Every member of Edith Finch’s family is dead.
Brothers. Uncles. Great Aunts. Parents. Some were abrupt, a few broke after years of tension, and others were radically stolen away. A common denominator across three generations; no one was ever prepared. This is a tragic irony for family publicly known by their calamitous fate, but also a determined resolve to escape an unhealthy definition. Bad luck, even an incredible series of luckless events, can operate independent of negative (and positive) personal choice.
Edith remains. Since her family emigrated from Norway in 1937, every blood relative lived inside the family home off of remote coast in Washington. Only eleven years-old when her mother vacated the property, Edith’s fleeting memories of the estate were locked under the virtue and buoyancy of childhood. Now eighteen, Edith returns to a house idle since 2010 to explore her family’s history and chronicle their extraordinary demise.
What Remains of Edith Finch begins by obeying the exploration-focused model popularized by Dear Esther and Gone Home. Edith’s path through her labyrinthine home guides her across each family member’s room. Relics found inside allow Edith to engage in dynamic vignettes to explore their fate. It’s in these rooms where Giant Sparrow’s previous work, The Unfinished Swan, is embraced and improved. What Remains of Edith Finch frequently departs its nascent trappings in search of genre-bending harmony and is simultaneously disinterested in repeating any of its tricks. Every family member presents a new story and a novel way to engage with aspects of their life.
With a few possible exceptions, What Remains of Edith Finch rarely offers explicit details of a family member’s demise. Death is a facet of life videogames often trivialized by sheer mechanical necessity, but What Remains of Edith Finch’s approach neatly sidesteps this convention. Life and death are expressed through surreal interpretations of cognitive decay, terrible accidents, and the innocence of childhood. It also has to be (relatively) fun to play because, well, What Remains of Edith Finch is still a videogame.
Gregory, Edith’s Uncle, passed away as an infant in 1977. We’re lead to believe Gregory drowned in a bathtub while his mother was distracted, but this is only implied. Seeing the world through the eyes of an infant, Gregory’s menagerie of floating bath toys align with an orchestral tune and begin performing a synchronized dance number. You have a degree of control over this, specifically commanding a frog to jump on cue, before Gregory eventually becomes the frog and starts swimming around an aquatic wonderland. What follows is an acutely intuitive and ultimately heartbreaking — and What Remains of Edith Finch instantly moves on, confident in its delivery, assured of its resonance, and free to deploy its next story.
Gregory’s sequence is an elegant and gorgeous way of interpreting infancy and expressing the wonder of looking through the eyes of a child. Among the Sleep was able to do this while isolating a singular theme, but this is just a single feather in What Remains of Edith Finch’s cap. The effect of Gregory’s death reverberates across Edith’s entire family, layering context inside of tales we already know and providing a foundation for those yet to be experienced. What Remains of Edith Finch feels conscious of itself all the time and doesn’t let a single detail slip past its distressing confines.
The Finch’s house is as much of a character as anyone who resided inside of it. The first floor is fairly normal, albeit characteristic of a place that was abandoned in the middle of the night in 2010. Items that were novel seven years ago, like iPod clock radios and projection-based flat screens, coalesce with relics of a family that sustained the property for the previous 80 years. People left, but nothing ever moved away, meaning you’re as likely to find a worn copy of Gravity’s Rainbow as you are remnants from last night’s Chinese food delivery.
Rooms of the deceased, on the other hand, were left in stasis. Sealed away when the person died—an idiosyncratic facet of Edie, the Finch great grandmother and matriarch—some have been left alone for over fifty years. Exploring them as Edith not only provides a shortcut to a different time and place, but helps justify the surreal aspects surrounding their unfortunate demise. Pieces of a person’s subconscious—Molly briefly turns into a sea monster in her mind while a stuffed octopus toy remains on her bed in reality—frequently overlap, providing clever evidence for each premise.
Common areas of the Finch home were allowed to grow and change in ways that reflect the procession of its inhabitants. Wedding chairs lodged in surrounding trees seem peculiar until you figure out why they’re there. A barely-noticeable rebuilt balcony is a benign repair job until it, too, is given context. From a crutch nailed to a wall to a bizarre dragon head bubbling out of a small pond, every presumed oddity is defended with comfortable rationale.
The exception to this rule is the home’s enduring resident, Edie. A plastic chair in the shower, a wheelchair ramp clearly added to the front door, and a stair lift are among the relics of the longest surviving Finch. Despite Edie’s presence overlapping with every single member, and the fragments of her life visible in every room, I felt like she was the Finch I knew the least about. I don’t know if this was intentional or if I just wasn’t paying attention, but it felt like What Remains of Edith Finch pulled back whenever it setting itself up to push Edie’s story forward. This is also true of Edith, and maybe that was the point.
While What Remains of Edith Finch handles the majority of its progression with grace, the last third stresses suspension of disbelief. Edith’s brothers, Milton and Lewis, are directed well (especially Lewis, whose sequence should enamor anyone invested in the medium), but their physical presence in the Finch household is insane. Their residence is composed of a nervous, discordant addendum affixed to the top of the ancient house and while this creates a frightening juxtaposition, there is no way I would ever believe it to be structurally sound. I get why it looks like that and how it fits in What Remains of Edith Finch’s story, but its blatant disregard for safety almost makes it seem like someone wanted to die.
2017, like 1997 and 2001, is shaping up to be a monumental year for videogames. Resident Evil 7, Nioh, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Persona 5, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Night in the Woods, Horizon: Zero Dawn — the list goes on and on, and we’re barely a quarter of the way through the year. Nier: Automata and What Remains of Edith Finch are the only two with the potential to affect the future of the medium. These games approach interactivity in ways previously unrealized by not only their respective peers, but in their entire format’s ability to merge storytelling with interactivity. Games have been done like this, but not like this.
Life isn’t often what we imagine and death isn’t usually what we expect. What Remains of Edith Finch responds by capturing death’s despair and tragedy through life’s lenses of whimsy and fantasy. Every emotion and detail is left in frame, exposing profoundly anguishing themes that nevertheless develop into endearing pictures of hope and determination. Edith Finch creates a portrait of a family that, even in their doomed eccentricity, feels not only sanguine, but also deeply human.