And what was gained by this review
Played on: PC
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Genre: Adventure / Narrative
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release: April 25, 2017
Well, here we are folks, rounding out the Annapurna 'must play' trio I set out to cover. We end our journey for now on this critical darling. Oh man, did I unintentionally leave the most emotional for last. Starting with the breezy Donut County, then moving on to the beautifully rugged yet fragile Firewatch, today we’re gonna take a look at What Remains of Edith Finch.
Let's talk spoilers, or really the lack thereof. As with my Firewatch review, I will less be giving you, the reader, a retelling of the narrative and its beats. Rather I want to talk to you about how it affected me, both as a gamer and as a human. That way I think there's just as much for a newcomer to find interesting and hopefully provoke your curiosity, whilst also allowing those in the know to overlay their feelings onto mine for comparison.
This one was a very special experience in many different ways and I can't wait to tell you about it.
Let's dive in, shall we?
We live in a house. A very big house, in the country
Time to set the scene and get the 'back of the box' details out there so you can imagine where I’m coming from.
In this narrative-driven linear adventure game, you take the role of Edith. A young woman making a pilgrimage back to her family's home, first built by her Norwegian settler great grandparents, to make sense of her family's grim past.
You see, Edith's mother has just passed away, leaving Edith to be the sole heir to all things Finch.
Why? Well, the Finch’s are a seemingly cursed family line. Bearing a very specific form of ailment, whereby only one of every generational line of Finch is seemingly allowed by the universe to live. Though the Finch family tree is expansive, only Edith remains, and it's up to you to explore her family past. A past that was kept from her all this time that can only be unravelled in the ramshackle old house she spent her childhood in.
This unravelling is done through exploration. When you first enter the house, only the common spaces are open to you. The matriarch of the family, Edi (Edith’s grandmother for whom she is named) had taken it upon herself to memorialise each passing Finch by turning their rooms and personal spaces into shrines. Rooms that should never be altered again, each standing as a mausoleum to her lost family members.
Though the Finch home is a finely appointed American home, it's not long before the house becomes filled with untouchable shrines. Forcing the next generations of Finch to continually construct extensions to the building, upwards and upwards, as more rooms become lost in their moment in time.
On returning to the house you find all but the common rooms have been sealed off, a measure to keep people out in an attempt to perhaps level the curve of this curse. However, to come to terms with the past, one must first come to understand it. And so your journey of discovery begins.
“ I'd never thought I'd come back to it. But now I had questions that only the house knew the answers to”
One of the first things that will strike you on booting up is something that's been common with all three of these shared publisher games thus far. A truly intriguing art design.
Whilst not quite in the same cartoony vein as Donut County and Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch definitely subtly commands your attention. Of the three this is by far the most visually realistic, whilst still having just a hint of playfulness to its delivery.
Though don't get too comfortable, this style will shift as and when it needs to.
Approaching the bizarre ramshackle house as it towers down on you amidst the pines shows how the developers and art teams were always in very close communication throughout this games development.
Walking towards it, its narrative is being shared with you by Edith as the words paint themselves directly over the environment, it gives the physical act of getting from A to B an almost storybook feel. This is powerful in the way it does not let you forget this is Edith’s journal that is being read to you, and you are merely the vessel.
This tight-knit relationship between developer and artist only becomes more entwined as the story opens up to you. It's a real treat.
Though this is a simple indie game, I often found myself very impressed with the fidelity of the graphics on hand, that is to say in the moments where realism was a concern for the narrative.
As you learn more about each family member and experience their stories, the art style and graphical presentation can vary wildly. Sometimes you're living the life of an animal, sometimes you feel as though you are walking through a comic book, other times you're lost in a seeming fever dream akin to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It really swings for the fences and though sometimes a little rough around the edges, the feelings they were trying to elicit were earned in doing so. For this, the team is to be commended.
Though it needs to be said that any graphical flaw should not, nor could it, hinder the enjoyment of Edith Finch as it's just not that type of experience. However, for the very sparse instances where you find yourself looking at a human model, they are often pretty bad. Like, laughably bad. Below is probably the best example, some look like play dog cast aways. To the point that I suspect it was an intentional decision so as not the detract from the rest of the experience.
Again this shows a level of boldness to be commended in its own flawed way.
Finally, we cant talk about the look and feel without mentioning the wonderful soundtrack by Jeff Russo.
To my knowledge Jeff has not done much in the gaming landscape, having mostly been known for his excellent whilst often unintrusive score for such TV shows as Fargo, Star Trek Discovery / Picard, Umbrella Academy and more. Edith Finch was, it seems, a new experience for the young composer. And he knocks it straight on out of the park.
Each moment, story and thought that you experience in Edith Finch are impactfully different from the last. Both emotionally and in terms of design. The simple fact that a soundscape could be put against it seems almost impossible to pull off. Yet Russo manages to do so with gusto.
A definite add to the ever-growing Spotify playlist.
Edit: I wrote and then removed a whole section here on game mechanics found in Edith Finch. Though I enjoyed putting them into words and reliving the experiences, I would get far more enjoyment in knowing you were met with them with the same fresh eyes I did.
Know that there will be some walking simulator elements, some platforming, some point and click and some truly inventive ways of interaction. This is not a one genre type of affair. However, any more and I may ruin it for you.
Go forth young gamer and game! Then let me know in the comments below if I was right to do this.
“Whatever’s out there, I want you to know I'm ready for it”
The most powerful tool in the games arsenal is not its art style, soundtrack or gameplay, however. Even though all three are wonderful on their own merits. No. The true star here is the narrative that these mechanics help to shape. Teasing ever more from the simple mystery it first presents you with, to the building of character and tone, to the existential inward reflection you will undoubtedly find yourself doing by its end.
What Remains of Edith Finch goes for some very complex questions and themes, that from a distance could almost be seen as childlike in their presentation. However, it's what's going on beneath the surface that is truly impactful Piecing this together from the stories of Edith's family to the letters and nicknacks left around the house, to the visual storytelling of the house itself and its state. It's all very powerful and moving stuff.
As you would expect, the subject matter on hand here is predominantly death. With some family values thrown in for good measure, but the subject of death and its effects are very much centre stage, so be warned if this is triggering.
That said, it's done in an incredibly easily digestible manner. The characters you learn about, though first more caricatures than human, are all quickly humanised by their desires and the form by which the supposed Finch curse had finally grabbed them.
It explores not only the themes of loss and pain but also the realities of death that many of us have not been adequately prepared for.
The inevitability of death. Mindful preparation of loss. Healthy communication between family in the throes of mourning and the adverse effects of a lack of all of the above. All of these and more are explored here.
Both in terms of slapping you over the head with it in story form, or subtly hint to you, so you as the player can pick up more details to form your own conclusion through diligently poking around each subject room.
The more it told me, the more questions I had. And often, the most satisfying answers were the ones I pieced together myself but in the same breath opened more questions. Truly inspired stuff if you take the time to take a step back from the story to truly take in the subtle cues.
To me, this stirred up quite a bit. At one point in a scene that hit very close to home, my eyes were welling up with tears yet I had to keep going.
I found myself lying in bed the night I had completed the game thinking of what I had seen. Allowing my mind to drift. My thoughts slowly transitioned from the Finches to my own life. My own family and how we have dealt with loss. My own friends and how I dealt with loss. The faculties (or lack thereof) I had to express these feelings and internalise them then to the far more emotionally prepared adult I have become. It stirred something truly powerful inside of me.
This is a game that I may even put in front of a family member or friend who is experiencing extended periods of mourning, cautiously. As its exploration of death through the lens of the past, present, future offset by the internal sense of self is something important for us all to at least think on from time to time.
Death, loss, tragedy. All are stigmatised and are topics of discomfort. Yet it is those very discomforts that make the inevitable experience so much harder to bear when the time comes.
Experiences like this that encourage you to sit down and compare against the reality of your own lived existence is invaluable.
“I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes... and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is”
After finally experiencing What Remains of Edith Finch I can say hand on heart that it deserves all of the praise it has received since its launch in 2017. The team at Giant Sparrow very clearly had a vision coming into this. To create something beautiful yet thought-provoking. If that is the case then well played my friends because this one goes up in my “Games can be seen as art” hall of fame.
Honestly, though there will be some game mechanics that may trip up the not video game literate among us, this is an experience I would encourage everyone young and old to play though.
The narrative is right up my alley, being simple in presentation but vast in underlying scope. The visuals, score and mechanics make this story absolutely sing. However, most importantly, it taught me something about myself. Or rather, it had me look inside to find ‘that’ something for myself. For it, I feel I walk away from Edith Finch, not just as a pleased gamer, but also a better person.
With that my series on the Annapurna must-plays has come to a close, however, these three games, for three very different reasons have cemented the publisher as one to look out for going forward for me. You better believe the next time I want to get emotional behind a controller or mouse, it's these guys I'll be looking towards.
Play this game if:
You enjoy narrative adventures
You're looking for a short experience
You need some emotions tugged at
You’re into challenging themes
You want to walk on the arty’er side of gaming