Fresh off the heels of their BAFTA Award-winning title, The Unfinished Swan, developer Giant Sparrow looked to create something new; a transcendent experience that conjured the feeling of overwhelming beauty. Released in 2017, What Remains of Edith Finch was the resulting product. Like other “walking simulator” titles such as Dear Esther and Gone Home before it, What Remains of Edith Finch provides a hauntingly memorable narrative on the concepts of human connection. Whilst those older titles eschewed innovative mechanics in favour of presenting their stories, What Remains manages to mix up each of the Finch family members’ experiences with a twist in the gameplay.
At the heart of the title lies a tapestry of short stories, each told from the perspective of a different member of the Finch family. We unravel this tapestry slowly and seemingly through the eyes of Edith Finch, the last surviving member of the family, whilst on a trip back to the family’s ancestral home after inheriting it. As she journeys through the home, she finds her way into each of the sealed bedrooms of her family members, adding pieces to the superstitious anthology that hangs over the Finch name. Each story offers a distinct voice and thematic focus. From Molly's hypnagogic journey through her imagination to Lewis' poignantly tragic exploration of escapism, we see firsthand the pains and misfortunes that hound each member, even if they’re told in abstract forms.
For such a lonely game, these windows into each story humanise the Finch family, both as a whole and as individuals, crafting multi-dimensional characters that form such a vast and multi-generational family, despite showing relatively minimal interactions between them explicitly.
The Finch family home, a sprawling and labyrinthian mansion perched on the edge of a cliff, is full of bedrooms — each sealed off by Edith’s mother, Dawn, after growing superstitious about an apparent curse affecting the family — richly detailed and acting as time capsules to the era and age of their former dwellers. The home as a whole encapsulates the passage of time, showcasing the architectural evolution of the Finch family across generations as it grew larger, with new extensions and floors haphazardly sewn onto its sullied roots, becoming its own addition to the family — an unspoken and unacknowledged member of the Finch dynasty.
For me, the most haunting parts of What Remains of Edith Finch, though, are the more specific aspects of two specific Finch stories: Walter Finch and Lewis Finch.
With a history of both mental illness and substance abuse, Lewis’ story is a surreal exploration of the human psyche, as he slowly becomes more enthralled by his vivid daydreams, to the point that he eventually loses touch with reality altogether. Trapped in a monotonous job and affected by the disappearance of his younger brother, Milton, he relies on daydreams to escape from the constraints of his life, crafting a beautiful fantasy land where his repetitive work tasks transcend into a heroic life as the ruler of a kingdom. It’s easy for us to be swayed by this fantasy, as the drab visuals of his work in a cannery slowly fade behind the colourful veil of his reveries. Still, it’s hard to shake the deeply rooted undercurrent of isolation and melancholy that fueled these thoughts to creep up on him in the first place. It’s not until the climax of his story that we’re struck back to reality, with the weight of the world rushing back to meet us after we’ve spent the last section of the game in Lewis’ metaphorical shoes.
Walter’s story follows a similar sort of foundation. Isolating himself with self-imposed imprisonment in the Finch home’s basement, where he’s crafted a bunker to protect himself from the world outside, he follows a repetitive daily routine where he listens to the radio and opens a can of peaches to eat as a “monster” outside his door rattles his fortress every day at noon. This continues for 30 years, as each time we replay the routine, the music on the radio updates with the times, and the calendar on the wall dredges through the leaps in time. Then one day it all stops; there’s no more rattling and shaking of his bunker at noon. After a week, he decides he’s finished waiting and chooses to leave whilst he’s able to, letting go of his fear and anxiety. He steps out of his prison, slowly approaching the world outside, noting that he’s going to appreciate life, and his section draws to a close with the words, “I can already feel the sun on my face.”
I tried hard to finish this article with a section on why these two stories had such a profound effect on me. I have all the emotions gathered within me, but I can’t seem to find a way of converting them to words on a page. I had pictured a poignant finishing paragraph that would wrap this retrospective piece up satisfyingly and intelligently, but I have to apologise that I can't. Lewis’ struggle in search of solace and human connection and the way Walter is held hostage by his guilt and anxiety, stayed with me long after I finished the game, and maybe that’s the best way that I can express its importance to me. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. I find myself replaying What Remains of Edith Finch every six months or so, notably because I need to hear the following words said by Edith during the climax of the title in a context that reaches me closely:
“If we lived forever, maybe we'd have time to understand things, but as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes, and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”