The use of architecture to instill an idea, evoke an emotion, or influence behavior goes all the way back to the Neolithic period. Stone structures like the ones at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey silently attest to the power of buildings to mark their visitors. These ones are over 10,000 years old.
Representing both real and imagined spaces, video game worlds play into this timeless tradition of shaping space for emotional impact. They’re designed to affect people in sometimes overt ways: the narrow hallways of horror games like Dead Space for example are a common device for creating a feeling of claustrophobic dread. But games are capable of so much more than jump scares. What Remains of Edith Finch is a perfect example of how level design can be used to construct an atmosphere of thoughtfulness, reflection, and quiet contemplation. The game accomplishes this feat by carefully guiding players along a spiraling path around the Finch house. The meditative receptiveness created by wandering through this labyrinth allows the developer, Giant Sparrow, the freedom to whisk players away on a journey through all four dimensions.
The first of these dimensions becomes clear to you within about five minutes of gameplay: up and down. In terms of its physical structure, verticality is what truly stands out about the Finch house. You’d have to be looking at your feet not to notice the building’s impressive stature as you head up the driveway. The effect is even amplified by dipping down into the woods along the way. With its additive form and modular construction, the house looks like a half-played game of Jenga: tall, precarious, and curiously alluring. Something about it just makes you want to grab a support column and give it a good shake. Players of course progress towards the top as they get further along in the story, but the final objective is visible from the very beginning: it’s that tiny box at the tippy-top of the (family) tree. Your visit to the Finch house ultimately takes you from a fallout bunker below the basement to this airy loft above the attic.
The second dimension of the Finch house concerns the linear gameplay style implemented by Giant Sparrow. The designers wanted you to experience things in a particular order, so movement is only allowed in one direction: forward. While it’s possible to retrace your steps, the game subtly makes it clear that you’re going the wrong way by shutting off lights in the areas already traversed. Player movement in the game is a bit like highway traffic: it’s only moving backwards when something isn’t right. The designers though did a pretty good job of telegraphing where to go and how to get there, so things are almost never this wrong. The experience may not seem linear because of the game’s twisting track, but the direction of movement is always forward.
Spoiler alert: the following two paragraphs contain significant late-game spoilers.
Lateral motion is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. While it’s possible to strafe the camera left and right, What Remains of Edith Finch is a lot more clever in its approach to sideways movement than your average walking simulator. The history of the Finch family is told through interactive gameplay vignettes. Generally unambiguous, often abstract, but always amusing, each one of these involve death in some way, shape, or form: getting hit by a train, falling off a cliff, drowning in a bathtub, and so on. These are the game’s real approach to lateral motion. The player character stays firmly in place, but the gamer journeys into the subjective experiences of Edith’s dearly departed family members. More than a few of these vignettes even play with lateral motion for dramatic effect: the cannery scene in particular is a heartbreaking tale of hopelessness and loss, but mechanically consists of dragging lifeless fish from the left side of your screen into a slicer on the right. (The imagination of the vignette’s protagonist, Lewis, takes care of the rest).
Similar to the game’s approach to lateral motion, What Remains of Edith Finch handles the passage of time at least partially through its gameplay vignettes. Many involve skipping through time: Milton’s tale is even told with an actual flip book. The bunker scene jumps decades forward with each one of Walter’s gulps. These show us the Finch house in all of its past and present glory, but the fourth dimension was explored by Giant Sparrow in other ways, too. The main storyline plays out over the course of a single day: the player character enters the house at dawn, but reaches the loft after dark. The closing scene skips over a certain amount of time as well. The latest member of the Finch family is shown laying flowers on Edith’s grave. The main storyline plays with time as much as the vignettes, but the game even bakes this fourth dimension into the level design. The architecture and interior design of the Finch house communicate the passage of time in several different ways. Cobbled together over generations, the building consists of additive modules like the school, observatory, and loft. These are perched up there on the roof. Turning them into slightly unsettling time capsules, many of these were sealed off when their occupants passed away. Breaking into them represents an act of archaeology that transcends time by its very nature.
What Remains of Edith Finch may guide players through an exploration of these four dimensions, but there’s one question at this point which remains to be answered: what is it about the game’s spiraling track that lends it such meditative power? Spirals have been used for countless generations to create labyrinths. With a single course from beginning to end, labyrinths are not quite the same as mazes. These are actually a complex arrangement of branching paths designed to cause disorientation and confusion. Labyrinths on the other hand are meant to ease the mind and soothe stress. The most famous labyrinth is of course the mythical one built by Daedalus on the island of Crete, but these can be found all over the place: they’re inside Roman villas, Medieval cathedrals, and even modern gardens. Walking through them has been practiced as a form of meditation for thousands of years. Cutting a labyrinthine path around the Finch house, the simple spiral in this way plays a big part in Giant Sparrow’s multidimensional masterpiece. Allowing you to sink into a state of thoughtful contemplation, it frees your mind to explore the four dimensions of this whimsical work.
Originally published at www.slowrun.me.