Like its predecessor, Edith Finch is a first-person exploration game which behaves by and large like a moving storybook. Narrated words appear on screen as they’re spoken aloud in a slow, careful bedtime fairy tale cadence, even as the stories themselves plunge from fanciful into macabre.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a darker tale than Unfinished Swan, or at least soberer about the tragedy undergirding its escapism. Like Unfinished Swan‘s Munroe, the members of the Finch family tree all seem to vanish into their imaginations, literally perceiving their reality through their respective personal lenses — the life of a former scream queen plays out as a schlocky horror comic book; a photographer’s camera captures the moment of his death — but all these subjective experiences come to a screeching halt with each character’s death, pulling the player back into the “real” world of the Finch family mansion.
A lot of these first-person exploratory games set in empty houses garner praise for turning the house into a character, but in What Remains of Edith Finch it is almost literally the case. The family estate is so full of crawlspaces, concealed doors, and architectural afterthoughts that navigation feels more like dissecting a living creature than a typical exploration game. This house doesn’t want us here — the key our protagonist is sent in the beginning isn’t actually meant to open any of the exterior doors — and every conventional entrance and exit seems to actively repel us. “If I’d known there was going to be this much climbing,” our protagonist Edith Finch, Jr.* complains at one point, she might not have bothered to make the trip, family closure or not.
And there is much less closure than you might expect, in a game about exploring a family mausoleum where every family member’s bedroom is sealed up after their (invariably gruesome and premature) death. Early on, several family members suggest — through flashbacks and diaries — that the Finch family line is cursed, even preyed upon by some supernatural creature. For better or worse, this sets the player up to expect some kind of escalating sense of dread or horror, maybe ending with a literal monster under the literal bed, but that’s not the direction the game takes.
When I spoke with creative director Ian Dallas about the game, he described the Finch estate as “ramshackle majesty,” where even the haphazard two-by-fours propping up the later additions to the house seem built with loving care (albeit with non-professional hands). Thick lines of caulk like tumorous growths seal off every bedroom door belonging to a deceased family member, but we learn that Great Grandmother Edie — Edith Finch, Sr. as it happens — responded by drilling peepholes and adding memorial plaques over each door, so that every room can be peered into as if it were a tiny diarama. Looking through these, the player finds a soft focus, wide angle image of the room’s interior, just as it was on the day of that family member’s death — capturing that person’s life as though in a frozen soap bubble of rose-tinted sentimentality.
The player’s goal is to get into those rooms, however, so looking can’t last forever. Instead of taking a hatchet to each sealed door, Edith, Jr. makes use of the building’s own ad hoc architecture to get around, climbing through hidden crawlspaces and squeezing between walls. What she finds is that even these nooks and crannies were once inhabited — mostly by Finch children of generations past, trying to escape the house’s funereal atmosphere. Edith’s brother Milton — the only other Finch unaccounted for, having gone missing as a child — seems to have left his handiwork everywhere in these margins, painting on the insides of walls and signing his name in places he had to have known would rarely if ever see another visitor. Milton Finch, the story seems to imply, knew the house’s secrets best out of anyone in his family, and perhaps that’s why he got out when he did.
You may remember me mentioning What Remains of Edith Finch‘s control scheme during my preview, and how I hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be gimmicky nonsense. I’m happy to report that, while it still takes some getting used to here and there, the PlayStation 4 controls seem to suit the story just fine most of the time. A few of the game’s vignettes remain disorienting to play, however, and while in some cases these weird controls tap into a character’s mental state (Lewis Finch’s story, which I covered before, is no easier to navigate the second time), in others they just become frustrating minigames (I would have given absolutely anything to skip the bathtub segment). If there is one aspect of the game where I would have liked to see some more polish, it is probably here. Difficult controls can work as a metaphor, sure — but if the controls themselves are the challenge, that only distracts from the story the game is trying to tell.
There is something quaintly retro about What Remains of Edith Finch, which seems an odd to say about a burgeoning subgenre only a few years old. The Chinese Room’s original mod version of Dear Esther released in 2008; the original Stanley Parable arrived in 2011; by the time Gone Home hit the scene in 2013, so-called “walking simulators” and other non-shooter first-person games were a well-cornered niche. When Giant Sparrow’s debut title The Unfinished Swan released in 2012, it too fell in with this category, even though it featured shooting (after a fashion): critics recognized it as part of a growing trend of non-violent, story-focused independent games for an audience much broader than first-person games tended to attract. It makes sense, then, that Edith Finch should capture much of the same feeling.
Except that it’s now 2017, and it isn’t just technology which moves swiftly in the world of videogames. When BioShock blew teen boys’ minds with a well-placed “would you kindly” in 2007, we talked and wrote about first-person games in a very different way. Hell, that’s where we got the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (and I wish every day that Clint Hocking would take it back). There is something charmingly outdated in how What Remains of Edith Finch plays itself completely straight — right down to its narrated diary entries and blinking red beacons — that makes the whole game feel like a time capsule. It’s a callback to a not-so-distant past, when we believed non-violent first-person games were fertile ground for gameplay innovation, instead of just another genre that had been discoursed to death.
All of Edith Finch‘s vignettes premise themselves on the same foregone conclusion — except the very last one, the largest and longest story the game tells. Specifics aside, we know in advance what becomes of every member of the household, including family matriarch Edith Finch, Sr.. But what remains of Edith Finch, Jr., the young woman who catburgles her way through her own ancestral home to find answers, is not so concrete. The closure she’s after doesn’t arrive as some cinematic crescendo or decisive final revelation; it’s more introspective than that. Is there a family curse? Does believing in the curse help will it into existence? What happens to a family home when the last family member leaves?
From start to finish, What Remains of Edith Finch might take the average player two or three hours to complete, about the same time as a movie might run on the same subject — which is perfect, in my opinion. It’s a game a player could reasonably finish in a single sitting, yet continue thinking about it long after, much like the gothic short stories which inspire it. I would not go so far as to call it “accessible” — like Unfinished Swan, the player needs to either come in knowing how to operate a first-person game or be able to pick up those skills quickly, so I’d hesitate before showing it to your death-obsessed great-grandmother, if you have one — and there are times when its controls work against it, rather than in service to the story that it’s telling. But for a sophomoric effort, What Remains of Edith Finch at least measures up to its predecessors, subverting its genre in subtler but none the less gratifying ways.
*I’ve used the game’s terminology here, but technically, Edith Finch, Jr. should be Edith Finch II, since she’s not Edith Finch, Sr.’s daughter. I’m sorry, I know that I am probably one of five people in the entire world who care about this, but it was bugging me and I had to say something.