My grandmother died last December.
It turns out grief is weird. Very slow, and very weird. It doesn’t feel like my grandmother is gone most of the time. Our brains must do that to protect us, because grief flattens you when it finally hits.
I last visited her in Vermont, during an unseasonably warm October. We tore apart a rotten tree stump in her garden using ski poles. She told me she would live for a few more years. She had a stroke and passed away a month or so later.
I spent December ping-ponging around the East coast. One weekend I was in Boston, doing a vigil in the hospice while she was in a coma. Then back to New York to edit silly videos for YouTube. Now to Vermont for the funeral. Then back to New York, to sink into the chaos of Polygon’s Game of the Year work.
One of the stranger parts of this job is the need to deal with major life events while also being really stressed out about video games. Sometimes that’s a relief. Instead of dwelling on the memory of your grandmother’s voice, for example, you could feel irrationally, unfathomably angry that you haven’t had time to play Prey. You can take all that regret, sadness and anger and just channel it into video games.
I had a long list of games to get through before December ended. I started What Remains of Edith Finch. It’s a narrative game; it took a couple of hours.
Spoiler warning: This article contains unspecific spoilers about the plot of What Remains of Edith Finch.
The places we live
Edith Finch is a game about a family, but it’s also about a house. Edith is returning to her family home to learn the stories her mother never told her, the ones about the generations of Finches who died before their time.
The Finch house is deep in the woods on Orcas Island, in Washington State. It’s about three hours from where I grew up; the messy rainforests are familiar and the sudden, breathtaking views of water are part and parcel of growing up on the Peninsula. You explore the house and its grounds as Edith.
Edith’s mother locked the bedrooms of the dead Finches in an effort to protect Edith and her brothers from learning too much about the “family curse” — the simple fact that Finches can’t seem to stay alive. They all died strangely, in unlucky circumstances, and at too young an age. You have to find your way into the locked rooms and discover artifacts that elaborate on each death.
These details come from letters, from photographs or from comic books. They come from poems and diaries. They come from the things we leave behind when we go.
The player lives each scene as a playable vignette. These vignettes punctuate the first-person gameplay with splashes of beauty, or abstraction. You play as a kite, or as a rubber duck. You work in a cannery. You’re a monster. Each section effectively breaks up what could be described, not unkindly, as a walking simulator.
The house is one of the more impressive feats of environmental design in gaming. It’s a house. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with books. The walls are galleries of family photos. There are trinkets and toys. There are messes left behind, including spilled wine and dirty dishes. There’s all the junk that we accumulate through the simple act of living. The environment could be your house. Or my grandmother’s. It feels like people lived there, and of course like people died there.
On my grandmother’s bookshelves you could find well-thumbed Agatha Christies, children’s books dating from the 1950s up through last year and, like we recently did, the diary that my grandmother kept when my father was just born. There were pages of her careful handwriting narrating the first days of his life, and her early relationship with my grandfather. These were memories that she wanted to keep. Stories that she wanted to tell him.
The bookshelves, the photos, the worn out things, and the doors that lead to places you don’t expect. It’s all there in my grandmother’s house, and in Edith Finch.
Edith Finch is about stories, too. Edith is motivated to learn about her family because her mother fiercely protected Edith from their history. The Finches are supposed to be cursed, and Edith’s mother hoped that ignorance would protect her last living child from death. A sort of “if a tree falls” parable — if you’re cursed to die early, but you don’t know it, will you die anyway? At least you won’t spend your life feeling constant dread.
Every family has stories — even families that aren’t as tragic as the Finches. And every family loses its stories. You forget some of the family stories you were told. Or you won’t tell them the same way when you pass them on. And then there are the stories that you never get a chance to hear. There are boxes of photographs that are lost to flooding or fire. Many stories are gone forever.
My grandmother was our family history repository. She gave me the hottest family gossip every time I called. The conversation turned to our family’s history when I visited. But I didn’t get every story, and every detail.
She had an amazing memory for details, but it was more than that. She told good stories, funny stories. No matter how accurately I remember them, I’ll never be able to tell them with the same balance of grace, eloquence and simplicity. There are gaps in what she told me that I can never ask her to fill.
My family history is one that I’ve partially ingested but not fully memorized, and now it has been snatched away by the death of a warm, wonderful person whose voice I can still hear in my head. Eventually, I will forget that as well. Memory is impressionistic. I won’t know when it happens.
So many people in my life never got to meet her. I don’t know how to cope with the weight of this human’s story, now that I’m one of the people tasked with maintaining it. All those stories, all those fingerprints will be wiped away. I cling to them because I miss her — I want her. But stories are all that we have.
In Edith Finch stories live in every crack of this house. They live in its strange monuments to death, its secret passages, its empty takeout boxes and its ramshackle pieces. I understood Edith’s urge to seek out her family history. Even if it hurts, even if it kills you, isn’t it better to know?
My grandmother’s house still holds our stories. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them.