What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the Most Powerful Metaphors for the Potential of Narrative Unique to Games
Games have become increasingly comfortable, and adept at telling short stories. Yet they rarely try to borrow the literary format of a collection of self-contained short stories or character vignettes united by theme. And they’re rarely comfortable telling a story that is itself about the power, danger, and mutability of stories themselves.
Enter What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017), a first person, narrative exploration game that explores the hilariously macabre history of the Finch family. Each ‘memory’ is played from that character’s perspective and through a unique twist on the gameplay itself.
I don’t want to spoil too much, as there’s such joy in discovering each of these twists for yourself, but Rock Paper Shotgun have made a great analysis of one of the best memory-stories, and how it perfectly interweaves narrative with actual gameplay mechanic in a way that furthers and elucidates both. The scene is a triumph of true narrative design, the kind only a videogame can employ.
Aside from that specific example, what I loved so much about the game is that it’s not afraid to have only the vaguest through-line between them all. That’s no disservice to Giant Sparrow. Intentional or not, it allows each of the Finch family memories to really stand out without being muddled by somehow needing to serve the ‘main’ (that is, the present-day) character’s own narrative. To put it another way, the girl you begin the game as is on a journey of self-discovery through the discovery of her family’s stories.
Many reviews (virtually all overwhelmingly positive) of the game focused on the magical-realism, the haunted-house tropes (which is a reach) or the sense of tragedy and loss. None of those perspectives are wrong of course. My experience however was bizarrely uplifting instead of depressing, and the ‘magical-realism’ element seemed much more like expressionist quirks of memory/oral tradition than something that had actually happened in-fiction.
Now, the moment-to-moment writing sometimes errs on workmanlike, the game is very short in terms of play-time and some character-stories seem oddly truncated. Yet, they work; as a montage, and because they don’t attempt to definitively answer the mystery of whether the family curse is real or a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what you’re left with is a collection of incredibly terse and cogent stories, each with an engaging gameplay twist that takes you even deeper into the non-verbal feeling of that character.
Stories have power, the game warns, and they can be corrupted, and manifest, new stories–isn’t that an incredible metaphor for the potential of videogame narrative if ever you heard one?
And that’s what game writing at its finest is, as opposed to literary writing that has been placed in a game. And that’s why WRoEF should be studied very closely and enjoyed very emphatically by anyone who is invested in story-telling in videogames.