What Remains of Edith Finch is a family mausoleum in an indifferent universe
It's not possible to discuss What Remains of Edith Finch without comparing it with its predecessor, Giant Sparrow's Unfinished Swan.
A first-person "shooter" in which players fill in the details of painterly worlds -- literally, by splashing paint all over the place -- Unfinished Swan earned praise for its unique visuals and its novel spin on first-person gameplay when it released onto the PlayStation Network in 2012. Critical consensus has that the game was (fittingly) flawed but gorgeous, particularly for a first effort. But the independent scene has grown a lot since 2012. Any followup to Unfinished Swan now would have to evolve its concept considerably to stand out amidst its peers, not to mention its own predecessor.
What Remains of Edith Finch, which arrives next month on PlayStation 4 and PC, does draw on Unfinished Swan in a few significant ways, including its first-person perspective and its recurring themes of family and fantasy. But where Unfinished Swan concerned a single boy and his absentee father, What Remains of Edith Finch concerns entire generations of the Finch family, locked up in what director Ian Dallas calls a house-sized "time capsule" of the family's lives.
Edith Finch is not a horror game, says Dallas, but it does explore horror in a certain sense. During one vignette, which I'm told occurs late in the game, Edith enters a room belonging to her late brother Lewis Finch -- and comes upon a letter from his therapist, explaining in detail his deteriorating emotional state leading to his suicide. The therapist describes Lewis's depersonalizing job working at a fish cannery, and as players we use the right analog stick to move Lewis's blood-soaked glove from fish to fish, chopping off their heads and sending their flopping, lifeless bodies down the processing line. But, the therapist tells us in voiceover, Lewis soon started falling deeper and deeper into daydreams, fantasizing himself a hero and conquerer of distant lands, until this fantasy (controlled by the left analog stick) completely dominates his attention -- and our screens.
For the record, it's probably illegal, or at least ethically dubious, for a therapist to share the intimate details of a client's file, even upon his death. But ignoring that, the vignette is... complicated, to say the least. The player manipulates left and right analog sticks independently of each other, simultaneously navigating Lewis's fantasy world on one side of the screen and keeping up with the drudgery of his line job on the other. It's like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, except with more Fordist fish decapitations. If Unfinished Swan was praised largely for providing an accessible alternative to typical first-person games -- at a time when Dear Esther was still a novelty and Gone Home was only just germinating in the Fullbright Company's basement -- then Edith Finch's controls here subvert all of that. Mechanics will differ for each of the game's many vignettes and are designed to match the conflict in each character's story. Which, in Lewis Finch's case at least, means they're onerous, unintuitive, and disorienting.
Reader, I won't lie to you: I hate most "innovative" control schemes. I find them gimmicky and counter to most games' stated goals. I got what Giant Sparrow was trying to do by making Lewis's chapter a chore to play, but I couldn't tell you if that concept could translate successfully to an entire game.
Nevertheless, there are moments within Lewis's story which work unexpectedly well: the way the therapist's narrative would adapt based on how well or poorly the player balances both tasks; the literal "gating" of story moments in his fantasy world with performing work on the cannery line; the way the fantasy thought bubble steadily grew from occupying one corner of the screen to overtaking everything else. It was enough that I did come away from the hands-on with interest suitably piqued, even if I'm not completely sold on it yet.
When Unfinished Swan released in 2012, I was definitely among the critics who lavished it with praise. To me, it did not matter if the game had technical imperfections, or that the later levels of the game never really measured up to its intro, in which players have to fill out the edges of an all-white space. As a tale of family, parental abandonment, and creative anxiety, I felt it soared. With many of those same themes running through What Remains of Edith Finch, all of it wrapped up in a low-key gothic/weird fiction vibe, I'm definitely planning to check it out when it releases next month, reservations I have about the controls be damned.
"Weird fiction is the most explicit media representation I've ever come across that directly confronts what it feels like to bump up against a world that you don't understand," Edith Finch director Ian Dallas told me when I spoke with him earlier this week. "Usually, in games, when there's even a whiff of horror it's very grim. Gore, or jump scares. A kind of overwhelming dread. I feel that Edith Finch is paddling as fast as it can in the other direction. It brings up subjects that are ominous and overwhelming, but it's really more about the 'sublime' part of 'sublime horror.'"
What Remains of Edith Finch is due out on PlayStation 4 and PC on April 25th. Look out for our full interview with Ian Dallas this coming Monday!