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.