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Unplayer One: What Remains of Edith Finch

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

 

“If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things
But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes
And appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”

“Home” is a nebulous concept. We know that at some point we leave our childhood home and set out to create our own. That process can take years, even decades, because a home is more than just the four walls that surround us. Home includes people, a family, and I think of home less as a physical place than something attached to those people, irrespective of geographical distance. One of my favourite lines from Zach Braff’s Garden State followed the musing of being homesick for a place that no longer exists, “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

In What Remains of Edith Finch (which just received the BAFTA for Best Game), following the death of her mother, a young woman returns to a familial home where the physical structure is inseparable from the people who inhabited it. The house was built by matriarch Edie Finch and her husband. The Finch family is believed to be cursed — understandably given their tendency toward unfortunate and untimely deaths — and Edie turns the bedrooms into perfectly preserved memorials to each deceased member of the family. As the family grew, rather than reusing old bedrooms, they simply added rooms to the house in a bizarre, ramshackle way. The first glimpse of the eerily imposing house seems unnatural and unsafe with its cancerous protrusions, but once inside it feels more like an obvious organic extension of its inhabitants.

As Edith explores the house, she recalls or discovers the tragic stories of her ancestors through narration. The game falls into a genre derisively described as “walking simulators”, a first person exploration of the house, with the ability to interact with various objects in order to access new areas, reminiscent of 2013’s Gone Home. The shrines to each family member trigger themed interactive vignettes that explore their deaths. It is these tales with their wild aesthetic shifts and merging of the tragic and the whimsical that are the heart of the game. It is a triumph of storytelling and colourful characterisation. Edith’s own plight is that she was denied this family history and connection to her past when her mother tried to abandon it. We are told that it was her mother, Dawn, who sealed off all the bedrooms in response to which an ageing Edie, who continued to view the stories of her cursed family as important, drilled peepholes into each one.

The house is cluttered in beautiful detail, all placed with careful intent as each individual’s paraphernalia forms part of the storytelling. Twins Calvin and Sam shared a room but, when Calvin died at 11 (obsessed with space and flight, he launches himself off a swing over a cliffside), his half of the room was roped off and became a mausoleum frozen in time whilst Sam continued to grow. One can only imagine the psychological impact of waking each day to this unavoidable, increasingly anachronistic reminder of his lost brother.

Former child star Barbara’s room demonstrates both pride in her success but also how that early success trapped and infantilised her. Her murder is told through the medium of an exploitative comicbook about the events narrated by a Crypt Keeper-like figure who takes perverse pleasure in the tale, no doubt reflective of the media frenzy following her death. One of the lighter vignettes features Edith’s artistic brother Milton, who simply disappeared. A flipbook left behind suggests an intention to disappear into his paintings in a nod to developer Giant Sparrow’s previous game, The Unfinished Swan, featuring its signature melody and visual style.

The most poignant sequence belongs to Edith’s brother, Lewis Finch. His day is filled with unrewarding work in a dark, drab cannery. You perform his routine task of slicing fish: reach, grab, move, slice, repeat. It’s boring and repetitive. Your mind starts to wonder, just like Lewis. He begins daydreaming, escaping a simple maze overlaid across a corner of the screen, which you navigate whilst continuing to chop fish with your other hand. Stop, and the fish start to pile up, obscuring your view. Over time, as Lewis’ fantasy becomes more elaborate, the overlaid game increases in visual fidelity and grows to take up more of the screen, until eventually you are performing the job purely by muscle memory. Dissatisfied Lewis imagines himself a heroic and benevolent king, adored by his subjects, with the control and recognition he cannot find in life. Ultimately he disassociates from reality entirely. This was widely regarded as the best level design of the past year, through how it visually and structurally mirrors the psychological process it represents, and how it resonates so strongly with an audience of gamers who recognise that desire for escapism.

Dawn takes the loss of Lewis particularly hard and resolves to leave the family home with her daughter. She conceals this intention from Edie until the night before she leaves, causing a rupturing argument. Edie’s own end shortly afterwards is unresolved, which forms a fitting lack of conclusion for the woman obsessed with the family curse and preserving memories. As Edith talks about her experiences after leaving, we discover that the narrated stories we have heard are the memoir that a pregnant Edith wrote for her unborn child after exploring the house and learning its secrets. Edith wishes her mother had shared these stories with her and believes it is important that her child knows the family’s history, in all its tragedy. Edith, it is implied, dies during complications in childbirth, but her son — now the last surviving Finch — receives her memoir and later returns to the house.

Although one can run away, severing those family ties is far harder. Edith realises this where Dawn could not. Human curiosity means that we are not simply fascinated by knowledge of from where we come but beholden to it, and that becomes the legacy we bestow upon those who follow — the stories we have lived and the stories we pass on.  What remains of Edith Finch? A child, and generations of history. That, and a sense of amazement that our brief lives are experienced at all.

“It’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want you to be sad that I’m gone.
I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all.”

Edith Finch

Unplayer One: Brothers

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

Sitting in a car at traffic lights and discussing the nature of death with my cousin, whose mother had passed away a few days before, I found myself struggling to communicate an idea and instead explained it through my experience of the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In an increasingly common trend, Brothers was developed by a small breakaway team within a larger developer, Starbreeze Studios, a Swedish studio known for violent first person action games. A thoughtful, beautifully colourful fantasy tale about two young boys was an unexpected offering.

The initial premise is somewhat trite: two boys must undertake a dangerous journey to obtain water from the Tree of Life in a distant land to cure their dying father. The control scheme is immediately frustrating, with one half of the gamepad (one analogue stick and one trigger) used for each brother, whom you move simultaneously. It takes most of the game before it starts to feel natural but by the end it is clear that it could not have been designed any other way. Recent ports have brought the game to mobile devices but I think a controller is required for the best experience.

The game has no intelligible dialogue but the brothers work cooperatively as they traverse the land and help others they meet along the way. They meet two trolls who turn out to be friendly creatures that the brothers reunite. Nature is routinely their chief adversary, through dangerous animals or treacherous terrain. The game’s prologue shows the younger brother, Naiee, in a boat with his mother during a storm in which she is swept away and drowns. As a result, Naiee has a phobia of water and is unable to swim. Crossing rivers requires his older brother’s help, climbing onto his back and being ferried across. The trauma is deeply-rooted.

Towards the end of the game the brothers fend off a giant spider, but not before she mortally wounds the older brother. Although they reach the Tree of Life together, by the time Naiee has scaled its branches to retrieve the water, his brother is dead. He grieves, burying his brother. His sluggish, pitiful movements are affecting, but moreso is the effect on the control scheme. Suddenly you are playing with half the controller, with a single hand, as if you have physically lost a limb. It is a perfect parallel to the overwhelming sense of loss as we grieve the death of a loved one, as if we have lost a part of ourselves. But the game is not yet over and has more to say. Naiee must still return to his father with the cure. The return journey is smooth until, nearing his village, a storm floods the surrounding land. Frozen by the edge of the water, he cannot reach his father without swimming. The boy reacts as he always does near water, pausing, the controller vibrating softly in his refusal to move on. The game offers no prompt, but the solution emerges organically — the absent elder brother’s unused half of the controller becomes the key as Naiee draws on him for strength to proceed. Using both halves of the controller (as you had when crossing water so many times before), Naiee forces himself on, overcoming his fear and saving his father’s life.

This, I explained in the car,  was my view of death. Irrespective of an afterlife, I find it difficult to view people as truly “gone” as long as we carry them with us. We often worry that the dead will be quickly forgotten but they continue to exist in our choices, our decisions and actions. In truth we only need to worry if they meant nothing to us at all, if they had no impact on us. Brothers was a perfect metaphor for this concept, and one that could not have been communicated so fully in any other medium. As a game, its control mechanics were not simply a way to tell a story but part of the tale itself.

In the West too frequently we shy away from discussing death, which leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the absolutely universal experience of grief, as well as our own mortality. Interactive art like Brothers can provide us with shared cultural touchstones and, as a result, better tools and vocabulary to explore these ideas.

Unplayer One: That Dragon, Cancer

In the past I have written sporadic game-related posts intended for non-gamers, highlighting new interactive experiences that push the medium forward beyond what most non-gamers consider it to be. Unplayer One will be a new recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer was always going to be an emotional experience. The game was developed by a couple as part of their grieving process after losing their son to cancer at age five, following a long battle with cancer. The game received strong support through crowdfunding (notwithstanding some ill-conceived accusations that the designers were exploiting the loss of their son), with many backers having their own experiences losing children or those close to them. Told through a series of vignettes, That Dragon is as much about life – albeit life with a terminally ill child – as it is about loss. We share intimate family moments as well as difficult hospital trips. Grief is complex and the game will mean different things to different people: some will recognise familiar painful experiences but hopefully find solace in the shared experience; others will find it a way to explore one of the most harrowing positions in which a parent can find themselves. Although the proximity may vary, loss to cancer is a universal experience, more poignant at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. In any case, I always find an increase in shared understanding to be positive result.

That Dragon, Cancer

The game uses stylised graphics and a mixture of the parents’ perspective and a floating camera that allows you to observe the family. The gameplay is limited, largely a point-and-click tour through a succession of scenes and narrated letters, but I want to highlight a few moments from the game that spoke to me in particular. When the news is broken that treatment has been unsuccessful, we are free to shift perspective between each of the parents and the medical staff, colouring the dialogue with their internal thoughts. The room, meanwhile, gradually fills with water, morphing into a flooded environment with a boat heading towards a lighthouse. The parents respond in very different ways, the mother relying on her faith as a vessel to carry her through, never giving up on a miracle, whilst the father, a realist slipping into despair,  is portrayed literally drowning beneath the surface. He can swim up but can’t drag himself out; the only way to proceed is by heading further into the deep.

That Dragon, Cancer

Simpler moments can be equally poignant, as reminders that life goes on for the family. As the children go to the hospital to spend time with their brother during treatment, one complains that he does not like missing school. The surprise revelation gives way to the realisation that what he really means is that he dislikes having to catch up after repeatedly missing classes. Many scenes comprise short sequences, repeatedly waking in a hospital room next to a bed, helping with small tasks, hours and days merging together. Whilst a game can offer only a fraction of the impact, there can be nothing as heartbreaking as having to experience one’s child in pain, crying incessantly but understandably, taking meagre comfort as sleep ceases their thrashing.

In one of these vignettes, I awoke in an empty hospital room with ten cards on surfaces around the room. Each could be read and held a short message to, or in memory of, a cancer victim. These were clearly messages from those who had helped fund the game. As I exited the room, my chest tightened as I saw looked out at the entire ward, completely filled with scores of these cards. Many were mundane, a few captured more poignant thoughts, but each was a real person, a real family left behind, a visual representation of a real loss. The gut punch came as I opened one card in which a parent had simply quoted a line from Puff the Magic Dragon, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.”

That Dragon, Cancer

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2018 Priyan Meewella

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