How do we explain family tragedies?
Review: What Remains of Edith Finch
Recently re-released on new consoles, What Remains of Edith Finch has a uniquely powerful story.
Set on Orcas Island in Washington state, What Remains of Edith Finch is the story of the Finch family, a family who seem to be cursed. After the death of her mother, Edith returns to her childhood home to find out the truth about how her family died. The player sees her world through her eyes, with her narration to guide them.
With each successive generation meeting an unfortunate end, whether or not the family is in fact cursed is a matter of ambiguity, and a number of details have been a matter of speculation among players.
The family house is something of a character in itself, containing the memories and lost dreams of past generations of Finches. With family members’ rooms sealed off and left intact after their deaths, it has grown over the years, with generations literally building upon it. As players explore the home, guided by narrative text on its walls, they gain a sense of a wider picture.
What Remains of Edith Finch is better encountered than described. While this can be said for a lot of videogames, it is somewhat difficult to pin down the exact type of game that it is, with perhaps the best description being that it is something of an interactive novel, with elements of ‘point and click’ adventure titles.
What Remains of Edith Finch builds on past ‘walking simulators’ such as Firewatch and Virginia, with players exploring the labyrinthine house and experiencing its world unfold, room by sealed room. The ‘found story’ narrative feature of past games such as Bioshock and Gone Home features heavily, discovering the Finch family’s tragic history.
Another admirable feature of the game’s design is the way that levels provide variety. Players encounter the way each family member met their own untimely end, with each level taking place in a different style, with a unique gameplay mechanic on display for each one. This leads to several memorable levels. For example, players relive the account of a young ‘scream queen’ whose legendary death is (inaccurately) detailed through a pulpy horror comic that the player interacts with. In another, players experience the mental health journey of Edith’s brother Lewis, a young man daydreaming during his monotonous work at a cannery. In this level, players control both the dream sequence and the cutting up of fish at the same time.
With its constant references to family members dying and a potential curse, What Remains of Edith Finch is a constantly sad narrative, but is constantly compelling. The game explores a number of themes including family ties, grief, and the legacy we leave behind. There is an ambiguity to how everything unfolds and more than a little use of metaphor. What really stands out, however, is the way that some family narratives are perhaps more harmful than others.
The way that What Remains of Edith Finch’s narrative presents faith is something of a background feature, but it is nonetheless refreshing for its lack of stereotypes. The protagonist’s mother is presented as a Christian and an educator, whose faith does not prevent her from serious inquiries using the scientific method. Faith, while not a major theme, is presented as a positive force in the character’s life.
Not for everyone?
All of this comes with the slight caveat that this game is the kind of title that some people dismiss as a ‘walking sim.’ A game with a narrative for the player to explore that largely sticks to a few tight gameplay sequences, What Remains of Edith Finch has an order to its sequences that players are expected to follow. While there are certainly some hidden features and achievements to find, and the game manages to break things up nicely, those who are not wanting to engage with a game that is heavy on exposition may find themselves enjoying this less.
On a more serious note, this is a title that deals with the subject matter of death and loss. While the subject is handled in a mature, and largely metaphorical, way, there are some sections that will be particularly impactful for those grieving a loved one. A level that deals with the death of a child, albeit in an opaque way, is somewhat disturbing, and should probably have an attached warning or skippable content.
A powerful story
What Remains of Edith Finch is a compact, 2.5 hour journey, that leaves a long-lasting impression.
Powerful in ways that very few films, or for that matter videogames, are, and with an ending that demands further discussion, it comes highly recommended. With the title currently on sale on Steam and included as part of the Xbox Game Pass (which currently provides three months’ access for $1), this may be the best time to pick it up.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available on the Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X and Steam.