What Remains of Edith Finch’s central narrative is paradoxically profound and straightforward, straightforwardness stemming from the narrative’s construction, profundity stemming from the nature of the themes discussed: poignant matters such as one’s relation to the past, one’s obligations to family and to the self – these complex themes are abundant, the one great linking constancy being death: tragedy also abounds, exists in great intensity. Accordingly, a sorrowful, mournful tone is evoked, though the narrative is not totally devoid of any optimism or hopefulness, such brightness chiefly discoverable in the principle environments explored, the central house composed a series of rooms all brimming in detail and in personality, the occasional whimsicality evoked therein in dark contrast to the somberness throughout. The framing, again, is simple, as the protagonist – the titular Edith Finch – returns to her isolated homestead, the place of her biological growth and maturation, in search of answers, curious of the past, past occurrences and people once known, people now deceased. She, removed from the place, has grown further as individual, while that secluded homestead, vacant for a protracted spell, has long been in a state of stasis; dynamism, then, directly grapples with the unchanging, the unchangeable. But the homestead is characterized by many alluring attributes – Edith’s decision to return to the location is a sound one, a logical one, showing also her great sentimentality. This construction is not wholly novel or innovative, but this lack of originality should not be interpreted as some insurmountable failing; indeed, this straightforwardness is rarely noticeable, such potential failings grossly overshadowed by monumental successes, evocations of emotion and pathos among them; as the narrative progresses ever onward, many resonant chords are stuck, seemingly effortlessly, matters boasted by excellent writing. And all around is the mentioned, pervasive and all-consuming death; man’s existence is finite. Despite the bleakfulness inherent to these themes, the game remains charming and endearing throughout.
While Edith periodically comments on the environments around her, making statements which are actually reflected textually, the vast majority of the narrative is conveyed through protracted flashback sequences, Edith briefly inhabiting the body and perception of the given family member, this connection emerging whenever she interacts with a specific object, traditionally of great value to its original owner. Picking up the object, studying it and commenting upon it, Edith is then temporarily and fully cast aside. In an expert decision, meanwhile, even while the protagonist changes, the first-person perspective never does, only heightening the commanding strengths of immersion, resulting also in greater player / player character engagement, though greater engagement is at times unachievable, in that the player will be in control of any given character for no more than five or ten minutes. Still, this constant protagonist shifting is innovative and ambitious, is accordingly a resounding success. Great diversity characterizes these sequences, too, some of them fantastical in construction and visual presentation, others grounded and bleak, reflective of the warring personalities constituting the Finch family. Amongst the more fantastical moments is one sequence experienceable towards the narrative’s opening, where Edith inhabits the body of a young girl, sent to bed without dinner and thus suffering from damning hunger pangs, of such an intensity to have awakened her from her slumber. Her hunger is of such an extent that she gobbles down dry gerbil food, before promptly consuming an entire tube of toothpaste; everything here is grounded and charming, though this groundedness is then displaced with creativity and whimsicality. Suddenly, the girl transforms, being first a cat, then an owl, a shark, and eventually a ravenous, tentacled monster. In all of these states, still the girl is motivated by her insatiable hunger, leading her to commit somewhat distressing acts of violence. This vacillation of perspective, again, is a true achievement, and each individual character here is controlled in unique ways; the cat leaps about from branch to branch, for instance, while the owl soars upwards in the heavens, before swooping down in search of prey. All throughout is charm, bolstered greatly by endearing, suitably childlike and innocent voice acting. Something visually jarring characterizes the sequence, too; one moment, the Finch homestead is being navigated. The next moment, night has completely fallen, the stars out in abundance. Then, when the sequence is completed, the player is again given control of Edith, the presentation shift making more impactful the homestead.
While very few of the subsequent sequences strive for the whimsicality present here, they are all characterized by complexity, memorability. Most visually distinct is Barbara’s sequence, which adopts a bold, cel-shaded aesthetic. Formerly a successful child star, her fame and appeal has long been on the wane. But not fully disheartened, she strives for a comeback, strives to reclaim the spotlight. It is a characteristically straightforward construction, though ultimately transcending that straightforwardness with charm and atmosphere; a horror aesthetic is embraced, alongside comic book structuring, in that this narrative is communicated largely through panels, at least when the player is not in direct control of Barbara. Transpiring around Halloween, it follows that the house is decorated by various props – carved pumpkins, makeshift ghosts and other such objects: they all have a presence here, which results in a consistent, compelling aesthetic, simultaneously playful and frightful. Leaving behind the Finch homestead for a brief sojourn in this decorated, fantastical world, again serves a jarring function, so immense is the contrast between these two environments, the contrasting nature of Edith and Barbara. Suitably, of course, Barbara’s tale ends in bleakness: she is a Finch, after all, death a very tangible threat for that seemingly cursed family, a curse observable in the more mature, distressing sequences, those which are in complete tonal opposition to the pouncing cat, to the narrative of the comic panels. Most notable – and most distressing – is Gregory’s sequence. A young infant, he is left partially unattended in his bathtub, presumed by his caretaker and mother to be a place of total security. It is not; Gregory drowns, in a horrific display of unflinching maturity; children, generally, are idealized and spared of harm in most game narratives, being of such a perceived purity as to make their oppression particularly painful, unpalatable. What Remains of Edith Finch, that somber game, is completely indifferent to unpalatability: a narrative is meant to be communicated, and emotional risks are boldly, unhesitatingly, and frequently taken to covey that message. This especially intense sequence serves as perfect illustration of the game’s occasionally exhausting nature: it is a rewarding experience, but also a taxing one. While completely devoid of violence, gunplay, or anything of the intense sort, Edith Finch manages to seize upon an almost unparalleled sense of tension and unease, a resounding achievement.
It must be noted that the title is completely devoid of any real, compelling gameplay systems; everything is simplistic; narrative is prioritized to the last, the game instead showing a complete if deliberate indifference towards the crafting of gameplay complexity. This lack of ambition in one area means greater attention and affection could be lavished upon another area – attention and affection could be lavished upon the narrative. That is all that matters in this title. Essentially, the game is a mere walking simulator, seeing the player guide Edith throughout the homestead, her route characterized by striking hyperlinearity; options for exploration are completely absent, this absence resulting in a consistent pacing throughout. Still, immersion reigns supreme, the game boasting many clever little animations, Edith’s hands visible as she manipulates various objects, turns keys, and engages in other actions. Such details are growing increasingly commonplace in first-person titles, but something charming characterizes the animation in this precise title; seeing Edith’s gloved hand, pointing almost towards innocence, helps endear her to the player. The only aspirations of gameplay depth, meanwhile, arise within certain of the familial sequences. Beyond the early sequence describing one special night in the life of a ravenous young girl (a sequence characterized by very intuitive controls), other displays are present, as when the player can manipulate a kite, an object with fantastical, almost magnetic attributes, attracting nearby objects and adding them to its total mass. The sequence is far from complex, but is still admired because it gives greater direct control to the player. Something similar could be said of a memory describing a hunting trip, a trip embarked upon by a father and his daughter. Here, the player is gifted a camera, is able to take photos both major and minor, and general satisfaction arises when capturing some tranquil aspect of nature, such as one of its many critters – a rabbit or squirrel, for instance. The inclusion of these relative freedoms only makes more painful the return to gameplay shallowness, such shallowness being a near constancy while navigating the homestead. Nothing here is outright bad or unrefined, it is simply unambitious and unoffensive. This focused approach to gameplay, meanwhile, helps the title carve out its own distinct identity. Not only does Edith Finch spurn the bombastic, but it also spurns the basic puzzle solving included in other games of the same genre, games with similar intents. Obtuse puzzle solving, rather commonplace in first-person exploration titles like the Amnesia series, is completely absent, meaning the player is never confused in direction, meaning also that consistent pacing is maintained always. Similarly, resource and inventory management are rejected; all potential fluff is cast aside, and What Remains of Edith Finch is very much a self-assured title, knowing precisely what it wants to be, what sensations it seeks to evoke. This clearness of identity makes more believable, earnest, and heartfelt the entire narrative, these strengths allowing the title to transcend gameplay failings or shallowness.
The one consistently enjoyable gameplay system is related to exploration. Despite or because of its hyperlinearity, the Finch homestead is steeped in detail and believability, even as certain aspects of its architectural structure are strange and irregular. The house seems like this organic, ever-changing entity; or, it did before left to isolation, before all inhabitants died or vacated the premises. Manifold different alterations have been made over the years. Described as being massive and sprawling from the first, with room after room, with a cavernous cellar and a lofty attic, massiveness only increased further, the Finch family looking upward in their efforts at expansion. The top of the house now boasts spacious lofts, seemingly extending upwards towards the oft-starry skies, these rooms serving as sanctuary for the newer members of the family, principally Edith and her actual siblings, who have done much with the space provided them, using the rooms as a canvas for self-expression, a statement which extends to all rooms, those present from the first and those added only generations after the first stones were laid. Collectively, then, the Finch homestead morphs into a character in its own right, surpassing in importance Edith herself, its very builder, and all the litany of its occupants throughout the long years. Steeped in lore and history, the sense of place is palpable, the rich detailing heightening the joys of exploration, even as it is in actuality uninvolved. Further reflecting room diversity, each room has a distinct identity and visual flair. Barbara’s abode is, perhaps expectantly, adorned with various movie and television posters made in her youth, while at the zenith of her success and popularity, a reminder of happier or at least more prosperous days. One room is accessible solely through the climbing of a small rock wall, pointing towards its owner’s desire for privacy and seclusion. One room has carefully painted walls, with whale sharks and other aquatic creatures having a very visible presence. Another room is dominated by pinkness and feminine fluffiness, another plastered with marijuana posters, drug paraphernalia scattered about recklessly and lazily. On and on go these complexities and diversities. The precise nature of this personalization is perhaps exaggerated, but it is a very beautiful exaggeration, which gives the house considerable charm, and, as is so often the case, believability; environmental storytelling is prominent, and much is revealed in the simple act of exploration, supplementing the narrative which is revealed through more conventional means of dialogue or cutscene. The characters who lorded over these rooms may have been long deceased. But perusing the objects contained in those rooms results in a different sort of dialogue, endearing the player to all members of the Finch family, a sense of intimacy evoked despite being steeped in ambiguity, minimalism. Much is said, then, without the uttering of a single word; the sense of place is remarkable.
What Remains of Edith Finch exists as a highly profound, poignant title, raising many different, oftentimes difficult questions, prompting the player into a state of self-examination; they grow and develop just as Edith grows and develops, embarks on a journey of reminiscence and self-discovery, visiting a place with memories both good and bad. Reflecting this commanding poignancy and bleakness, consider one flashback sequence in particular. Edith’s brother, the one who employs marijuana posters for decoration, found himself lost and directionless after graduating from high school – he was merely existing, perhaps grappling with feelings of meaninglessness. In desperate search of meaning, he signs on at a local cannery, lopping off the heads of fishes, preparing them for packaging and distribution. While immediately meeting with success, eventually his mental state begins to deteriorate, even as he maintains productivity. His sequence, which actually offers great player control, as they manipulate his actions in the fish factory, as they guide him through the fantasies then dominating his afflicted mind, expectantly ends in death – in this precise instance, suicide. Amongst the vast myriad of stories, his stands out brightest, reflective of the bleakness the game strives for in almost all facets of its narrative; this one sequence encapsulates What Remains of Edith Finch, a game which sets out to engross the player, prompt their thinking. These cerebral dimensions are only heightened by clever environmental design, the homestead once a living, breathing entity, one which is remarkably intact and beautiful after years of vacancy, perhaps attributable to the geographic isolation of the place, flanked on many sides by thick trees and forests, flanked also by the lapping waves of the ocean. Beautiful blue skies are constant, are observable in the few brief exterior sequences; a great sense of scale is captured. The house is like some sort of enigma, bearing a curse which corrupts all of its inhabitants – eventually, it is revealed, Edith herself. Expertly, too, despite the implicit existence of this curse, the game never devolves into the complete fantastical or supernatural – everything is grounded, and one grand question is raised at the conclusion, a question about the cyclical nature of life. Edith, deceased and buried on the homestead property and accordingly possessive of a tombstone therein, is visited by a youthful individual, presumably her son, who obtained possession of her journal, which contained all observations made in the central narrative proper – she was writing for him just as much as herself. Will this child bear the Finch curse? Will he embrace the homestead as did his mother in her later years? Or will the memory of the place die with Edith’s death? No family desires extinction; accordingly, the child has a burden to bear, a legacy to uphold. The central narrative, though, posits that that legacy should be rejected, for it is only fraught with pain. The narrative, then, ends ambiguously, and is remarkable because of that ambiguity. Whatever are the gameplay failings, they are easily glossed over owing to these narrative strengths. With a very short overall playtime, and a narrative which inspires lasting contemplation, here is a true success.