The Finch family home – a bizarre, sprawling estate that has housed several generations of the family which the media once declared America’s “most unfortunate” – is like a lot of video game spaces, in that it’s an interesting place to visit, but you’d never want to live there. The building is a warren of memorials; all its bedrooms, studies, basements and secret passages sealed to preserve the memory of their previous occupants. Its architect, Edie Finch, was playful, and possibly mad. The house loops around and back into itself, builds atop itself, and spirals down within itself. All its odd protrusions and extensions jut from the main building like spidery limbs; a teetering Jenga tower of memories and lives, abandoned and forgotten.
The Finches came to the Pacific Northwest from Norway in 1937, and since then almost all of them have died, most either in or close to the house. So plagued are they by unexpected bereavement that people – including their own kin – believe the family to be cursed. In 2016, Edith, a 17-year-old girl who has recently inherited the property, returns to it six years after its abandonment. Back then, Edith’s mother had believed the curse to be localised, confined to the house itself. She swept up her children and left. Whatever she left behind – the locks, the secrets, the family’s sad past – has been held in stasis ever since, waiting for an intrepid visitor to unravel the tragic mysteries of the Finch family and their clan’s surrealist homestead.
What Remains of Edith Finch might unflatteringly be described as a “walking simulator”, but more so than usual, that term would diminish what is a rich, inventive, and consistently engaging slice of interactive storytelling. It’s true that the game has very limited interactivity, and few opportunities to escape from the beaten path, with occasional one-off navigations – climbing, crouching – performed automatically, and nothing really hidden. There are no decisions to make, no inventory to fiddle with, no puzzles to solve. The game spills the family’s secrets to the player primarily through letters and diaries left behind in the sealed rooms; each triggers a lengthy, vivid flashback, wherein the audience participates, however briefly, in each Finch’s life – and usually their death.
Each of these dioramas provides a unique, stylistically-distinct window into the family’s story. One plays out within the panels of a comic book. Another is confined to the hazy ambit of an old, manual-focused camera. You’ll traipse through a brightly-coloured video game kingdom, poke around a time-locked underground bunker, soar through the sky as an owl, zip through the ocean as a shark, and slither under beds as a gloopy, tentacled monster. Written down it sounds like kooky, magical-realism horseshit, but in execution the tour is a marvel of evocative storytelling; a reflective, hopeful, curiously affecting celebration of life in all its weird, wacky and wonderful forms.
For a game to incorporate so many different styles and flavours of storytelling is in itself wildly ambitious; that it handles them all so well is a near-miracle. It all speaks to a story that is rich in texture, and of a telling that is at once literary, filmic, abstract, and distinctly interactive. The script is often scrawled momentarily on walls and doorways, sentences fluttering in the wind as individual letters tumble away, swept into the air. Like the house itself, built by and atop each successive generation, the game’s story is assembled unconventionally, one idea stacked on another. The result is something quite unlike any other game I’ve played; a studied world, carefully built, that houses a story which recognises its own power to seep through generations and leap the transom between genres and forms.
As macabre as the premise might be, the game is not unsettling. It isn’t trying to be scary. There aren’t any jump-scares or lingering ghosts who patrol the hallways. But in the same way that What Remains of Edith Finch finds sweetness and hope in its moments of tragedy, it also finds a crippling horror in the mundane. The game has a profound knack for escalating and perverting innocuous and ordinary scenes into terrifying vignettes. A child’s swing-set becomes an unstoppable, vertigo-inducing rollercoaster; an infant’s bath-time a quiet, inevitable tragedy. And you participate in these moments willingly. The story is so compelling, its presentation so enthralling, that you have no desire not to.
As the branches of Edith’s family tree start to extend closer to her own life, you can feel her navigating their gnarled length with a newfound attachment. The way she regales us with stories of grandparents or uncles she never met is different, less personal, to how she talks about the relatives she remembers. Those old tales are more fanciful; second-hand, distorted, filtered through the lens of time and through repeated retellings, more like fictions than biographies. The most recent demises are firmly rooted in fact, devoid of the fantastical component that characterises the out-of-left-field extravagances of the early game. But as the stories lose imagination, they gain emotional heft. The raw wounds sting to touch. What’s heartbreaking about the story’s finale, which is gently ambiguous, is that you can feel the impotence of each family member’s attempts at escaping their own doomed lineage. They do their best to live, to cope, to forget, to remember, to wriggle from beneath the weight of their pasts and the hopelessness of their futures. It’s awful, really.
But What Remains of Edith Finch has such masterful storytelling that just as often as it is wrenchingly sad, it is also uplifting and poetic and beautiful. This is a deft, original, unique game, with a style and sensibility all its own, and it offers an experience that you simply cannot find elsewhere. If this is what remains of a family, if this is the enduring legacy of generations of Finches, then what remains of Edith is perhaps the best game of its kind ever made.