gone home

What Remains of Edith Finch Review — Everyone’s Missing … Again

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.

What Is a Video Game Marketer?

by Jed Pressgrove

Discussions on “what is and isn’t a video game” and “formalism” continue their savage run. Some say we shouldn’t limit the definition of a video game. Others say we should focus on what makes video games different. But these statements miss the overwhelming influence of marketing on how we perceive reality.

No one woke up one morning and knew what a “video game” was. My first video game was Super Mario Bros. Why? Because my parents believed Nintendo was selling a video game, then they told me Super Mario Bros. was a video game, just like people tell kids today that Minecraft is a video game. Marketing tells us we should try things as different as Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, and Gone Home, and all of these things are placed, by marketers, under the umbrella of video games.

I might argue Gone Home is not as much of a game as Grand Theft Auto III. I might argue Grand Theft Auto III is not as much of a game as Pong. I might argue Gone Home fulfills the potential of video games. I will likely convince no one that I’m right because these arguments are pointless. The more likely result of these “arguments” is that I might inspire people to try Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, or Gone Home to see what the fuss is about. Instead of trumping marketing, these arguments help marketing and constrain critical thought.

We are all marketers to an extent. Twitter, which is a nonstop series of advertisements and billboards, confirms our interests as marketers, though our marketing is not limited to and does not require Twitter. As marketers, we confirm the suggestions of super marketers (the owners and distributors of products and platforms). We confirm Gone Home is about “narrative,” “story,” and “environmental design” (maybe even “social justice”). We confirm Grand Theft Auto III is about a “world,” “deep mechanics,” and “choice” (maybe even “freedom of speech”). We confirm Pong is an old piece of junk that no one plays anymore because it’s not hip.

This marketing also comes with dubious political suggestions that keep people fighting rather than thinking. You are “liberal” if you value Gone Home more than Grand Theft Auto III. You are “conservative” if you value Grand Theft Auto III more than Gone Home. In online video game discussions, party politics is more important than individual experience and perspective.

Only one phrase can accurately sum up these discussions and suggestions: distracting bullshit. We are always going to hear about the Grand Theft Autos and the Gone Homes because the big and little video game marketers tell us we should try them. In response, I think we should do one of three things: (1) critique the games for what they are, (2) ignore the games, or (3) shut up.

Jazzpunk Review: Are You Ready to Laugh?

by Jed Pressgrove

Sight gags, silly dialogue, running jokes, mindless destruction — no type of humor is too lowbrow for Jazzpunk. This approach rejects an overwhelming seriousness that threatens to stop video games from evolving as entertainment. Some critics may not realize it, but Jazzpunk is a challenge to jadedness and egotism.

Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.

Before Jazzpunk, I would’ve been hard-pressed to recall a recent game that truly exercised the healing power of laughter. Games like Portal and Saints Row might be funny, but their humor is treated as secondary to gameplay expectations (in the end, no more profound than cute ’em ups like Star Parodier). If the puzzler and action mechanics of Portal and Saints Row had been unfavorable, those games wouldn’t have made much of an impact on gamers. In contrast, Jazzpunk will only make a significant impact if it makes you laugh, as it’s designed to make you laugh by any means possible. Jazzpunk’s story and gameplay are merely subservient, so the game’s success is partially based on whether one is willing to forget the pretenses of story and gameplay. Critics and gamers looking for a traditional or abstract story will be disappointed, and Jazzpunk’s “adventure” gameplay is only fulfilling when it helps make a good joke.

Though somewhat reminiscent of The Stanley Parable, Jazzpunk doesn’t pander to cynicism or self-congratulatory criticism, nor does it insult one’s intelligence by sharing obvious lessons about game design. Jazzpunk has fun at the expense of Street Fighter II, Quake, and the Virtual Boy’s Mario’s Tennis (among others), but it doesn’t dismiss the essence of these games, nor does it shoehorn references to pander to fans (unlike The Stanley Parable’s circle jerk with Minecraft and Portal). Never insistent, Jazzpunk allows you to wander or follow the main mission. Jokes spill out of the game no matter the playing style. The game only denies catharsis to those who don’t laugh.

Unfortunately, by not appealing to the ego of video game critics, Jazzpunk has opened itself up to some lame reviewing. Metro GameCentral complains about the lack of gameplay in Jazzpunk but also calls the more minimalist Gone Home and Stanley Parable “inarguably better games.” Polygon describes Jazzpunk as “a great first-person conversation” (whatever that means). Destructoid’s review says the game “just ends with no real resolution.” Unbridled levity is strange or sinful in a gaming world that often looks for reasons not to laugh.