The Best Games of 2017: Day 5
In 2017, we confronted death, shared secretes, sought comfort, fought for justice, and did our best to look absolutely incredible.
Header image designed by Janine Hawkins
Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
Goddess of Death: Edith Finch (What Remains of Edith Finch)
(This piece features spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.)
I’ve always been afraid of death—not my own death, but the death of people I love. My heart beats a little bit faster even as I admit that fear, as if speaking about it is a curse I could put on my family and friends.
Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch is as much about fear and death as it is about curses. Once shielded from her family’s history, Edith Finch—now the last of her family—returns to the sprawling Finch family home in Washington state to uncover the stories her mother kept hidden. The family curse remains sealed up in the house, both literally and figuratively, with what was once off limits to Edith now just behind a hidden door.
Edith’s mother believed the Finch family curse had a firm hold in the family’s stories, which were preserved in bedrooms kept as shrines to the dead. And so she sealed up those bedrooms as a way to keep her children safe from the curse that killed that rest of her family. Edith Finch follows Edith as she breaks down the walls her mother built up, discovering the depth of the curse for herself, recording everything in a journal as she goes.
There’s a moment towards the end of Edith Finch where Edith questions whether she should share these stories or not, afraid of what might happen if she did. Now with her mother’s knowledge, Edith experiences a brief moment of fear in what the stories hold—the curse. But what Edith—and, in turn, the player—has learned exploring her family’s bedrooms is much more than just a curse. The story speaks of the consequences of life through death, and that’s something that games don’t typically do.
Myth shrouds the stories of Edith’s family, many of which have a sense of magical realism to them. Death doesn’t come at the end of a bullet like in Call of Duty or Destiny. Instead, death is magical and fantastic in Edith Finch, with the family tales obscuring the reality of life—that death isn’t a curse. It’s just what happens.
Molly’s story uses elements of magical realism to mask the mundane vagueness of her death. Molly is the first daughter of Sven and Edie Finch, the first of the Finches to move to the United States from Norway. She died in December 1947, decades before Edith was born, but her room remained untouched—a monument to her life and death. The tale Edith uncovers is otherwordly, with Molly transforming from a human to a cat, from a cat to an owl, and eventually to a monster that eventually crawls through the pipes to eat her own human form. Edith Finch tells the tale through Molly’s perspective, with the player taking control of each of Molly’s selves up until her eventual death.
The story hints at what actually happened, but never outright states it. Instead, it’s within the deadly combination of things Molly eats after her mother sends her to bed without her dinner: holly berries, a tube of toothpaste, and her gerbil’s food. The circumstances of her death are not otherworldly, instead, they’re actually quite everyday; a child sent to her room without dinner, while a cruel parenting move, would normally survive until the next morning. It’s a tragic accident, which if often how death comes in reality. It rushes in unexpected, leaving mysteries in its wake.
Gregory, the baby that would have been Edith’s uncle, similarly experiences a tragic death, but it plays out as a sensational accident in Edith Finch plays out. Gregory drowns in the bathtub after his mother steps away for the moment; but there is no struggle from the baby. Instead, the player controls his tub toys—ducks, a frog, letters that spell out his name—as they make circles in the air.
The player begins to realize what’s about to happen as the tub fills to the top, but Gregory remains giggling as his toys careen through the air. There are no tears, nor is there a last gasp for air. Like in Molly’s story, Edith Finch re-contextualizes Gregory’s death into a playful exchange, removed from sadness and tragedy.
My grandfather went into cardiac arrest in the ice cream aisle of my hometown supermarket—or at least that’s how I remember it. He was with my grandma, and they had just finished dinner at the Friendly’s next door. I don’t know if they were picking out ice cream—why didn’t they just eat ice cream at Friendly’s?—or if that aisle was just a pathway to whatever else they needed at the store—the refrigerated deli section was just past the frozen aisle, and my grandpa loved the Clausen's pickles that were stored there.
His death was ordinary, like plenty of other deaths. They’re inevitable. No one can escape it, and that goes for the Finches, and my family, and yours, too. We have the memories, the stories of life and of death. Life is the curse that brings death, and Edith Finch is a poignant reminder of that. It’s a similar theme as with Laundry Bear Games’ A Mortician’s Tale which looks to normalize the literal process of what happens after death. A Mortician’s Tale doesn’t have players killing off others as they would in a first-person shooter, instead, players take care of the body after. As Emma Kidwell writes in “A Mortician’s Tale shows how businesses exploit our fear of death,” A Mortician’s Tale is unique in how dead bodies are treated.
It’s what happens after most of the death’s in Edith Finch, regardless of the circumstances of death. The body will eventually make its way to the morgue, into the hands of a stranger. (Of course, this isn’t true for the family members that go missing in the game.)
I’m still afraid of death, but I don’t think that’ll ever change. But Edith Finch forced me to think about it in a way I don’t ever allow myself to. I don’t think Edith Finch is a game that’s supposed to make us accept death, or to fear it. It’s a way to think about death, a way to allow ourselves to the permission to think about loss in a less scary way.
We live in a society that fears death—I’m certainly not alone in that—but Edith Finch is a tale that helps reframe what’s left of life and of memory.
The Nest of Secrets: The Norwood Suite
The fabric of the Hotel Norwood is made up of secrets. Clues are whispered between guests, or hidden in hotel room drawers, or slipped into books in the library. Every wall might as well be a secret door. Every glinting eye in a portrait, or out-of-place beer bottle might as well be a secret switch. If an object can slide to one side to reveal hidden steps, it will. And so it is, that visitors to The Hotel Norwood can experience two of the finest surprises: The simple glee of uncovering a secret passage and then, once traversed, the dawning realisation of where it is that you have emerged.
The Land of Slumber: Stardew Valley
Yes, this game came out in 2016, but its release on the Nintendo Switch gave it a second life. I was reminded of how soothing Stardew Valley could be, especially with how it gives the player a sense of purpose in monotonous tasks. I’ve put around 180 hours into Stardew in 2017 and it was all in the hours before bedtime. When you’re inundated every day with the horrors and cruelty that was this year, it felt nice -- almost necessary -- to take out something familiar and stress-free, to fall into the day-to-day scheduling of farming, socializing, mining, and monster slaying. I wasn’t going to get into something I didn’t know, something that might not have had the same effect as Stardew, so why not play it all over again? I needed sleep and comfort in 2017 and Stardew became new again.
God of Joyous Fury: Horton Boone (Wolfenstein: The New Colossus)
Horton Boone, the “Reverend,” is met by Captain B.J. Blazkowicz in the middle of a pitched firefight in Nazi-controlled New Orleans. With a flick of his fingers, he summons gunfire, jazz music, and a friendly argument to set the stage for his introduction to Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. If there is a revolution, Boone will be part of it. And if Boone is a part of the revolution, it will be a celebratory anger that guides the revolutionaries into a new and united future.
The Cloak of Infinite Coordination: Love Nikki
Does a fashion game need an elaborate plot about warring kingdoms and coteries of well-dressed assassins vying for power? No. Does it need a system wherein you can convert six skirts into a more powerful skirt, like some kind of sartorial Pokemon spinoff? Not really. Does it need to let me dress up like a motorcycle-riding cyborg bunnygirl? That depends on who you ask. (I’d say yes.) The joy of Love Nikki-Dress UP Queen is in the sheer volume of what it does, and what it allows for. It’s content-rich within a genre often known for the opposite—a genre where underestimating the abilities and needs of your players is incredibly common . Even though there are plenty of areas where it needs to improve (more accessible diversity in particular) Love Nikki takes its subject (and its audience) seriously.