The average big-budget video game story is a sprawling power fantasy quest aimed at saving the kingdom/world/galaxy, told in fits and starts amid dozens of hours of often repetitive puzzles and challenges.
As for the story, video games as a whole tend to focus on the epic end of the scale. So it’s nice to come across a game like What’s left of Edith Finch, which tells a much more human and focused story that can be completed in one evening. In an industry full of sprawling epics, Edith Finch is the equivalent of a tightly written collection of short stories brimming with interesting ideas.
Stately Finch Mansion
When the game begins, the titular Edith Finch returns to Washington State’s Orcas Island as a 17-year-old. She goes back to the family home that she hasn’t seen since she hastily left years ago. Words from a journal Edith is writing flutter across the screen (and your speakers) as you explore the house, slowly filling the story of an apparent Finch family curse that Edith herself is just learning the true extent of.
Armed with a key left behind by her recently deceased mother, Edith can now enter the rooms of her late siblings, aunts and uncles who go back three generations. Those rooms were sealed as each family member died, a physical reminder of the metaphorical wall separating Edith from the full knowledge of her past.
The house itself contributes some of the best stories in What remains. A cluttered, claustrophobic, derelict Gray Gardens-style mansion, the house totters to the sky with hasty, rickety additions built with the explicit purpose of holding more memories. Every free space is littered with books, mementos and knick knacks that refer to the lives of the deceased characters better than words or pictures.
As Edith’s family history unfolds, the house opens up through secret compartments and hidden corridors that reveal the intriguing architecture much more than the fading facade. Although it is much smaller than the vast landscapes of a game like Skyrim, the Finch house evokes a much stronger sense of place and identity. Exploring all the hidden corners of the house creates a feeling that is probably familiar to anyone who has visited a parental home – that of a place where it has been inhabited, but also larger than life.
All things must pass…
As you make your way through the house, learn about the fate of each of your deceased relatives through short playable vignettes that put you in their shoes. There is a kind of magical realism to these stories, as they are told through the incomplete physical memories they left behind (and often through the childlike lens of Finches who died at a very young age).
writing in What remains is sharp enough to leave the ultimate reality of the Finch family’s curse open to interpretation. Does an actual, metaphysical force lead to the untimely death of virtually every member of Edith’s family? Or has the mere story of the curse, passed down and built up into a minor media sensation from generation to generation, become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to downfall for the increasingly paranoid and troubled Finches? There is evidence for both sides of the debate, although at some points the sheer improbability hits you.
Each Finch death story also involves highly inventive experiments to tell video game stories in new ways. One dead person can be discovered as you explore the panels of a horror comic written about a child star. Another has you exploring a wondrous daydream while simultaneously going through the motions of a dull, run-of-the-mill existence. Another puts you behind a camera shutter and finds the photos Edith will later flip through as she explores the house.
As far as true interactivity goes, these little vignettes are inherently limited. There are no major puzzles or challenges to overcome, no failure conditions to avoid, and very few decisions that affect the story. For the largest part, What remains it feels like going through a series of prescribed moves that lie ahead of you rather than actually inhabiting a family of characters with any instance.
Close and memorable
This can all be a bit restrictive for gamers trained to expect to have a bit of free rein in their gaming environments –Edith Finch doesn’t even have run or jump buttons for ADD addicted players to play with. But the interactivity that goes through the movements befits a story about a family that can’t escape its own terrible and familiar fate.
Inhabiting the ill-fated Finches just before they die, rather than just watching or reading their stories as a distant observer, adds a surprising amount of immediacy and suspense to the proceedings. I found myself shocked at quite a few of the “deaths” I’ve experienced, even knowing those deaths were coming and even though I had only inhabited the character in question for a few minutes.
By forcing you to kill the different finches in order, What’s left of Edith Finch makes those deaths meaningful and memorable in a way that few games do right. In doing so, it continues to cycle back to a curious life-affirming message of the value of life and the importance of living each day to the fullest. It reminded me of the HBO series Six feet underwho also used the inevitability of death to focus on what really matters.
This mildly interactive collection of short stories won’t get your adrenaline pumping or the puzzle-solving part of your brain like most games do. That said, you probably get away from your few hours with What’s left of Edith Finch with the same reflective feel and memory as games that last tens of times longer.
- Tightly focused tempo does not get bogged down in repetition.
- Messy, shaky house offers amazing architectural and environmental stories.
- Open magical realism creates a strong emotional resonance and leaves a lot open to interpretation.
- Experimental storytelling vignettes don’t wear out their welcome.
- Light interactivity often makes What remains feeling like you’re just going through the motions.
- You can be done in one night, so you’ll need something else to play tomorrow night.
the ugly one
- The story of the youngest finch dying may upset gamers with young children.
verdict: A fast paced, satisfying story that should appeal to anyone interested in effective video game telling. Try it.