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