I’ve talked at length about so-called “Walking Simulators” before, so I won’t waste your time in defending what is, by any estimation, one of the oldest and most storied tenets of design in the history of video games.
Instead, I’ll do my best to talk a little about a game that, to my recency bias, feels like it might be the best of any of these games to yet exist, What Remains of Edith Finch.
Hell is empty and all the devils are here
Released this past Tuesday, April 25, What Remains is the second game from Giant Sparrow, purveyors of critically acclaimed (and BAFTA award-winning) 2012 art game The Unfinished Swan. Set in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest (which has lended itself to being a great video game setting recently, especially games like this), What Remains puts you in the shoes of, you guessed it, Edith Finch, a 17-year-old returning to her childhood home for the first time in nearly a decade. She’s also the last surviving member of her extensive family, all of whom have died in or around the house and been memorialized by their bedrooms being left alone forever, like tiny museums.
What the game boils down to, then, is exploring this abandoned home, most of which Edith was never allowed to see as a child, and trying to figure out what exactly happened to this brilliant and creative family. Each successive room, starting from Molly Finch (1937-1947), all the way through to Lewis Finch (1988-2010), exists in that wonderful little pocket dimension that only this sort of game exists in, where everything you could ever want to know about a character is sitting right in front of you as knick-knacks and souveniers and a lifetime of experiences. I’ve always had an itch for exploring the places people live in video games. I spent a lot more time trying to figure out where everyone slept on the Normandy in the Mass Effect games than I ever should have, so the sort of environmental storytelling games like this do, with exhaustively detailed, truly lived-in places, has always been a huge draw for me. What Remains might be the new benchmark for the industry.
Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.
What makes this game so uniquely strange and wonderful is how, during the somber, meditative reflection on the combined life’s work of these people, one certain artifact or note will swap the player’s perspective to that of the deceased person, and will let you play through the exact circumstances of their death. And despite how macabre that might sound as a gameplay experience, these sequences are routinely some of the most exhilirating, lively and imaginative sequences I have ever played. From playing through a persistent day dream, to flying a kite in a thunderstorm, from simply riding a swing during a pleasant summer day, each sequence is thoroughly unique, aesthetically distinct and just plain interesting to experience.
Be not afraid of greatness.
“Experience” is probably the key word when talking about What Remains, because despite my best efforts, there are so many little things about it that are almost impossible to describe. It’s a very tactile game, the sort that makes you physically turn and twist every handle and key, open every book and grab every foothold. It’s also an extremely literary game, and not just in the way some games are when they’re trying to seem more intelligent. It’s in the way that the various Finch family members’ narration pops on screen, oftentimes highlighting the critical path or various points of interest. It’s in the way most of the Finch home’s secret passageways are hidden behind pop-up books, like something out of a postmodern fairytale. It’s the precise tone of sweetly melancholic magical realism that pervades every inch, like some strange combination of Gone Home and Lemony Snicket. This latter inspiration feels more apt for the game’s structure, which is essentially a series of short stories built around each Finch’s death. There’s a little bit of Borges, a little bit of William Carlos Williams in the simple lyricism of this game.
There are some perhaps existential frights to be found here, but nothing as creepy or even apprehensive as Amnesia: the Dark Descent or SOMA. It’s also not quite as slow or methodical as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. What remains (heh) is a game that sort of flies between those two extremes in stops and starts, its vignette structure lending a great amount of tonal flexibility and giving a thoroughly unique, almost storybook or nursery rhyme feel that is truly unlike anything else I can remember playing.
Oh, had but I follow’d the arts!
Most importantly, it’s in the way that, despite some truly obtuse sections, the game manages to both celebrate life and obsess over death. The great secret at the heart of the Finch Family isn’t that they’re cursed or haunted, it’s that they, like everyone else in the world, both real and fictional, are going to die. Even Edith Finch herself, some day. Even me. Even you.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun while we’re here.