‘What Remains of Edith Finch’: A high-water mark of narrative video game design
By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 4, 2017
If you’re curious to see how far narrative-driven games have come in the past few years, “What Remains of Edith Finch” is an excellent starting point. This inspired game about an ill-fated family uses a selective number of simple yet poignant gameplay mechanics — flying a kite, taking pictures with a camera, etc. — to draw players into a web of fantastical vignettes that echo the weird fiction of EC Comics, Lovecraft and the like. Although the stories make use of different emotional tones and visual styles, they are united in that they are as beautiful as they are invariably fatal.
The player’s chief conduit through the Finch dynasty isseventeen 17-year-old Edith who, at the beginning of the game, returns to her childhood home, which is situated on a verdant island off the coast of Washington state. It’s her first visit since 2010, when she was 11. Through voice-over, she tells us that as a child she was barred from entering many of its rooms, which were sealed up by her mother, but her grandmother drilled peepholes in an act of rebellion. Edith also tells us that the house, now hers, has always unnerved her.
The Finch residence has the ambience of a bibliophile’s fever dream. Books overrun the interior of the home like moss in a forest. They prop up the television and form piles behind the couch, through the hallway, up the stairs, in the kitchen and along window casements. This tally neglects the many bookcases in the bedrooms and living area as well as the room that serves as the library proper. Attentive observers will notice some repeating titles here and there, suggesting limited technical resources on the developer’s part on one hand, but on the other adds to an impression of overabundance that is consistent with the profusion of other objects in the home. Edith likens this totality to “a smile with too many teeth.”
In a room bathed in aquamarine light, the walls of which are painted with an underwater scene, Edith finds that a mysterious key her mother left her after she passed away fits the lock that’s attached to a copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” hanging on the wall. Opening the book reveals that its contents have been hollowed out to make space for a handle that opens a panel in the wall, painted to look like the window sill of a train. A crawl space leads to the bedroom of her Aunt Molly, who died as a child.
The discovery of a short story written by Molly transports players into a tale about a little girl who is sent to bed without supper. In the middle of the night she wakes up and begins ravenously eating anything she can find, from toothpaste to the plastic berries on an ornamental wreath. Still hungry, the child is transformed into a predatory bird, then a shark, then a sea monster. The deftness with which the story moves from the prosaic horror of a hungry child to the comforting invulnerability of a fearless predator is remarkable.
As Edith makes her way further into the labyrinth of the house, she discovers more documents that whisk the player into other stories, each as compact as it is emotionally resonant. Playing the game brought to mind a couplet from the Keats poem “Ode to Melancholy,” which captures the oscillating sentiments embedded in the tales, “in the very temple of Delight/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”
When I spoke with Ian Dallas, one of the game designers at Giant Sparrow, he said the game that became “What Remains of Edith Finch” began life four-and-a-half 4½ years ago as a scuba simulator that was intended to evoke a feeling of the sublime. As Dallas explained it, this romantic impulse bled over into the finished game insofar as it deals with people who are “themselves experiencing sublime moments” or are otherwise “overwhelmed.” Elaborating further, Dallas said that during development when he and his coworkers were experimenting with different prototypes, they found that “the thing that seemed the most effective were stories about people getting lost in their imaginations and pursuing a goal to the detriment of everything else in their lives. I think the reason that worked, in hindsight, is that’s a very similar tone to what the player’s experience is in a video game, in general, in that players are accustomed to being given a very clear goal and pursuing that goal no matter what.”
With a playtime equivalent to that of a long film, the game amply rewards a player’s time commitment. My recommendation: Play it once for the story, then again to savor the details.