“Walking simulators” are somewhat divisive among video game fans. The term, which is often used to categorize titles like Gone Home, Firewatch and Virginia, represents a type of game that is rather light on gameplay and challenge and instead focuses heavily on narrative and atmosphere.
To some, these shouldn’t even be called games due to their minimalistic approach to player control, featuring protagonists who are limited to walking around and interacting with the environment. However, for others such as myself, these kinds of games offer a great opportunity to take you through a tight, compelling experience — the likes of which couldn’t come out of any other medium.
Such is the case with What Remains of Edith Finch, an adventure game from developer Giant Sparrow’s second game following its 2012 PlayStation exclusive The Unfinished Swan. In Edith Finch, you play as the eponymous young woman who returns to her rural Washington state home to find out what happened to her family. The Finches believed they’d fallen victim to a never-ending curse, leaving each member of the family to die suddenly over the course of several decades. As a result, Edith is now the sole survivor of her family, leading her to try to find some sort of meaning and closure amidst all the tragedy.
The basic premise is rather reminiscent of Gone Home, featuring a female protagonist going back to her home and piecing together the lives of departed loved ones. But while that game centred on the ultimately more uplifting story of teenaged love, What Remains of Edith Finch is a story all about coping with grief.
Specifically, how does one family that’s been so utterly plagued by misfortune find the strength to keep on going? What effect does repeated loss have on said family, from the woefully naïve children who don’t understand what’s going on, to the older, increasingly embittered adults who have struggled to keep a brave face for the sake of the young ones?
These are the questions Edith has to come to terms with as she makes her way through different parts of the dilapidated house. Giant Sparrow has done a wonderful job of making the Finch home feel truly lived in. Hundreds of books lay strewn about in hallways, rooms and garages, while toys, heirlooms and other trinkets have been haphazardly stored in open, worn away boxes.
All the while, Edith reminisces to herself with small but key details about the family, like the abundance of leftover Chinese takeout owing to the fact that there are no other nearby food places for the otherwise secluded Finch household. While it would have been nice to have been offered more interactivity — only a handful of objects can actually be examined through button prompts — the actual house itself is artfully crafted.
During her time in the home, Edith will work her way through the various floors of the house, the backyard and even the occasional hidden passageway, adding to the mystery of the Finch family. Along the way, Edith finds various journals, recordings and other memorials to her deceased family. In going through these, she’s able to begin to understand what happened to each of them, with the game playing out an interactive surreal sequence representing the time before their death. It’s a sombre experience, delivering a powerful atmosphere that kept me guessing — and sometimes dreading — what I’d find next.
On the other hand, Giant Sparrow takes the opportunity to truly get creative and outlandish in these segments. In one scenario, a younger Finch, after failing to find solace in drugs and video games, manages to cope with his loneliness by envisioning a world in which he is king. In this dream land, the player travels by boat to various settlements to conquer them for the king, all the while continuing to control the real Finch who’s trying to deal with the mundanity of daily factory work. This parable is instantly enrapturing, both because of its fantastical presentation and sharp writing and the rather challenging conceit of handling two radically different characters simultaneously.
Another Finch story sees a neglected baby in a bathtub turning to his toys and childish wonder to keep him company while his parents bicker about their marriage woes in the background. Meanwhile, one Finch’s Halloween night with her boyfriend plays out in an animated horror comic book that’s a delightful homage to Tales of the Crypt. To reveal any more about these tales would steal from the captivating sense of story book-esque discovery that Giant Sparrow has invoked here, but suffice it to say, they’re well worth playing through.
Indeed, despite Edith Finch featuring very little in the way of puzzles or other gameplay challenges, the game nevertheless succeeds in maintaining a strong sense of suspense by having you anticipate just what kind of dreamlike yarn you’ll get to experience next. What’s more, by letting you actually play out the character’s stories — when in other games they may be relayed to the player through a sort of non-interactive audio diary — you’re able to truly get a sense the Finches’ headspace during their battles with depression, fear and anger.
Edith’s own commentary on each member of her eccentric family further adds to their rich characterization. This is particularly true for Edith’s mother, who you’ll discover went to increasingly desperate — and arguably questionable — lengths to try to protect her family from further pain. In spite of all this, though, Giant Sparrow avoids leaning too heavily into any tonal extreme, deftly balancing the heavy subject matter with the joyous moments found in each character’s life.
At the end of my roughly three hour playthrough of What Remains of Edith Finch, I had a moment of self-reflection that I honestly don’t remember getting from a game in quite some time. The poetic and poignant allegories of the Finches led me to think about my own family, pondering on my lineage and those who have come and gone.
That’s a powerful feeling, and one that was accomplished not by fast-paced first-person shooters or grandiose, 100-hour long open-world games, but by an unassuming “walking simulator” from a small indie studio. It’s a must-play experience.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available for download on PlayStation 4, Xbox One (reviewed) and PC. It’s worth noting that the game costs $26.99 on the PlayStation Store but only $19.99 on Xbox Store and $21.99 on Steam.
Image credit: Giant Sparrow