Separating salmon from their heads with a guillotine is not my idea of a good time. And yet, this is a core mechanic of one whole chapter in What Remains of Edith Finch. I played this chapter at a media event on Wednesday, while developer Ian Dallas looked on.
This is the second chapter I've played. The first was at a press event a couple of years ago. At the time, I was impressed by the game's humor and its imagination. It's a collection of surreal short stories about the lives and deaths of Edith Finch's ancestors and relatives, set inside the family mansion.
The Unfinished Swan, Dallas' previous game with his studio Giant Sparrow, was a tour de force in visual storytelling, a beautiful first-person puzzle-adventure about exploration.
In this chapter, I'm reliving Edith Finch's cousin Lewis' short life. He worked in a cannery. I use the controller to slide the fish into place. When their heads are cut off, I push the rest of the salmon onto a conveyor belt. At some point, I assume the fish are filleted and packed into a tin.
This is dull work. And so my character begins to indulge in a daydream. Using the controller, I also control the daydream. If I stop my work, the fish start to pile up and they get in the way of my pleasant little fantasy, so I must do both simultaneously.
The upshot is that our hero is a bit of a fantasist. He builds an entire world in his imagination, far away from the brutal monotony of his life. I work my way through the story, as recollected in a letter from a psychiatrist, being read by Edith.
This is just one of a compendium of short stories, tied together by Edith Finch's exploration of her family tree, and by a thread of dark humor. The chapter offers some very basic gameplay, but its strength is in bonding a feeling of workplace boredom with a magical world, while toying with ideas about the horror of existence, and the conflict between human rules of civilization and nature.
To some extent, the story is also about video games, these colorful fantasies where we escape from the humdrum of reality. But there are other readings too.
"The way his imagination becomes more complex is a nice parallel with the way video games have escalated," says Dallas. "That is definitely one reading, but we try to leave some ambiguity in the stories. You can never really know what it's like to be someone else. There's always a sense of removal, and so you can never really know the truth.”
Dallas, a former TV writer, says his big inspiration is reading, most especially Weird Fiction by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. "Those stories are explicitly about the horror of being in a cosmos beyond your understanding," he adds. "It's not like modern horror, which is calcified, it's something without rules, a complete unknown. It's wondrous and inhumane without being malevolent."
What Remains of Edith Finch will be released on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC on April 25.