Like a weathered family photo album passed down from the decades, generation to generation, the heart of What Remains of Edith Finch lies in the connection between family members and the stories we pass on between them. The photos captured in between the pages are more than just fragments of time frozen in printed form — they tell stories and memories that carry across the spectrum from heartbreaking, to heartwarming; from blissful, to aching; from happy and memorable, to remorseful and somber.
Developer Giant Sparrow’s latest title, What Remains of Edith Finch — which released this week on PlayStation 4 and PC — feels in many ways like the interactive equivalent of flipping through a worn family photo album. As casually as a friend or observer looking through decades of family history captured inside of a photo album, Giant Sparrow’s sophomore title offers players the chance to know the Finch family for only a brief period of time, but its glimpses into their lives offers the chance to explore their personalities, their weaknesses, their downfalls, and their lives in small windows that are equal parts heartbreaking and memorable thanks to the game’s emotional, well-constructed narrative.
Much like the studio’s first title The Unfinished Swan, which captured the feeling of being inside of an illustrated children’s book, What Remains of Edith Finch feels like an appropriate spiritual successor with a tone that is more mature, but no less poignant or whimsical. The game’s structure instead more closely resembles that of a short story collection as players, taking on the role of the titular Edith Finch, explore the Finch’s family home for a deeper look inside the lives of each of the family members.
Specifically, that look is inside their final fleeting moments before death, as the Finch family has heralded a curse that’s been passed down from the elder generations down to the youngest Finches. As Edith explores the Finch manor, players slowly unravel not just the personal stories behind each of the Finch family members, but also the larger contexts that tie them together — their hopes, their dreams, and their final visions before departing into the afterlife.
Given its morose subject matter, it would be easy to assume that What Remains of Edith Finch is a grim look at death and the hereafter with little to find redeeming or joyful. Instead, What Remains of Edith Finch opens up over the course of its running time as a poignant celebration of life and the power of storytelling in video games, in its purest form.
Through its 2-3 hours, players investigate the various rooms and items that belonged to each of the Finch family members that open up vignette-style flashbacks alongside each new discovery. With around a dozen different stories in tow, ranging from quick couple minute experiences to more prolonged 10-15 minute sequences, What Remains of Edith Finch provides a narrative that isn’t just complex in the way it is told and unraveled, but also in its presentation that merges the fantastical with reality.
What Remains of Edith Finch proves to be the type of game that’s difficult to “review” (at least in the traditional sense) because it is so narratively-driven: going too far into detail will ruin a healthy portion of the surprises in store. However, what I can say is that Edith Finch goes far beyond its initial appearances, changing not just stylistically, but even mechanically, as players uncover each new story that radically alters the players’ perceptions of what is going on. In one minute, players will be given a brief overview of the world as seen by one of the Finch family members, only to be (suddenly) transported into elaborate and visually-stunning dream sequences that turn their last minutes of life into truly poetic and compelling gameplay segments.
The way the stories alter from scene to scene is, largely, part of the fun itself. Edith Finch constantly surprises as it shifts from meditative examinations on life and death, to whimsical and fantastical dreamlike sequences, to even a sequence that shocks with a delightfully oddball visual style that’s of a completely different tone from everything else presented. Even though the game (initially) seems like an experience we’ve seen before through games like Gone Home or Firewatch, it very quickly establishes there is much more to discover from the experience.
Naturally, like the “short story collection” format that it emulates, some parts of Edith Finch work better than others. While many of the sequences will carry players off into worlds that dive deep into the fantastic, others do so to lesser or briefer effect and may have been more satisfying with a bit more time to explore these worlds and characters. However, Edith Finch‘s carefully-guided experience is one that naturally leaves players longing not only for more answers, but more questions as well.
Like the twisted, misshapen Finch home that the player explores throughout the game, What Remains of Edith Finch is as much beautiful and poetic as it is unexpected and (at first) menacing. Constructed throughout the years with each family member closing off rooms and sealing entrances as family members pass on, Giant Sparrow’s title invites as much curiosity as it does discovery when it comes to exploring the events that have transpired for a family that has experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. The twisted house that has gone through decades of renovations and changes becomes a character almost in itself, leading to a natural sense of wonder and wanting to explore how it came to be, and held together especially well by the strong art direction and visual design.
What Remains of Edith Finch is only a brief experience that most players will (most likely) be able to finish within a single sitting, which may not be suited to all tastes. Though it may lack the dozens of hours of massive landscapes to explore and endless missions that most players seek today, Edith Finch is no less lacking when it comes to its imagination and capability of transporting players to places that are wonderful, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.
The game takes players off into some far-off places when it comes to its dream sequences and vignettes, and while they’re purely based in the fantastical, there are plenty of elements that every player will relate to on some human level throughout the journey; sadness, disappointment, heartbreak, love, joy, and most of all, the will to experience life to its fullest. What Remains of Edith Finch may only provide a brief glimpse into the lives of its characters like a family photo album filled with moments that have long since passed, but by the game’s end, it’s sure to leave a lasting impression.