This is the first post in the ongoing series Themes in Games, in which we explore some of the ideas at the core of recently released titles. The video game industry has been doing a lot of growing up in recent years, and as a result there is an abundance of content to choose from. You can find our interview with the game’s developer, Giant Sparrow, here. Warning: Spoilers are involved.
The “walking sim” sub-genre has become a staple of the modern indie game landscape, offering a unique vantage point for interactive storytelling. Giant Sparrow’s latest, What Remains of Edith Finch, is a great example of how to use this style of game to weave a thematically consistent message throughout its various vignettes. It tells the story of Edith, a 17 year old who returns to her family estate to discover the truth about the deaths of each of her relatives. The legend goes that the Finch family is cursed, with almost all of its members meeting their ends at an unusually early age. The halls of this eccentric home hold her many secrets, and by investigating her family members’ diaries she can dive into their minds during their final moments. Death is all consuming, but this is even truer for the Finch family tree. As a result this story is an exploration of mortality, presenting different methods of how people reconcile with this inevitability, and how they grieve. By forcing its protagonist to dive into the history of her family’s grim lot, Edith must decide how she wants deal with death, and as a side effect we must as well.
Dealing with Mortality
The supposed family curse is at the forefront of Edith’s life; the endless funerals for her brothers, uncles, aunts and grandparents defining her family history. Every member of the family is aware of the way things are, and as a result they all choose to deal with the concept of the curse in different ways. The two most extreme ends of the spectrum are Sam, Edith’s grandfather and Walter her great uncle. After their sister Barbara dies, Sam and his brother Calvin decide to live fulfilling lives despite their supposed destiny. While Calvin also dies at a young age, Sam goes out of his way to find danger, fighting in the marines and taking up hunting. Barbara’s death means something very different for Walter. He takes up permanent residence in a bunker underneath the house, believing that this will keep him safe from the whims of his fate. In essence, these are the two purest reactions to grappling with mortality; running from it, or facing it head on. Of course, Walter couldn’t live in a basement forever, and he finally leaves one day, only to immediately meet his end. Still the takeaway seems to be that despite the fact that these characters could very well die tomorrow, a life dominated by fear isn’t a life worth living at all. In between these polar opposites there is a wide spectrum of caution shown, each of the Finches offering a slightly different approach towards the prospect of their deaths. Furthermore, these approaches to dealing with their own mortality are intrinsically linked to how they deal with the deaths of loved ones.
Dealing with loss: Memorializing the past vs. burying it
Much like the dichotomy between Sam and Walter towards how to live, there is a similar divide in terms of how these relatives deal with the deaths of their loved ones. The two extremes of this belief also exist in the form of Finch family members, namely Edith’s mother Dawn and her great-grandmother Edie. Edie was around to see the entirety of the Finch family’s existence in America, and as a result was intimately aware of every tragedy. But instead of compartmentalizing each death, she instead chooses to memorialize them. She takes charge of the family graveyard, and paints portraits for each of her loved ones after their passing. She is the vanguard of her family’s history, keeping newspaper clippings and ensuring that peep-holes exist into the rooms of the deceased. From Edie’s perspective, the most damning thing she can do is forget the dead. This is crystallised when she returns to her family home on the night of the low tide, a symbolic moment in which she fully accepts the Finches’ past and future. After both of her sons die, Dawn takes the opposite approach. She seals the rooms of the departed, as if this futile act will stop the curse. She doesn’t tell Edith about her family, and in the end she runs from her home. Edith is given a choice, will she fall into her mother’s footsteps, or follow the example of her namesake? Although her choice is clear by the nature of the story’s presentation, a retrospective diary entry delivered to her daughter, the game chronicles how she arrived at this decision. At first, it is clear that Edith is somewhat unsure if having a child is a good decision at all. From one point of view, the life of a Finch is one that is marked by nothing but pain and misfortune. But by living out each of her family member’s final moments, Edith is able to see the great value that each of their lives held. Even in the cases where they didn’t live very long, each of the Finches found some degree of happiness, and the most happiness still when they accepted the curse. Her mother succumbed to fear and grief, broken by the loss of her brothers and sons, but Edith vows to do the opposite. While she ultimately comes to the conclusion that Edie’s path is the correct one, there is some degree of ambiguity to her choice. At one point she remarks that “Maybe we believed so much in a family curse, we made it real.”
The entire concept of a curse that afflicts this particular family implies that a sort of fatalism is at work. Perhaps these ties to a thought process of this kind can be traced back to the old world-origins of the Finch family. I don’t mean to imply that everyone in Norway in the early 20th century believed in this sort of superstition, but superstition has been a constant throughout all cultures for the majority of their existence, and this has only changed relatively recently. Ironically, by maintaining their connection to their heritage, it is possible that these notions have been made real. Still, the staunchest supporter of maintaining a family history, Edie, ignores the pessimistic tides of fatalism. She refuses to be dislodged from her home, whether due to the threat of a forest fire, or because of the inclinations of her granddaughter. Her will remains unbroken until the end. This shows that even in the worst case, if the concept of destiny is real and we don’t have complete control over our futures, that this is not necessarily a reason to despair.
Whimsy in the face of death
The creative director of What Remains of Edith Finch described his project as more of a melancholic ghost anthology than a horror game. Despite the fact that each vignette ends with death, his description feels accurate. This is largely because the usage of magical realism throughout leads to a far more whimsical tone than one may assume at the onset. Although on the surface it may seem as though the younger children’s deaths would be the most tragic of the bunch, life cut down too soon, they aren’t. Instead, the cryptic Molly and bubbly Gregory present their ends in the form of disarming fairytale-like escapades. Molly finds herself transforming into different animals in her quest to satisfy her hunger. Gregory unlocks a fantasy world through his rubber ducky and friends, morphing an utter tragedy into something with a certain sense of cheer. While these two cases are the most explicitly fantastical, shades of the magical are present throughout all of the tales. This light-hearted spin on a morose subject matter reflects the victims’ outlook on life, as the carefree children approach their deaths as ones who haven’t fully grasped its gravity. Similarly, Edith’s artistic brother Milton is just whisked away, the implication being that he entered the world of Giant Sparrow’s previous game, The Unfinished Swan. While this outlook is clearly beneficial for its younger victims, a life that fully embraces fantasy to cope with death is disastrous. Lewis also gravitates towards his imagination, but in an all-consuming fashion. His day dreams spin free during his tedious hours at the cannery and, in the game’s most striking interactive sequence, the player must multi-task beheading fish while also progressing the world of his imagined kingdom. But in the end, his daydreams spiral into his reality and his depression grows fatal. Edie represents a balance between the worlds of fatalism and fantasy, embracing the whimsical outlook of her children, without being consumed by it.
In the end, Edith decides to embrace the possibility of death, and completes her quest to find out her family’s past. Similarly, she becomes the torch-bearer for her family’s past, passing on this family history to her daughter. While Edith doesn’t live through the birth of her child, she accepts the possibility of death instead of running from it.
Although What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that’s concepts exist very explicitly in the text, this isn’t a bad thing. The themes permeate through the 13 melancholic short-stories, weaving a consistent narrative that deals with the nature of mortality and loss. The Finches may be characterized by their misfortune, but they are equally defined by their fortitude in the face of death.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available now for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.