I’m not the person who is supposed to review What Remains of Edith Finch.
By similar logic, I should probably never review a sports simulation game, because I have no idea what a fullback is, or a linebacker, or a running back. As with classic point-and-click adventure games, I, at some point, came to the realization that I just don’t really like first-person narrative games that involve walking slowly. On paper, they should tickle my sensibilities–mature and respectful subject matter that pokes at the human condition, and a focus on world building.
But I’ve never been able to get one to stick, not Firewatch, Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, not even genre-adjacent games like Oxenfree or Night in the Woods. I always hit some metaphorical yellow tape labeled “Naw, I’m good.” At the risk of sounding shallow, simply progressing a narrative, either linear or otherwise, has never been enough to keep me going in a video game. It’s not that I don’t think the narratives of the games I’ve mentioned aren’t compelling; they are. Even as one of my less-favored genres, and relatively fledgling in the larger scheme of genre timelines, the “walking simulator” shows me more promise for growth and development than whatever flash-in-the-pan micro-genre is hot on Twitch at the moment. Walking simulators have such potential because they, at the most fundamental level, must be well written. If the functional “point” of the game is to absorb narrative, then boy, the writing better not suck.
And that’s where Edith Finch throws a 100 mph curveball. Never did I think I would say that some of the most fresh, novel, and downright wild gameplay-centric ideas of the year would come from a two hour, narrative-focused game.
What Remains of Edith Finch tells the story of the titular main character, Edith Finch. Edith is the last of the Finch family, who have shown over the past century a certain proclivity for finding early and tragic deaths. Upon each death, Edith’s mother, Dawn, sealed off that family member’s room, partly as memorial, partly to protect the family from its own metaphorical curse. As Edith, you return to the sprawling Finch estate, mysterious key in hand, to finally reveal for herself the secret lives and deaths of her family members.
The Finch house itself is absolutely genius in its construction and architecture.
Rooms are connected by hidden passageways, trap doors, and other esoteric mechanisms that feel one part Rube Goldberg, another Clue. And maybe a bit of Wes Anderson, but I’ll talk more about that later. The house’s labyrinthine construction feels damn good to navigate, like few other game worlds I’ve experienced. To say the Finch house feels “lived in” would be a grand understatement.
Exploring the Finch house evokes in me strong memories of my Dad’s friend Ralph Brooks, an eccentric artist and hoarder whose house was so full of stuff that pathways were built through mountains of books head-high. At some point those books were glued and 2×2’d together to make actual structures and walls, with bridges and platforms across and between them. When Ralph passed, my father and I were willed to liquidate the estate, leaving me with vivid memories of crawling through his makeshift fortress, finding a secret couch here, a treasure trove there. While that’s a pretty peculiar circumstance of mine, I think we all have “that one crazy uncle” who just sort of let it all go, allowing his possessions to fill every available space. At some point that stack of books becomes a table. The spare bed becomes a desk. Edith Finch captures that ad-hoc living environment perfectly. It may be the smartest environmental design since Dark Souls .
As you progress between each family member’s room, after a brief investigation, you shift perspective into a vignette that describes how that family member passed. These vignettes are the meat of the game, and in terms of content waver between “please let this be over” to “one of the coolest moments I may have ever experienced in a game.” To describe them would be to spoil their surprise, but I will say that a handful of the framing devices the game uses are downright genius, using unexpectedly novel gameplay mechanics to describe a particular sensation or state of mind. Unfortunately, another handful feel like they were tacked on, and though they may tell an interesting story, don’t do anything to enrich the game at large, and are, at their worst, frustrating.
But that’s okay, because all of the vignettes average around fifteen minutes in length, which leads me to Edith Finch’s greatest strength: restraint. For as many elaborate assets that Giant Sparrow cooked up for some of these vignettes, that they never overstay their welcome is honestly shocking. Some scenarios are built with an entirely different asset bank, that in the hands of another developer, would have been used ad nauseum to get their money’s worth.
That brevity was instrumental in my enjoyment of the game.
For as much as it tried to send me tearfully reeling through well-told personal tales of tragedy, the death of children, of personal failure, or hermitude, its conclusion left me feeling, well, nothing.. Taking that into account, extending the game further could have jeopardized my overall impression of the game.
So this is where I come back to the fact that I might not be the person to review this game. Chalk it up to whatever you like–I am very much turned off by sentimentality in any medium. The second my spider-senses tell me that a piece of media really wants me to feel morose, my stalwart, millennial, emotional vacancy rears its ugly head. To compound that, by 2017, the Wes Anderson brand of quirky and troubled-but-lovable character archetypes is something I have had my fill of, and riffing on these tropes is the heart of what Edith Finch is all about. That’s not a knock against it; it accomplishes those goals to an incredible degree, but the end result just isn’t for me.
In as much as reviews are intended to function as a buyer’s guide, yes, this game is more than worth $20 and two hours of your time, even if, like me, you have a hard time becoming emotionally invested in games of this genre.
With that in mind, I think this is as hearty a recommendation as can be given: What Remains of Edith Finch will stick with me for years, even though I’ve already forgotten the names of her deceased family members.