Every once in a while we have discussions about whether games can be called “art”. The game industry, born as an industry of toys and entertainment, has reached new heights since the last decade and has been presenting us with better, more detailed stories. While the bulk of the AAA games copy the Hollywood model of storytelling, there’s an increasingly number of indie games that prove, day after day, that yes, games can be art or artistically inclined. What Remains of Edith Finch proves that not only games can be art, but the medium can be an unique form of it.
One of the art forms that games are mostly compared to are cinema. The links are obvious. They both (at least since the wake of cinematographic gaming in the last decade) have narratives that are told visually. While some text based games can be more akin to literature (Planescape Torment, considered by many to be the best RPG ever, is often compared to a novel, for instance). The biggest difference between a game and a movie, though, is that cinema is essentially a contemplative experience and games are interactive. In most AAA games, that doesn’t mean much, as there’s only movie-like cutscenes in which you have no control and dialogues in which you can, at most, walk during the conversation. What Remains of Edith Finch could be another game that emulates the art of cinema, but it takes art to the next level in games, making it real interactive art.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a first person narrative adventure game developed by the indie studio Giant Sparrow. At first glance, the game game could be considered what is pejoratively called amongst gamers as a “walking simulator”. The gameplay is initially mostly made up of walking around in straight paths and interaction with objects pressing the same button. Still, as you progress, there’s a twist that makes the game unique.
The game tells the story of Edith Finch. The story is short (about 2 hours), so I’ll try to refrain from spoiling it too much. If you want to play the game in the dark, I advise you to play it and read the rest of the article later. Edith is the last remnant of the Finch family, a norwegian family that came to the US in the hope of running away from their “curse”. The so called curse is the fact that almost everybody in the Finch family dies young. Most of the deceased relatives of Edith died in their 20s or younger. The game begins soon after Edith’s mother’s death. She, then, chooses to go back to the house in which she grew up to face the stories of her family. The game could easily be, as it looks like in the first 15 minutes, an exploration of her past in the house, but it’s cleverly more than that.
As you start to control Edith, you are in a boat seeing the Finch house at distance. On your lap, there’s a book and a bouquet of flowers. Then, Edith opens the book and a story begins, the first one of many. One day before, you walk slowly into the Finch house through an abandoned path. The house stands there, ominous, and as you enter, Edith is surrounded by memories. Everything seems familiar. You slowly progress into the house, looking for a lock, as Edith’s mother gave her a key that was supposed to open something important. The house is creepy. Everytime someone dies in the Finch family, their old rooms are locked and left intact, so you can only look through the peepholes of those abandoned, gloomy rooms. Finally, you unlock a book, only to find a secret passage behind it that leads to Molly’s room. Molly Finch was a little girl that lived in the house. She died pretty young. As you finally reach her diary, you start to read and then control Molly in what is half a memory, half a dream. That’s when the game shows itself for what truly is: an immersive dive into the deaths of all your family members.
As Molly, you live a surreal story of hunger. She was so hungry she eats everything she sees. When she sees a bird and can’t reach it, she turns into a cat. You control Molly during this scene, turning from the cat into an owl and later to a shark. Finally, you turn into a monster, always eating everything in your way. It’s impressive how much you can dive into the mind of Molly. Her death is not completely explained, but in living a fantastic version of her last moments, you get to know her.
If What Remains of Edith Finch excels in something, it is not only in getting to present the Finch family with those flashbacks, but in making you feel as if you really are a part of the family. No other media could make a story like this. You are able to explore, from the things you find, the essence of who were the people in this family. The best example of this is possibly in the section in which you enter the mind of Lewis, Edith’s brother.
Lewis was a drug addict that worked in a fish cannery. As you read his psychiatrist’s analysis about him, you step into his story. You start controlling him as he chops the head of fish. If you are playing in a computer, with the right hand, you use the mouse to chop the fish. With the left one, after some time, you start to play a game, a story inside Lewis’ head, using AWSD to control his avatar in a world created in his imagination. Playing the two actions at the same time, you simultaneously feel his boredom at work and wonder about the magical world he is creating in his head. As you reach the end of this segment, the dream starts to take over and, little by little, it overwhelms reality. In the end, you are Lewis inside his head. You see him/yourself at distance and, as you walk by his side, you can feel the disconnection. You’re not him anymore, the real Lewis is the one inside his game, not that mindless shell working in the factory. You leave Lewis behind and follow the light, going to the “real” world inside your mind. As you finish reading the paper as Edith, you discover that your brother Lewis committed suicide.
More than a walking sim, the game tells an interactive story that only works because you are part of it. In examining the story of the Finch family, you explore Edith’s story and reflect about your own life and what it means to be alive. Even with its somber tones, What Remains of Edith Finch is an uplifting story about the inevitability of death, but also about the joy of life. While we still have unfruitful discussions about whether games are art or not (when they clearly are), games like this help to explore the boundaries in which games can be used as art and what kind of new ways of expression they can be made of.