The new PS4/PC game What Remains of Edith Finch tells the tale of a doomed family living in a mansion off the coast of Washington state. It's a cool story, but what does it all mean?
My colleague Gita Jackson and I decided to get together and chat about Giant Sparrow's ambitious new game, what we make of the ending, and whether or not there was a "point." Spoilers follow!
Kirk Hamilton: Gita, you and I have both played What Remains of Edith Finch. I think we both found the game, what ... beguiling? Odd? Lovely? You wrote a review that I really liked, and I thought you and I should get together and talk about the game with full spoilers. Let's start at the very ending. What did you think of Edith's concluding chapter, and the way the game ended?
Gita: Oh Kirk! You've forced me to talk about the part I liked least right away.
Kirk: Hahaha quick, tell me what you DIDN'T like.
Gita: I have, no lie, been trying to put a finger on what I didn't like about that ending for the past two weeks. There are some clever things about the way the game ends -- when I realised, with a start, that the game began by opening Edith's diary and that I should have known she was dead, I was so happy to be utterly taken by surprise, and pleased that the narrative wrapped up so neatly. But there's something really cloying to me about using birth as a way to counteract the tragedy of death.
Kirk: I can definitely see that, about the whole birth + death thing.
Gita: It's a tired cliché, for one. There's lots of things really miraculous and unexplainable about life that aren't childbirth. And it makes the focus of Edith's story the fact that's she pregnant. I know this is a story about family and therefore progeny would probably play a part in it somehow.
But I was secretly hoping that when Edith narrated that she'd "found out" about another Finch it meant a secret cousin or something. When you back way out, ending the story with her dying in childbirth makes the game about a woman who was sad and then died. And the game's not really about that, at all!
Kirk: That's interesting that you say the ending wrapped up neatly. I'll admit that I was a bit frustrated by how Edie's story cut off just before she went into the house on that fateful night. I've reconciled myself to the idea that the point was that you weren't supposed to know what happened.
This family told themselves too many stories as it was, and the stories were bad for them. So it's not some grand ghost story, it's just a bunch of people who became convinced they were cursed. Dawn tears the book in half and that's the end of it. But I still found it unsatisfying. What do you think - was the Finch family cursed?
Gita: Like you said, I think the story is more about a family that believes it was cursed than whether or not they actually were. When you enter the story of each of the Finches deaths, the world warps into the way that they perceived it to be. If the Finches believed they were cursed, then they were.
In our own personal histories, we mythologize and ascribe importance to things that have no significance. Human beings are so addicted to giving things meaning that we truly believe we can see faces in the clouds. It's not good or bad, it's just how it is. I really liked not hearing the end of Edie's story because it forced me, as a player invested in the Finch family, to just live with how the family was in the present instead of how they might have been, long ago.
Kirk: Yeah. And what a bizarre family! I've been replaying on PC, and being closer to my monitor has given me a new appreciation for how many details the developers crammed into that house. The more stuff I notice, the weirder I think the Finches are. Like, in her room, Edie has a framed photo of her husband Sven in the process of falling to his death.
Gita: Jesus christ.
Kirk: Who keeps a framed photo of that??
Gita: Well, Edie is the one that's kind of obsessed with how the Finches keep meeting their grisly ends -- she keeps those stories alive. Still, fucking weird, Edie.
Kirk: I've seen linear narrative games like this criticised as being a bad value proposition because you can play through them in two or three hours, but I've actually been really enjoying my second playthrough. It's amazing how many little details there are around.
It's been a little like Everybody's Gone To The Rapture for me, in that I'm getting a lot more out of the story now that I know who everyone is and how it all fits together. I guess that's just another illustration of how games are generally better the second time.
Gita: When I was finished, I went back and played a few of my favourite sections again. I don't normally do that with games. Even with short ones, when I finish a game, I often just feel totally spent. The pacing of Edith Finch and its ambiguous ending just begs you to dive back in after you've finished. There were some that I actually felt too sad to revisit. Edith's older brother, who worked at the fish cannery… that is a brutal story.
Kirk: I saw you called that one out in your review, and, yeah. Lewis' story was definitely my favourite one. Just really smart and well done, and also so sad. I was struck by how often the Finches died doing something they loved. It almost made the whole thing sadder.
Gita: They did often die doing what they loved, didn't they? It's funny -- even though I try to ground myself in what I feel like is the "point" of the story and not obsess over lore details or whatever, I still find my mind sort of gliding back to small details in that dark, cluttered house. It feels like there should be a video game-y way to "figure it out" but at every turn the game pretty much denies that to you.
Kirk: I'm much the same. I've seen people doing similar things on various message boards -- that natural tendency to want to assemble the clues and solve the mystery. Which, if this story has a point, that point is, "stop trying to mythologise everything and figure it all out!"
Which ... well, I do start to ask, is this deliberate and clever, or just unfinished? They get away with it, ultimately. But I'm still not 100% convinced that the ending wasn't just the result of development challenges or something. Like, we have to ship this super ambitious game, some parts work better than others, let's just tie it all together with a mysterious final act where the big reveal is that there was nothing to reveal. I just get sceptical when I run into that kind of non-ending ending.
Gita: You know, the game felt so polished to me that I didn't feel like the ending was anything but deliberate. But needing to tie up the story fast would explain why the narrative swings to maudlin so quickly, in such an unearned way at the very end.
Now that I think about it, some of the stories felt half-baked to me in a way that betrayed perhaps a pressure to just get things done, like the one with the kite. But I also think that the overall themes of the story are clear and consistent? Mythologising the past ruined the Finches, and Edith's story is an attempt to undo some of that for her child.
Kirk: It does spread consistent big-picture themes over more inconsistent vignettes. In the end I liked that, even when a specific vignette didn't work for me. The wildly swinging needle was a big part of what made the game so surprising and enjoyable. Sam Barlow, the guy who wrote and directed Her Story, described Edith Finch as "narrative WarioWare." Which is so perfect it kills me.
Gita: Wow, I am so mad I didn't think of that.
Kirk: I know, right.
Gita: How dare he.
Kirk: The variety of weirdness in this game is easy to take for granted after a while, but I still can't think of any other game like it. Now you're driving a shark down a hill, now you're in a slasher movie, now you're flying a kite, now you're playing with toys in the tub. And the part with Calvin, on the swing!
Most games take a core set of mechanical ideas and build on them from start to finish, and Giant Sparrow seemed to just give that whole notion the finger. This game can't have been easy to make, but I'm glad they made it.