A game of life and death, with no guns

‘Edith Finch’ is an emo­tional, thought­ful fairy tale that shows in­dus­try’s evo­lu­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­EN­DAR - By Todd Martens

“And I was a cat.” This is the voice of a young girl in the open­ing mo­ments of “What Re­mains of Edith Finch,” an in-de­vel­op­ment video game that will re­ceive its com­ing-out party at this week’s Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo (E3), North Amer­ica’s largest video game trade show.

Created by the 15-per­son Giant Spar­row team led by com­edy writer turned game maker Ian Dal­las, “What Re­mains of Edith Finch” will vie for at­ten­tion at E3 with games that have big­ger bud­gets, lots of guns and rec­og­niz­able brands. But Giant Spar­row’s ti­tle for Sony’s PlayS­ta­tion 4 is far from an anom­aly. To­day more than ever, games that of­fer a more au­thored ex­pe­ri­ence are steal­ing some of the E3 lime­light.

And in “What Re­mains of Edith Finch,” nar­ra­tive, in the form of lit­tle fairy tales, is the driv­ing force. The young girl does in­deed be­come a cat — or, rather, imag­ines

be­com­ing a cat. Soon play­ers chase a bird around twist­ing Pa­cific North­west trees, the kind that would look haunted in cer­tain moon­light. Then she be­comes an owl, crav­ing rab­bits de­spite their cute­ness, and then she’s a shark and her tummy is rum­bling for “fat, juicy seals.”

Amid all the sur­real im­agery and the munch­ing on adorable crit­ters, here’s an­other twist: This girl, Molly, is al­ready dead.

“What Re­mains of Edith Finch” is a game about how we per­ish — how we live our lives and ap­proach our fi­nal mo­ments. The game is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, all of them strangely mor­bid but all re­moved from re­al­ity. Devoted to the end of the days, they ap­proach the un­known with won­der rather than tears. Is that a mon­ster un­der Molly’s bed, or is that all in her head?

“The game is es­sen­tially about peo­ple be­ing over­whelmed,” says Dal­las, the wiry 37-year-old cre­ative di- rec­tor of Giant Spar­row. “I think there’s some­thing fit­ting about that. There’s no vic­tory.”

Thought­ful in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of the sort found in “Edith Finch” are start­ing to res­onate with wider au­di­ences out­side of the game world. Not only will IndieCade, which stages an an­nual fes­ti­val in Cul­ver City ded­i­cated to all things non- main­stream, show­case more than 30 ti­tles on the E3 floor at the L.A. Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, this year’s Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val is of­fer­ing movie­go­ers the chance to sam­ple nar­ra­tive-driven games. Th­ese in­clude “Thralled,” which tells the story of a run­away Brazil­ian slave, and “Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy,” a hacker heist game set in the 1980s.

Dal­las wants more games that chal­lenge player con­ven­tions: “I don’t need to play an­other game that in­volves me mov­ing around shoot­ing things. I would love to play a game about some­one go­ing through gen­der re­as­sign­ment and see­ing what that feels like.”

On Mon­day evening, on the eve of E3’s of­fi­cial open­ing, Sony will stage a large me­dia event at the Los An­ge­les Me­mo­rial Sports Arena. “Edith Finch” is likely to be on stage, shar­ing the spot­light, if even for a brief mo­ment, with likely block­busters such as the lat­est in the “Un­charted” fran­chise.

Though “Edith Finch” isn’t pegged for re­lease un­til 2016, E3 is a cru­cial mo­ment in build­ing aware­ness for such a per­sonal game, one partly in­spired by Dal­las’ own child­hood and the loss of his mother.

“Peo­ple who don’t play games are quick to dis­miss games be­cause ev­ery­thing that they see on TV is games about killing and ac­tion. They just go, ‘Oh, games aren’t for me,’ ” says Nathan Gary, cre­ative di­rec­tor at Sony Santa Mon­ica.

The stu­dio, which has a rep­u­ta­tion for work­ing with young, ex­per­i­men­tal-lean­ing com­pa­nies such as Thatgame­com­pany and the Chi­nese Room, among oth­ers, signed Giant Spar­row to a three-game deal, of which “Edith Finch” is the sec­ond.

“A lot of games of ours are called ‘weird.’ I think that’s dis­mis­sive in a way,” Gary says. “To me, if I shoot lots of peo­ple in a game, that’s weird. How is a game that’s try­ing to treat death as the mo­men­tous thing that it re­ally is weird?”

“Dif­fer­ent,” maybe, is a bet­ter way to de­scribe Giant Spar­row. The stu­dio was born while Dal­las was at­tend­ing grad­u­ate school at USC to study game de­sign. Giant Spar­row’s first ti­tle, 2012’s “The Un­fin­ished Swan,” is a chil­dren’s book sprung to life. In­stead of a gun, play­ers fire paint, which fills in the blank white can­vas that is the game’s uni­verse.

Like “Edith Finch,” “The Un­fin­ished Swan” is slightly melan­cholic. It too deals with fam­ily loss. Yet Giant Spar­row’s games aren’t ex­actly down­ers.

“It’s weighty,” ad­mits Gary of “Edith Finch.” “It’s all about the fi­nal mo­ments of peo­ple’s lives, but it also has a strange ex­u­ber­ance to it.”

When the player, as Edith Finch, re­turns home, the house ap­pears more mag­i­cal than haunted. Books spi­ral ev­ery which way, and be­hind a door may be a room or a hid­den pas­sage­way.

The house feels as alive as the Wash­ing­ton wilder­ness it is set in, and as Edith walks from f loor to f loor she ex­plores the bizarre cir­cum­stances of how her fam­ily passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. She learns about Molly and her dreams of be­ing a cat from the child’s writ­ings.

“In this story, you are be­com­ing a cat and be­com­ing an owl and it’s hard to tell much about a per­son with­out other hu­mans around with them to play off of,” Dal­las says. “This is more about the ex­plor­ing the zeal and cal­lous­ness of a child. They’re not will­fully un-em­pa­thetic, but they’re so con­sumed with their own de­sires.”

Dal­las has com­pared “Edith Finch” to “The Twi­light Zone” or “Twin Peaks” and says the ini­tial in­spi­ra­tion came from re­mem­ber­ing his days as a child when he went scuba div­ing around Wash­ing­ton’s Puget Sound, catch­ing glimpses of the vast, un­know­able abyss that lay be­fore him. He wants a game in “Edith Finch” that chan­nels that emo­tion — “kind of ter­ri­fy­ing but at the same time re­ally beau­ti­ful,” he says — but he also rec­og­nizes that that’s no easy task.

“A lot of games — and our cul­ture in gen­eral — is about em­pow­er­ment fan­tasies, of be­ing con­fronted with some­thing and then be able to over­come that,” Dal­las says. “There are a lot of good sto­ries about peo­ple over­com­ing ob­sta­cles. I don’t think I need to add any more.”

In­stead, Dal­las draws from his life. While mak­ing “The Un­fin­ished Swan,” his mother was di­ag­nosed with late-stage ovar­ian can­cer. It weighed on him dur­ing the prep for “Edith Finch,” and she died while the game was in its be­gin­ning phases.

Dal­las says the game is not a di­rect re­sponse, but he strug­gles with ar­tic­u­lat­ing how much of his life made it into the still-un­fin­ished prod­uct.

“I don’t know how to de­scribe it. I’m still pro­cess­ing it,” he says. “It was not how I ex­pected to feel af­ter­ward, for sure. The un­ex­pected na­ture of it was maybe the big­gest take-away to ap­ply to this game. It’s very per­sonal, and ev­ery­body’s ex­pe­ri­ence will be a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. In this game, we’re try­ing to do a good job of mak­ing ev­ery­thing col­ored and spe­cific to these peo­ple.”

As a tele­vi­sion writer, Dal­las worked on such pro­grams as Com­edy Cen­tral’s an­i­mated “Drawn To­gether” and G4’s “Space­balls: The An­i­mated Series.” De­spite such light­hearted cred­its, both of Giant Spar­row’s games have dealt with mor­tal­ity.

“I now look at time very dif­fer­ently,” Dal­las ex­plains. “There’s some­thing about hav­ing your par­ents still alive that makes it feel like there’s an un­bro­ken link to child­hood.

“The dif­fer­ence,” he con­tin­ues, “be­tween know­ing a thing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a thing? It’s in­de­scrib­able, and we’re mak­ing a game about that.”

todd.martens@la­times.com

Giant Spar­row

‘EDITH FINCH,”

in de­vel­op­ment, brings play­ers to a char­ac­ter’s fi­nal mo­ments.

SUR­REAL

im­ages abound in the mor­bid “What Re­mains of Edith Finch.”

THE HOUSE in “Edith Finch” ap­pears more mag­i­cal than haunted as play­ers un­ravel how her fam­ily died.

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