Relatability and understanding can be a tricky thing to nail in videogames. With so many games set on defining who you are and who the other is right out the gate, it’s always pleasant to find games that aim to take a step back and focus on letting players figure themselves out while learning about the history and lives of others. In What Remains of Edith Finch, from the developers at Giant Sparrow (who also made the bizarre and trippy The Unfinished Swan), you’ll go on an adventure in your own home as you discover your family’s strange and tragic secrets, as troubling as they may be.
Set in present day Washington State, young Edith Finch returns to her family home after some time away at college. During her stay, she finds the house empty and takes the opportunity to poke around to find details about the ordinary, yet troubled lives of her parents, siblings, and even her ancestors from all the way back in the 1800s. On this strange and deeply personal journey, she’ll uncover clues and secret passages, and learn about the ties that bind a family across generations, and how she has come to fit into the family’s lasting legacy.
If this sounds a bit like another game, like, say, Gone Home, the developers are keenly aware of that. That was another title that brought players into a fairly mundane location, and swept them up into a surprisingly emotional story. Speaking with Ian Dallas, the creative director at Giant Sparrow, he spoke about the similarities between his game and the much-acclaimed 2012 adventure game, and how players expecting something similar are in for a surprise.
“The Gone Home comparisons are really interesting,” said Ian Dallas. “Of course, it’s a similar setup. You’re a young woman coming back to the Pacific Northwest, in relatively modern times, it’s all eerily similar. Granted, we were making this game before Gone Home came out. It’s not a bad comparison to have, but it’s totally wrong.”
As Edith uncovers clues about her family, players will be transported into the shoes of another member of the Finch family, set in another location and time period. With Edith as the character that ties everything together in the present, players will be working their way up the 13 member family tree to learn more about the past generations of the Finch household. The creative director spoke a lot about this aspect of the game, and also went on to describe the unique power games have to tell stories like this.
“The initial idea for this game was to ‘explore the sublime horror of nature’,” said Dallas while discussing the origins of Edith Finch. “The closest reference materials for us to work from were short stories from the early 1900s, like from Lovecraft, things like that. We wanted to make a game that explored some of the same themes. There’s some similar goals between this and The Unfinished Swan, like they’re both games about exploring the unknown, and for me personally, games can be used as ways to think about things. There were subjects that I didn’t understand, and they’d be fun to explore in game that took us about 3-4 years to make. But yes, they’re both about the unknown and the resulting exploration of that. This is more about fear and wonder. There’s an ominous undercurrent here.”
During my hands-on session, I got to play through the story of Lewis Finch, the elder brother to Edith. She finds a letter from a psychologist in an old box, detailing his tragic life. Born in 1988, he was an introverted and lonely man who longed for adventure, but settled on a life as a worker in a fish cannery. During his many hours of work, he’d dream about exploring the land of ‘Lewistopia’, while simultaneously handling fish-prep, moving the head of the fish to the cutting blade, all while exploring the strange lands within his imagination. In this segment, which is a testament to Giant Sparrow’s cleverness for design, players use the right-stick to move Lewis’ handling of the fish, while using the left-stick to control a fantasy Lewis in his own thought bubble, which gradually overtakes the screen. As the imaginary world becomes more developed, and with his true reality still ever present, Lewis falls into a deep depression, which unfortunately ends in tragedy.
Dallas went on to explain that each of these segments, which are unique for each member of the family, set up their life, perspective, and their unique experiences and relationships with other members of the family. As one of the more creative and visually pleasing levels, the developers wanted to make something that left a lasting impression on players, while also getting them to understand where that particular character is coming from.
“Each one of these stories is quite different. Most of them are first person, this one is unique because it blends third-person controls, but each story for the family members is unique and expressive for that particular character,” explains Dallas. “It’s not like there’s this intricate mystery to solve, like a ‘whodunit’ or Agatha Christie thing, it’s more like ‘oh right, I understand the relationships more’. Like you would likely be distrustful of this one person, but after playing through their story, you’ll learn more about them and see where they’re coming from. There’s 13 family members, which is a lot to take in, but the hope is that you feel like you’re almost meeting real people…It’s far more explicit and more elaborate version of the idea of keeping players guessing what’s around the corner. For a game about the unknown, we want to put players in the mindset of not feeling too comfortable.”
In recent years, we’ve seen more games offering a uniquely subdued and narrative focused adventure game experience. With such titles as Gone Home, Firewatch, and Everyone’s Gone to Rapture having found popularity, there’s a population of fans who have given these style of games the de facto description of ‘walking simulator’, a base that pokes fun at the slow pace and lack of any action or Twitch gameplay. Whether it’s for a lack of a better term for these styles of games, or just from a disdain for them entirely, the term has stuck and it’s been used as a way to describe more modest and slice of life style simulations. The developers at Giant Sparrow have a bit of a love-hate feeling about it, but they see it changing once more games like this come out.
“It’s really confusing to be honest. We had people come up during PAX and ask us if this was a ‘walking simulator’ and sometimes they mean it as a good thing and compare it other titles they like,” said Dallas. “And some people are like, ‘oh it’s just another walking simulator’. It’s a funny term, but I suspect in ten years we’ll have a better term. I don’t have a better one, but really they’re experiences. They’re not things that are about challenge, punishment or grinding, they’re things that are more playful, like toys.”
One of the core elements of games like this, a slice of life adventure game for a lack of a better term, is about letting players explore and mosey about at their own pace, rewarding them for their curiosity and understanding by giving largely mundane and ordinary objects such as notes and knick knacks a strong narrative impact. Which is totally what Edith Finch seeks to do, and then some. The feeling of empathy is strong in these titles, and getting players to understand and relate to the perspective of another person, especially a fictional one, is an aspect that these games focus hard on.
“When it comes to these style of games, it’s about inviting players to invest their own empathy into it,” said Dallas. “And if you’re not the kind of player that feels comfortable in investing yourself into it, then you’re not gonna get too much out of it. It’s weird that people can play the same game and have such different experiences, but part of that reason is because players have just trained us to kind of shut down that part of ourselves to not be emotionally invested in the other character, partly because they’re badly written or they want to kill us, but it’s nice that there are coming out that reward players for giving themselves over to the game.”
Whether you feel this is just another ‘walking simulator’ or not, it’s hard to deny that it’s a title that cares about its characters, and it very much wants you to care about them as well. Player investment, on an emotional level, is tough to achieve, but What Remains of Edith Finch is coming from a place that is welcoming curiosity for its characters and for the space they inhabit. And after all, that’s one of the cornerstones for an adventure.
What Remains of Edith Finch is set for release April 25, 2017 on PC and PlayStation 4.
Alessandro Fillari is a freelance writer and content creator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him on Twitter.