What Remains Of Edith Finch
Just as the label ‘walking simulator’ has been adopted by the developers (and players) it was coined to disparage, Giant Sparrow’s second game shows an eagerness to avoid being pigeonholed as such. Yes, there’s some walking involved in this lean, yet rangy, narrative adventure. But, as the developer proves in a bravura early sequence, What Remains Of Edith Finch is equally happy to be a pouncing, swooping, rolling, swimming and slithering sim. If occasionally ungainly in execution, it’s dazzlingly conceived, and an exhilarating early sign of great things to come.
This might not be the game you’re expecting, then, but there’s no bait-and-switch here. It’s not a character study pretending to be a mystery thriller, nor a family drama masquerading as a horror. It’s admirably plain about its intentions from the outset. As the young woman of the title, you revisit your family home in rural Washington State after your mother’s death, intending to satisfy your curiosity about the other Finches who have passed, and to examine the idea that a curse is causing them to die before their time.
It’s a macabre conceit, and the house itself does little to dispel early suggestions that we might be in for a scare or two. It’s an eccentric piece of architecture that looks relatively normal on the ground floor but gets progressively stranger the further up you go. On one side, you’ll see a crooked tower of rooms built on top of one another, precariously perched on a tree jutting out from what was once the top floor.
Inside, however, there’s little to be afraid of. There’s nothing abnormal, beyond a surplus of clutter. Tins of salmon are stacked up in the kitchen, while busy walls are covered in plaques and paintings, and candles are liberally scattered throughout the house. And books are everywhere: piled up on shelves, lining the sides of the staircase, or crammed above an arched doorway.
But then this is a house full of stories, the most important of which are still under lock and key. Edith’s mother, Dawn, has sealed up the bedrooms of the departed in an apparent attempt to confine the hoodoo, which has transformed the Finch house into something of a mausoleum. It’s a contrivance that makes the place more fun to explore, an intricate puzzle box of hidden passages and crawlspaces offering alternative entry points to areas that serve as hermetically preserved memorials. Each room’s decor might offer a semblance of its former inhabitant, but we get a fuller picture of the person when Edith examines a letter or memento and we experience a brief taste of their life.
In less capable hands, this could be horribly maudlin or ghoulish. In Giant Sparrow’s, it’s anything but. The developer doesn’t downplay the tragedies, but these interactive flashbacks are frequently playful, surprising, and occasionally even blackly funny. This game makes you more than just a passive observer of past events; instead, you’re afforded a fleeting opportunity to inhabit these poor unfortunates before they die. Yes, you’re essentially marching them towards their deaths in many cases, but with their fates already determined, it’s a chance to see the world as they did. Constantly shifting storytelling methods also help prevent Edith’s journey from becoming a gloomy wallow in melancholia. An older ancestor’s tale is told through the images of a View-Master reel, while a child star’s fall from grace is captured in the panels of a dime-store comic, and accompanied by an iconic movie theme that’s flawlessly deployed. There are plenty of inventive flourishes besides, the discovery of which we’ll leave unspoiled.
Perhaps more significantly, these diverse narrative techniques aren’t simply variety for variety’s sake, but are also an attempt to communicate meaning through interaction. Your inputs are always in service of the story; likewise, the shifts in perspective. Even the simplest activities are delightfully tactile, whether you’re winding a music box, pulling a handle, or even just nudging the stick to close Edith’s journal once a scenario has reached its inevitable conclusion. It’s clear Giant Sparrow has invested great care and thought in how best to tell these stories, rather than setting the player perfunctory objectives tangentially related to the plot. On a base level, you’re still exploring an empty environment, but here you’re doing much more than simply following a paper trail or listening to surrogate audio logs. It’s a game that involves you more directly in its storytelling, and it envelops you all the more deeply as a result.
And, to use that reclaimed catch-all, this is one walking sim that doesn’t drag its feet. Edith’s poignant narration (half curious, half resigned) is overlaid on the environment, gently guiding you through, while bright glows on key items draw your eye, ensuring you’re never left wondering what to do or where to go next. Some stories are over in a heartbeat; others last longer, but these are novellas, not sagas. Even so, by the bittersweet ending, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled farther and discovered more than in games five times the length.
There’s no escaping that this will, for some, be an emotionally demanding game. But it says much that even the most potentially upsetting sequence is handled in almost celebratory fashion. As Edith herself implies in a late-game voiceover, a person’s passing is not just a time to grieve, but an opportunity to commemorate their life – or even to appreciate the miracle of existence. It’s a sentimental thought that informs a remarkable, big-hearted game from a developer whose debut gave barely a hint of the storytelling confidence and poise on show here. What Remains Of Edith Finch is anything but unfinished; it might even set a new benchmark for the narrative adventure.
By the ending, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled farther and discovered more than in games five times the length