The Mak­ing Of...

How a bit of fishy busi­ness in­spired Gi­ant Spar­row’s sub­lime an­thol­ogy

EDGE - - SECTIONS - For­mat PC, PS4 De­vel­oper Gi­ant Spar­row Pub­lisher Annapurna In­ter­ac­tive Ori­gin US Re­lease 2017 BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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

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