It’s unusual to find a game that is surprising all the way through. Perhaps Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain — where you wake to David Bowie and a massive-bosomed nurse, abruptly run naked-butted under heavy gunfire away from whatever-the-hell-it-is outside, and then fall into an escalating 1980s stealth bonanza — is the last time, before What Remains of Edith Finch, that I really felt it.
The genre that is now most capable of surprises is the “walking simulator.” Doom could fall under that title if you consider it merely a game about what the character’s legs do. But something weird happens when you remove shooting from a first-person shooter: You have to make the environment interesting without putting someone’s exploding giblets all over it.
[This story contains spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.]
Edith Finch’s approach is particularly intriguing: Visit a whimsical, eccentric Norwegian family’s home where tunnels, trap doors, handles hidden in books and willy-nilly extensions to the house layer the discoveries on top of one another. The surprises come as a series of vignettes about Edith’s family and their mysterious deaths, which are jealously kept secrets conveniently ferreted away in epistolary form for Edith to discover. The members of the family died at different times doing a number of different odd activities, and these vignettes are little windows of magical realism. They are also changeups of how the player character and the objects we see respond differently to new controls.
The house is populated with trinkets, boxes, books, letters, murals, plants, gerbil cages, punching bags, cans of fish, stuffed toys and so much more. It feels cluttered, claustrophobic, close, over-lived-in, a kind of archive of belongings and history. This is also how stacking up the family’s fates makes one feel: smothered by inevitability, trapped by the story, unable to get out of a narrative, constantly circling negative thoughts. I found myself thinking unhappily about how family might brutally condition one’s behaviors or pass on bad habits, and how the story presents the past as completely and utterly defining the future. It felt like being told that there is no exit, no way to not make the same mistakes.
This last idea is expanded upon in the narration that appears written in the world on cabinets, doors and windows, accompanied by Edith’s voice-over. It leads you through the house to the next part of the story like string tugging on your waist. At one point Edith wonders out loud that if her relatives had never retold these folk tales about a curse on the family, they might have stopped them from coming true.
Edith Finch is smothered in words. She often narrates what is already seen in the environment throughout the game, a practice that I struggle to rid myself of in my own narrative design day jobs. The temptation is tantalizing: to write a line about what is happening before an art asset has been made in the development pipeline, or to fill a silence with a voice-over, or to have a character comment on something in front of them, to help the level design or for the sake of it. Here it is purposeful, telling the player where to go.
But the downside to commentary describing your immediate environment is that your eyes start to get lazy. You stop looking at things in a game, because the meaning provided by the art or music has been spoiled in a to-the-point sentence directly declared to the player, plunged into your greedy little gamer-brain. You no longer discover for yourself. You just accept that you have cleared the area.
In games it is so easy to rely on words, and I have started to go to war with them in my own work. If they’re unnecessary, it takes the sheen off what you see and hear. Silence is better than the kid yelling out the punchline at the movies. Game development is a heavy, unrelenting nightmare, and I am constantly terrified I’ll become that kid.
I suppose in this case there is some virtue in being told constantly what is happening by Edith. It is a convincing overture on self-fulfilling prophecies. The narration intimates extinction ahead, and then you are funneled through the varying mechanical processes that the player can be lured into in the vignettes: becoming a cat chasing a bird, taking photographs, eating peaches, flying Katamari kites — always seeming to slide toward death, sometimes obviously, and at other times taking a while before the blindside.
The strongest of the vignettes muses on how stories and games can encroach on your time and take up room in your head, and how control and achievement in the imaginary world can become alluring when the real one is boring and unalterable. The left stick controls exploration of a fantasy world, while the right stick controls an arm undertaking a repetitive job in a fish factory. Eventually the fantasy side of the screen engulfs the fish-factory side of the screen and, yes, your character dies. It’s very strong in contrasting the two distinct mechanical actions required by each world, but I glimpsed a concrete, if perhaps unintended, message: Let what you love kill you.
I have many conflicting feelings about such a maxim. On the one hand, it's catchy and romantic about the act of creation, and I love working hard at a thing I love. It keeps me happy and busy and around clever people. On the other hand, there have been times when I was so poor and depressed by the environment I worked in that I contemplated ending my own life.
Of course, this game is a metaphorical exploration of these ideas. But it is good to remember that our love for our work is actually killing creative people right now, because it can be exploited. It is making people crush themselves. Well-known game developers have written about crunching so hard they’ve lost whole years of their memory. Sometimes creative people might stay poor all their lives because what they make is their only income, and companies can make them do it for next to nothing. We shouldn’t have to be broken by our love. It isn’t an inevitability. We should push back to make doing what you love healthy. As Scott Benson says, “Make art. Make rent. Help others do the same.”
But “death” can stand in for many things. Perhaps the dominating commonality between Edith Finch’s vignettes is that finding what you love can set you free. It can release you from your family. It is your ticket out of your prison.
For that reason, Edith Finch’s strong experimentation with the walking simulator doesn’t end with a flawless execution of its theme. The surprises are confined to the vignettes. The tone of the end indicates that something uplifting, some intimation of freedom, should be taken from the continuance of the Finch family line, but the story doesn’t quite deliver. There is no final reveal or realization, no use of the information gained in discovery to change the main character. The story merely stops, in a way that indicates a kind of biological determinism in people, that your family has doomed you. That you will never get out, so you should just accept that you are fated to be like them.
This is a grim thing to indicate, given that some people might never find the thing that frees them. Some people’s lives are just difficult, and sometimes a good part of that is their family’s treatment of them.
At school I remember writing in the margin of a poem: “death is hereditary.” My English teacher laughed; perhaps she thought I was dense, or perhaps she was just delighted that I’d written it at all.
As I get older, I think to myself: death is hereditary. It’s the only thing that we can count on, that we have inherited the ability to die of old age. We can only hope that by the time we get there, we’ve learned how not to subject ourselves to bad habits, like doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome. Edith Finch made me think deeply about that. I’m lucky I didn’t play Super Meat Boy instead.
Cara Ellison is a writer and narrative designer for video games. She is currently working on the Media Molecule game Dreams. She has made a corner of the utopian internet here: http://caraellison.co.uk/ . You can find her on Mastodon, if you really must.