Inside ‘Edith Finch’, an anthology of death (and great storytelling)

The newly released What Remains of Edith Finch is a remarkable story, or a series of short stories, really. It’s essentially an anthology of death.

As players explore the Finch family house, controlling its last surviving member, Edith, they discover the tales of the deaths of each of her relatives going back to the early 1900s. The Finches are famous for their misfortune, and some, including members of the family, believed they were cursed. Edith’s story develops in exploring the sealed bedrooms of her family members, each of which is a character time capsule — a snapshot of the person who occupied it.

Within each room is an artifact that triggers a short interactive moment, a sort of playable vignette from the perspective of that person at the time of their death. The story of Calvin, Edith’s granduncle who died as a child in the 1960s, has players trying to swing ever higher on a swingset. In the story of Molly, Edith’s great-grandaunt who died in the ’40s, players transform into various animals as Molly imagines herself exploring the world as a cat or an owl in search of food.

Already the game by developer Giant Sparrow has been placed together with titles such as Gone Home or Dear Esther, both in its reviews and the commentary surrounding it. Those games and Edith Finch do share a lot of similarities: Edith Finch and Gone Home are both first-person games about exploring a deserted house and discovering what happened to the people who lived there, for instance. But what makes Edith Finch stand out from other “walking simulators,” or games that focus on telling a story as players move around a game space, is that Edith Finch didn’t start with its story. Each of its experiences started with playable moments, around which everything else evolved.

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“We’re not primarily interested in telling a story,” Creative Director Ian Dallas told Digital Trends. “We don’t have a beginning, middle, and end, and these very sharply defined characters that are the thing driving the engine. These are things that come on afterwards, so there’s a lot more flexibility there. I think what we’re really interested in is exploring a moment, like finding something that, in the case of What Remains of Edith Finch, has this simultaneous feeling of something very beautiful but also a little unsettling. And then once we find something that feels like that, working backwards to what’s just enough story to put the context in. And I think for us, story is more about setting the mood than it is the main event.”

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t emphasize story, but it’s an interesting conundrum that it’s perceived as one in which the story is the primary focus. What makes Edith Finch so successful throughout the game is the focus on melding elements — story, gameplay, music, art direction — to create specific experiences in each of its vignettes. The stories it does tell are dependent on the emotions those moments create, as only a video game can.

“We’re at a strange place now in video games where you can have a game that people see as being primarily about the story, versus anything else that it may be about, and we’re not at a point where you can just have games that are really interesting and games that are less interesting,” Dallas said. “It’s a little bit more black and white to people still. I don’t know — just having a coherent story, people then want to see your game as being a game about story. It’s, like, one of those ‘story games.’ Well, no, we just have a decent story in the way that it’s expected that you have decent music. It’s just a piece of what goes into making that final experience.”

That Edith Finch is telling a story without making story its primary focus also works to its advantage. It allowed Giant Sparrow to trim each vignette to achieve its goal without getting bogged down in details and plot. The game often gets by with the bare minimum of narrative — just enough to provide players with context and a sense of the characters as they move from one room to the next. What’s most important isn’t the details of plot, because there really isn’t one. Each room is about the emotional resonance of the person and what they went through.

“What we’re really interested in is exploring a moment that feels very beautiful, but also a little unsettling.”

For one story, that of the death of baby Gregory, Dallas described how judicious editing brought the story together. In the game, the scene plays from Gregory’s perspective, as he watches his toys engage in an amazing synchronized swimming routine in the bath tub. In the background of the scene, Gregory’s mother, Kay, fields a phone call from his father, Sam, giving snatches of their crumbling relationship.

The artifact that kicks off the story is Sam and Kay’s divorce contract, where Sam wrote to his ex-wife about losing Gregory.

“All we were looking for was really a context, and so having Gregory’s story written on the last page of a divorce contract was all we needed to say about that,” Dallas said. “There wasn’t any benefit from going into the details, and in fact, we tried to find places where we could suggest without going into a lot of detail — so that as a player, you do wonder about what led to this or that.”

The perils of imagination

For many of the accursed Finches, their overactive imaginations are ultimately what lead to their demise. Calvin imagines taking flight from his swing set, Baby Gregory’s slowly filling bathtub becomes the setting for his toys putting on a show, and the mundanity of Lewis’s life leads him to end it if he can’t live in the fantasy world he creates in his daydreams. Some of the deaths are accidental, while others could be seen as suicides. It’s an interesting take for a video game — part of a medium built on escapism — to have so many stories about people who lose themselves, and their lives, in their own personal escapes.

The story of Lewis in particular could be seen as a comment on escapism. It starts with players working Lewis’ job at a local cannery, spending hours cutting the heads off fish by using the controls to grab each one, slide it over to a guillotine-like device, slice it and toss it onto a conveyor belt. Slowly, Lewis starts to daydream of something more interesting, and an overlay of a “Zelda”-like game appears over part of his field of vision. Players control both the character and the labyrinth and Lewis’ fish-slicing hand at the same time, dividing their attention. Slowly, the fantasy begins to dominate the reality.

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“We did not set out to make a game about the imagination, but after we’d done a handful of stories and gone from prototype to making them, like actually writing a story and figuring out how these things would work, we looked at the ones that were the most successful both for us and for players, and a lot of them dealt with the imagination. Particularly with the perils of the imagination,” Dallas explained. “And I think in the case of the Finches, there’s a question to be asked about, is it better to live a longer, less interesting life? I don’t think there’s an answer to that, but people kind of choose in their own lives where to draw that line.

“It doesn’t have answers. We create characters that are in these situations, trying to work things out for themselves, and then we explore how that turns out for them. But it’s not like we have a prescription for it. We just said, oh, this is an interesting situation that we’d like to explore.”

A deeper look at death

Edith Finch is undoubtedly a tragic game. Its tales aren’t just about the often untimely ends of the Finch family but also of how those who remain cope with the loss. Edie, Edith’s great-grandmother, celebrated the stories of her family and memorialized each with a painting. Sam, her son, became a Marine and war photographer — his floor of the house includes a children’s bedroom where he encouraged his kids to exercise and train. His story, in which he takes teenage daughter Dawn on a hunting trip, is angled toward survival and self-reliance. Sam tried to fight the Finch family curse. Dawn’s approach in her adulthood is to run from it.

Though each death is tragic, Edith Finch isn’t meant as a wholly depressing experience. As Dallas mentioned, the game also looks at beauty in those moments. Some deaths are tragic, but some really aren’t: it’s a nuanced look at the human experience.

“In the case of the Finches, thre’s a question to be asked: Is it better to live a longer, less interesting life?”

Dallas said that while he and Giant Sparrow hope Edith Finch will encourage players to think about death and mortality in different ways than they otherwise might, working on the game hasn’t really changed his own views on the subject.

“I’ve spent so much of my life thinking about death in general that I don’t know that this game has actually changed it that much, he said. “Like I made a game about death because it was something I was already pretty obsessed with. The fundamental absurdity that all of this was going to end very soon, and that so many people seem — they live their lives as if they’re unaware of it, that’s always been quite astonishing. …You just get to a point where you realize that you’re never going to figure it out, and kind of make peace with that, but it still remains an interesting subject for thought. So I don’t know that it’s really changed my thought, but I do look forward to not being surrounding by death quite so densely.”

Maybe the most interesting part of Edith Finch’s look at death is that the curse can’t be escaped — but it’s not necessarily a curse, either. As the game takes Edith through an exploration of her history and heritage, it finds tranquility in accepting that death, of course, is inevitable.

But that doesn’t make life hopeless. While every story in What Remains of Edith Finch ends with death, the game itself concludes a different way — with a birth.