What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking sim that takes about two hours to complete. It was released in April 2017 for Steam and PlayStation 4, but it’s now available on a number of other platforms, including the Nintendo Switch.
What Remains of Edith Finch is visually gorgeous, and it falls into my favorite category of games: It was created for an adult audience by a small team of developers who take full advantage of the interactive gaming medium but don’t frustrate the player with unnecessary puzzle or platforming elements. There’s a lot to explore in this game, but the atmosphere is never broken by the player having to get up and check a walkthrough.
You play as a teenage woman named Edith Finch, who is returning to her family’s house on a small island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The house has been abandoned ever since Edith’s mother moved away in order to escape “the family curse,” which holds that everyone who is born into (or marries into) the Finch family dies in a tragic accident. In order to find closure, Edith tries to reconstruct the details of her family’s deaths, which the player experiences though a series of vignettes that play out in the form of short interactive stories.
Progression through the game is definitely on rails, but it doesn’t feel particularly linear. This is partially due to the unique architecture of the Finch house, which feel impossible yet manages to fit together neatly like the pieces of a puzzle. The game’s sense of progression is also enhanced by the player’s interactions with the environment, which are essential to the storytelling. I’m going to use the case of Edith’s older brother Lewis as an example of what I mean.
Lewis is a young man who loves fantasy novels, video games, and weed. After he graduates from high school, he drifts aimlessly for a few years before getting a job at a salmon cannery. This job is just as dreary as you might expect, but Lewis survives the tedium of menial labor by immersing himself in daydreams. As the player, you use one joystick to control the repetitive motion of decapitating fish and throwing them onto a conveyor belt while simultaneously using the other joystick to guide Lewis’s avatar through his RPG-themed fantasies.
Lewis’s daydream gradually becomes more interesting and complex. This is reflected by the game inside his mind being upgraded, almost as though it were being remastered across various eras of game consoles. The controls for the salmon cannery aspect of Lewis’s life never change, and they remain a constant annoyance as the fantasy slowly expands to fill the screen. When the player is jolted out of this daydream back into the bloody and poorly lit factory, it’s much more jarring than it would be if we were simply reading or watching Lewis’s story.
The psychiatrist who narrates this vignette says that Lewis’s death was caused by a hallucination triggered by withdrawal from hard drugs, but the player understands that it was suicide brought about by his overwhelming desire to no longer be anchored by an unpleasant and unsatisfying reality. This episode is only twenty minutes long, but I cried. Kind of a lot actually.
What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t sad or sentimental; rather, it’s nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t offer the player the same sort of transcendent experience as a more ambitious game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but its smaller and more personal stories are replete with mystery and wonder. Although the two games were made by different developers, What Remains of Edith Finch feels like a spiritual sequel to Gone Home, and it’s such a pleasure to see the gaming medium used to apply magical realism to gothic dramas of family ghosts and personal journeys of discovery.
I was inspired to return to What Remains of Edith Finch by a recent episode of the podcast Watch Out for Fireballs, which you can listen to (here). Reflecting on the game almost six years after it was first released, I would agree with the podcast hosts: Although What Remains of Edith Finch was almost universally praised when it came out, I’m afraid that its Wes Anderson style of twee humor might not land the same way on social media now. What Remains of Edith Finch treats the twinned subjects of death and mental illness with humor and sympathy in a way that celebrates the joys of being alive, and I’m not sure that particular multilayered tone would necessarily survive the black-or-white mentality of Twitter.
Still, I love this game, and I appreciate it even more now that I’ve had more personal experience with grief. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that What Remains of Edith Finch is uplifting, but the two hours I spent with the game improved my mood, bolstered my courage, and reignited my creative motivation. As with any work of art, the specificity of the game’s tone and viewpoint may not land with everyone, but it’s precisely this specificity its storytelling that makes What Remains of Edith Finch so strange and fun and interesting.