By Gamer_152 4 Comments
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.
This article discusses death at-length and makes multiple references to suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a suicide prevention organisation near you. For those in the U.S., you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you are in the UK, you can call The Samaritans on 116123 or visit their website at www.samaritans.org.
In most entertainment media communities, discussion of "spoilers" without the prerequisite spoiler warning is considered a form of blasphemy. The wording of the term "spoiler" and the reverence around the concept signal a belief that spoilers ruin media. It's also an unwritten rule that when writing you shouldn't give away your ending before it happens; otherwise, you've spoiled your work. If we already know the ultimate state of the world and its characters, there can be no sense of discovery or surprise in its reveal. So spoilers are treated as memetic hazards; psychological poisons which render us incapable of appreciating the narratives they reference.
This is a paranoid mindset; one that forgets that the joy of plot-driven media is often not in the cold knowledge of what unfolds but the arresting theatre of its unfolding. Sometimes we invest so much in endings that we act like journies don't matter, or we value plot points to the extent that we ignore what aesthetics, dialogue, character work, and other elements do for art and entertainment. It's possible, through overemphasising the impact spoilers have on us, to let the belief that spoilers ruin media become the thing that actually ruins it. But I'm also not suggesting we throw away blocked-out text and cautionary headlines and get straight to telling you who lives and who dies in stories on the front page of every website. Again, there is something about the unexpected and unpredictable that can heighten the emotions of media; it's just not the be-all and end-all.
One reason I would encourage people to sometimes spill the beans on where their narratives are going is that only stories with plot points we know in advance can speak to the experience of encountering the inevitable in our own lives. The most unavoidable and perhaps most meaningful of these fatalistic events in our lives is death, and a story which lets any character cheat death or which cuts off before we see them have to face down their mortality can never speak to our experiences with the end of life. This is why, to be a game that stares death unflinchingly in the face, What Remains of Edith Finch must let its protagonist, and by extension, us, know that there's only one place they and the other characters can ultimately end up, and its the grave. What Remains is, for a perfectly good reason, a game which spoils itself.
But let's hold our horses. Before we can analyse how What Remains talks about death, we must understand where it deviates from other games in its discussion of it. "Death" is part of the standard jargon of computer games, and in many of them, it's synonymous with the fail state or with being temporarily removed from a match. This "death" is not what we talk about when we talk about real-world death, however, and there are few parallels between the two. Video games are about us exercising our agency, and so any death in a game must be quickly undone so that we can return to the action, but outside these play spaces, it's finality and permanence that characterise death.
It's true that some games have a mechanic called "permadeath" in which we must start the whole ordeal over when we die, but while we can lose items and abilities irretrievably under the permadeath rule, the experience is still one of us being able to resurrect immediately. Additionally, it's almost always the case that when we restart, we find the same protagonist alive and kicking again (e.g. The Binding of Isaac) or we essentially play an avatar instead of a character, and so there is not really a person to lose in the death (e.g. Nethack). Roguelikes are usually purposefully designed so that while our progress can always be wiped out in an instant, we can exhume ourselves in the blink of an eye and start the climb over. We don't permanently lose anything if we still have a chance to work our way back towards it. And loss is really what this is about. Death is a permanent loss of a person, and these games either lack A. The feeling that a person is disappearing or B. A sense of profound loss, leaving them with only so much authority from which they can speak on death.
To combat this, some developers have tried to concoct games which become unplayable after the point we die. A cluster of these "perma-permadeath" experiments was announced in 2015, but none of them saw the light of day. First talked about mid-2015, The Flock was a multiplayer horror which intended to simulate the extinction of a species by shutting down for good after a certain quota of user deaths had been fulfilled, but its developer, Vogelsap, were never able to implement that mechanic as they could no longer afford the server tallying the dead players. Later in 2015, the studio Robot Loves Kitty announced an audience-influenced single-life roguelike called Upsilon Circuit that they then cancelled in late 2017, as their vision for the game outpaced their resources. Around the same time Upsilon Circuit was announced, the perma-permadeath shooter One Life appeared on Steam Greenlight but by late 2016 its website was defunct and the team working on it made a statement to Kotaku confirming that they had suspended production indefinitely. Video games cost an arm and a leg to produce, and consumers and investors are unlikely to pour a lot of pennies into a play experience that can only last up until the first death.
So few games that contain death or that we talk about as incorporating death do so in a way that resembles lives ending in the real world, and designing games that try to embody this concept at a mechanical level has been easier said than done. Favourites such as X-COM and This War of Mine stir feelings of loss by giving you squad members with unique talents that disappear for good once they die. This allows the characters to become fixtures visually and mechanically so that there is a sense of absence once they're gone. You can't help noticing the space they should occupy. However, you'll also see that while losing a character in X-COM often feels like a weapon breaking, losing a character in This War of Mine has more of an emotional sting to it. TWoM's characters come tagged with descriptions explaining who they are and what their life was like before they joined our band of scavengers, and they have traits and moods that speak to their personhood outside of a live combat scenario. They may suffer from depression or addiction; they may enjoy strumming a guitar or be a seasoned cook.
That comparison between This War of Mine and X-COM clarifies a truth that we need to understand about death in games: While mechanics alone can make us feel that we've lost something, developers must implement writing to make us feel like we've lost someone. There may be ways to create a picture of a human being purely through mechanics which we don't know about yet and it is true that mechanics can give enormous weight to what happens in writing, but as it is, we need to see characters' biographies, how they communicate with others, and/or how they react to certain scenarios to get a complete picture of a person. And you need a living thing for their destruction to qualify as "death". If they are objectified rather than humanised, we can't view their destruction any differently than we'd view knocking a coffee cup off of a desk. Fire Emblem deserves a lot of credit in this department as a game which has a sustained narrative with plenty of character dialogue but where cast members can die permanently as a result of your miscalculations in battle.
But as with many other topics, it's important to understand the difference between a game featuring death and talking about it. Fire Emblem is not, in its totality, a reflection on mortality, and its story maintains a distance from our own lives which softens the blows of characters passing on. While escapist media can contain relatable elements, it also tends to treat any concept brought up within it in a somewhat fantastical manner. There's a bit of a gulf between coming to terms with your Grandad who helped you fix your childhood bike dying and seeing a black mage in a fantasy kingdom run out of hit points. It is not that we should write off sci-fi, fantasy, or other common game genres as art that can that give us heart-wrenching or poignant windows into death, but most games that choose these thematic casings do so because they want to get away from the real world, not connect more closely with it.
By pointing out the patterns with which almost all video games skirt around the death that we encounter in our real lives, I wish to point out that in painting an intimate picture of death in a family's home, What Remains of Edith Finch is a trailblazer in the medium. I would even say that most films would be uncomfortable pressing their face this close to the topic, but maybe we're as uneasy with this phenomenon as we are because we're not thinking about it all that much. The end of life is a concept that touches a raw nerve, and so we do our best make our thoughts flow around it, but when we refuse to familiarise ourselves with death, we make it something unknown which only makes it scarier. What Remains of Edith Finch strives to ensure that we think hard about this topic which might be uncomfortable up-front but has the potential to make us less afraid of death in the long-term.
In the first whispers of the game, we ride a ferry under an overcast sky with a book in our lap and a bunch of lilies beside us. This book is the diary of a young woman named Edith Finch who becomes our eyes and ears for the rest of the journey. We join Edith as she returns to the family home she lived in until the age of eleven when she and her mother abruptly fled from it. The house is abandoned, remote, and architecturally impossible. It was first constructed in 1937 by the intrepid Sven Finch, the great-grandfather of Edith. His father, Odin, had travelled from Norway to America, hoping to escape a supposed curse on the family, and he purportedly pulled the original family house behind his ship. That ship sunk and he died just offshore from where the Finches eventually founded their new residence. Although, Sven's wife Edie (not to be confused with the protagonist, Edith), insisted that they build the graveyard before the home proper.
In Norse and Germanic mythology Odin is frequently referred to as the "Allfather", is known to enjoy wandering, and is a god of death and the gallows. Followers worship him for his ability to communicate with and raise the dead which is what we'll be doing metaphorically throughout the game. The curse Odin Finch believed in damns the members of his family to die young, and as we discover in our exploration of the house, most did. In the diary of the ten-year-old Molly, for example, the girl writes that, after being sent to bed without dinner one night, she looked around her room for unlikely sources of sustenance. After eating a carrot, some toothpaste, and some holly berries, she transformed into a cat, a bird, a shark, and a monster, but that monster she turned into eventually crawled under her bed and ate her.
Or take the death of sixteen-year-old Barbara Finch. With Barbara having been a famous child actor, a pulp horror comic was made about the night she died which the matriarch Edie bought and cherished, to the confusion of Edith. The comic portrays Barbara as a typical teenager who has fallen out of grace with the film industry but is now being coached back to stardom by her boyfriend/manager, Rick. Rick cares about Barbara more as a performer than a partner, so she tries to shut him out, and soon a masked man who has been terrorising the town invades her house. Barbara gets into a physical altercation with the home invader that goes nowhere, and then a party of monsters show up to eat her. The police conclude that Rick killed Barbara, but the narrator of the comic, Jack, doesn't pay that any mind.
The tales of Molly and Barbara are typical of those of the Finch family, both in that where we would expect the solemn and mundane around death, we get the sugary and embellished, and in that they are conveyed to us through in-fiction writing. Plenty of modern game designers use text logs to expand their world and characters, but when they do, they fail to use all the faculties at their fingertips. Action scenes are often afforded a game's whole battery of mechanics, sounds, and animations, but detailed characterisation often happens through the bone-dry technique of pausing the game for some light reading. What Remains of Edith Finch uses text documents as a convenient way to drop character background into a story, but by turning them into playable segments, it makes them rich adventures which jump off the page. Almost the whole game involves forcing our way into the bedrooms of the Finch home and playing through these characters deaths and the moments right before them via these texts. The house itself also communicates the character backgrounds.
The bedrooms of this rustic home are painted and furnished to embody the people who relaxed and slept in them. But in other games where environments flesh out people, they do so because people are currently inhabiting those spaces (e.g. Gone Home) or because they were forcibly removed from them without anyone being able to clean them up or take possession of their belongings (e.g. Prey). Neither is exactly the situation in Edith Finch, and that's what's uncanny about this home. Edie has preserved each dead family member's room as museum exhibit on them, creating environmental epitaphs through which they live on. This is how the house becomes a physical impossibility. When a fresh generation is born, Edie can't stand to disturb the previous generation's rooms to make way for them, so instead, she has new rooms built onto the exterior of the house like cancerous growths. The house becomes this branching, unordered hive of living quarters. The game frequently returns to a literal image of a family tree, as Edith fills in the Finch lineage after learning about each of her relatives, and the house itself resembles that family tree; it's a physical manifestation of it.
Edie herself seemed immune to the family curse and lived to be ninety-three before she died; she was still alive on the night that Edith and her mother, Dawn, fled the house. At one point during their cohabitation, Dawn, aggravated by Edie's fanatical memorialising of the family, boarded up the bedroom doors, but Edie drilled peepholes into each of them. At the end of the game, Edith enters her old room, where, after learning how all of her elders and peers lived and died within the family, she must work out how she fits into it. Edith lies down and journals about the tipping point between Edie and Dawn. On the night before Dawn and Edith left the house, Edie told Dawn that Edith has a right to read the histories of the family and that even if Dawn flees the home, she'll still be cursed, but Dawn accuses Edie of killing the family with these tales. It doesn't make much sense at the time. Edith, who had been listening in, leaves the two to squabble and starts reading a book written by Edie in which she explains the history of the family and the night she crept back into the old, sunken Finch home. Halfway through, Dawn wrestles the book from Edith, tearing it in two, and they leave the house then and there. Edie passes away before morning and Dawn becomes sick and dies on the outside, although not as abruptly as the other Finches have. This leaves Edith, at sixteen-years-old, the only surviving member of her family. She discovers that she's pregnant, but tells us that if we're reading her notebook, which we are, she has died.
The protagonist of the game is revealed to be Edith's son, and the journal that we started reading at the beginning of the game is the one that Edith began writing on her bed. In her final pages, she doesn't have a pithy explanation that sums up all she has seen, and she struggles to provide her child with a philosophy to move forward with but emphasises that he should appreciate life, even if it's fleeting. The final shot of the work is Edith's son laying the lilies on her grave. The game spoils itself in that we knew Edith had to die in the end; her whole family were doomed to that fate. However, other aspects of the ending seem obvious only in retrospect. The game started from the perspective of someone on a trip with Edith's diary and a handful of white lilies which are typically exhibited at funerals. This was a subtle clue that we were going to visit her burial plot.
The last few shots of the game are also potently purposeful. As Edith tells us about her mother and her trying to make the best of their freedom after flying the coop, we see Edith's hand soaring through the air alongside their car, like a bird. The next shot is symbolic of loss through illness: Edith holds a dandelion as its seeds scatter into the wind, all of them being blown off by her mother's coughing. Then there's another shot symbolising death, but with themes of affection and unity represented: We see only Edith's arm and the arm of her mother with a hospital bracelet around it; the two slide their hands together. As Edith struggles to find some meaning in the wreckage of the family, we float aimlessly in a dark space that we subsequently learn is her womb. The final sequence is a first-person childbirth which cuts into Edith's son at his mother's grave; the developers juxtapose birth and death.
It's hard to know what to make of What Remains after the first playthrough. This is because Edith can't provide us with an explanation of the events we've seen, because the narrative doesn't always make it clear how characters' actions influence each other, and because the plot is imparted to us non-chronologically. Writers sometimes use that last technique for narratives they intend us to read more than once; they spread the pieces of the jigsaw far enough apart that on the first pass we often forget them or wouldn't think to put them together. However, on a revisit, prior knowledge from the end of the story helps recontextualise each of these pieces as we rediscover them, and we get a better idea of what we're looking at. If the plot seems digestible right now, remember that I've done a lot of reordering of the timeline and stringing together of information scattered wide across the Finch house.
But let's really unpack it. Death in and of itself is a shallow topic. Taken on its own, it seems almost academic: a person is alive one moment, the next they're not, and the cessation of life negates character expression because you can't express anything when you're dead. What's interesting is how characters change their behaviour and emotions in the face of death; either their own imminent death or the death of people around them. We're forced to connect with death in What Remains because everyone has a substantial emotional investment in everyone else; they're attached by the bonds of family. You'll also note that, unlike in other video games, death in What Remains isn't something we can dodge or respawn from a few seconds later, nor is it something we can shut away behind a broken executable because the game deactivates at the point of demise. We're forced to trudge on through a graveyard of a narrative, watching family members try to come to terms with the inescapable.
Not to get too didactic, but until we have the technology for human immortality, the only way to overcome the fear and grief that death brings with it is to develop a worldview which makes it less sad and less scary. You can't dodge it forever, so all you can do is try to establish a philosophy that lets you process it healthily. A healthy outlook doesn't mean that the end of life won't sometimes be frightening, depressing, or sorrowful, although some people have apparently overcome those emotions. What it means is that your feelings towards death won't actively inhibit your life. The fundamental conflict of What Remains may seem to be a one-sided fight between a family and a grim reaper that continually harangues them. However, we can also view the conflict of the narrative being between a worldview that helps us cope with the knowledge of imminent death and one that has death utterly debilitate us. Edie carries a debilitating view of death while Dawn and Edith pursue a more positive mindset, so on another level, the story's conflict is between Edie and Dawn/Edith, while the other members of the Finch family are collateral damage from Edie's beliefs.
You see, the game gives us some early tip-offs that the stories we find about the Finches deaths are bald-faced lies. Edith says outright that Sven died constructing a dragon-shaped slide on the side of the house but that Edie told people he died fighting a dragon, we know Edie told a journalist that a "moleman" lived under their house which even at the time seems improbable, and after reading Molly's story, Edith says "I'm not sure I believed all that, but Edie would have". Once we know that Edie can massively exaggerate stories, we can look for more plausible explanations for what killed the Finches, and the developers teach us that there are more logical answers by giving us three or four character arcs early in the game where we can find such rational causes for death.
It's believable that Odin drowned at sea but not tugging a whole house behind his ship. In Molly's story, it's likely that she died from the poisonous holly berries and that she hallucinated from the fruit before passing away; not that she transformed into a monster and ate herself. In the case of Calvin Finch who is meant to have flown out over the ocean, the developers practically tell us that his parents carelessly placed his swing next to a cliff edge and he fell off. With Barbara, it's more likely that the police were correct that her boyfriend murdered her than it is that werewolves and mummies ate her; the masked killer was her partner, and it's why he seems like such a tacked-on element in the tale.
Once we know to look for the lies we can start interpreting the reality behind the later stories: Baby Gregory didn't turn into a frog and swim down the plughole of the overflowing bath; he drowned in there. Lewis didn't enter a fantasy kingdom in his mind where he placed his head in a guillotine; he committed suicide. And Milton who loved to paint and explore the secret passages of the house didn't disappear into the world of his art; he most likely died in one of the crawlspaces. These stories all have unreliable narrators too: many of them are children, one of them is a pulp comic writer, and one of them is Edie. These characters all either lack the maturity to understand the story they're telling, or they have a motivation to lie. We know that Edie wants to project a rose-coloured view of the family. She keeps her dead relatives' rooms pristine and airbrushed, and Dawn calls the tales told about the Finches "[Edie]'s stories", meaning that even when the kids are telling them, they almost certainly originate from Edie. Edie misses her children and grandchildren, and both the tombs of their bedrooms and the tall tales of their deaths help keep them alive for her. This matriarch's fables take their passings from being blunt, unheroic accidents to spirited blazes of glory, allowing her to come to terms with them.
Yet, by passing down her fantastical stories to the next generation and by making the deceased family members' belongings and decoration permanent features of the house, Edie fixates on them and keeps herself and the family from moving on from them. This is the unhealthy behaviour we just talked about: letting the issue of death rule your life. Edie cares more for the dead than she does for the living and this was embodied in her demanding that the graveyard of the house be built before the house itself. The Finch children are born into a mausoleum and an environment of perpetual mourning which leaves them all understandably maladjusted. As the bedrooms of new children are stacked atop the enshrined rooms of the old, the deaths in the family literally become foundational to their lives, and the final generation of Finches we see end up living in isolated spaces, not even directly attached to the main house: There's Lewis's boat, Milton's tower, and Edith's treehouse. It's a reflection that the dysfunction of the family, created by Edie, has alienated them and has led them to reclusive behaviour. How do you find a place for yourself in the family when the house is already full and when generations before you already have your relatives' full attention? The top-heavy house also serves as a visual metaphor for the instability of the family, an instability that will eventually split it in two when Dawn leaves Edie.
When concentrating on death makes it less of an unknown, and when familiarity with death seems to be vital to the acceptance of it, we may assume that Edie should have a highly enlightened view on the subject, but the problem is she is not confronting her family deaths. She sees them happen and instead of facing them earnestly she makes up a different story about what occurred, causing her to never processes the reality. When Dawn boards up the family bedrooms, it's symbolic of her wishing to do away with Edie's obsession with these family members and their deaths, and when Edie drills holes into the doors it's telling of her opposing desire to keep using the house as a window into the people she's lost, prolonging the problem. It's also what creates the image of the house as a gallery of the dead; the residents can look at their lives but never touch them.
Not only does Edie mishandle these deaths; she is also causing them in the first place. While she may blame a curse for the family members passing on so suddenly, their demises all appear to happen by preventable, non-supernatural causes. We can attribute Molly's, Gregory's, Calvin's, and Milton's deaths to child neglect, with them dying from poisoning, drowning, falling from a height, and during dangerous exploration, respectively. They all perished at ages when parents should have been closely supervising them, but they weren't. This is referenced indirectly by Molly when she tells us during her story that "Mum and Dad didn't even look at me" which is diegetically about Edie and Sven not seeing her turning into a cat but has some sobering subtext. Arguably, the family should have also been warier of Barbara's boyfriend.
Many of the deaths may also have been possible to avoid if the family members had been less alienated from the rest. This includes Lewis's suicide and Milton's disappearance, but also other deaths we haven't talked about yet. Gus's story tells us that he died at thirteen; protesting a wedding in the family. He stands apart from the rest of the party, flying a kite; the furniture on the beach magnetises to the kite, a storm picks up, and the debris trailing behind it flies into him, killing him. It's possible that Gus died in a weather-related incident, although not one involving a cloud of tables and chairs, however, the underlying message is that Gus felt pushed out of the family and that led to his death. Then there's Walter who, fearing the curse, sealed himself in a bunker below the home until, at fifty-three, he realised he'd wasted his life and wanted to savour the outside, even if it was only for a few days. In the narrative we're told, once Walter breaks free, he's immediately hit by a train, but the train is likely symbolic of some threat on the outside that Walter couldn't foresee because he went through his whole adulthood in shelter. He didn't have the experience in the outside world he'd need to protect himself.
In each of these stories, either the victims or their guardians probably died because they weren't taught to think of death as a real threat; they were taught to think of it as a delightful storybook adventure. If they'd have known otherwise, they would have been better primed to take precautions against it themselves or prevent it happening to their children. This includes Edith, who, having gotten pregnant at a young age opened herself up to pregnancy-related risks, and Sam Finch, who we've not yet mentioned. Sam died at thirty-three on a hunting trip with a childhood Dawn. He made Dawn shoot a buck, and believing it to be dead, posed for a photo with it. But the animal was very much alive, and when it reared up, it knocked Sam off of a stone pillar to his final resting place. He died literally because he could not recognise death. The reasons listed in the above two paragraphs are why Dawn tells Edie that her stories kill and why she tries to take Edith as far away from them as possible. It doesn't seem to be the Finches themselves that are cursed, but instead, their lore, which carries a kind of contagious property where the more you're exposed to it, the more likely you are to die early. Here, we find an additional use for Edie's tales: they absolve her of blame for the family deaths, both those from child neglect and those indirectly caused by the stories.
Some of the Finches do live longer than others, but it's generally those who've been able to distance themselves from Edie and her fables. Most obviously, Dawn, who lives to be forty-six, but also Odin who died at fifty-seven and who predates Edie's fictions, Sam who lived to be thirty-three but spent time away from the family in the army, Watler who stayed alive for fifty-three years by sealing himself away from the other Finches, and Lewis who lived to be twenty-two but spent considerable time both disassociating from his surroundings and away at his cannery job. Then there's Edie who lives to be ninety-three, perhaps helped by the fact that she knows the real stories behind the family deaths and so can't make the same mistakes that her progeny did, but it may also be that Edie stays alive through emotional vampirism. At very least, that's the metaphor that the game uses. The stories she tells cut the lifespan of her children and grandchildren drastically short, but they allow her to keep on going, and it's only after Dawn and Edith leave, and she has no one left to tell her stories to, that she dies.
Whether the curse is fiction or reality for the Finches, its utility to the game's writers is evident. Because the Finches die young, we get a protagonist who is able-bodied enough to explore secret passages of a house and still has a curiosity for a world that she's yet to discover, but who must come to terms with their own imminent death quickly enough that you can fit it into a two-hour story. This narrative tool also lets the writers surround us with an unusual quantity of dead family members through which their protagonist can process her coming demise. This processing is a relatable goal for any player because, all of us, even if we're not going to drop dead in the next few weeks, are going to die someday. In this way, we're all cursed, and again, if we can't sidestep death, then the only means to win is by facing it in as healthy and comfortable a way as we can.
And it's hard not to get why Dawn hates Edie for taking that away from her family. Maybe you hate her too; she inflicted an early death on several children. But it would be too cheap for the game to say "Don't romanticise and dodge the issue of death like Edie does" without giving us an idea of how we might fall into the trap she did. As ever, games are not restricted to just showing us how a character acts; they can also let us feel what it's like to be them. We play through Edie's embellished versions of the Finches' deaths, and when we do, they're enchanting to experience. Think about it: When we first enter Molly's room do we want to hear a story of child neglect and a mother who has to come to terms with knowing she killed her daughter or do we want to be a feline hopping between the tree branches? Would it be more fun to experience Lewis going off to a soul-crushing, repetitive job every day and then committing suicide or is it more stimulating to see the game supplement it with a magical kingdom that we can leisurely conquer? We often say that games featuring escapism offer an escape from real-world stresses but that games with more down-to-earth play focus us on issues external to the game. However, an increasing number of games work as serious essays by giving us escapist segments and then commenting on them.
In What Remains, the escapism is representative of the allure of romanticising death, but the commentary of the game acknowledges that escapism for what it is, reminding us that fetishising death is us stepping away from reality instead of engaging it. Near the end of the title, when Dawn rips the storybook from our fingers, we feel cheated because we want to keep participating in that escapism, which is also what these characters long for. We then get a taste of an unglamourised death just before the game ends as Edith tells us that her mother died in a hospital bed and it's not nice. And now imagine for a moment that we weren't just a player and that we were instead Edie, a woman who has lost a father, partner, five children, and four grandchildren suddenly and tragically.
Edie has no right to inflict what she does on the rest of the family and should never have sugar-coated these passings, but we also shouldn't ignore the emotional weight on her. The reason that anyone, even a well-meaning person, can end up doing something like Edie does is that the alternative is excruciating mourning and What Remains uses its storytelling methods to put us in the headspace of Edie. Masterfully, it uses the same stories to make us sympathise with her that it does to make us empathise with the other Finches. None of us wants to be the unfortunate souls that die in any of these arcs, least of all Edith, but can you say that given a choice between mourning and release, you wouldn't at least for a moment consider opting for release, as Edie does? Could you take down the wallpaper and remove all the toys from your own deceased child's room? Could you tell the next generation that the previous died alone and in pain? Remember, the stories Edie tells don't just decide her emotional state but also that of the family she loves. I'm talking about a lot of specifics here, but at some point What Remains is just about the difficulty in accepting death, both that of your loved ones or your own. By showing us how hard it is to face up to the truths of death, What Remains also highlights Dawn and Edith as radically brave characters and I don't think their demises are in vain.
"Edith" is a corruption of the word "edit" and just as Edie watered down the history of her family before feeding it to her children, Edith can rewrite the history of the family to remove its toxicity. On the last page of the journal Edith passes down to her son, she proposes a lens through which to think about death that has the hope and happiness of Edie's rose-tinted glasses but is far healthier. She says:
"I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of [life] is [...] I don't want you to be sad that I'm gone. I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all".
Edith's son reads these words before placing the flowers on her grave. His mother has given him a future beyond being another shrine in the Finch house or a couple of dates on a family tree; she has made him the first Finch we know of that can acknowledge a family member's death and understand how it happened. They can do this while seeing death not as an event that emotionally destroys you or something to lie about but as a feature that makes life more worth living. And Edith tells her son to focus more on the time we have here than the time we don't.
For all the tragedy that has befallen the other Finches, it's hard to imagine that this new Finch will live his life out in a bunker as Walter did or retreat from the people who should be closest to him like Milton. As the camera pulls up and away, there is the sense that Edith and Dawn might just have broken the family curse. Dawn's name and the childbirth scene are evocative of new beginnings, and Dawn and Edith ripping Edie's storybook in two suggests a discarding of her tales. Even if Edith may have passed away, part of her still lingers. Her documentation of the real story of the family and the uplifting musings on death she leaves for both her son and us are what remains of Edith Finch. Thanks for reading.