A high wa­ter­mark of nar­ra­tive-driven de­sign

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD style@wash­post.com

If you’re cu­ri­ous to see how far nar­ra­tive-driven games have come in the past few years, “What Re­mains of Edith Finch” is an ex­cel­lent start­ing point. This in­spired game about an ill-fated fam­ily uses a se­lec­tive num­ber of sim­ple yet poignant game­play me­chan­ics — fly­ing a kite, tak­ing pic­tures with a cam­era — to draw play­ers into a web of fan­tas­ti­cal vi­gnettes that echo the weird fic­tion of EC Comics, Love­craft and the like. Al­though the sto­ries make use of dif­fer­ent emo­tional tones and vis­ual styles, they are united in that they are as beau­ti­ful as they are in­vari­ably fa­tal.

The player’s chief con­duit through the Finch dy­nasty is 17-year-old Edith, who, at the be­gin­ning of the game, re­turns to her child­hood home, which is sit­u­ated on a ver­dant is­land off the coast of Washington state. It’s her first visit since 2010, when she was 11.

Through voice-over, she tells us that as a child she was barred from en­ter­ing many of its rooms, which were sealed by her mother in which her grand­mother drilled peep­holes in an act of re­bel­lion. Edith also tells us that the house, now hers, has al­ways un­nerved her.

The Finch res­i­dence has the am­biance of a bib­lio­phile’s fever dream. Books over­run the in­te­rior of the home like moss in a for­est. They prop up the televi but sion and form piles be­hind the couch, through the hall­way, up the stairs, in the kitchen and along win­dow case­ments. This tally ne­glects the many book­cases in the bed­rooms and liv­ing area as well as the room that serves as the li­brary proper.

At­ten­tive ob­servers will no­tice some re­peat­ing ti­tles here and there, sug­gest­ing lim­ited tech­ni­cal re­sources on the de­vel­oper’s part on one hand, but on the other adding to an im­pres­sion of over­abun­dance that is con­sis­tent with the pro­fu­sion of other ob­jects in the home. Edith likens this to­tal­ity to “a smile with too many teeth.”

In a room bathed in aqua­ma­rine light, the walls of which are painted with an un­der­wa­ter scene, Edith finds that a mys­te­ri­ous key her mother left her after she passed away fits the lock that’s at­tached to a copy of “20,000 Leagues Un­der the Sea” hang­ing on the wall. Open­ing the book re­veals that its con­tents have been hol­lowed out to make space for a han­dle that opens a panel in the wall, painted to look like the win­dowsill of a train. A crawl space leads to the bed­room of her aunt Molly, who died as a child.

The dis­cov­ery of a short story writ­ten by Molly trans­ports play­ers into a tale about a lit­tle girl who is sent to bed with­out sup­per. In the mid­dle of the An in­spired game about an ill-fated fam­ily draws play­ers into a web of fan­tas­ti­cal vi­gnettes. In one of them, play­ers are trans­ported into a tale about a lit­tle girl who is trans­formed into a preda­tory bird, then a shark, then a sea mon­ster. night she wakes up and be­gins ravenously eat­ing any­thing she can find from tooth­paste to the plas­tic berries on an or­na­men­tal wreath. Still hun­gry, the child is trans­formed into a preda­tory bird, then a shark, then a sea mon­ster.

The deft­ness with which the story moves from the pro­saic hor­ror of a hun­gry child to the com­fort­ing in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity of a fearless preda­tor is re­mark­able.

As Edith makes her way far­ther into the labyrinth of the house, she dis­cov­ers more doc­u­ments that whisk the player into other sto­ries, and each is as com­pact as it is emo­tion­ally res­o­nant.

“The [pro­to­type] that seemed the most ef­fec­tive were sto­ries about peo­ple get­ting lost in their imag­i­na­tions.” Ian Dal­las, game de­signer

Play­ing the game brought to mind a cou­plet from the Keats poem “Ode to Melan­choly,” which cap­tures the os­cil­lat­ing sen­ti­ments em­bed­ded in the tales, “in the very tem­ple of De­light/Veil’d Melan­choly has her sovran shrine.”

When I spoke with Ian Dal­las, one of the game de­sign­ers at Gi­ant Spar­row, he said the game that be­came “What Re­mains of Edith Finch” be­gan life 41/2 years ago as a scuba sim­u­la­tor that was in­tended to evoke a feel­ing of the sub­lime.

As Dal­las ex­plained it, this ro­man­tic im­pulse bled over into the fin­ished game in­so­far as it deals with peo­ple who are “them­selves ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sub­lime mo­ments” or are oth­er­wise “over­whelmed.”

Elab­o­rat­ing fur­ther, Dal­las said that dur­ing de­vel­op­ment when he and his co-work­ers were ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent pro­to­types they found that “the thing that seemed the most ef­fec­tive were sto­ries about peo­ple get­ting lost in their imag­i­na­tions and pur­su­ing a goal to the detri­ment of ev­ery­thing else in their lives. I think the rea­son that worked, in hind­sight, is that’s a very sim­i­lar tone to what the player’s ex­pe­ri­ence is in a video game, in gen­eral, in that play­ers are ac­cus­tomed to be­ing given a very clear goal and pur­su­ing that goal no mat­ter what.”

With a play time equiv­a­lent to that of a long film, the game am­ply re­wards a player’s time com­mit­ment.

My rec­om­men­da­tion: Play it once for the story, then again to sa­vor the de­tails.

IMAGES FROM ANNAPURNA IN­TER­AC­TIVE

WHAT RE­MAINS OF EDITH FINCH Gi­ant Spar­row Annapurna In­ter­ac­tive PC, PlayS­ta­tion 4

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