Though What Remains of Edith Finch may draw comparisons to games such as Gone Home and Dear Esther, there are only the smallest of similarities in its execution. The return to a long-departed house echoes the former, while the musings on death may feel spiritually akin to the latter - yet Edith’s world is something far more complex than either.
The main subtlely lies in the way her story is told. A young woman revisiting her abandoned childhood home after receiving a key from her mother, Edith is chronicling the demise of her entire family from a suspected curse which has afflicted the Finches for generations. Brothers, parents, grandparents - all have fallen victim to tragedies, and only by using the key to access secret passageways and previously sealed rooms in the house will she begin to understand what happened.
Each of the thirteen members of the family has a story to relate, whether it’s the patriarch who decided to transport the entire house to the US and died when the ship capsized just a few miles from his destination, or the more mundane or bizarre deaths of her siblings. This isn’t a horror story - far from it - but rather an exercise in sadness. Throughout history there have been families who have experienced tragedy upon tragedy for no good reason other than unfortunate circumstances. Whether this is the case here is left for you to ultimately decide, but each journal you find and each account relayed to you offers something different, both narratively and aesthetically.
The house reveals its secrets in a linear fashion, with only minimal effort required to navigate from one highlighted spot to another. Edith narrates along the way, aural and visual signposts guiding you to the next hidden passage or focal point to move the story along. However, it’s in the vignettes of each family member that Giant Sparrow really goes to town, shaking up the narrative formula and the true essence of gameplay with a series of tales that are not only uniquely crafted, but strikingly different. You’ll move from a young girl’s fantasy about turning into various animals, to a child star’s comic-book style horror pastiche complete with 80s soundtrack. A baby’s bathtime will see you playing with adorable toys, while a hunting trip is portrayed entirely through the medium of snapshots.
Though each short section will end in death, it’s rarely emphasised or dwelled upon. There are moments of horror that will stay with you for some time - Sam, Lewis and Gregory’s tales are particularly heartbreaking - but this is due to the normality of their situations, rather than anything sinister. Where the game loses its footing somewhat is in some of the more obscure stories like Barbara’s, which uses graphical panache to mask an otherwise underwritten account and couples it with an unsatisfying ending.
Yet even the weaker sequences are short enough to be forgiven, and breaking up the enjoyable house-roaming with what are essentially challenge-free minigames is a smart move. The house has a character of its own, with a real lived-in feeling that dispels the creepiness that players familiar with Gone Home might expect. There are rooms filled with interesting furniture and objects, and only the bookshelves with their curiously recycled titles detract from the atmosphere. You can believe that there were generations of families here, and the perfectly preserved shrines to the departed speak to a mother who isn’t sure how to control her grief other than by locking it away.
Though the theme is one of death, the message that permeates is that of life - seizing the moments that make each day special, while knowing that it can be snatched away in a freak accident, or the slow deterioration from disease or mental illness. Such stories are portrayed tenderly, and clearly written by someone who has experienced heartbreak in their own life, as the credits indicate.
It may feel like a difficult game to sit through, but the two hours you’ll spend with What Remains of Edith Finch expertly blend storytelling with simple gameplay, which dulls some of the pain. In one effective sequence, a man working at a cannery chopping fish imagines another life, an interactive fantasy which appears on the left of the screen, and gradually consumes more and more of the gaming canvas as his daydream becomes a bigger part of his world. The twin-stick approach works perfectly, and though the conclusion may feel obvious to some, its impact isn’t lessened.
While other chapters of Edith’s journal require far less from the player, it would be unfair to lumber the game with the loaded mantle of “walking simulator”. This is an experience, certainly, and one that not everyone will enjoy. There is often an element of hunting for the next narrative hotspot which can border on frustrating at times. Yet, it is an effectively delivered story, and the game doesn’t outstay its welcome. The central mystery concludes in a manner which some may consider controversial - or even a cliché - but for this reviewer it rounded off the events in a satisfying way. Whether the supernatural is at play or not is ultimately moot, since by the time the credits roll your overriding feeling will be an urge to appreciate those around you a little bit more, just in case they aren’t with you tomorrow. And with that sentiment, What Remains of Edith Finch utterly succeeds.