The medium of games and their power to convey and immerse players in stories and worlds has been a rising argument for the value of art within the industry. Titles such as Gone Home, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch are all praised for their commitment and almost sole existence on its narrative. Crudely named 'Walking Simulators', these adventures usually have little to no traditional gameplay and use the story to drive the player – rather than levelling up or grinding for loot.
What Remains of Edith Finch is the latest high profile title of this genre, developed by Giant Sparrow (The Unfinished Swan) and published by brand new publisher Annapurna Interactive (a separate division of the film production studio) on both the Playstation 4 and PC. Frequent delays and a publisher shift, we finally have the game in our hands. Despite the development problems, the team have crafted a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of the purity of existence and the gentleness of death, and for fans of those listed above, What Remains of Edith Finch is a must buy and stands as one of the best stories I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Story is kind of a big deal when it comes to a walking simulator, it's the bread, butter and plate that the game sits upon. If the story fails or falls into cliche or convention, it places an incredible burden on the gameplay – which usually results in walking and clicking on things. Fortunately, What Remains of Edith Finch (a long title that I won't forget anytime soon) has not only one of the strongest and poignant stories I've experienced but in fact, has half a dozen stories within it. This isn't just a book, this is a saga, condensed and fine tuned to provide multiple short and sweet depictions of family and belonging. Ultimately, due to the power of this narrative, I'd feel guilty in spilling much of its content in this review. I want to sing its praise till my voice dries out, but I really don't want to spoil exactly what occurs over this 3-hour story. I can, however, explain why it's so damn good.
You play as Edith; the last remaining member of the Finch family. Just looking at the many branches that spiral from the family tree scribed in her notebook gives you an indication of the importance of the past this title strives for. Edith's involvement and perception of the events are initially very vague, serving as a gateway and reason for digging up the past hidden within the house. The Finch's house is massive and spiralling, both internally and externally. (think Tim Burton-esque) . Inside, are dozens of rooms, each locked away, acting as a frozen moment is time. Each beautifully designed and seeping with nostalgia and personality. Taking a look through each of the peepholes, you immediately feel a sense of character – without knowing anything more than a name.
The present day consists of Edith (you) navigating through the house trying to piece together what actually happened and whether the family curse is true. The Finchs' family home is a carefully constructed masterful mismatch of time periods. With many hidden passages, secret levers and underground tunnels; it creates a sense of wonder and exploration consistently. It may seem frustrating that each door is locked, but this is how the game purposefully guides you through room by room, tailoring the experience to better benefit the stories within.
The majority of the rooms contain a diary (or parchment of some sort), interacting with it will transport you into the past and into the shoes of the family member you've inquired about. This is where What Remains of Edith Finch succeeds beyond traditional walking simulators. Each of the short stories are memorable glimpses into the past, usually surrounding the passing of a relative. Sounds morbid, doesn't it? Death and the effects of death is a constant and often overwhelming theme. Whether it's kids or the old, accidental or suicidal – Giant Sparrow tackles it all, and with such grace and beauty that the loss of life actually provides the most thoughtful and unpretentious observation on the preciousness of life I've ever seen in any medium.
Without spoiling anything other than what has been said in the marketing for this game – (which thankfully is very little) death is a constant companion. Every story ends with death. Yet, it couldn't be further from a conventional dreary, depressed and grief-stricken tale we are perhaps familiar with. Each and every short memory helps us relate and understand each of the characters, even though they are no longer alive. It's a glimpse into the past, but more importantly, a glimpse into the essence of the past. I won't say anything more, other than there are plenty of reveals and turns that will keep you guessing what come next, whilst simultaneously being so compelling that every moment is enjoyable. It concludes with a bittersweet ending and has many unanswered questions, but I assure you, you will not forget the Finch's.
I also assure you that this section will be noticeably shorter. If you weren't aware, the basic premise of a 'Walking Simulator' is to walk and click on things. Usually opening doors, picking up notes or even, if you're lucky, crawling under stuff. What Remains of Edith Finch ticks these boxes, but then goes further when it mixes things up whilst playing each of the mini stories along the way.
For the majority of the time, Edith (or whoever you are controlling) walks around, comments on her surroundings, opens secret passages and picks up diaries and documents. All these are seamless, and extra effort has been placed in additional movement when interacting. Basically think of performing the movement of opening a door, rather than just clicking once. It's nothing mind blowing, but the extra emphasis of interaction helps immerse you all the time. Exploration is simple, and whilst there's no jumping, traversal feels natural and responsive. Moving around the house is enjoyable thanks to its tight and intricate design, with no needless backtracking. Whilst there are no puzzles, the satisfaction of finding the many hidden passages within the walls is enough to strengthen the mystery and keep up the pace. It unlocks the feeling of childhood imagination and discovery that is often lost in the current modern world.
The playable memories are unlike anything I've seen in a walking sim before. Wonderful, diverse and creative – the gameplay matches the intentions of the story. During these sections, rarely does the game portray the events in a traditional fashion. Here, it smashes expectations and delivers mesmerising and often whimsical pieces of story. Again, spoiling how exactly these moments are told would ruin most of the surprise. All I can say is that it breaks the fundamentals and restrictions of reality and focuses on themes such as mental illness, the pureness of childhood naivety and the power of imagination within young minds. Ok, at one point you play as an owl. Enough said.
Nostalgic, painstakingly detailed and cluttered to the brink. Giant Sparrow continues to place incredible effort into the isolated world of the Finchs. The house is packed with paintings, portraits, posters, newspapers, articles, ornaments, toys, books ….. pretty much an unnecessary amount of everything you may expect in a home. However, there is beauty within the chaos, every room is a small bubble of charm and personality with insane amounts of details. There's this constant warm feeling, despite the house associated with death and being abandoned for years – accomplished by the resonance given from the various retro styles and period decor that envelopes the bedrooms and hallways. What Remains of Edith Finch doesn't try to imitate real life aesthetic, it instead succeeds with fusing its visual style with its human-based story. It connects the past with the present – always feeling real and believable. It's beauty and warmth is incredible, further enhancing its story and the main character of the game – the house itself.
Characters require voices, and they all are performed fantastically here. More importantly, each feels genuine and distinguishable. The voices aren't particularly charismatic or eccentric, but they fit the tone of the game intentionally. There's no emotional distress or aggressive behaviours, emotions are controlled and balanced well. This helps the player relate to each member regardless of age or time period. Sound effects are crisp and audible but largely sit within the background, as does the soundtrack. The music is lovely, knowing when to quiet down or lift up to build up and release emotion within the story. It doesn't quite live up to other parts of the game, but it's always welcomed and amplifies the poignant story moments and exaggerates the quiet ones.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a beautiful and powerful experience. It carries dark themes and consequently tremendous weight with grace and ease, and even tests the fundamentals and expectations of a walking sim. The Finch Family, both past and present, resonates deeply without being pretentious or depressing. This is the next standard of the genre, a story I won't forget. Follow my advice, go and play it without further research: you won't regret it.
|+ Thematic and powerful story||– No collectables/replay value|
|+ Incredible detailed nostalgic world|
|+ Interesting and diverse gameplay shifts|