At the beginning of What Remains of Edith Finch, you walk down a path and approach a house that looks like discarded concept art from a Tim Burton movie. You’d be forgiven for expecting What Remains of Edith Finch to be a creepy horror game with a scattering of jump scares. Instead, it’s a sad game that tugs at the heartstrings from the first minute and doesn’t stop until long after you’ve put down the controller.
You play as Edith Finch, returning to her childhood home as the last remaining member of the Finch family. The Finches all died under tragic circumstances and Edith’s great-grandmother believes the family is under a curse. All the rooms in the house are sealed up tight but Edith finds a way inside and follows a linear path through the house, slowly discovering the truth behind her family’s tragic past.
The outside of the house looks like the work of an architect who’s discovered LSD for the first time, however once inside it feels surprisingly real. It’s cramped and full of the clutter you’d expect in a home that has had one family living in it for nearly one hundred years. Each room has been left exactly as it was when the occupant died, so they serve as mini museums to another time period.
Moving around the house is simply a case of following the only possible route. The player need do little more than occasionally push open a door or turn a key to progress from room-to-room. In the first five minutes, What Remains of Edith Finch comes dangerously close to reigniting the debate about whether walking simulators are games at all. And then Edith opens Molly’s journal.
Upon opening the journal, Edith is thrown into the memories of young Molly to relive her final moments. Molly is hungry but her mom won’t let her leave her room. She eats a bit of hamster food, toothpaste, and some berries. Then she hallucinates and becomes a cat chasing a bird through the trees outside her house. The hallucination becomes increasingly disturbed until it loops back to reality and we get a clue as to how Molly died.
Edith finds a journal or letter in each room, however the gameplay mechanic varies drastically for each family member. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but in addition to controlling animals, you will play as a child on a swing, control a character in a comic book, and work a mundane factory job.
The game hints at a curse on the Finch family which led me to suspect the deaths would be a comic set of coincidences. That’s not the case. The deaths are due circumstances such as bravado, stupidity, bad luck, depression, or even something as tragically ‘normal’ as cancer.
While the gameplay varies, the controls are always simple and intuitive. You play the entire game only using the analog sticks and R1. Your interaction with the experience is limited, but the lack of complex controls helps you focus on the narrative in a way that anything more ‘video gamey’ might detract from. In one excellent story, the simple controls force a level of tedium into proceedings that truly puts you in the mind of the soon to be deceased family member in a way that I’ll never forget.
I can’t overestimate how perfectly the controls put you in the mind of the characters. You don’t just watch them die or listen to a narrator describe the death like in other walking simulators I could name. You experience it. You feel it. When a child flies through the air towards his imminent death, both you and the character feel free for a few blissful moments before the game fades to black. Developer Giant Sparrow has perfected the use of simple controls to immerse you in multiple characters and the end result is an unforgettable experience.
The story unravels over a period of about two hours and is perfectly paced. Lengthy and tragic deaths are followed by deaths that will have you letting out a guilty laugh. In one instance a death even leads to an Unfinished Swan easter egg. These lighter moments make the dark ones hit that much harder.
If I do have one complaint, it’s that the ending didn’t quite land as powerfully as many of the moments that preceded it. Of course, to discuss why would be a huge spoiler, so I won’t say more. It’s not a bad or ambiguous ending. Unlike many first-person narrative experiences (my fancy term for “walking simulator”), there is a resolution to the story, just not one I felt entirely satisfied with.
Games often try to impart feelings of grief and sorrow, but I can count on one hand the number of times they’ve succeeded. Giant Sparrow managed to make me feel that way multiple times over the course of a two-hour first-person narrative experience. If you have a sadistic streak and want to experience these negative emotions then I highly recommend What Remains of Edith Finch.
The combination of strict linearity with varied snippets of gameplay might just be the ideal combination for these type of narrative experiences. What Remains of Edith Finch leaps right into my top three games in this genre alongside Gone Home and The Stanley Parable. In fact, I think it’s leapt right to the top.