‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ Perfectly Illustrates Gaming’s Storytelling Power
Giant Sparrow’s new release is quite unlike anything I’ve played before, an innovative and inspiring work of interwoven fiction.
I could tell you a hundred stories from my time playing What Remains of Edith Finch. My notes tell me as much: so many potential standfirsts sketched out, spur-of-the-amazing-moment sparks of inspiration, captured while fresh. And it's a game, like nothing I've played before, of stories, each different of tone, length, delivery, every one wrapped up within the framing of a wholly separate one—the one you see first, the game's title still on the screen, but won't properly understand until the end credits.
Edith Finch is an example of stories, multiple, that can only be told by the video gaming medium. Its collection of individually resonant narratives, bound by where we come in (and unexpectedly out), is inspired, delighting and surprising and unsettling with each new chapter. Through its interactions—which are so many and varied, and far from just "walking simulator" movement—we, the player, the titular Edith, learn of a family divided by fate. Tragic, destructive, terrifying fate, which only grows in strength the more these characters choose to relate to it.
The house that a 22-weeks pregnant Edith cautiously explores, her childhood home, a place her ancestors built themselves, is one of many hidden secrets and sealed doors, crawlspaces revealed as playgrounds and passageways. It is environment as puzzle, and puzzle as poetry—linear of route, its conclusion ever fixed, yet open to interpretation throughout. You peer through spyholes to the past, and fall into it through unlocked windows before falling further still through vibrant imagination. At countless turns, the house alone is telling its own stories—from the tone of books in each family member's bedroom to the scattered debris on desktops, décor choices and favorite toys.
To approach these stories in a passive capacity, as an onlooker only, a passenger, would lessen their impression, and not simply because you're not playing them, as is the case in games using player agency merely as prompts for canned animations. Edith Finch's moving parts, manipulated simply through just the two sticks and shoulder triggers, are as important to these tales as the words that pop onto the screen only to scatter like leaves in the wind, and countless committed-to-memory images. More so, indeed, as meaningful action produces narrative reaction which subsequently turns the page to the next point of player contact—which, more than likely, will be unlike anything that came before it. The movements are the story, some of the time.
How the story of Lewis, Edith's brother, a pot-smoker who worked at a nearby fish-canning factory, manifests itself is like nothing I have seen in games before—and a fine example of action explicitly comprising narrative. It's wrenching, upsetting, and so clever—not showy, though. The same is true of Gregory, her infant brother, whose fixed-perspective section is both the sweetest and sickly sourest of any here. Uncle Sam's background comes to the fore through a lens few games have successfully stared into—I worry I'm revealing too much by saying it's like a bite-size, beautifully bucolic Fatal Frame, but there, it's done now. And Walter, poor Walter. No amount of isolation could ward away the spirits of his undoing.
Outside of the distinct chapters, Edith Finch's makers, Giant Sparrow, don't lay the environmental storytelling on heavily—despite the great detail they've delivered in each space. Consistently, a lightness of touch is evident, contrasting sharply against explorations of deteriorating mental health and, thus, allowing these fantastically rendered yet absolutely relatable stories the room they need to breathe. The game invites the player to investigate its corners but never telegraphs anything explicitly beyond a handful of white-dotted interaction points, including the exploration of each family member's personal journal. Which can be a diary, yes, or a collection of photographs. In one instance it's a comic, and in another, very particular papers bearing the letterhead of a law firm.
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The comic is something you pick up before the halfway mark. Upon reaching that point, before I realized doing so would necessitate completely spoiling something remarkable, I thought I wanted to write a piece solely about what it triggers—this wonderfully comic-styled, creepypasta-of-feelings first-person sequence, set to immediately recognizable horror-movie music. I've written here, in my notes: "I could play a whole game like this." Not a particularly long one, mind—the novelty would wear off after a few hours. But while several of these stories within a story, within a story, can only exist as interactive vignettes, this treatment definitely has the legs to go further.
And it wouldn't surprise me at all to see an echo of Edith Finch show up in a future Giant Sparrow production, given the Santa Monica-based studio includes a gently moving callback to its previous project, The Unfinished Swan, here. It's welcomed, but it almost upsets the overall tone of the experience, as does a profane slogan on the side of a removals company cardboard box; but then, such is the disparate treatment of every playable flashbacks, that small inconsistencies, I suppose, in the game's "real" world barely register with lasting relevance.
Throughout this piece—which I'm ending in a moment, due to the ever-growing risk of dropping a titanic spoiler without noticing (and if I've done that, in your opinion, please forgive me, as I'm tip-toeing on the thinnest ice here)—I've been calling Edith Finch a game. It is, obviously—you pick up your PlayStation pad, or PC mouse, to play through it. Its interfaces are recognisably game-y. But when you finish its final act, and the denouement's played itself out, and you're just sitting, staring, sort of numb, definitely a little sad, a message pops up on the screen: "A story by Giant Sparrow." Not a game, a story.
But one that can only exist because of the presence and proliferation of the gaming medium, which serves as the essential vehicle for its delivery. On a page, or a cinema screen, this treatment just couldn't exist with the same potency, facilitated as it is through enterprising adoption of established inputs (the swing stage, oh boy, the swing stage).
Edith Finch is therefore illustrative of gaming's potential to be stories first and playthings second, to their tellers and makers—and, they'll hope, their audience too. And its story is one about stories, and how they weave around and through each other, ever individual but compellingly connected; stories that will motivate a person to tell their own, perhaps a hundred more. But I'll save mine for when you've all seen this one, and I'll be listening out for yours, too.