Indie Game of the Week 130: What Remains of Edith Finch

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If I'm not filling this digital space with spacewhippers week after week, it's with the sometimes-contemplative, sometimes-comical adventure game genre in its many forms. One such breakout in recent years, that it seemed like everyone had somewhere in their top ten games for 2017, was the portentously named What Remains of Edith Finch. Created by Giant Sparrow, who already had something of an inventive and melancholy feather in their cap with the PS3-era Indie hit The Unfinished Swan, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game about a profoundly star-crossed family, the Finches, and how members of this brood have been dying under mysterious circumstances for well over a century, across four generations. In broader terms, however, the game is about the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, told through the filter of magical realism and presented as a series of vignettes, each of which follows its own gameplay rules and graphical quirks befitting of the luckless souls they eulogize.

It is, like so many narrative-heavy games, one that I feel I must talk around than talk about: even if I wasn't convinced that I was the very last to discover the game, I'd be loath to spoil it for some mythical late-bloomer even further behind the curve than I am. It should suffice to say that every segment is purpose-built for the story it has in mind, and the way it delivers that story - either through Edith's voiceover or someone else's - goes hand-in-hand with the mechanics that devised them. A story of how a shutterbug died, for instance, is told entirely through a series of Polaroids that the player takes, ending with a timer shot that inadvertently captures the moment of death. Others range from the quotidian to the truly inexplicable, but all tinged with the same degree of sadness and inexorable doom. Not what I would call a cheery game, but the outlandishness of certain deaths gives them a sort of fantastical quality that allows it to evade a truly tragic and lugubrious tone. If you've ever seen a Wes Anderson film, they themselves tend to feature a lot more death and loss than people can often recall, and I think that's because they're always couched in a certain whimsical otherworldliness that blurs the harder edges of the human suffering at their core. I think that's also the secret to why What Remains of Edith Finch isn't as oppressively morose as its subject matter might suggest: the incredulous nature of these stories and the way they are told so matter-of-factly rings closer to the cadence of a fairytale than a maudlin biography or autopsy report.

Gah, how rad is it to have a treehouse in your own bedroom? Even for as death-prone as the Finches were, I envied some of them for their cool digs.
Gah, how rad is it to have a treehouse in your own bedroom? Even for as death-prone as the Finches were, I envied some of them for their cool digs.

In some ways, the game is perfect. Perfect, at least, for what it set out to do, which is string together a series of vignettes about a clan of unfortunate souls through the framing device of a young, parturient narrator exploring the home of her ancestors a year or so after the last of her relatives passed away for the sake of the sole Finch family member yet be born. Edith explores the house, including its many secret passages, to get around the doorways her mother impulsively sealed off after suffering too many losses due to "the family curse". This aspect, where the house feels both simultaneously lived-in and homey but also built like a rich eccentric kook's murder mystery mansion, is something I wished the game explored a little more. The game evidently saved its budget for the vignettes themselves - a wise choice in retrospect - but I think I loved exploring that house more than anything else in the game, and kinda wish it had gone a little further by way of a few more secrets or personal items to examine, more akin to Gone Home. I can't fault the direction the game took, though, or how it chose to take each of its vignettes in wildly imaginative and divergent paths. I knew the developers of The Unfinished Swan, so full of ideas but so little in the way of seeing them through as per its own theme of "restless creative syndrome", had a more focused game in them that could ably demonstrate their ability as storytellers and game designers both. That is What Remains of Edith Finch.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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