Developed by Giant Sparrow
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Available on PC and PS4
Rated “T” for Teen
Everyone has a family. Even if they’ve never met them, they were born to a mother and a father, who were born to a mother and a father, all of whom may have had siblings. Such is the nature of family trees: Big or small, everyone has one.
It’s natural for us as humans to be curious about our origins. What makes up our family tree? Who came before us? More importantly, perhaps, what does that mean to us, if anything? Genetics are a strange business. They can dictate the color of our eyes, or how likely we are to get lethal forms of cancer. Humanity, despite the advances of science, has always looked for further links. Things you can’t chart on paper, or measure in a machine. Some believe that history can follow you, even haunt you.
This is the question that faces our protagonist in What Remains of Edith Finch. She knows she’s the last. Her family tree? Full of dead branches, from her great-grandparents to her siblings. All of them, taken in one form of tragedy or another. No common thread to follow or watch for. Just gone, in different ways, at different times. But gone.
As the last, with the passing of her mother, 17-year-old Edith takes up the mantle as the last Finch in the way all have been memorialized before, by way of a journal. A story. Her story. She’s returning to the ancestral home for the first time in years to find the others, the stories she knows exist, but was denied until now.
That’s the substance of this game, finding and experiencing those stories, learning through Edith what happened to her family. As she explores, she literally fills in her family tree in her journal, completing her image of her family one member at a time. As the player, we guide her through her very strange house to find the way into each sealed room of her very strange family. The Finches were…eccentric, to put a nice spin on it. To quote Mortimer Brewster from Arsenic And Old Lace (another tale of odd families) insanity doesn’t run in her family, it practically gallops. Yet every member is also gifted, highly intelligent, often successful when they live long enough to find it.
As you wind your way through the passages of the Finch house, you find the stories that remain as memorials to the family. Each story plays out in a very different way, and you’re the one to experience it. From an EC-style horror comic to a surrealistic journey morphing from one predator to another, the tales of the lives and ends of the Finch family are each unique. Different control styles and levels of interactivity present themselves to immerse you into the story and help you, and therefore Edith, to understand her past. Is there a curse on her family? Is she doomed as well? Are they just a family of oddballs with really bad luck and poor decision-making?
This isn’t exactly what’s known as a “walking simulator” but it’s also not a fully interactive game you “play.” Few puzzles exist, and while some exploration is open to you, most of the tales are linear in order. However, unlike games such as Gone Home, there’s more meat here than a standard feature film. It may only take you a few hours to reach the end of Edith’s search, but it’ll take longer than your average movie rental.
More importantly isn’t the size of the skeleton, it’s the meat on the bones. This game is incredibly rich with detail. The Unfinished Swan developer Giant Sparrow have spent four years crafting this house and its surroundings. The environments aren’t full of repeated textures and objects that hold no detail. This house was lived in by several generations of people, and it feels it. Everything seems to matter, every book and piece of ephemera, every plaque or drawing mounted on a wall, every sticky note. Everything means something, everything is as real as you’d find in any house that’d had a family inside it for years. It doesn’t mean everything is interactive, but it doesn’t have to be. Checking out the titles of books on a shelf, or the locations pinned on a map doesn’t require you to press a button to zoom in. Walk up and look, it’s that simple.
Because of this amazing detail and rich artistry, you really come to know the members of the family. While there aren’t many scares in the game, the content is absolutely dripping with darkness. These people died. Some of them died badly. When you’re forced to play through the death of a one-year-old baby, you’re going to feel it in your gut, no matter how whimsical the presentation. There are elements of outright horror as well, but don’t expect walls dripping blood or demons running through the halls. This is horror of an entirely different nature: the knowing that everyone you love has died and it may have been because of something that still exists and that could be targeting you.
My primary complaint is with the ending. I’m sorry to say we’re not left with many answers. I would have liked more, and there’s one aggravating plot point that just doesn’t wash. At one point it’s revealed that an item that could be full of many answers exists, and Edith knows it exists… yet, you never even attempt to retrieve it. That baffled me, as the rest of the game design was flawless and never felt arbitrary or forced. The protagonist has a very good reason to return to the house, yet seemingly ignores an item that should have been the heart of that reason. It’s an odd choice. It doesn’t derail things, but it reduced the satisfaction of the experience for me.
That said, this is a gut-punch of a game. There are plot points that struck me hard. Experiencing the loss of these people is hard enough, and then when things are revealed as the game progresses, it hit me right in the feels.
I highly recommend this game on that basis. It’s interactive fiction, yes, but it’s interactive fiction at its best. A handcrafted world of life lived and died, honed and shaped like a sculpture for us to experience and take away our own conclusions.