I’ve lost count of the number of fish heads I’ve lopped off. For the past 10 minutes, I’ve been standing in one spot, pulling a dead fish from a conveyor belt, slicing off its head, and then grabbing another. But while my hands have been occupied with the monotony of manual labor, my mind has been elsewhere, delving into a fantasy realm as a means to fight off the boredom. The longer the work day goes, the more elaborate the fantasy gets. Soon it’s hard to tell which is more important, the dream or the reality.
This fish-chopping story is one of a dozen featured in What Remains of Edith Finch, which launches on PC and PS4 next month. The game follows the titular Edith as she makes her way through a sprawling home in Washington, exploring the history of her family over the course of a century. It’s the video game equivalent of a short story collection, with a dozen different tales, each one uncovering a different family member. But what makes the stories unique is how each uses a different notion of play to communicate its story as — like chopping the heads off fish.
“All of these stories are really about people being overwhelmed in different ways,” says Ian Dallas, creative director at developer Giant Sparrow. According to Dallas, the cannery level appears later in the game, and is one of the more complex stories in Edith Finch. I played through the entire sequence — which took maybe 15 minutes to complete — and it’s a remarkable example of using the interactivity of a game to communicate an experience.
Things start out simple. The scene plays out from a first-person perspective, with you — playing as Lewis Finch — firmly planted in front of a fish-chopping station. Fish come in from the left, you use the right stick to grab them, pull them to a slicing blade, and then toss them onto a conveyor belt. This process repeats on endless loop.
But at the same time, Lewis Finch starts to fantasize. It starts in the upper left corner of the screen with a tiny black-and-white maze and a little stick figure hero. You navigate the labyrinth using the left stick, and the further you progress, the larger and more complex the fantasy becomes. It gets colorful, and eventually shifts to three dimensions. There are characters and cities, oceans and castles. But all the while, you still have to keep up with the fish with the right joystick; if they start to pile up too high, they’ll intrude on the fantasy until you clear them away.
Anyone who has worked a monotonous job knows this feeling, descending into your head while still doing your work. It certainly brought me back to my odd-job days while I was in university, stacking boxes in a factory or laying down sod for a new garden. And the game manages to get this across without making control itself a burden. Neither chopping fish nor navigating the fantasy maze are complicated, but they both demand a little bit of your attention at the same time. This is then coupled with a narrator describing Lewis’ backstory and present situation. You’re hearing the story, but you’re also living it.
According to Dallas, the goal wasn’t to make a game that’s challenging to play — in fact, difficulty runs counter to the experience the team intends. “It was more interesting to be challenging mentally,” he explains. “We found that the idea of 12 different family members, each with their own story, is already pretty overwhelming [for players]. What we’re more interested in is throwing people into the unknown.”
Each of the dozen stories is significantly different from the last, according to Dallas. They cover a wide swath of history, beginning in the early 1900s before steadily moving forward into the modern day. One story, revealed earlier this year, features a young boy struggling to use a swing while his left leg is wrapped in a cast. “They run a pretty wide gamut of different environments and perspectives and tone,” Dallas explains.
For the most part you’ll experience the stories in chronological order, uncovering them while playing as Edith exploring a house. Some are longer like Lewis’ story, while others will last just a few minutes.
What Remains of Edith Finch has been in development for more than four years, and is the second release from Giant Sparrow, following 2012’s The Unfinished Swan. Much of that time has been spent refining the experience, and cutting out aspects that proved to be unnecessary. “It’s not a very long game,” Dallas says, “and we’ve kept making it shorter.” Lewis’ story may be among the most complex in the final game, but it has actually been scaled back quite a bit compared to the initial concept.
“Lewis’ story started out as a very complicated fish-chopping simulation, where the boss would get angry at you, and you’d need to chop fish and also clean the barrel out,” he explains. “It was this thing that was way too complicated. But in isolation it seemed like this thing where you need these mechanics to be engaging enough. On paper it sounded like you needed that. But because you have this other story going on, it’s enough to say ‘Oh, it’s busy work.’ It doesn’t have to be that hard. The fact that it’s there at all is giving enough of the flavor that we wanted.”
The stage isn’t hard. If anything, its task is a little boring. The power of the moment is that cutting heads off fish can become, even as you’re doing it, forgettable. You suddenly become lost in the fantastic maze. And in that moment, Edith Finch isn’t just a video game, but a game about the experience of video games.
Then the dead fish pile up, and it’s back to the chopping block.
What Remains of Edith Finch is launching April 25th on PlayStation 4 and Steam.