by Jed Pressgrove
Like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the premise of What Remains of Edith Finch involves walking in a particular area and learning why no people are around. This time you control Edith Finch, a woman who returns to her childhood home where various relatives were locked away in their rooms as part of an effort to avoid a family curse. While developer Giant Sparrow gives the game some distinction with a wide variety of flashback sequences — each detailing the demise of a different family member — the experience often feels contrived given the familiar setup, repetitive narrative, and shortchanged characterizations.
Whereas Gone Home pretended to be a horror story and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feigned spiritual significance, What Remains of Edith Finch is upfront about its intention to thrust the player into a series of tragic deaths. Well, perhaps “thrust” isn’t accurate; the game takes its time to get going, thanks to Edith’s slow walk and throat clearing as the narrator. Director/writer Ian Dallas explains Edith’s gait with the revelation that she’s pregnant, but from a writing standpoint, there’s no excuse for a lot of the exposition, as when you examine the Finch family history to learn of a consistent theme of misfortune, only for Edith to chime in afterward with “Whatever’s wrong with this family, it goes back a long ways.” It doesn’t help that voice actress Valerie Rose Loman sounds as if she is somewhere between bored and too matter of fact about such dark origins.
Eventually, though, you are able to activate flashbacks without much delay between them. During each of these scenes, the player controls a soon-to-be-dead family member, from a former child star to a young man who works at a cannery, and walking about is no longer the driving force of the game. For example, in one sequence, you assume the role of a little girl who imagines herself as a cat, owl, shark, and tentacled monster, and you get to play as each thing. Another episode turns the game into an interactive horror comic book, complete with a new narrator with a despicable timbre to his voice.
These vignettes are often visually stunning. While playing as a boy on a tree swing, you reach new dizzying heights, allowing you to see the Finch’s yard from peculiar and mesmerizing angles. As the aforementioned worker at the cannery, you become immersed in an alienating routine of chopping off fish heads while, on the same screen, guiding a legendary ruler through forking seas. But these amazing sights can’t make up for several wasted opportunities to get into the minds and hearts of certain characters. For instance, while you are told the former child star’s life is tough, this character’s emotions are cheapened by the Jazzpunk-esque flashback where she comically uses a crutch to whack at things. Another relative amounts to nothing more than a paranoid twit in a basement.
As such, it’s difficult to grasp why one should care about the Finch family in general. I give credit to What Remains of Edith Finch for attempting to share a life-affirming message during its conclusion, but the sentimental tone is off-putting and unearned given the nonstop parade of death that precedes it. If you can imagine the absurdity of a new entry in the Final Destination film series that asks the audience to keep tissues nearby, that is the bizarre type of empathy at work in this game.