One of the more pointless aspects of social media that I miss is the “what’s your favorite?” list-making. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back and updated my list of favorite video games, so why not do it as an ongoing series of posts instead of a one-time list? No order except in the order I remember them, and I’ll keep going until I run out.
On the one hand, I hate being reductive with What Remains of Edith Finch, distilling an hours-long experience into a declaration of what it “means.” But I also feel the need to state over and over again just how much it accomplishes, quietly, in the same way that watching someone perform actual magic would have me looking around in wonder, asking other people if they just saw the same thing I did.
As a good illustration of just how much I was impressed with this game: the writing is near-flawless, and it’s one of the least remarkable things about the experience. When I first got interested in writing for video games, the bar was set so impossibly low that competence seemed exceptional. But over the years, the industry — or at least the small part of it that I’m interested in — over-corrected with what was frankly pretentious over-writing. More and more, I saw dialogue with little sense of character voice, and passages more interested in chasing some kind of literary flourish instead of practical effect. What Remains of Edith Finch could easily have devolved into something insufferably maudlin or twee, but instead, it’s accessible, varied, often poetic, and often joyful.
But the most remarkable thing to me is that there’s no imbalance in the game. It’s not a game with weak mechanics but good writing, or an interesting environmental design but shallow interaction, or any of the trade-offs you’d expect to find in even an excellent game. Instead, every aspect of the experience works together to deliver its meaning, which is an extended metaphor for death and how it informs our understanding of human existence.
The stories in What Remains of Edith Finch are varied in length, tone, interaction style, and presentation; it seems that the only thing they have in common is that they all end in death. The first story suggests that the game will take off in the direction of magical realism — which, to be clear, would’ve been charming on its own — but it’s not long before you’re dropped into a new situation as mundane as a child sitting on a swing. You have to figure out not just what’s going on in the narrative, but how you’re supposed to interact with it and drive it forward.
There’s a little bit of confusion: are they really going to make me go through the entire process of doing this? Because, you quickly realize, it’s not about being told a story, it’s about sharing an experience. The thing that makes these stories poignant is that you’re going through them, seeing them first hand. For those of us who were raised to believe in an afterlife (and are still undecided about the question), it echoes one of the most fundamental questions we had as children: if heaven’s so perfect, why do we have to spend all this time miserable on Earth? The answer, such as it is, that satisfied me, more or less, was that you can’t fully understand the wonder of our flawed and joyful existence unless you experience it yourself.
And as you wander through the Finch house, you can peek into windows on the door to each room to get a rough, distorted idea of the person who once lived inside. But you can’t really know each person’s story until you’ve experienced its end. These aren’t mysteries, really: you know that each story ends in death, and more often than not, you know how the character dies. And since death is as inevitable in this game as it is in the world outside of it, the deaths aren’t always tragedies. They give context to the lives that came before them, letting you experience first-hand what made these characters more than just a collection of random memories.
As a result, the stories have moments of startling impact: turning a senselessly tragic death into an experience of curious joyfulness, or showing the wondrous imagination that coursed through a life of seemingly tedious sadness. You’re left with a feeling of profound connection, to everyone who’s lived and everyone who’s going to die.