System: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch | Released: April 2017
Developer: Giant Sparrow | Reviewed On: PC
What Remains of Edith Finch is an exploration 'walker'. A game that is, in fact, not a game at all but an experience. An ode to the dead members of the cursed Finch family. I see it as more of an interactive memorial and you'll see why (or know why if you've already played it).
Released in April 2017 using the Unreal Engine 4, WRoEF poses as a limited adventure in which Edith returns to her family home on Orcas Island, Washington State to learn about her heritage that is depicted in various unsettling and wondrous ways. Edith is faced with her family's abstract and 'bolted-on-to' house where every room is assigned to a late family member and has been sealed up after their deaths. Each room acts as a coffin or a memorial shrine to the dead and is detailed as such. The game follows Edith through labyrinthine secret passages, as she works around sealed doorways, gaining access to each room and learning about the family members' lives and deaths. Now, all the family member segments are shown in very different, whimsical and sometimes magical ways - each one an enchanting vignette of death enshrouded in life but different in perspective - an ultimate juxtaposition of two symbolic states of existence encapsulated within each room.
The 'game' begins as you exit the ferry ride over to Orcas Island with your journal in hand and requires the player to navigate to the family house overlayed by Edith's narrative which already holds an air of anticipation sure to last the entire game. This is the first glimpse you get of the family home (below, right), an ominous and foreboding image almost grayscale against the eery backdrop.
As you work through the family members' rooms upwards through the house, 13 of them, you realise that the actual structure of the building is metaphorical and meant to mimic the family tree, almost as it appears in your journal.
Where visuals are concerned, the developers at Giant Sparrow have been able to inject their abstract style and heart into the game whilst overlaying the entire thing with realism and sensibility. They have managed to blend so much colour into a dull, almost sepia environment...and have done it unquestionably well. So much time has gone into the detail of each room, too, and it is entirely obvious when you pan the camera around.
You are met with a classic victorian style decor in the first few steps of exploring the house. This changes fluidly as you systematically work through the rooms, and transforms to more aptly portray the family members' personalities with added effect from the items placed within them - this works perfectly as the items tell the stories that are shown and attach them to the room as if with strings. The methodology of this is ingenious in the way that inanimate objects breathe life into rooms that are, essentially, 'coffins of the spirit' and keeps each story as close as possible to the extent of the physical dimension. I struggled to soak in every single detail and it was only after each dream-like chapter that I noticed the items' attachment to the family members. So full of life even after death. The house and it's mismatched interior holds a very specific charm, as well, that stays with you throughout.
One thing that is notable is that there are books everywhere - an aspect I'm more than in love with. If you know me, you will know that I'm an avid reader and take so much pleasure in seeing libraries of book collections and old tomes; there's just something satisfying about it. Books are strewn everywhere; on shelves, open on tables, on beds, on sideboards. The Finch's were quite clearly readers and are now having their stories told in the form of an episodic-style game synonymous with chapters of a book.
The graphics are nothing revolutionary but are more than adequate for the style and direction Giant Sparrow has gone in. One thing to take note of, actually, about Giant Sparrow's environment in WRoEF is their skill in producing realistic lighting with the engine. The way the lighting is used, as well, aids both story and gameplay and is strategic in creating an appropriate effect, even down to the last spec of dust floating through a beam of light from outside. Sensational.
The soundtrack to the game is a journey in itself and holds a dreamy, sonata-style structure. It follows you through each story, is emotionally moving and provides a cinematic edge to dramatic effect. Not only that, it's musical shifts in minor key allow each story to come alive in your head and compounds the emotion felt in each room whilst retaining a relaxing aura. I found myself taken entirely in its beauty, complexity and orchestral brilliance.
The game is narrated by the protagonist Edith Finch (Valerie Rose Lohman, Wolfenstein), whose voice is essentially perfect for the part. Her vocal timbre is pure and authentic, projects both dulcet warmth and cold melancholy, and suits the role more than I can imagine anyone else's would. Her acting, although there isn't much to it in range, is excellent. So much so that I believe that it has helped the game win various awards for best narrative in the subsequent years after release.
Accompanying this narration are subtitles that are creatively implemented on-screen, acting as part of the stories and environment, and moving as such instead of being slapped on top as an overlay of sorts - they are part of the game. One story, in particular, stands out (above) in which you control a kite and are able to obscure the subtitles and use them to destroy objects on the beach as they attach to the kite's tail. Again, another lovely touch, adding texture to the format of the game.
I don't think the gameplay that Giant Sparrow has designed is particularly innovative but is entirely adequate and almost ergonomic. It's more about the context and story which give the gameplay its reduced importance and essence and, effectively, you forget about the gameplay altogether whilst playing, because of this. It's simple. But the game doesn't warrant anything more. It is as per design intent and is purposely limited in complexity as to not steal focus away from the entire movement.
In each memory, you become a deceased family member at the last few moments before their deaths. In one, you take control of various animals, depicting the imagination of the child that dies.
In another, you enter the imagination of a fish factory worker consumed with his created world.
And in another, you are working through a comic book set of scenes telling the story of a death as you turn the pages.
The range of formats and styles in gameplay and art is brilliant and is what gives the game a varied edge, keeping it interesting and engaging.
Finally, we are met with the perfect end where Edith is finally at the top of the house in her former bedroom. At this pinnacle point, after experiencing a number of emotional reveries, you find that Giant Sparrow has included something that pushes the game to a beautiful crescendo; she is pregnant. After all that death, life begins again. I have to admit, this hit me hard. I found myself taken aback and tearily-eyed. A culmination of death and darkness, washed away by light and hope.
In a full swing of passing views, the game is a body of water; it just flows and is due to a mixture of things beautifully crafted and working together like a symphony - the mechanics, the visuals, the story, the music. This, I believe, is how it was designed; to keep you playing without pause. I almost finished it in one sitting without realising. It really is that fluid and is the perfect length within its context, though short as far as games go - not to mention brilliant and beautiful.
The game is both relaxing and surprisingly unsettling with an underpinning theme of sentiment laced with apprehension. It's Giant Sparrow's ability to combine these auras and atmospheres, that gives the game its unique quality and its extraordinary prestige.
Innovative, beautiful, and a profound story of life within death.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a work of art and should be heralded as such in the community. This game gets the 'SkyPunk MUST PLAY' from me.