What Remains of Edith Finch is the result of designing a game around a story, rather than the other way around. It’s an experience where every single element, from the audio to the way the controls effect what’s in front of you, serves a singular, narrative purpose. Which wouldn’t count for much if the narrative itself wasn’t very good. Well, What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever experienced. So it’s pretty great, if you ask me.
You play a young girl named Edith whose mother, for reasons that become clear, has given her a mysterious key. Edith, not knowing what the key unlocks, returns to her childhood home in the hopes of finding out what secrets her family has been keeping. It’s the sort of story where the mystery helps to guide you, rather than drag you along. You won’t be searching through cupboards trying to find out what terrible deeds people have done; rather you’ll be exploring perspectives, the little tales people tell themselves and those around them, worlds that are only as real as the imagination creating them. It’s at times mystical and vague, at others tragic and truthful in its harshness. It’s as much about individuals as it is about family, but family nevertheless runs deep throughout the tale.
The way you actually play it is as interesting as the story it’s telling. I played it on PS4, and it uses the controller with more freedom than I’ve ever seen before. Ostensibly it’s a walking simulator, where you look around and plod about, drinking in the beautifully detailed world. Frequently an opportunity will arise, however, to experience someone else’s story, and these controls will deviate. The game refuses to be tethered to one control scheme, and it finds a myriad of interesting ways to use a very limited number of inputs, while always enhancing the story being told. If it doesn’t help tell the story to, for example, be moving with the left stick and looking around with the right, then the controls will change. It solves the problem of walking simulators getting boring by only making you walk when it’s interesting to do so, and finding something else for you to do when it’s not.
The way these control schemes enhance the story is fascinating to me. It’s a game in service of theme and feeling, where pushing forwards on a joystick will always push you forwards through the story, but not always in the way you might expect. Sometimes it is as simple as moving your character, but sometimes it’s more complex than that. It’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the game, so I’ll just say that the connection between interactivity and emotion is as present here as in anything I’ve ever played. What Remains of Edith Finch is one of only a few examples I can think of where the story it’s presenting to the audience is just as important as what you’re doing whilst it’s being told. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes to mind, along with Simogo’s mobile output, but apart from that examples of games where the interactivity only strengthens the narrative are few and far between.
The results when story and gameplay are as intimately linked as this are incredibly powerful, and What Remains of Edith Finch has joined the increasing number of games where, once I’ve reached the end, I’ll just sit there and watch the credits roll, letting the sheer feeling of what I’ve just played wash over me. The best kinds of games, for me, often fit into one of two categories. Games that are toy boxes, where you are presented with a world and allowed to create your own little stories within them, and games that have a story they are trying to tell, and which pool everything together in service of that. There is a certain amount of room to play in Edith Finch when it comes to piecing the story together, thanks to there being enough clues around the house to tell entirely separate stories from the ones prescribed, but they don’t really come out of the gameplay. Instead What Remains of Edith Finch falls firmly in the camp of games that have a story they want to tell. What’s so special about this game in particular, however, is just how inventive it is in the telling. Over and over again it surprised me with just how well pitched it is. What could have simply been a collection of disparate minigames in lesser hands instead comes together to form one cohesive, emotionally resonant whole.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a very special thing. Games have so many tools at their disposal, and it’s refreshing, and exciting, to find something that makes use of them as eagerly, and as effectively, as this.