Video Games

It’s a video game about death. So why is it the best game of the year?

'What Remains of Edith Finch' explores dark themes

Video game reviewer Rory Appleton plays "What Remains of Edith Finch," which was released Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Here's a sample of the dark game.
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Video game reviewer Rory Appleton plays "What Remains of Edith Finch," which was released Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Here's a sample of the dark game.

This week, a fancy magazine – I won’t name names, but it’s the opposite of The Pacific – published an article saying that video games are better without stories. Books, TV shows and films tell better tales, so why does the medium even try?

This hot garbage take is made worse by the fact the article was written in reference to “What Remains of Edith Finch,” an independent game released Tuesday.

The piece is laughable because it answers its own question in the first few paragraphs. “Edith Finch” is precisely why video games tell stories. The player’s quick, macabre journey into six generations of a cursed family is made all the more powerful by the interactivity only possible through video games.

“Edith Finch” is the gaming equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Some would call it too short, but it’s exactly as long as it needed to be. It’s dark but not gory. It invokes fear without jump scares – a gothic masterpiece that surpasses “Don’t Starve” and “Limbo.”

I had a feeling about “Edith Finch.” It was odd – something that happens maybe once or twice a year during my 30+ reviews. I looked at a press release and a trailer, and I just knew it was going to be something special. It seemed unique but somehow familiar, bringing in elements from narrative-heavy games like “Gone Home” and “Life is Strange” to tell a fantastically dark tale.

Players assume the role of Edith Finch, a teenager returning to her ancestral home as the last surviving member of – basically the worst family to ever live. As she enters her deceased relatives’ rooms, a short vignette tells the story of that person’s final days.

Yes, “What Remains of Edith Finch” is entirely about death. That can be tough to stomach, particularly the demise of Edith’s 1-year-old uncle. Despite the subject matter, this system creates a game that lives and breathes unlike any other. Because each vignette is so different than the others, you feel as if you are playing a dozen different games blended into one.

Developer Giant Sparrow experiments with these tiny tales to great effect.

One of my favorites tells the story of Edith’s scream queen great-aunt through a cheesy horror comic book clearly patterned after “Tales from the Crypt.” The theme from John Carpenter’s “Halloween” plays at exactly the right moment – cementing a time stamp on the vignette perfectly.

The longest and most powerful tells the story of Edith’s older brother, whose mundane job at a fish cannery causes him to spiral into madness. The player’s right hand controls his actual work, while the left hand navigates his imagination. This scheme creates the video game equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time, as my brain had to juggle two separate motions on the same controller.

Remarkable storytelling and innovative control/perspective changes like this are the hallmarks of “Edith Finch.” Not every experiment works. The hungry little girl was a bit much. But I loved the willingness to try all kinds of different gameplay and storytelling techniques within one five-hour game.

A fantastic musical score enhances the power of each tale and the overall story. Every choice was perfect.

A lot the reviews I read after finishing “Edith” criticized the game’s lack of interactivity. And I get that. It is something that is watched far more often than it is played.

But I have never faulted a game for that, nor have I lobbied to strip it of its gamehood because it doesn’t have enough button prompts. If something – anything – tells a great tale, then how you consume it or what you call it doesn’t matter. It’s worth your time.

It’s difficult to put into words why the story is so good – especially without spoiling it. But I think it’s the narrative’s dance on a tightrope.

On the one side, you have what the player actually sees, which is often impossible and fantastic. On the other is what really happened – at least, what you think really happened.

Each vignette seems to have a plausible explanation for the horrific death depicted, but the game never tells you which is real. The cannery employee either ascended to a magical world or died from a psychosis-induced industrial accident.

The family is cursed, but what does that mean? Is there a supernatural force at work? There must be. Most Finches die in some insane accident.

And if that’s true, then perhaps what I saw while playing is what actually occurred. The logical explanations were only put there to trick me.

Or perhaps the realistic elements were real, and the Finch family was done in by nothing more than deeply rooted mental illness and horrible parenting. How many families in Victorian literature suffered the same fate for the same reasons?

I played through “What Remains of Edith Finch” twice in two days, and I still don’t really know what the game is about. The lines between reality and fantasy blur, as if I am watching sound waves wobble on a monitor.

I do know this: Games that leave that kind of effect on us – especially given its brevity – are something to treasure.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Video game review

▪ Rated teen for blood, violence and a drug reference

▪ Developer: Giant Sparrow

▪ Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

▪ Out now for the PlayStation 4, PC and Mac

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