This is a critical look at the mechanics of What Remains of Edith Finch. Now, probably, if you have only passing familiarity with the award-winning game in question, to that sentiment you respond: “Isn’t it just a walking simulator? Is this just going to be an article complaining about the game’s genre? Wouldn’t it make more sense to discuss the story?” And the short answer to all three of those questions is just, “No.”
In more detail, my answers are:
First, while the frame narrative of What Remains does indeed bear the trappings of the projects that are (usually derisively) called ‘walking sims,’ much of the substance of the game lies in a series of levels or minigames that pair with subplots of the story. It plays out like an anthology of tiny games. And it’s mostly the gameplay within those minigames that I want to discuss here.
Second, even if the frame narrative was all there is, I have no particular issue with the concept of so-called ‘walking sims.’ They’re done no particular favor by being categorized as ‘games’ . . . but in the wider world of interactive art, it’s natural that something came along to fill the gap between, on the one hand, audiobooks, fiction podcasts, and linear visual novels, and, on the other hand, narrative-heavy games with minor puzzle gameplay like Finding Paradise, Oneshot, and Firewatch.
And third, to say that it makes more sense to discuss the story than the gameplay is to imply that there is a sharp dividing line between those two things. I deny that there is such a divide. I believe What Remains of Edith Finch does a great job of interweaving gameplay and narrative—so great sometimes that there are segments of this game that I consider to be among the tiny-but-growing list of instances of games reaching the level of artistic excellence that is routinely found in older forms of art. But unfortunately, such moments (which I would not hesitate to say are brilliant), are in the minority within the game. And that’s true despite the writing of the game being truly solid and high-quality from start to finish. So that’s what I want to talk about now.
Naturally, there will be spoilers in the rest of this article. But if you don’t mind that or you’ve already played the game, let’s have a look.
The Artistic Achievement of What Remains of Edith Finch:
In a nutshell, the story the game tells concerns some of the lives and most of the deaths in the past few generations of the eccentric and extremely unlucky Finch family.
Most members of the family have died at unusually young ages and under tragic or mysterious circumstances. Early matriarch Edie is the only depicted family member to have made it past 60, and five depicted family members have passed away as children. Even spouses joining the family through marriage have sometimes met untimely ends. The family members themselves believe, with varying levels of credulity, that they and/or the two primary houses in which they’ve lived are cursed.
And true to that uncertainty, the game usually provides both a fantastical explanation for a death, and a grounded or pedestrian explanation as well. For example, the first macabre tale we hear is that of Molly, who was sent to bed without dinner on the night of her death at age 10. The journal in her room describes her having transformed into a sequence of predatory animals during the night, before finally being hunted by the human-eating monster that concludes the sequence. Yet the journal entry also describes her voracious hunger in the middle of the night driving her to eat a hunk of gerbil food, half a tube of toothpaste, and several probably toxic berries—so the transformations could be simply nightmares, and her cause of death simply poisoning. Some of the consumed animals are even described (seemingly superfluously) as mothers, hinting at Molly’s resentment toward her mom for being deprived of food.
Yet on the surface the minigames overwhelmingly favor the fantastical accounts, drawing us into the eccentric mysticism and superstition of Edith Finch’s great grandmother, Edie. This draws out a central theme of the work, the interior tension of uncertainty between understanding and mystery. At their best, the minigames in What Remains not only provide compelling depictions of the romantic descriptions of the deaths offered by the narration, but also direct or ironic mechanical resonances with the underlying experiences of the depicted individuals.
Think again of Molly. Her insatiable hunger is represented as an experience whose mechanics center on searching and chasing. A lesser game might set the whole sequence in a refrigerator, or on a plate. Either could depict eating just as well as the hunts that were used, after all. But instead, as players we see goals we want to reach actively running away from us, manifesting a ludic desire not unlike a hunger. The penultimate section even sees us temporarily playing as a beached shark, adding a desire for liquid to our existing desire for food. This impulse then turns self-destructive, as the ‘monster’ we embody to finish the tale has as its only form of locomotion being dragged around by its tongue, and people as its only prey. So we feel the slow desperation of a mounting hunger, and see the way in which following the tongue causes Molly to hurt (i.e. poison) herself.
This is great stuff, and it finds peers in the simple-yet-effective stories of innocent Gregory, incautious Sam, and (to a lesser degree) rebellious Gus. But work like that is not even the best that What Remains of Edith Finch has to offer. The very best comes in the story of Lewis, a cannery worker whose death by suicide is attributed by his psychiatrist to delusive dissociation from the world around him.
This is represented by a minigame that puts the player in Lewis’ station at work (beheading salmon with a wildly unsafe guillotine mechanism and then feeding the bodies onto a conveyor belt). Accomplishing that task is done entirely with one half of the game’s control scheme. The other half is used to simultaneously navigate a sequence of increasingly detailed fantasy landscapes on an expanding thought bubble that begins on the left side of the screen. In isolation, each of the two tasks has almost insultingly simple mechanics, and if the game had alternated between the tasks there would be nothing here to praise. The unconventional mechanical layering of the tasks over each other in real-time is the source of all of the segment’s power.
As the bubble expands and the navigational task grows more complex within it, the player may become concerned about an impending industrial accident. It seems as though the imaginary world is becoming a dangerous distraction from the real world. The fantasy bleeding across reality is paralleled by the fish task sometimes bleeding into the fantasy. As if to confirm the threat of the distraction, the fantasy is revealed to be concealing his mother Dawn expressing concern at one point, and it soon extends to cover the guillotine mechanism itself. As a player, I felt I could no longer rely on the simple guard rail to keep Lewis’ hand safe, so I was attempting to stop just short of the rail with each fish.
This proved to be a misunderstanding of Lewis’ situation. The threat posed by the fantasy world was not that it would distract from reality, but that it would replace reality. One of the two areas of focus and control always feels primary for the player, and initially the simple black-and-white maze in a popup bubble is the secondary action. The presentation of the narrative itself aligns with this push and pull, with the particular sentences that appear in each part of the screen pertaining meaningfully to that part. But it’s not long at all after the start of the minigame that the imagined environment steps up in both graphical and mechanical complexity, shifting to an isometric perspective that requires slightly more mental effort to move through. Soon after, they introduce noisy NPCs, and then ship navigation involving some momentum, and finally points of basic decisionmaking. Thus the slightly more complicated task of moving through the simple levels quietly takes precedence over the repetition on the factory floor.
At the time of his death, Lewis had recently begun recovering from a serious-but-unspecified drug addiction, and Lewis’ newly sober experience of reality as drab and muted in comparison to the increasingly enticing escapist fantasy in his mind aligns with the pull of his addiction. That what had once seemed a peripheral diversion has become the primary world for Lewis—is expressed mechanically. At the moment the narration says “my imagination is as real as my body,” the player’s two methods of control are once again unified, and the third-person camera of the fantasy world zooms into the player-character’s head for a first-person view; the player now controls an out-of-body experience as Lewis leaves his terrestrial life behind and embraces the fantasy. The fantasy even goes so far as to overlap completely with his own experiences, navigating the cannery building itself, which is where he discards his now-vestigial body and life.
This tight union of unusual gameplay and psychological drama is incredible. If the entirety of What Remains was as thematically challenging, as creative, and as mechanically resonant as that, I’d be telling everyone to drop everything and go experience it for themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not. Now, as this section is meant to demonstrate, it is still great work (with, in particular, great writing throughout) and has enough flashes of brilliance to be well worth the time of curious players; but for the purposes of this article, that is where my heavy praise for the game will pause until we get to the conclusion.
The Missed Potential of What Remains of Edith Finch:
Not every subplot of the game measures up to the high standard of creativity described in the previous section. While just about all of them are narratively sound, many are underwhelming in terms of mechanics. Every minigame was an opportunity for some mechanical experience to be crafted that interacts substantively with the themes of the accompanying story, and this is potential that is only intermittently captured.
A great example of this missed potential can be found in the story of former child actress Barbara. Her segment is a partially playable comic book, styled to resemble a Halloween horror feature like Creepshow or, more directly, Tales from the Crypt. The comic book effects are wonderful, actually. And I imagine they were no mean feat for the devs and artists to create. The complaint here is not about the style, but the substance.
The actual gameplay of Barbara’s section, such as it is, is made up of little slices of what could generously be called a third-person action horror game, set to John Carpenter’s iconic theme music from Halloween. There are basically three tiny segments that make up the experience. In the first one, she walks into the basement and then hits her boyfriend with a crutch. In the second one, she walks upstairs to her brother’s room and then hits a monster with a crutch. In the third one, she walks back downstairs and then doesn’t hit anyone with a crutch.
The reality of Barbara’s situation is tough to discern, but a broken railing in the actual Finch house which corresponds to a detail in the comic implies her cause of death may have been falling from the upper floor (possibly by slipping on a roller skate, or possibly by being pushed or frightened by her boyfriend Rick). These details surface in various distorted forms within the story of the comic, but—with the singular exception of when Barbara accidentally strikes Rick once—in no way whatsoever do they surface in, or interact with, the gameplay inside the comic.
There’s nothing about the act of walking around occasionally swinging a crutch that responds thematically and without contrivance to Barbara’s desire for fame, or her troubled romantic relationship, or dying on impact from a fall (if indeed that’s what happened). Again, the story, the music, the artstyle—those things, to some extent, do connect with the themes. It’s the mechanical relationship between the player and the game during the segment, the design of the actions possible and the goals offered, that drops the ball. Constant interactivity, control, and variable possibilities are the elements that set games as a medium apart from similar material being presented in a film or a play or, for that matter, a physical comic book. So when I set out to seriously analyze a game, those are some of the most important details I examine.
Unfortunately, underneath the excellent aesthetics of Barbara’s tale, the mechanics sit as a somewhat barebones, bland, hollow core. Yet there are numerous ways Barbara’s gameplay could have been made less bland, more evocative—stranger, in a way that responds more specifically to her situation. In conjunction with, or instead of, crutch-wielding . . . her apparently central scream (that supposedly lent her fame in her youth) could have been integrated as an action the player is actively able to, or is actively attempting to, perform. Alternatively, a puzzle mechanic could have entered in at the level of the comic itself, granting the player some degree of control over movement across the panels to uncover details that prompt Edith to remember relevant details in the house. Even a simple expansion of the existing design, such as a layer of minimal survival horror or adventure game inventory usage, could have given the mechanics more room to interact with the themes. For a brief and shining moment, the gameplay initiating with getting the key from the music box led me to believe something like that was about to happen.
Now, coming up with a unique and tailor-made mechanical concept to match the story would’ve likely been a lot more challenging than just handing Barbara a story-relevant weapon in the house environment they’d already built, and then giving her a few things to hit. But it’s a challenge I knew this team could overcome, because I’d already seen them do it by that point.
At any rate, moving on, sometimes the disappointment in a simple choice of mechanics is not entirely the fault of the mechanics themselves, but also their context. This is the case for Walter, Barbara’s brother, who—some time after her death—mentally and physically withdrew, into a bunker constructed under the house by his father. Walter then proceeded to live in the bunker for decades, believing the sound of a train traversing the track behind the house to be a monster that killed three of his siblings (Barbara, Molly, and Calvin). Ultimately, he emerges into a tunnel behind the house and is almost immediately struck by a passing train.
The relevant minigame allows the player to sample the tedium and regimentation of Walter’s daily life, by having them accomplish a short sequence of tasks (opening and drinking from a can of peaches) three times in succession, as a calendar jumps far forward between each iteration. On its own, this seems like a fine way to draw the player into Walter’s situation. It’s maybe a tad literal when compared to the magical realism employed in all of the other stories, but despite its simplicity it could be serviceable. The problem is that the simple and repetitive mechanics of Walter’s story are neither the simplest set of mechanics employed by one of the subplots, nor are they the only time repetition is used by one of them.
Simpler and almost equally repetitive exercises come both earlier in the game and later in the game than Walter’s story. Gregory’s frog jumping, for example, is fairly simplistic, though that one does contain a far more interesting conclusion. A worse offender would be the mechanics in the story of Calvin, which just involve pressing up and down to generate height on a swing for the whole duration. And learning about Edie’s story of the house in the lake, as well as the ends of Milton, Odin, and Edith herself—all mechanically boil down to simply holding a single button to advance through visuals and story. By comparison to that, Walter’s can opener and eventual momentary employment of a sledgehammer are downright exciting.
And speaking of Milton, context holding back the mechanics of a story feels like the possible culprit there, too. Like his brother Lewis, it’s plausible to say that Milton’s end was caused by embracing a fantasy. (And incidentally, with Lewis and Milton being two of Dawn’s three children, this goes a long way toward explaining Dawn’s vociferous rejection of the mythologizing of the family curse consistently perpetrated by Edie.) Anyway, Milton’s room also happens to come directly before Lewis’ room in the game. So, it’s entirely conceivable that the devs felt telling the story of Milton’s disappearance as a minigame that involves him disappearing into a fantasy world would’ve undercut or made redundant Lewis’ similar situation directly afterward.
Again, this presents a challenge. And yet again, I feel that challenge is an opportunity rather than a limitation. Assuming they strongly favored keeping Milton in the game and keeping his story as-is, the situation calls out for bold choices—like giving him a minigame with a unique look, and having Milton’s sketches appear over the graphics to tell the story rather than text, and possibly even giving the player some level of control over the mythic magical paintbrush depicted in his animation.
But maybe those suggestions are misleading. After all, Milton’s story feels like it’s mainly a reference to the studio’s prior game, The Unfinished Swan, which is a very mechanically inventive experience in its own right; Milton’s animation and The Unfinished Swan sport matching music and visual motifs. Ultimately, the problem isn’t that Milton’s story is a flipbook; the problem is that the stories of Milton, Walter, Barbara, Odin, Calvin, Edie, and Edith are all just about as mechanically interesting as a flipbook. And if they were the only characters in the game, we’d chalk it up as another art game with modest ambitions that simply wants a virtual 3D space in which to tell a tale.
But they aren’t the only characters. The stories of Molly, Sam, Gregory, Gus, and Lewis do noticeably more with the tools of the medium. Such sections showcase a tremendous level of both insight and ingenuity on the part of the developers regarding how mechanics and story can meaningfully intertwine. That’s why this article exists: because the creators of this game have made something great, but in doing so have occasionally hinted that they were capable of making something absolutely exceptional instead.
Now, there are other minor mechanical annoyances here and there, like the unnecessarily insistent way the game pulls the camera around every time it generates text—from the start of the frame narrative to the end—as if the player can never be trusted to decide for themselves whether to read along. But strictly speaking, little issues like that aren’t the same species as the main mechanical misstep I’m trying to highlight here, which is the widely varying level of inventiveness, thematic appropriateness, and interpretive complexity across the mechanics of the included minigames. The stellar attention to detail in the game—the way that not just prominent objects, but even minor stuff like the selection of books on the shelves, seem to be consciously chosen to reflect the people whose rooms you’re exploring—feels fully present in the mechanics of some of the family’s stories, and absent or at least diminished in others.
The frame narrative of What Remains of Edith Finch constitutes the only walking sim I’ve ever encountered that takes the time to offer a justification for why its player-character moves at a slow pace and refuses to run. And as silly as it sounds, that alone could be enough for it to endear itself to me. But fortunately it doesn’t really need that kind of extra credit. Regardless of anything I’ve said in this article until now, from writing to execution, what What Remains remains is deserving of the praise and accolades it has received.
Above all, the writing of the game, by Ian Dallas, is genuinely and consistently strong. Not just ‘strong writing for a game,’ but strong writing period. If printed on a page, the writing in What Remains of Edith Finch would not look out-of-place among the short stories of Joyce Carol Oates or Shirley Jackson.
Yet it is notably not printed on a page, and its chosen method of presentation does sometimes truly elevate the material. Sometimes. If we’re talking about achieving artistic resonances that couldn’t have been attained in the medium of film, then maybe not even half of the time. But still: sometimes. And that’s far better than most games, so it’s in that presentation that I see the germ of something more.
Games with artistic ambitions do not have to contain a single written or spoken word; but if they are going to employ traditional writing, I hope to see those games marry the themes of that writing to mechanics at least as well as this one. And it’s a realistic hope. We’re seeing more and more games releasing year by year that are amenable to being approached as works of art, with truly noteworthy works of art in the medium now surfacing almost annually. That makes me think that, if I am sufficiently fortunate, I could live long enough to see this new artform reach the level of maturity possessed by other existing artforms. Nothing would please me more. But maybe that’s just the romantic or fantastical account, the one that would please Edie. So, if the more grounded uncertainty and skepticism of Edith intervenes, in the meantime I can at least abide by her closing wisdom: “I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes, and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”
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