What Remains of Edith Finch was released back in 2017 to an overwhelmingly positive reaction from both fans and critics alike. It tells the story of a family who have a penchant for dieing young, with the titular Edith Finch now the only one left standing. You explore the mysteries of the Finch’s home in an attempt to understand the family history, and are guided through a series of short stories chronicling the last moments of each family member. I have replayed the game almost every year since release, and as my life evolves different parts of the experience resonate more strongly or weakly than they once did. Any new parents who have played this game will understand what I mean.
What Remaains of Edith Finch (let’s use Edith Finch as a shorthand from now on) is beautiful and haunting, and if you haven’t already played it you should go and do so now. Spoilers from this point on.
Even if I’m not always playing through all of Edith Finch, there is one moment I revisit without fail; the tragic story of Edith’s brother, Lewis. Suffering from drug addiction (potentially brought on from guilt over another brother’s death), Lewis seeks professional help. His psychiatrist is able to convince him to seek further help for his substance abuse leading to Lewis gaining employment at the local fish cannery, a monotonous physical job without challenge or hopes for progression. Consumed by tedium, Lewis constructs an elaborate imaginary world for his consciousness to inhabit whilst working. Eventually learning to prefer his imaginary world to the real one, it is implied that Lewis takes his own life, through the brutally gruesome means of decapitation.
It is an undeniably sad story, but then so are all of the stories that the game tells. What makes this one special is the way in which the gameplay helps you to understand Lewis’ journey to suicide, and the way in which his imagination slowly takes over his entire reality.
It starts as few exceptional narrative moments start, with deep exposition. You find a letter from his Psychiatrist, Emily, has written to Lewis’ mother to give her professional opinion on the issues Lewis faced. Here, the expositional style is forgivable as it feels natural, the letter a believable part of how a pyshiatrist would communicate with a mother who has just lost her son. You are then transported into Lewis’ first-person view of his job and start to feel his monotony. Grab fish, move to right, slice off head, put on belt. Satisfying the first time, but it quickly loses its shine.
Lewis’ imagination begins to take over, constructing a maze for Lewis (the player) to navigate. Slicing fish with one hand, you navigate the maze with the other. Playing on mouse and keyboard, you feel the same physical sensations with your mouse hand that Lewis would have felt slicing the fish. Move hand left, move it right, move it up. Repeat. (I can only imagine that left handed mouse players lost something in this experience).
As Emily continues the story of Lewis’ mental plight, the imaginary world on the left of the screen evolves. The view subtly changes, shifting the world of 2D into 3D. Sound is added, the colours get more vivid. Additional characters join the scene. All of this representing that the imaginary world is growing in complexity and life.
By the time you set sail from Lewistopia, the imaginary world takes up a larger proportion of the screen than the real one. The sound of the fish slicer, once sharp and fierce, is now dull. Muscle memory has taken over in your right hand, like it did for Lewis, and you can no longer see details such as where you need to place the fish on the belt, or really anything else in the cannery.
In the imaginary world, you’re then given a choice about the gender of companion Lewis will seek. On first play-through I thought this was a simple attempt to be progressive and inclusive. Whilst this may have been a side benefit, I now think the developers’ likely intention was to force the player deeper into Lewis’ world. Decide how this new reality will grow and develop, like Lewis was able to decide. The boat you’re captaining then becomes harder to steer, and you’re incentivised to play closer attention to its control in order to hit musical notes (which of course any self-respecting gamer would want to hit). Deeper into this world you go.
The camera pulls closer, into a third-person, over-the-shoulder view. Lewis then seemingly steps back into the real world (see 7:28 into the video above), but it soon becomes apparent his mind has left his body. He has committed to the imaginary world, and the camera goes first-person. At this point there is no more fish, no more divided attention. Lewis can no longer discern the imaginary from the real. When his queen formally crowns him, and the guiletine falls, it hits like a punch to the gut.
It is as perfect a 10-15 minute sequence as there has been in any game, and is a scene that demands subsequent replay. The term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ describes the conflict games often face between gameplay and story. This is the exact opposite, ‘ludonarrative resonance’ (it occurs so rarely that I don’t believe a widely-accepted term has been coined for it). The player feels everything, and the gameplay matches the narrative perfectly.
The 2D maze that is initially introduced feels a surprise and unwelcome. It is clunky to navigate and the player’s brain can’t initially handle the two competing control schemes they are being asked to use. Over time, most players don’t get better at controlling Lewis in his imaginary world, they just tune out of his job at the cannery (the pace at which the fish flow through reduces to compensate for this). Compared to the dark bleakness of the real, the vivid colours and sounds of the imaginary world feel inviting and playful, and your attention naturally diverts toward it. You become more invested in that world as the camera gets closer and closer and as you make choices and pay increasing attention to your place within it.
Not all the stories in Edith Finch are quite as effective, but Lewis’ is a masterclass in narrative design. The sequence connects you with a character in the way that few games do, until its conclusion when you are suddenly jolted back into the main story. The term ‘walking simulator’ was applied to describe the game on launch, but this moment makes a mockery of that term. This sequence simulates the experience of being someone else better than most games have ever done. Ironically, Lewis, himself, remains sedentary for much of your time with him.
It is gaming perfection, not because it has a powerful core gameplay loop, or great game feel or any other traditionally valued attribute. Instead, it shows that games can be so much more than that; powerful moments that stay with the player as effectively as any book, movie, television show or piece of music. At times when I’m finding games boring, I remind myself that Edith Finch exists and I have hope all over again. It elevates the medium through effective telling of incredibly human stories, and I’ll always love it for that.