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What Remains of Edith Finch

Score: 100%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure


Graphics & Sound:

Late in the aughts and throughout the twenty-tens, weíve seen a rise in the development of what has been somewhat disparagingly referred to as the "walking simulator." Itís a subgenre that often boasts an intensely atmospheric, narrative-focused experience, so much to the point where the idea of gameplay is a tangential goal at most and a non-entity at the least. Given this, its viability as a video game genre is a point of heated contention. My experience with them has generally been poor. I know that there are good ones out there, but word of mouth and an overzealous press has reduced my backlog to two. Dear Esther is among the snobbiest games Iíve ever played; it strips away gameplay until only a single mindless mechanic is left, and subjects its player to onslaught after onslaught of overwrought, incredibly pretentious prose. Meanwhile Gone Homeís mawkish, juvenile take on sexual identity and domestic strife made it the gaming equivalent of Oscar bait, and of course it ended up on the short list of virtue-signaling journalists from coast to coast. I was really close to washing my hands of the subgenre altogether when I played the one that did more to validate it than any other: What Remains of Edith Finch. Here is a walking simulator thatís actually about something. Rather than a handful of hours of subjection to the musings of an insufferably wordy hermit or an impossibly selfish teenager, here lies a powerful tale of memory and grief. Of love and loss. Of family and fate. However, its greatest triumph is in how it earns the use of its medium, intelligently and artfully weaving its themes throughout its interactive elements.

What Remains of Edith Finch is masterful from an artistic perspective and merely solid from a technical one. This is one of those releases that deliberately restricts your wandering range for the best of reasons: to justify going all out in its world design. Not an inch of this game feels underdeveloped or out of place.

The Finch house is something out of Frank Lloyd Wrightís worst nightmare. The way it violates the skyline in its jaw-dropping introductory vista is something to behold; it curls around itself and reaches for the heavens, as if itís caught in the throes of a particularly nasty spasm. Every room is absolutely crammed solid with items that help give you an idea of the departed. So much to the point where A&E would likely have sent the Hoarders team in for a special, would they not have feared for their lives in doing so. While this design decision comes across as overkill to the normal eye at times, you have to reorient your perspective and remember: this is not a normal family, and everything is exactly as it is for a reason. The entire house is a living monument to the cruelest fate has to offer, but itís also twin middle fingers shot straight through the eyes of Fortune herself. Thereís some occasional slowdown to the exploration at points, but when the game has something to say (which is often), it makes sure there are no distractions keeping you out of the moment.

Things remain relatively grounded in reality while youíre exploring the house as young Edith, but the same cannot be said of the stories you come across over the course of exploring. That, Iím afraid, is all Iím willing to say on that subject.

When you read about games of this type, your first instinct is to expect every single fiber of its being to be solely dedicated to making you weep uncontrollably. This almost always translates into a sound design reliant primarily on heavy strings, piano, and an extremely dramatic series of voice performances. And while What Remains of Edith Finch certainly makes use of this toolset, it earns that right by keeping itself in check and showing an impressive amount of restraint and subtlety. This is perhaps best exemplified by the soundtrack, which comes to us from Jeff Russo of the band Tonic. Itís content to stay out of the way most of the time and only appears when it can reinforce a theme established by the story and interactive elements. And when it does, it understates itself to lend more gravitas to the on-screen action.

As with the visuals, the sound design has some pretty incredible surprises in store, and again, I will not get into them. These surprises make up too much of What Remains of Edith Finch to render further discussion even the most fleeting of options.


Gameplay:

The Finch family has more in common than just a name and a bloodline. Of all of them, not a single one in recorded history has died of old age. Whether by their own hands, the hands of another, or quite simply those of God, they have all met their fates in characteristically bizarre fashion. It seems as though this family is cursed. But Grandma Edie, a woman of legacy above all else, seemingly refuses to take this long-running slight in stride. So sheís made a tradition of her own to counter the curse; you see, every time a new Finch was born, a new room was built. Those who died, well, their rooms would remain theirs until the house fell or until Armageddon. As you might suspect, this lifestyle (no irony intended) doesnít sit very well with a certain few of the Finches. And that brings us to our protagonist.

Edith has spent her teenage years away from every possible reminder of this legacy, and as she approaches 20, she becomes the last of her line, the sole survivor. When her sickly mother passes and leaves her a key to God-knows-what, Edith knows she must go back to the house on that Washington cliffside she inhabited until she was eleven. Thatís the backdrop, but the actual story is relayed through Edith herself, who is narrating to a very specific individual. Who is she speaking to, and why is it so important? Thatís best left to the player to discover, though a particularly observant one can figure it out seconds into the game.

What Remains of Edith Finch operates on two levels. The first is exploring the house as Edith. Itís where most of the experience takes place. Exploring serves multiple purposes: it establishes a strong sense of place and history, and more importantly serves as an opportunity for Edith (and by proxy, the player) to let the other stuff sink in.

"The other stuff" is an incredibly vulgar phrase to describe the other part of What Remains of Edith Finch, which is, in itself, incredibly difficult to convey without ruining the experience. You see, as Edith explores the house, she comes across handwritten mementos that shift into interactive vignettes that simultaneously establish the family members to whom these mementos pertain and give some insight into how they meet their end. Some are explicit, others not so much. And, in a masterful stroke, they run the gamut of human experience instead of relying on forced emotions. I liken it to how Six Feet Under approached death. It can be sad. It can also be poetic. It can be touching. It can definitely be horrifying. And yes, it can be funny. What Remains of Edith Finch understands this, and as a result, it comes across as a refreshingly honest depiction of how we as human beings choose to cope with mortality in all its various and sundry forms. More importantly is in how it uses the act of gameplay to communicate these themes. But Iím getting ahead of myself.


Difficulty:

The only inherent objective in What Remains of Edith Finch is to get wherever you need to be to progress the narrative. Considering the setting, I expected to get lost quite a bit. However, I never did. Somehow, some way, I always ended up where I needed to be in order to keep things moving. Additionally, Edithís narration kicks in whenever youíre going the right way, or at least coming across something you havenít seen yet.

What Remains of Edith Finch generally defies the notion of difficulty, as very little that constitutes its being can be described as gameplay. Thereís a degree of interactivity at certain points, and you might not always know what to do at first. However, these elements are limited to the point where any amount of experimentation will lead to the player naturally intuiting a style, a pattern to the experience. And once again, I canít go any further without delving into spoilers.


Game Mechanics:

I have to keep this section brief out of respect for what developer Giant Sparrow has accomplished here. It's a short game; every surprise, every revelation, every precise marriage of theme and mechanic is integral to the experience.

Most of your time with What Remains of Edith Finch will be spent walking around, looking at things. The game does a fine job of communicating what can and cannot be interacted with, which is crucial, as it is the only link between the standard exploration experience and the best parts of the title.

Here is where things get really, really tricky for me. What Remains of Edith Finch is an intensely narrative-focused experience, and yet its strongest story elements are communicated through the act of playing the game. It reaches through the screen, that timeless barrier between player and played, and occupies the same transcendent ether shared by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. If youíve played that game, imagine if an entire game was designed with the same philosophy that led to its magnificent ending. The mechanics differ, but the principle remains.

We have reached a point in the growth cycle of our favorite medium where storytelling often takes precedence over gameplay. Whether or not that's an inherently bad thing is entirely up to your personal preferences. For me, personally, it often tends to be just that; if I'm given the option between gameplay and narrative, I will choose gameplay nearly every time. So, with that bit of knowledge in the back of your head, allow me to confess that What Remains of Edith Finch left me reeling. It stuck with me for days after I'd finished it. It drove me into a series of introspective fits that left me alternately pensive, devastated, and elated. But what most assuredly left the most lasting impression was the realization that it absolutely would not have worked if it wasn't a video game. What Remains of Edith Finch's storytelling rises to greatness not in spite of its interactivity, but because of it.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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