What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)
Giant Sparrow | Reviewed on PS4
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”
Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
What Remains of Edith Finch, at its roots, is a walking simulator, but it also felt a bit like an interactive visual novel. You play as Edith, wandering through her old family home, recording, narrating, and experiencing the histories of your family members lives. Text will float on and off screen as Edith speaks, playing off the environment in endlessly creative ways as you make your way through the game. I loved this title’s exploration of the past, and its commentary on how these stories and memories contribute to our sense of self, and how we grow as individuals. Most of the Finches that Edith talks about have died very young – a sort-of family curse, that her mother, Dawn, in particular seems to want to run from. Though the game never definitively answers whether or not the Finch family is ‘cursed’ it doesn’t really matter – the main crux of the game deals with experiencing loss and grief. It deals with the importance of stories, being who and what we are (even if they aren’t real).
We see how Edith’s immediate family, and many of her ancestors, were torn apart by these traumas, and how they deal with this family legacy in different ways. We experience their last moments, usually with elements of fantasy, surreal visuals, and accompanying music to soften the blow of watching each member die. We come to understand, as Edith puts it, how strange and brief life is.
Stories all the way down
The narrative of What Remains of Edith Finch is a lot like a nesting doll – you play as Edith, who is making a journal for her future child (who we see at the end) while also getting to experience the stories of her ancestors. The majority of these nested narratives take place around the Finch family house – the central symbol of both the family, and their history. I love the way the house is designed in this game.
It mirrors the Finch family tree, constantly being added to. The patchwork-look of the house symbolizes this growth and expansion, and at the same time, alludes to the fantastical elements that the game utilizes. It reminds me a bit of how I always pictured the Weasley’s house looking in Harry Potter. Edith talks about the house almost as if it’s a living thing (in a way, it is) and her journey recounts her efforts to draw out the secrets it holds. The house is both intricate and uncanny, with hidden nooks and passageways; the overflowing library, and stacks of books that line nearly every hallway not only remind us that this house was lived in and loved, but of the importance of the stories contained within.
This is essentially the heart of What Remains of Edith Finch – how we are the stories that are written about us, and how we write them for future generations. As you explore each family member’s room, and interact with some aspect of their past, you get to explore their last moments. Some of these stories are absolutely heart-wrenching – Gregory’s in particular – while others are strangely lighthearted, and almost whimsical, like Molly’s.
History of the Finches
Gregory, Barbara, and Gus’ stories were all highlights for me. Gregory’s was incredibly heavy – I’m not sure there is a ‘light’ way to portray the death of a baby – but the fantasy element helped to soften the impact slightly. The way the music crescendos as you’re jumping around with his bathtub toys perfectly underscores the way we experience his imagination. Interacting with the text using Gus’ kite in his story was extremely clever, and I enjoyed the visuals of his segment. Barbara’s comic book framed story was both fun, and had a style unique among the rest of the Finch stories. Overall there wasn’t a single story I was disappointed in. Each one is unique. Milton for instance, has left small paintings throughout the secret passageways we travel through, and eventually, we see the end of his tale in a flip book. He depicts himself painting a door and leaving; Milton disappeared in real life as well, which leaves the player with some really interesting questions.
Others, like Molly and Lewis’ are more centralized experiences, in a single story or memory. They all give you a sense of personality, as well as some insight into the members of the Finch family tree. They’re all stories framed from differing perspectives, and the game sets this up in a variety of clever ways. For instance, Gregory’s death is narrated from the perspective of his father (written on a divorce contract) while Walter and Molly’s are told from their own writings. Edith’s story ends up being the entirety of the game. Her grandmother, Edie, is a really interesting figure, and the matriarch of the Finch family. We begin to hear her tale, about the original Finch house, but her story is interrupted and left unfinished. In a lot of ways, she represents the foundation of the Finch house, and their family history, so it’s interesting that her story in particular remains enigmatic.
I do want to devote some time to discussing my favourite story of the game – that of Lewis – and how it draws parallels between his life and the world of his imagination. In many ways, Lewis’ story is a great representation of what the game manages to do so well in a single, contained experience.
I doubt that I’m alone in thinking that Lewis’ story (Edith’s brother) is both the most resonant and the most disturbing story in the game. It is also the most powerful (for me personally) and one of the smartest, in terms of the imagery and real-life parallels that his tale manages to incorporate. When you first enter Lewis’ room, you might stop by the small gaming system on his dresser – Edith comments that she and Lewis used to play a lot, though he was always terrible, and died a lot. The first parallel to Lewis’ realm of imagination begins here: the name of the games systems is the “Wonderland.”
Lewis, we are told, was struggling with some kind of depression. He responds by retreating into his own mind. We begin Lewis’ story (narrated via a note by his therapist) with him working at the fish cannery – you will use the right control stick to pick up a fish, move it to the guillotine to remove its head, and then push it up onto the conveyor belt. You continue this motion as the fish are constantly pushed onto his station. On the left-hand side of the screen is Lewis’ imaginative world, the land of Wonder. You’ll use the left stick to control Lewis’ avatar through increasingly realistic environments – beginning as a blank, black maze, it soon evolves to a fully realized 3D world, not unlike a video game (and named after his gaming system apparently).
As this happens, the world of Lewis’ imagination slowly begins to bleed across more of the screen; it demands more and more of your attention, though you still have to balance chopping the heads off the fishes, the ominous swishing of the blade falling to help your rhythm. Lewis’ therapist describes his retreat into this imaginative world, as it becomes more real to him than his actual life, while this world takes over for the player as well. You’ll notice the fish imagery consistently coming up in Lewis’ imaginative world as well – this motif decorates a lot of the Palace we see at the end.
All of these parallels, between Lewis’ fantasy world and his reality, his sense of self becoming increasingly tied to this imaginary realm (and yet, the intrusive fish continuing to pop up), and the juggling of gameplay by the player are so fantastically designed. I literally had to put down my controller and just pause for a second when Lewis’ story concluded.
In the end, the imaginative world, the land of Wonder, has become fully realized as you inhabit the body of Lewis’ ‘new’ self. He walks up the steps of the Palace, with musical accompaniment and a crowd of faceless peers cheering him on. The Prince (or Queen, depending on your choices) awaits him, crown in hand. All that is left is to “bend his head down” into the guillotine before the Prince – this guillotine not unlike the blade you’ve seen effortlessly chop the heads from the fish at the cannery. He kneels. The screen goes black. You know what happens next.
I don’t think it was the overarching narrative that really drew me into this game, but rather the things that it made me think about on my own. I like that the title can be interpreted as a question – what does remain of Edith Finch? Her house, her story, her child, her legacy? This game ultimately presented a lot of opportunities for difficult, and more abstract topics to be picked apart and mulled over. When I studied literature in university, I remember reading a story, where the author compared the life of humans to a sparrow flying through a mead hall – it escapes the storm and gale outside for a brief bit of respite indoors. Then it flies out again, into the unknown. This was from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede. I thought about this story a lot when playing What Remains of Edith Finch – we get to glimpse the fleeting moments of life experienced by each of the family members. Some of their fates remain unknown, but despite their untimely demises, we know that they were loved and remembered.
Despite this game dealing so closely with death, I still felt a sense of hope by the end, that the game was ultimately uplifting rather than depressing. Seeing Edith’s child at the end is both frightening and encouraging – we wonder if he will suffer the same fate as the other Finches, or if his connection to Edith and return to the house is the sign of a new generation, and new possibility. Though there isn’t much to the gameplay aspect, I would say that this game is an absolute must-play for the incredible visual/text play, and the clever metaphorical and symbolic parallels that the game manages to weave. What Remains of Edith Finch is truly one of a kind, and I can’t recommend it enough. This game was a thoughtful, introspective look at loss, legacy, and most importantly of all, the nature of storytelling.