Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: April 25, 2017
Copy provided by publisher
The public has settled into calling them “walking simulators” although the developers of such games would likely prefer “interactive drama” or “exploration-based narrative-driven experience.” Either way, What Remains of Edith Finch is one of them – a game more passive than proactive, a title that features interactivity primarily as a means to further a story.
It’s also one of the best examples of its kind to release in a long, long time.
After far too many games that think simply making the player stare at other peoples’ bland lives was enough to conjure up an award-winning journey, Edith Finch shows the pretenders how it’s done and present a story that deeply enough involves its audience to make both highs and lows hit impressively hard.
A young girl returns to her family home after an undisclosed “event” that saw she and her mother depart the eccentric island residence built and inhabited by the Finch family for over a century. Due to what has popularly become known as a curse, members of the Finch family have a habit of meeting untimely deaths, and the matriarch, Edith, preserves their memory by keeping their bedrooms intact and having new ones built for any fresh Finches born.
The protagonist’s mother sealed away these sentimentally ghoulish tributes to her family – both old and new – but What Remains of Edith Finch cracks open these doors to reveal the lives – and unfortunate deaths – of each member of the family tree.
As players are guided around the Finch house through secret passages and endearingly Wonka-esque architecture, they’ll find books and letters that reveal how every member of the protagonist’s family was undone before their time. Dialog appears as text in the world itself, sometimes interacted with, often used to deftly punctuate a particular good line.
Each story has its own feel – some are lighthearted, others more sombre in tone, and a handful are simply disturbing. They can be direct or fantastical, and many are truly quite sad, especially those tales regarding the younger members of the family.
Furthermore, there’s a difference in interactivity between every chapter. While most of it takes place from the first-person perspective common to the genre, Giant Sparrow has had fun seeing exactly how many ways it can tinker with a format that usually consists solely of walking and listening.
Whether players are turning into animals or creeping around a cel-shaded version of the house ripped from a Creepshow style comic book (complete with the Halloween theme tune), Edith Finch regularly surprises with its ability to take the least explored element of interactive fiction – the interactive part – and try to be more inventive than its peers.
It’s an attempt that pays off in spades, creating a compilation of tragic recollections that feel distinct in presentation but cohesive enough to work together as a fluid, seamless journey.
Backed by a beautiful soundtrack and imaginative visuals that reflect the vibrant – if unusual – minds of the Finches, What Remains is a delightfully presented production. A handful of slow walking sequences that build things a little too much, as well as hit-or-miss (but mostly hit) voice acting holds things back, but not by too much.
For the most part, Edith Finch nails pacing and direction far better than the vast majority of comparable games and it places the player first, ensuring they’re in each story rather than acting as a glorified camera operator for somebody else’s adventure. Ironic, considering one of the stories quite literally has you take photographs of others the entire time.
This will be a short review, because What Remains of Edith Finch relies on discovery and revelation to make its punches truly wallop the audience. To give you a brief idea of how wildly far from the expected this game can get, though – the very first story begins with a 10-year-old girl eating gerbil food, toothpaste, and berries before turning into a cat… and that’s mundane compared to where she goes from there.
That’s just the first of several stories, and while they vary in terms of tone and interaction, they’re all undoubtedly tragic.
Many games have attempted to tug at its audience’s heartstrings, but few are possessed of enough subtlety and elegance to succeed. For such developers who think “emotional” is an apt descriptor without qualification, the heights achieved by Giant Sparrow might as well be as the Sun to Icarus.
What Remains of Edith Finch is not an “emotional” game, because I can actually name the emotions it evokes. Amusement, sorrow, and sentimentality, to name some. While it didn’t bring literal tears to my eyes, there are moments that certainly feel like a kick to the soul thanks to impeccable writing and direction.
By varying its approach and exploring new areas for the realm of interactive fiction, Giant Sparrow has crafted a game worthy of the praise so liberally lavished upon its peers.