In What Remains of Edith Finch, something as simple as swinging on a tree can become a tense experience. The game tells the story of a young woman named Edith Finch who is set about learning the history of her family in gruesome fashion — by exploring the stories of how they died. The result is the video game equivalent of a short story collection: a dozen tales, each vastly different from the next, but all connected by the seemingly cursed nature of the Finch name. No matter how a story begins — a playful child on a swing, a young girl searching for a late-night snack — you know things won’t end well. But while Edith Finch may appear, at first, captivated by death, it ultimately is a celebration of life.
The game opens with 17-year-old Edith making her way to the old family home in Washington, her inheritance as the last living Finch. The house cuts an imposing figure, a mansion plucked from a horror movie, expanded with a myriad of rooms, stacked and grafted onto the core, jutting out from odd angles like abnormal growths. The house is too big to be structurally sound, but its architecture defies logic, let alone gravity. Edith describes the home as “a smile with too many teeth.” Its expansions are connected by passageways and hidden rooms, forming the labyrinth through which she must pass.
Initially the game calls to mind narrative-driven experiences like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which both involve exploring a recently emptied space to learn about the people who once lived there. The Finch home is built and decorated quite literally to tell the stories of its former guests. Rooms of the deceased have been locked up, turning them into well-preserved, but unsettling shrines to the dead.
Like the house, Edith Finch quickly expands its ambitions. In each room Edith comes across a story prompt — an old notebook, divorce papers — that transport her elsewhere. There are a dozen such stories in the game, and each provides a short bio of a different Finch, spanning the course of roughly a century. Some flashbacks are what you’d expect, jumping back in time to discover what really happened to a long-lost uncle. Most are more playful and conceptually adventurous. You learn about a child star’s death through the panels of a comic book, while another tale is a dream about being a sea monster. Each story contributes to the larger picture of this family — quite literally drawn into a family tree Edith carries with her in her notebook.
The stories vary both in literary genre and game design. Some are funny, others are serious. Some last just a few minutes, like scanning through a hand-drawn animation flip book, while others are involved. The game has a giddiness about how and what you control. For swinging, each stick on the PS4 controller represents a leg, and you have to push them back and forth as if you were, well, swinging. One of the more involved stories features a young Finch man who descends into a fantasy world in his own head, all the while keeping up with his monotonous day job in a fish cannery. To get through his story you’ll need to chop fish heads while also exploring an ever-growing dream world.
Every story comes around to the same conclusion: death. So why did I often found myself shocked when the moment came? I supposed I regretted having to let go of one character — and the world — to hurry on to the next. Your time with them may be brief, but each member of the Finch clan is well-defined, given a want and a warmth. Within this one family you get to see and experience so many different types of lives. Ones tragically cut short, others long-lived; ones filled with warmth and kindness, others hardened by loneliness. In each there’s a reason to keep going.
Edith Finch isn’t entirely fixated on mortality. The game is, despite what the synopsis would have you believe, a celebration of life and new beginnings — a washed-up star finding a new path, a shut in finally stepping out into the sunlight. Even a supposedly cursed family keeps fighting to live, and they have good reason to. I won’t spoil it. That’s the pleasure of the mystery.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available today on PS4 and PC.