Lewis Finch, the character I’m currently embodying in Giant Sparrow’s upcoming game What Remains of Edith Finch, works at a cannery. He chops fish head after fish head, his gloves perpetually bloodied, but his mind drifts elsewhere. While life has grown repetitive, in his imagination he’s in a fantasy tale, conquering land after land as he ventures to mysterious places faraway. As the demo progresses, it’s easy to get lost in Lewis’ conjured, colorful tale. After all, the imagery slowly but surely clouds the entire screen, as chopping the heads off fish becomes the player’s intuitive second nature. For Lewis, imagination becomes his sole escape from his monotonous reality.
“We found a nice middle ground of being just boring enough to evoke monotony, without becoming monotonous but still having that flavor,” the game’s director Ian Dallas said. “[G]ames generally don’t have an appetite for monotony. There are a few games, like Papers Please, that go into that. It’s just neat to explore a mechanical way of expressing something that people experience so often in their real lives, but is so infrequently found in video games.”
As I chop fish head after fish head, initially I found it to be chaotic. As if one of my eyes would find itself focused on dragging the fish over to the guillotine and shoving it into the abyss, and the other eye would be leading my king-like hero through a maze. Eventually though, I eased into it. I didn’t even pay notice to the fish lightly piling up on the screen, my hand dragged them along to their head-chopping death naturally. This is monotony. This is routine. This was a dead-end job. This is, well, depression. And the imagination was escapism. And for Lewis, his only solace.
What Remains of Edith Finch is the next game from Dallas’ Giant Sparrow studio, the creators behind the paint-splattering adventure game Unfinished Swan. But in What Remains of Edith Finch, the pointed stylistic flourish of Unfinished Swan’s unpainted kingdom is abandoned. Though you’re still exploring a place, only this time it's a mostly-deceased family’s dilapidated home; a museum showcasing the dozen or so relatives that have passed away and left Edith, the main character, all alone. “It’s hard to feel like you’re exploring a family. But it’s really easy to feel like you’re exploring a house,” Dallas noted.
Every nook and cranny of the Finch home is a relic of its lived-in past. Whereas when a member of the Finch family dies—all through their own unique ways—a room is never reinhabited, their past residents are never overshadowed nor forgotten. Instead their rooms are boarded up, left on their own like a tomb; the ghost of its lived-in relative haunting the space through their prior belongings.
It’s how the game itself is structured like an anthology tale, where every story segment is not only narratively different, but have their own unique set of systems as well. Where they begin like clockwork of Edith enters a new room that’s different from all the ones before it (the bottom floor is the first generation of the Finch family, as more levels have been handbuilt from there, “Swiss Family Robinson-style,” as Dallas tells me), they diverge once she finds a particular object that transports her psyche into the mind of another relative (whether they lived before her time on this earth or not). And soon we're inhabiting the other Finch family member, reliving a moment in their life, knowing full well that by the story beat’s end, they will die.
The last time I saw What Remains of Edith Finch, I played as Molly Finch, a young child in the first generation of the Finch family. She went from eating plastic berries, to climbing trees as a cat, to flying as an owl, to something entirely sinister. It was wildly different from what I played as Lewis. But just like with Lewis, by the end of it I knew Molly was dead. But this was par for the course of the Finch family: where Edith, our hero, is the only one that remains among the many generations of her family. The game walks you through an anthology of tales: from Lewis’ apparent suicide, to Molly’s probable choking to death. But nothing's ever blatant. The ambiguity of all the tales is intentional, Dallas explained, so that players can be left to believe the worst, or otherwise. The unknown is essential.
As family members die and other generations had moved in, the Finch residence is a towering mess. Rooms are slapped on, levels shoddily built on top of other levels. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, people actually lived here. Dallas pointed to a number of pointed influences that have either been poked in their direction as they developed the game, or floated around beforehand, real-life houses like the Winchester Mystery House or Broken Angel. “[The houses] are these kind of beautiful dreams that people make, and they don’t survive all that long because they’re not very sturdy,” said Dallas. “The [Finch] house wasn’t inspired by one particular house—it was kind of a couple of these crazy follies—but looking at other references after the fact, it’s funny looking at all the houses that actually exist. It’s like people that don’t know when to stop.” Just like the Finches.
At its core, What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t just a game about exploring the remnants of a family plagued by death, but about life too. “I hope players have a renewed appreciation of how short their time is, and also how long,” said Dallas. “And how many things happen in a given life, but that it’s not infinite.” What Remains of Edith Finch will be released on PS4 and PC on April 25th.