It is extraordinarily easy to dismiss What Remains of Edith Finch. To many, it will look like yet another game following the immense success of Gone Home and the effective establishment of the forensic narrative/walking simulator genre. And with Fullbright’s follow-up of Tacoma out this year as well, it felt even more like a simulacrum.
But developers Giant Sparrow have made something that defines what the industry is capable of. It’s a bit reflective of the state of things, choosing to eschew the aimless wandering largely associated with these sorts of games, and pursuing an exceptionally pointed story. It feels weaponized at times in its linearity, but it does so with a purpose, eventually culminating in a powerful, overwhelming moment that defines the idea that video games have stories only they can tell.
Returning to her ancestral home, a 17-year-old Edith explores the remnants of her bloodline, a sprawling group of tragedy and despair wrapped up in a family-shaped package. Otherwise known as “America’s most unfortunate family,” the Finches believe wholeheartedly and without reservation that they have been cursed with each member dying an untimely, occasionally grisly death, and as the lone heir, Edith wants to understand how this—if true at all—came to be.
In exploring this gargantuan home, the family history emerges through a series of vignettes. Each person’s story is plastered against the floors and walls of their rooms. Diaries are laid out atop corner desks and posters line the walls. It’s deeply, almost painfully voyeuristic, you and Edith peering into these lives that neither of your are comfortable with handling.
But with a deft touch, it works. Some histories relate and connect better than others, but they are all given a breath of graceful and heartfelt life. One kid’s room, for example, seems to celebrate the innocence of being a child while another feels propped up on the frailty of being so young and vacillating on meaning something and nothing. Part of the beauty, though, is that it seems a lot of visual metaphors are up for debate and wholly personal. (Sort of like Mother.)
Then it all builds into a finale that is, well, a triumph. For all the bits that don’t work, this is a scene that hits every single thing it wanted to hit. It’s tender and sweet while being heartbreaking and hollowing. It is as visually fascinating as it is intellectually entrancing, weaving together several layers of storytelling into a single complex thread. And it all happens while asking of you to engage in a mechanic that is as grippingly astounding as the end of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, putting an achingly sad and beautiful cherry atop a memorable sundae.
And that’s why it’s our number seven game of the year.