A Losing Game: Playing at Grieving in ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’

“It’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want you to be sad that I’m gone. I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all.”

 What Remains of Edith Finch is a ‘walking simulator’ – a term that was once used pejoratively to dismiss combat-free games, but that now denotes a genre that allows players to roam evocative spaces and to uncover stories embedded in the mise-en-scène. What Remains of Edith Finch is also, arguably, a dying simulator, since the core gameplay loop involves re-enacting the final moments leading up to the deaths of the protagonist’s ancestors.

The game puts players in the shoes of the titular heroine – a sensitive, articulate teenaged girl called Edith – and invites them to explore her long-abandoned family home. The derelict house functions as a museum, a mausoleum, and a metaphor for its former inhabitants, whose stories stalk the corridors, suffuse the architecture, and haunt discarded possessions. As Edith and the player move from room to room, the empty house gradually reveals what befell the previous generations of Finches through a series of magical realist vignettes.

The Finch house surrounded by forest with its tallest tower reaching high into the sky.

The Finch House in ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’

A dying simulator might sound like a pretty miserable premise, but as with other videogames discussed in this series, What Remains of Edith Finch explores mortality in a way that is affirming, even uplifting. The short time that Edith and the player get to spend with her deceased family members is precious and puzzling, unearthly and uncanny, fleeting and profound. Each encounter leaves the player with the strong sense that it is not death but life that is unexpected, startling, mysterious, and unfathomable. As Edith herself puts it, “If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things. But as it is, I think the best we can do it try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is”. In this game, death seems rather ordinary – even comforting and familiar – compared to the unpredictable, miraculous aberration that is life.

The house that players are invited to explore in What Remains of Edith Finch is much more than a story-receptacle: it is an active, responsive communicator that functions both as an accomplice and as an antagonist. Built by Great-Grandmother Edie and her husband Sven in the middle of the isolated, sea-bound forests of Orcas Island, the Finch family home is distinctly arboreal. It grew organically as the family grew, with rooms added for each new child, and extra floors constructed for every subsequent generation. It tapers and teeters into a precarious tower, scaffolded by stilts and the thick trunk of a native redwood that grew through the conservatory roof. In its state of abandonment and dilapidation, the house’s wooden cladding and beams are being re-wilded by indigenous plant life, and this windblown verdure compounds the sense that the house is very much alive. Light and shadow roll across its walls like flickering eyelids, floorboards groan in resignation, bending corridors beckon like crooked fingers, peep holes tease, and doors slam in sudden fits of indignation.

Edith’s narration not only anthropomorphises the neglected building, but also anatomises it, ascribing it human body parts. She comments, “Nothing in the house looked abnormal. There was just too much of it. Like a smile with too many teeth”. This simile succinctly captures the unheimlich allure of the building: it is simultaneously welcoming and menacing – indeed, the sense that the house is somehow predatory is linked to its seemingly generous hospitality. Behind the jumbled, cosy abundance of belongings is a gaping maw ready to swallow Edith whole.

Edie's bedroom, which is filled with books, painting equipment, and shows a bed with an oxygen tank nearby,

Great-Grandmother Edie’s bedroom in ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’

The house’s vitality is juxtaposed to the hushed, yawning absence of its former owners. The unfortunate Finches have all fallen victim to a family curse that causes many of them to perish in childhood. Those who are lucky enough to survive into adulthood meet sticky ends in freak accidents. Seventeen-year-old Edith is the last living Finch and, following the recent death of her mother, she has inherited the creaking, blank-windowed, timber-framed succubus that is her family home.

As Edith and the player enter a room in the house, they discover what ‘remains’ of each of the former inhabitants. Initially the player gains a first impression of the characters, encountering their outward selves that they share openly with the world. However, once the player and Edith start to explore the intimate spaces of their bedrooms by opening drawers, thumbing through bookshelves, and peeking into troves of souvenirs, they move beyond these superficial, constructed selves, uncovering the throwaway minutiae that reveal each character’s private fears and passions. The player becomes familiar with each character, learning the honest, mundane, unthinking habits of each Finch and seeing amongst these daily rituals humanising idiosyncrasies that converge to shape a complex, individuated identity. Making the characters’ acquaintance in this way is both uncomfortable and thrilling – the player is positioned somewhere between trespasser and confidant, a violator of personal space as well as a listening ear.

The game requires the player to temporarily assume the subject position of each dead Finch in a flashback that revisits the final moments before their deaths. The body-swap is triggered when Edith and the player discover a piece of media authored by, or written about, the character – a photo album, a letter from a therapist, a funeral elegy, a comic book, and a divorce contract, amongst other things. As the transition occurs, a different variation of the soundtrack’s melodic theme begins, a new narrative voice is heard, and the simple controls become momentarily unfamiliar as the buttons are ascribed new functions. However, the player soon gets comfortable in the ancestral body and there is a metaleptic sensation that just as the player is possessing Edith, so too is Edith ‘mastering the controls’ of a new avatar. This mechanical metaphor does the work of explaining these exhumations without explicitly designating the nature of the temporal and corporeal transportation. This fits with the game’s coy magical realist style, where competing truths allow supernatural myths to co-exist with mundane explanations.

First person perspective of a young boy with his leg in a cast on a swing.

The player is transported into the bodies of Edith’s ancestors.

It is suggested that in order to avoid accepting responsibility for the deaths of her children, Great-grandmother Edie dogmatically pushes a supernatural curse explanation for the Finches’ misfortune. Edith’s mother Dawn, in contrast, vehemently rejects what she sees as, at best, a delusion and, at worst, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dawn believes the ‘curse’ is only inherited by future generations because Great-grandmother Edie insists on chronicling it and offering it as an interpretive key to their lives. Cultivating a ready embrace of death does seem to seed a certain recklessness in the young Finches, which may accelerate their journey towards the grave.

Following the deaths of her two sons, Dawn leaves the house, taking Edith with her and abandoning Great-grandmother Edie to her fate. Dawn’s final, damning rejection of this charismatic matriarch who, rather suspiciously, outlives almost all her descendants, positions Edie as the villain in Dawn’s story. Edith, however, treads a middle ground between her mother’s bleak but practical realism and her Great-grandmother’s fatalistic magical thinking. “Maybe the stories themselves are the problem”, Edith muses. “Maybe we believed so much in the family curse, we made it real. Maybe it would be better if it all died with me”. Edith recognises that the Finches themselves sustain the curse, even as the ‘curse’ annihilates the Finches in a dynamic of deadly co-dependence. Edith’s ambivalence devolves responsibility to the player to decide how to allocate blame or absolution for the deaths of the Finch children. This is a difficult, confronting task.

The death of Edith’s older brother Lewis by psychosis-induced suicide is perhaps the most beautiful and the most painful of the game’s vignettes, not least because of the complexities surrounding suicide and agency that are explored in the relationship between Lewis and the player, who steers the teenaged character towards his demise. The player is permitted to experience first-hand Lewis’ psychotic delusions in which he is a voyaging king conquering imaginary lands, as well as the gory reality of his job at a fish cannery where he repetitively beheads salmon with a mechanical guillotine. The player strongly shares Lewis’ desire to retreat into the bright, cheery, musical world of his psychosis to the point the player’s desire for free exploration in this joyful hallucination comes to represent and be synonymous with Lewis’ suicidal urges.

The death of one-year-old baby Gregory, who drowns when he is left unattended in the bath, also induces uncomfortable feelings of guilt and complicity. In another medium it might be easy to blame Gregory’s death on adult negligence, but when one is forced by the game to open the tap that floods the bath and drowns the baby, the alternate narrative of an inevitable curse seems more appealing and better fits the experience of being coerced by the game system.

First person perspective of a baby playing with toys in a bath.

Playing as baby Gregory.

Gregory’s drowning is narrated by his father via a letter to his ex-wife that he scribbled on back of their divorce papers. The vignette has the player and Edith wave Gregory’s lovely, chubby baby arms like a little conductor, while Tchaikovsky’s The Waltz of the Flowers plays and his bath toys perform a balletic dance. Rubber ducks, a wind-up frog, stick-on bath letters, a bottle of shampoo, and a squirty whale bounce and twirl around the bath in response to the choreography communicated through Gregory’s gestures. It is charming and joyous, until the player gradually realises that the game will not progress until the wind-up frog – directed by Gregory, Edith, and the player – turns on the tap to overflow the bath. The water rises above eye-level, The Waltz of the Flowers reaches a merry crescendo, and Gregory’s plump, pink hands become green, webbed, amphibious limbs. Even if the player attempts to guide Gregory to swim upwards for air, the game prevents Gregory’s head from ever breaking the surface. He must swim after a parade of bath toys and dive headfirst down the plug hole into a diminishing pool of white light.

In his narration, the grieving father tries to exonerate and forgive his ex-wife, and, by extension, the player, for Gregory’s death. He says:

“I know how silly it sounds, that I worried about a baby being too happy, but I could feel him slipping away. I know you did everything you could. Maybe if I hadn’t called that night…There is so much I don’t understand. About Gregory. About everything. But I know what happened wasn’t your fault. I’m sure he’s happy. And he’d want you to be happy too.”

The player feels the father’s desperate need to narrativise this awful event, not only vicariously through empathy, but also through the player’s own desire for personal absolution for the role they played in Gregory’s death. The player’s actions in this sequence are both purposeful and accidental, voluntary and coerced, regrettable and necessary all at once, and this prompts the same dissonant feelings that are expressed on an audiovisual level, where the happy swelling of orchestral music, the saturated colours, and delightful animations are at odds with the tragic event being described.

The player’s inability to divert or waylay death is felt intensely precisely because this story is told via an interactive medium. Despite granting the player a degree of agency, the game does not allow the player to ‘save’ the characters. In fact, since dying is the only way to complete each encounter with an ancestor, death is established as a goal for players to attain. In this way, players are almost made to feel that they are the curse – they are the inescapable, supernatural force puppeteering the cast of characters towards certain death. Equally, the first-person perspective and the embodied, mimetic nature of the controls creates a sense of closeness between players and the characters, eliciting the unnerving sense that the characters are also wilfully complicit in their own deaths – that they, too, are unable to resist the compulsion to swing too high, to swim too deep, to dream too long.

Again, if all this sounds unbearably bleak and macabre, it is worth reiterating that each fanciful, fantastical vignette is full of pathos, gentle humour, magic, and irony. The game manages to be wistful without being melancholy, moving without being melodramatic. It provides a set of thoughtful mechanical metaphors for how intimacy with death changes the way we live, and – by centring the spaces that grieve us when we die – it prompts us to consider what remains of us in the world when we are no longer physically present. You can purchase the game here and it is available to play on PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

 

Posted: 15th December 2021