What Remains of Edith Finch [Review]

What Remains of Edith Finch is quite a difficult beast to wrangle into a review format. But hey let’s give it a try.

The piece by Giant Sparrow (the seemingly bird-obsessed developers who previously developed the Unfinished Swan), is the latest “walking simulator”. Personally speaking, I don’t really get the hate on the genre as a whole. It gives a sense of openness, and isolated calm that can really bring out a great story. But I guess for every The Beginner’s Guide, there is an Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. A walking simulator still needs to be designed well, perhaps more so to balance out the lack of challenge. The basic foundation is an interesting story.

What Remains of Edith Finch, unsurprisingly, is the story of Edith Finch, youngest, and currently only remaining member of the Finch family. The others rendered dead or missing by a mysterious so-called curse. After the death of her mother, Edith returns to her old family home in the woods. Abandoned, the house stands as a memorial to the previous family members. Dawn, Edith’s mother, chose to seal up all the bedrooms of their previous occupants, and the game is an exploration through the end of their individual stories.

Death permeates What Remains of Edith Finch, but curiously so does a sense of wonder and fantasy. The character stories have a real juxtaposition: a walk through surreal, whimsical magical-realism, leading into the characters grave. The curse also piqued my interest a bit. It’s an interesting little window of speculation. Is the curse real, leading escapism to some terrible, inexplicable ends? Maybe the curse is just a mental illness, full blown detachment from reality? Is it simply colourful storytelling, exaggerated past reality? Ultimately, the nature of the curse is left an enigma. Instead, the ending of the overarching plot, tackles not the mystery but the detective herself, Edith. Perhaps, the real curse is the pursuit of answers, to a tragedy that has no deeper message.

So despite the stereotype of Walking Simulators, there are some controls that require some praising. Yes, the overarching narrative is your standard “walk and look around”, broken up with a lovely house environment (Don’t worry I’m going to gush on later). However, the individual stories are very interesting little case studies themselves. Each story is a self-contained little experiment, with different controls, tones and feelings to them. Even the length can vary from a simple 30 second flipbook, to a 12 minute masterpiece. The different controls are left for the player to work out but only involve the two sticks and a bumper (or WASD and the mouse), so it’s a brief experiment to find your footing.

For example, let’s consider the first (and consequently least spoilertastic) story. Molly, a young girl, wakes up hungry, and walks around finding stuff to pick up and eat, using standard controls. After the hunger gets the better of her, she magically becomes a cat. This leads to a similar scheme, with the right bumper controlling the ability to jump around the tree tops and the roof of the house. Later she is an owl pouncing on rabbits, a shark attacking seals and finally a Kraken-style Sea Monster gobbling sailors. All these control schemes work in a similar prey chasing style, but with subtly different controls. Swooping down as an owl is about lining up a target, whereas snatching sailors is more about slowly slinking towards your unwitting meal. Suffice to say, different controls are used effectively to convey the varied tales of the Finch family.

Without spoiling, there is a certain story I just want to champion here. It’s the aforementioned 12 minute masterpiece. The character within, long aluded to in the frame story, is shown struggling with the monotony of his job. After walking the player through this monotony, it shows his imagined world. The story kind of splits here, with the player asked to both participate the tedium of his job, and the fantasies of his wandering mind. I can’t really get over this. This right here is why I am fine with walking simulators, if they push against the limits of gaming. Having a scene like this that so simply shows how a story and controls can work in tandem makes this game praiseworthy. Even as I write this review I want to give full marks to What Remains of Edith Finch for this scene alone. However, there is a bit of a criticism worth mentioning.

This game has variety in narratives and controls, but unfortunately, there is also a bit of variety in its quality. There are definitely some stories that felt a bit void in some fields. A character, whose disappearance started a family breakdown, gets a 30 second flipbook. A child on a swing, has a story that ended rather abruptly. All things considered, the less-than-impressive stories don’t counteract the good ones.

Finally, it has to be said that the presentation really sells some of the story. Having houses and businesses, post-people is one primed for environmental storytelling. That, ladies and gents, is the stick that I love beating Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture with. Conversely, What Remains of Edith Finch completely succeeds in this regard. As you may recall, the mother Dawn, sealed up the doors, an act that pulls double duty. On one hand, it allows for the interesting traversal of the house, facilitated by various secret passages, trapdoors and the like. On the other, it’s a pretty clear indication to her character: willing to lock away the memories, to avoid further tragedy. Opposing Dawn, her mother, Edie, drills peepholes in the sealed doors, indicating her view that the past tragedies should be remembered. Similarly, entering a new bedroom immediately indicates who the occupant is. Edie’s room, for example, is full of monuments to the past, newspaper clippings, photo albums, and birdcages empty if not for the pictures of birds and burnt out candles.

As a bonus, this game is surprisingly friendly to deaf people. In keeping with the game’s novelistic approach to story-telling, the majority of the story is conveyed through the written medium. Letters, diary entries, and, in one case, a pulp comic are all framings of the game’s various narratives, and at times are even (at some points awkwardly) worked into the gameplay. It is at some points annoying to have the camera control wrestled to target the writing, but this is more a suggestion for the idea going forward, rather than a fully-fledged complaint.

OK, wow this has been a real long review, so let’s just put this simply. Whilst I won’t claim the game is without flaws, What Remains of Edith Finch is an undeniable triumph. A multi-tonal story, it is a layered and interesting trek through a grim but life-affirming journey. For me though, the marriage of story, mechanics and aesthetic is what sends this into my Game of the Year shortlist. If anyone tells you that video games aren’t art, that they’re toys for children, let’s just say you have another strong counter-argument.

4.5 out of 5

+ Engaging Magical Realism Story
+ Simple, but effective, mechanics
+ Environmental Storytelling
- Some stories are weaker than others