For several minutes I sat on my couch thinking about the story I had just experienced, letting Jeff Russo’s gorgeous, looping soundtrack envelop me. I had spent the last two hours playing through the entirety of What Remains of Edith Finch, the highly decorated 2017 release from developer Giant Sparrow, and all I wanted was to sit there, soaking in the afterglow.
That I loved Edith Finch came as no surprise given the game’s surfeit of accolades and my own considerable affection for Giant Sparrow’s prior game, The Unfinished Swan (2012). An expectation of storytelling quality never really prepares you for it, though, because the act of experiencing a compelling narrative is inherently novel. The mental displacement of being pulled out of your world and into a story’s is arguably the greatest joy of narrative consumption and, especially in the last decade, video games have become adept at providing consumers with that experience. This is the great achievement of Edith Finch.
The game is a walking simulator, an industry standard/pseudo-derogatory term for the interactive novel, in which the player’s actions are minimal and primarily serve to advance the game’s narrative. Lacking action set pieces or addictive game loops, a successful walking simulator subsumes the player into its story, making both the narrative and the game world as real as the experiences in any book, which is to say, as real as anything.
Edith Finch expands on those genre expectations by incorporating a small number of mini-games as detours from its core walking simulator framework. These passages deepen the player’s narrative connection through storytelling elements as well as gameplay mechanics—a particularly compelling sequence is set against the drudgery of working in a fishing cannery and tells a story about using fiction to escape an unsatisfying reality. The player is given a meaningless, repetitive task then gradually distracted from it with a fantasy story that literally expands across the screen, blocking out the cannery setting almost completely. But, crucially, not quite. It’s one of the most emotionally impactful moments I’ve played in a game.
If these passages set the story’s stakes, then the core walking mechanic gives it necessary room to breathe. The narrative of Edith Finch is centered around the Finch family and the terrible curse that seems to be in their blood. Beautiful environments and tight scriptwriting make the surface story memorable but it’s the subtextual story that is much more interesting. Edith Finch is a doubly nested narrative: At the outermost layer, the player character is reading a journal; one degree in, the bulk of the gameplay puts players in the shoes of the titular Edith Finch as she writes that journal; and at the innermost layer, strategically placed vignettes—inspired by even more journal entries and letters—focus on Edith’s various family members. The main character of the story, however, is the Finch home.
In conjunction with its genre experimentations, Edith Finch is successful largely because of the brilliance of its setting: The player climbs through the story’s twisting fiction and towards its climax just as they climb through the labyrinthine twists and ever-escalating architecture of the Finch family home. Those aforementioned vignettes use a clever bit of time manipulation by revealing unseen sections of the house in flashback before sending the player back to explore them; the result is that as the player walks through the Finch house its walls and hallways begin to feel familiar, like you’ve been there before, like it really is the ancestral home to which you’ve returned after so many years away. And that captures the magic of Edith Finch, a game in which characters you’ve never met turn out to be family and in which you explore a place you’ve never been only to discover that it’s home.
I love games like this, and the humming resonance they leave behind.