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The Immersive, Evocative World of ‘Edith Finch’

Giant Sparrow’s latest walking simulation video game pushes the genre forward, while continuing to rely on the deceptive scariness that’s distinguished first-person story games so far

(Giant Sparrow)
(Giant Sparrow)

Few stories set a scene as efficiently as What Remains of Edith Finch, the second game built by Giant Sparrow and the company’s creative director, Ian Dallas. In the seconds before we learn whose head we’re inhabiting, we size up our surroundings. There’s the white wake of a ferry, symbolic of a choppy past that the protagonist can’t outrun and has turned to confront. There’s the life preserver, stored at the ready but not in use yet — maybe because no one needs saving, or maybe because salvation isn’t attainable. There’s the overcast sky covering indistinct outlines of landmasses, indicative of a world where little is clear. And most obvious of all, there’s the total absence of anyone else.

‘What Remains of Edith Finch’<em> (Giant Sparrow)</em>
‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ (Giant Sparrow)

As the title text suggests, our gaze emanates from Edith, a 17-year-old orphan from the Finch clan. The Finches are tabloid material, an infamous family believed to be cursed because its members rarely lead long lives. Edith, the sole surviving Finch, has lost both of her brothers and, most recently, her mom, who grew ill not long after fleeing the family manor with her daughter in an attempt to forestall another premature demise. Teetering at the tip of the top branch on a family tree that’s barren below, Edith hears the siren song of her ancestral home, whose emptiness she seeks to explain.

The opening sequence could come from a horror story — it’s Shutter Island with less Leo vomit. We linger on the ferry only long enough to note that Edith is withdrawing from one world and entering another; soon, the camera cuts, and her destination is in sight. It’s a lopsided structure lodged within the woodland of an already remote Orcas Island in northwestern Washington State. The top of it juts out of the greenery at an odd-looking angle, crooked as the Finch family tree, the world’s worst This Old House before” photo.

There’s no return route to the ferry; turn around, and you’ll find your path blocked by a chain-link fence. Although Edith has clearly come from the other side, leaving the top of the fence twisted, you couldn’t clamber back over if you wanted to. This isn’t that type of game.

Unlike Dallas’s more fantastical 2012 debut, The Unfinished Swan, which had prominent platforming, puzzling, and shooting elements, Edith Finch belongs to the lineage of the “walking simulator,” a glib label for story-focused first-person games in which one explores an environment with only limited interactivity. It’s a snooty, disparaging term that makes sense only if you start from the assumption that video games are supposed to contain complex mechanics and test the player’s timing, hand-eye coordination, and ability to master a controller’s worth of commands (often with violent ends). Otherwise, it sounds as silly as describing an engrossing novel as a “page-turning simulator.”

Whatever we call it, the genre has become crowded in recent years as the gaming audience’s appetite for sophisticated stories has grown. In turn, the indie development scene has flourished, and digital delivery systems for games that can be consumed in one sitting have multiplied. (Edith Finch, which I finished in a few hours, is a downloadable title for PlayStation 4.) Gamers conditioned to expect critical condescension from outside their ranks greeted early examples of the form with effusion; here were works of art one could hold up to stubborn unbelievers and say, “See? Games don’t have to have guns!”

Relative to traditional first-person games, these less action-packed, more meditative titles represented a step forward from a story perspective, even if taking that step required shedding some weight in the form of the fighting and wish fulfillment that games do uniquely well. The so-called walking sim, then, is a fruitful convergence of video games and older-school storytelling. It’s not surprising that Edith Finch is the first game published by Annapurna Interactive, a division of the film-production company Annapurna Pictures that was formed late last year with the goal of developing “personal, emotional, and original games.” By those rubrics, Edith succeeds, establishing it as one of the most memorable releases in an already-rich year and fulfilling Giant Sparrow’s mission of making the world “a stranger, more interesting place.” Also interesting, though, is the way the game adheres to one of the walking sim’s counterintuitive hallmarks: a false sense of fear. As we walk through this valley of death, we do fear evil; our triggers and thumbsticks are with us, but they don’t comfort us.

Edith Finch functions as a collection of related, lightly interactive vignettes. Once inside the sagging, overstuffed house, we wind through a warren of locked doors and hidden routes around them, symptoms of the Finches’ fixation on their fate (or self-fulfilling prophecy). We all have headspaces devoted to the dead, places we preserve and revisit despite the sorrow we feel when we do. Whereas most families seal those secrets and sadnesses inside their own psyches, the Finches’ manifest physically in the rooms where the departed once lived. Instead of repurposing each room in a natural way, the Finches, preoccupied with their pasts, turned them into relics, building increasingly unsafe-looking additions to accommodate new kids. Hoping to protect Edith’s future by walling off her history, her mother made the old rooms inaccessible; in the game, Edith breaches those barriers and comes to know her forebears beyond their names and dates of death. One by one, she possesses — or perhaps is possessed by — former Finches in their final moments, learning how they lived by discovering how they died. Edith inhabits even the Finches who died before adulthood, and the game requires you to kill young characters, an act no less affecting for the fact that their ends appear almost triumphant, more like lives fully lived than lives lost. The only way to progress is by plunging off these precipices (literally, at times), imparting an air of inevitability that conveys how it feels to be a Finch.

<em>‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ (Giant Sparrow)</em>
‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ (Giant Sparrow)

Edith’s evocative moments won’t soon fade from gaming culture’s collective memory. It breaks from convention in more than one way, from the subtle environmental cues that clean up the clutter of cutscenes, arrows, and objective text, to the significant story reveal that arises optionally and organically from the player directing Edith to look down at herself, as adept an instance of “showing, not telling” as I’ve come across recently. Edith also intersperses its slow walking with moments of mechanical inventiveness and visual flair, including one chapter that plays out in comic-book panels and another that decouples the sticks that we’re used to operating in tandem, assigning each side to a section of a character’s splintered mind in one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences since Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons used a similar tactic in 2013. In those aspects and others, Dallas pushes the first-person formula forward.

The closest comparisons for Edith Finch, in terms of setup and story, are Firewatch, a 2016 hit for fledgling developer Campo Santo, and Gone Home, a 2013 game from the four-person Fullbright Company. In each of those two- to four-hour experiences — which concentrate, respectively, on a man mourning his wife’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and a teen trying to come out but being rebuffed by her parents — a protagonist facing a new phase of life explores an isolated environment and, in the process, realizes something about his or her loved ones (and ultimately him or herself).

‘Firewatch’ <em>(Campo Santo)</em>
‘Firewatch’ (Campo Santo)

One would think that these narratives, which largely lack the typical sources of video game tension — enemies that can kill you and challenges that can be failed — would yield relatively low-pressure playthroughs. Instead they inspire dread; not enough for an avowed video game coward like me to avoid them, but enough that I prefer not to play alone, even if loneliness would be more consistent with the story. Although the natural beauty of Firewatch’s forest setting is soothing, a string of unexplained occurrences soon suggest that someone is spying on its main character, Henry, who may have stumbled on something nefarious. In Gone Home, a host of horror tropes — dark basements, a creaky, unoccupied house (located, like Edith’s, in the Pacific Northwest), and a stereotypically dark and stormy night — conspire to create the impression that the young female protagonist’s family must be missing because something horrible has happened. These are character-driven stories grounded in natural and realistic environments, a recipe that doesn’t sound that ripe for fright. Yet many walking sims are scary.

“I think games like ours are concerned with the actual act of being alive,” says Campo Santo cofounder Sean Vanaman, who wrote Firewatch. “You’re a living person in a real place and you are not engaged in a power fantasy. And being alive is fucking scary — being alone is scary, being in an unfamiliar place is scary, these are just human feelings that we’ve developed as civilized tribe mammals for millions of years. The lurking danger you speak of is a byproduct of making a game where, in Firewatch, you’re alone in the woods and you don’t have the means to defend yourself.”

Because our avatars in these story-centric games aren’t weapon-toting warriors, we feel vulnerable when we walk in their shoes. But that unease is an instinct, an artifact formed over years of gaming that have taught us to stay in threat-assessment mode whenever we navigate a virtual world. Eliciting that white-knuckle suspense is the object of many designers. In the first-person adventure, though, it’s “not the point of the game,” Vanaman says. “The point of Firewatch is to participate in a relationship between two strangers — but part of good writing is avoiding dissonance and attempting to get the setting, words, actions, verbs, and characters to harmonize together to create tone.”

In each of these games, the player slowly comes to feel foolish for fearing an external threat. In Firewatch and Gone Home, there is no nightmare in physical form: The monsters are always within. Edith Finch’s subject matter is more macabre and magical realist, but it too shies away from any boss that can or can’t be beaten. The walking sim’s sinister insinuations are red herrings that expose our expectations and then shatter them like the lightbulb that pops in Gone Home’s lone jump scare.

<em>‘Gone Home’ (The Fullbright Company)</em>
‘Gone Home’ (The Fullbright Company)

To some degree, resources dictate design, and there are less thematic, more mundane reasons for the walking sim’s misleading suspense. “In Firewatch, we knew we wanted a mystery, frankly, because we like interactive mystery stories,” Vanaman says. “It’s fun to wonder about where to go and what you’ll find there.” It’s also much more affordable. “Not being alone is a very expensive and very difficult gameplay experience to make,” Vanaman says. “And it just so happens that first-person adventure games are only being tackled by indies right now, and indie budgets make it hard to put a companion or other characters on screen.”

While solitude is less taxing in a technical sense, it’s even more demanding from a story perspective. With little interpersonal conflict to propel plots, deceptive suspense serves as scaffolding for stories. “Part of why we see so many first-person narrative games that have this sense of something ominous around the corner is that it’s very difficult to tell a story with one character,” Dallas says. “It’s something that you can set up very early on … and check in with now and again, but you don’t need other characters to move that along. … It’s a story that works well as a monologue.”

<em>‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ (Giant Sparrow)</em>
‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ (Giant Sparrow)

Vanaman says that he doesn’t view solitary settings as a core component of the genre, noting that while big-budget games by Naughty Dog and Valve include combat, they’re similar in spirit. Dallas muses that there might be “other stories that would work equally well that we just haven’t tried yet.” The unsettling walking sim isn’t the last stage of video game storytelling, but an evolutionary link.

For a gamer, Dallas says, the ideal environments in which to be alone are “places where you feel like, ‘Wow, I really wish there was a group around, somebody that could push back the darkness and the unknown.’” In first-person adventures, many of which never fully reveal their protagonists’ appearance, nothing is less knowable than the self. Yet the narratives in games such as What Remains of Edith Finch force us to look inward and keep walking when the abyss stares back. No wonder we’re unnerved.