Many great novels have traced families through multiple generations—the Jones and Iqbals of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the Sinais of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the Hamiltons and Trasks of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Each of these novels finds the totality of its characters not only in their individuality, but in their relationships to parents, siblings, grandparents and, most of all, the effects of the past on the present day.
Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch attempts to translate the purpose of the multi-generational story to videogames. It mainly succeeds. From the viewpoint of 18 year-old Edith, the player returns to her family home, a tall, wobbly-looking mansion nestled within the dense pines of an island off the Washington coast. She’s been left a key to the place by her recently deceased mother and, narrating the journal entry she writes as the game plays out, explains that the last time she’d set foot in the house was years ago. Edith drops a cryptic hint that leaving wasn’t a happy choice. Looking up at the building, the dull tones of its mossy siding and vine-covered roof give the impression that the Finch’s ancestral home is a looming forest ghost—something as old and unknowable as the natural landscape it seems a part of.
Edith Finch makes the complexities of a family physical, representing a myriad of aunts, uncles, grandparents and other limbs of a sprawling ancestral tree with a series of rooms the player enters into by climbing, crawling and squeezing through secret, interconnected passageways. The house is cramped and dimly lit, its hallways narrow and doors shut tight with ominously placed locks and overflowing, hastily-applied caulking. Stacks of books bulge from shelves, food sits discarded and petrified on tables, and over all of it there lies the stillness of an empty museum. The effect of the house, inside and out, is of an artifact discovered perfectly preserved. The remnants of a century of family life remain frozen in time, allowing Edith and the player to read an ancestry like the pages of a book.
Once Edith finds her way into the first locked room, though, her tour of the Finch family tree takes place with far more intimacy than the rest of the house’s dusty still life suggests. She enters her great-aunt Molly’s bedroom—a time capsule tableau of a child’s room. When Edith opens a diary written in Molly’s hand, she finds herself inside the words themselves. Now narrated by the voice of a distant family member, the player follows the young girl’s dream. She becomes a cat, hopping from tree branch to tree branch, then an owl flying above snowy fields to catch rabbits, then a shark hunting seals in murky waters. By the time the player is controlling the outstretched tentacle of a sea monster, snaring sailors and wrestling them back into an unseen maw, Edith Finch has made clear it’s a game where the line between past and present—imagination and reality—bleed into one another.
Continuing on, delving into more stories, the player learns of “the Finch curse.” Each family member’s vignette inevitability terminates in ways that blur the lines between legendary and mundane tragedy. The insatiable hunger that lead Molly to imagine herself flitting between the bodies of various predators may stand in for an illness that cut the real girl’s life tragically short. In these stories, Edith Finch resounds with the unique metaphorical power of magical realism. In others—especially those that depend more on dialogue than audiovisual suggestion to explain themselves—the game falls flat. Edith’s running interludes, spoken aloud and presented as text embedded in the environment itself, are serviceable. When a character overlays the unique concept of, say, navigating a scene by zooming around it through the lens of a camera with a dull, monotone expository statement like “These memories are gonna last a lifetime,” it simply distracts from the subtler storytelling already on display.
More of an issue are the limitations of Edith Finch’s narrative format. The inevitable deaths of each family member, callous as it sounds, eventually come to resemble the punch line in a sketch comedy show more than the tragedies initially expected. Repetition and increasingly creative manifestations of the Finch curse rob many of the terrible family accidents of their drama. The worst involve a camping trip gone awry and a too-involved metaphor presented as a Tales from the Crypt-style comic book story. It’s not coincidental that these are also dialogue-heavy sequences. The most powerful—accidents involving a bathtub and swing set—depend less on the written word than unique player interactions and beautifully composed scenery to communicate their story. In these sequences, Edith Finch shows a more confident version of itself—one that allows suggestion and presentation to convey emotions its dialogue isn’t sharp enough to describe.
This push and pull between subtlety and direct exposition persists throughout the game. Outside of the imaginative diary vignettes, the cast’s preserved rooms do the most to inform the player’s opinion of the characters. In some cases, the effect works well. In typical videogame style, a bit of graffiti and a personality-explaining object (a Bible; an astronaut’s helmet; a hunting rifle) sit appropriately in a given room, visually explaining one of the Finch’s defining traits. Though often fairly on the nose, the effect is decent enough visual shorthand for summing up such a large number of characters. At its worst, though, this tendency becomes too reductive. Lewis, one of Edith’s two older brothers, has a room with psychedelic posters, neon lights and a poster emblazoned with a weed leaf framed by two words: “Legalize Marijuana.” In his story, which takes place at his monotonous job at a salmon cannery, his locker includes the same selection of posters. Even though his vignette suggests otherwise, Lewis’ set-dressing paints him as a bizarrely single-minded man.
Despite its sometimes too-broad character development and stylistic stumbles, Edith Finch is still a fascinating game—one that has admirably tailor-built its player interactions to fit the varied stories it tells. This is welcome, especially when the inverse approach is so often taken. It’s a game made with real imagination and an honest attempt to capture the unique perspective of its wide range of characters. Given its wide scope, it’s understandable that it’s also a game that succeeds more in concept than execution. Like the subjects of the multi-generational novels whose tradition it embraces, Edith Finch’s individual successes and failures are less important than its overall effect. It’s a story made of stories, and the results of its breadth seem more important than the fine details.
What Remains of Edith Finch was developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Interactive. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for PC.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, PC Gamer, GQ and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.