The Making Of...
How a bit of fishy business inspired Giant Sparrow’s sublime anthology
How fishy business inspired What
Remains Of Edith Finch, Giant Sparrow’s sublime anthology
Like all good stories, it started with a shark in a tree. Giant Sparrow had begun developing its debut, The Unfinished Swan, with nothing more than what writer/director
Ian Dallas describes as “an abstract but describable goal”. For that game, Dallas hoped to create a sense of awe and wonder; this time he was hoping to evoke “the sublime horror of nature”. The process had worked once, so Dallas and his team were emboldened to try a similar approach for its successor, but it wasn’t until three or four months into development that the image of a shark in a forest, falling 30 or 40 feet to the ground, came into his head. Nature’s sublime horror suddenly had a comedic edge, and the story of young Molly Finch – the first of this familial anthology – gradually took shape.
If the developer’s original plans had come to fruition, you might have encountered this fish out of water in its natural habitat. In its nascent form,
What Remains Of Edith Finch was a scubadiving simulator, inspired by Dallas’s memories of growing up in Washington state, and particularly “what it felt like looking at the ocean sloping away into the infinite darkness.” But in attempting to capture the sensations Dallas had experienced beneath the surface, Giant Sparrow hit its first major snag. “It’s really hard to tell a story while scuba diving,” he concedes. “Like, who is talking? What are the stakes? What’s the ticking clock? All these things that any story has to grapple with were hard to do.” Still, while the idea was abandoned, one early experimental prototype was a success. In considering how to tell a story in an undersea setting, Dallas wondered about inserting text into the world: a feature that not only remains in the finished game, but became crucial to the player being able to easily navigate the Finch mansion.
It was only right that Molly’s flight of fancy should come first in the story chronology, Dallas tells us, since everything grew organically from it. That key line, spoken with childlike guilelessness (“and suddenly I was a shark”) now seems like a disarmingly candid acknowledgement of the game’s unlikely origins. “It’s an introduction to the player, just like it was an introduction to us as developers, into what this game is going to feel like,” Dallas says.
This ambitious, elaborate sequence, during which you first assume the form of a cat and an owl, and then later control a slithering tentacle belonging to some eldritch abomination, was originally conceived as the template for all that would follow. The studio invested months of programming time in developing technology to infinitely wrap terrain, so that nine tiles’ worth of forest could continually follow on from one another, endlessly rotating like the treads of a tank. “We ended up making this system where you didn’t have any walls, [so] you could keep going forever and the world would appear in front of you. And then we ended up never using that again,” he laughs. “That’s typical of the excess of Molly’s story, that exuberance early in development of, ‘We’ll try this and we’ll try that’. But it’s also the perfect introduction to what the game is, in that it is constantly reinventing itself. Even when you think you know where an individual story is going to go, it might have a hard right turn a few minutes later.”
The contrast between the vast, sprawling outdoors and the elaborate interiors of the Finches’ house are stark, and yet there’s still a hint of something monstrous inside; Edith herself likens it to “a smile with too many teeth”. Dallas had three words in mind when designing the house: sublime, intimate and murky. And while he’s not convinced the game quite delivered on the last of those three, he’s happy that Giant Sparrow struck a balance between the first two. “I think that’s most represented in the clutter on the walls,” he says. “A real house goes from being barren, where there’s nothing on the walls and it feels sterile and even videogamey, to being lived-in where you’ve got a couple of photos on the walls and that sort of thing. And then there’s this tipping point where you add too many things, too many photos and memorabilia, and it hits this point where it starts to feel like a natural force. It begins to look almost like the bark of a tree; something that has an order to it, but it’s too chaotic for us to be able to follow.”
Players are already primed to anticipate a kind of threat as they arrive: Edith is, after all, investigating the seemingly fanciful notion of a curse that is causing the Finches to die prematurely. It had been conceived as an anthology of stories from the early stages of development: one early concept placed Edith within a group of high-school students sharing tales with one another, before Dallas landed on the idea of a family and began to seek ways to tie them all together. Again, he looked towards the world of horror for inspiration. “The Twilight Zone has this continuity,” he begins. “I mean, it’s not really obvious what it is that Rod Serling and the music provides, but there’s a gestalt that unites these stories. So it became about finding a [narrative] throughline so that these stories didn’t feel completely random. Because it felt like they were all exploring similar themes.”
Dallas also looked at Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude for structural inspiration, and found, once a couple of stories were in place, that interleaving them would allow Giant Sparrow to kill two birds with one stone. “We discovered a year or two into development that having the same locations and characters reappear was really powerful,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were just saving assets to use between stories; it was something that made the stories feel more interesting and specific to our game.” But the curse itself was a retcon. “Once we knew that all the stories were going to be about people dying, then [we had] to try and figure out a way to explain that.”
Yet the studio’s momentum could so easily have been derailed by a change of publisher. Having partnered with Sony in January 2013, the game being officially unveiled during 2014’s PlayStation Experience, it found itself without a publisher when the format-holder’s focus shifted
“EVEN WHEN YOU THINK YOU KNOW WHERE AN INDIVIDUAL STORY IS GOING, IT MIGHT HAVE A RIGHT TURN”
Over time, Dallas realised that keeping the mechanics simple was key. “Most games are setting up systems they’re going to explore for the next 2-20 hours. [Here] it’s