Hello and welcome to Discussion: [indie game] (spoilers!), in which we venture into more modern territory by choosing a comparatively recent indie game and discussing it. With, er, spoilers.

Today’s game is What Remains of Edith Finch, a 2017 adventure game from developers Giant Sparrow, in which the eponymous Edith returns to her now-abandoned childhood home on Orcas Island in Washington.

By exploring the house, you revisit and uncover the history of the rather unfortunate Finch family, who are seemingly afflicted by a curse that causes its members to meet a premature end, often in strange and unusual circumstances.

Although spoilers will come later, we like to give our readers an opportunity to duck out at this stage if they haven’t played the game already. As with all the games in the series so far, What Remains of Edith Finch is pretty short, and was widely acclaimed upon release, so if it looks like it might be your kind of thing, then by all means give it a go. You’ll be welcome back any time, when you’re done:

Otherwise, here’s the final ***SPOILER WARNING*** for the discussion below:


Immediate blubbing

Rik: So, this was your choice of game: explain yourself!

Jo: I know, I was pushing it for a while.

Rik: To be fair, I am sort of on a quest to play all of the walking sims with similar names so I never get them mixed up again. So I can say, with confidence, “NO! Ethan Carter VANISHED and is the one in RURAL AMERICA with ghostly reconstructions…”

Jo: Ha!

Rik: “While Everybody’s GONE to the RAPTURE is in ENGLAND with PHONE BOXES and FORD GRANADAS. And Dear ESTHER is the DAFT talky one on an ISLAND.” I don’t know who I am having this conversation with…

Jo: Someone who is testing you on your walking sim knowledge.

Rik: Annual gamer ID card test.

Jo: Not that I consider them walking sims (I know I say this every time, but I do feel strongly compelled to add that I really hate the term ‘walking sim’ and now I’ve done it again, we can move on).

Rik: More seriously, I was kind of thinking, let’s bring it on. Let’s get the ones that I get confused with each other covered. Other than that, I went in blind.

Jo: I played it a few years ago, and while a few bits really stuck out, I just remember loving it. I went in knowing nothing and was pretty blown away by the end.

Rik: But it had been a while?

Jo: Yeah, a few years at least. It might not have been that long, seeing as each day feels like a week at the moment. But certainly over two years since I last played it. Did you have any expectations at all?

Rik: Not beyond the usual genre conventions. I thought, there will be something to find out about what happened here. And possibly what happened will be sad.

Jo: What I remembered most was the overall feeling of melancholy, rather than anything specific. I definitely had a more emotional (crying lots) response to it this time.

Rik: I mean, not to stereotype these games, but I did not think, well, you might have to have a fist fight with a clown.

Jo: Ha! Well, there is a certain level of expectation with each of them, even though they are quite different.

Rik: Having said that, it was still quite a surprise, and not at all what I initially expected. The first 10 minutes or so, it’s a bit like, oh rite, a Gone Home type thing again…

Jo: It’s difficult to really expect anything, but yeah, I thought the same.

Rik: But they are at least a bit more honest about the complicated architecture of the house.

Jo: There’s definitely a more fantastical element here, while still remaining believable, somehow.

Rik: And I was blubbing almost immediately.

Jo: Well, the first thing you encounter is the missing poster for Milton.

Rik: I don’t think it was even anything that specific. More just going back to a house where there was a family, and some happy times, that had been abandoned for whatever reason. It wasn’t like Gone Home where what has happened is ambiguous at first. Edith already knows and is up front about it all.

Jo: She’s got mixed feelings about being there – she didn’t think she would ever go back.

Rik: You know it is bad, bad enough for all their stuff to still be there years later. What could be so terrible that all the evidence of their final meal being interrupted is still there years later? So I am thinking, this is all about finding out what happened on that night, and it’ll be like a Gone Home style exploration of the house.

Jo: Me too.

Rik: What with all of the rooms being sealed off, it’s like, let’s find a way in and look at everything.

Jo: I think it was only when I discovered that first passageway that it started taking a slightly different turn to Gone Home.

Rik: The rooms aren’t ‘normal’…

Jo: Even the passageways themselves are a bit fantastical – almost like a portal. Unlike GH where the hidden elements of the house were more ‘normal’ e.g. a loose panel rather than door handles hidden in books and passageways between the walls. I guess there was something kind of otherworldly about the passageways in Edith Finch.

Rik: And the sealed doors, and the whole concept of the family all having lived there at various points, is when you get into slightly more fantastical elements.

Jo: But even so, I still wasn’t prepared for what came next, i.e. Molly’s story.

Rik: No, that’s the major left turn. (If that’s even a phrase.)

The fateful abandoned Chinese takeaway.

I’m here live, I’m not a cat

Rik: So, you’re not just Edith Finch here. You’re going to be all of the Finch family, at various points (or most of them, I should say).

Jo: And your role isn’t to just find objects, letters, personal bits and bobs and piece the story together.

Rik: Then as you’re adjusting to that, you’re suddenly a cat.

Jo: So, how did you feel at that point? Because, I was like, ‘Er – ok, I wasn’t expecting that, but alright, I’ll go with it.’ And that feeling just repeated with each transition. ‘Oh… now I’m a shark.’

Rik: I think it’s good that it hits you with all of that at first to play with your expectations a bit. I should also say that I enjoyed that very first perspective shift, to the height of a smaller child.

Jo: It’s very clever in the way it gets you to buy into it.

Rik: The owl stuff grossed me out a bit. Eating the bunnies! The crunching noises were awful.

Jo: Yeah, I was just going to say that the sound effects were pretty graphic when it came to the bunny-eating.

Rik: I had an awful dream last night about eating animal bones. I blame this game!

Jo: Wah! Oh no, that’s horrible.

Rik: There’s also the relish with which the small girl’s voice describes it all. And then you’re left with so many questions about what actually happened.

Jo: We’ll probably get to this later, but some of the stories are more straightforward than others. Molly’s is one that still has me wondering.

Rik: Presumably she shouldn’t have eaten those holly berries. But why is she locked in her room?

Jo: She’s sent to bed without dinner, presumably for being naughty.

Rik: The game doesn’t really tell you much more.

Jo: No, but I did notice second time around that all over her room there are nods to the story she tells. There’s a shark on a shelf, a sea monster on the bed, a few owl masks on the bathroom door, and a cat mask on her dressing table. So it did make me wonder about some sort of dream/nightmare where she’d incorporated all these different things into it.

Rik: Ah, possibly. And it’s worth saying that although you don’t pick up and examine a load of stuff here, to unlock some kind of explanation or narrative, there is still lots of relevant detail in each room.

Jo: It’s not superfluous, either. You get a real sense of each Finch just by being in their room. I think the house as a whole all feels very lived in and authentic, irrespective of the more fantastical elements. I don’t know why, maybe because it was the last game we played before this one, but I kept comparing it with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – where the level of detail was very good, but a lot of it felt like padding. Well, padding is not quite the right word – I just mean that it didn’t really contribute to your overall experience.

Rik: Empty spaces, locked doors. You found out about the characters from their conversations. Not little tidbits from the world as you explored.

Most of the rooms in the house are a bit unusual.


Pointless romping

Rik: Part of me was slightly worried that the rest of the game would be as ‘out there’ as that first story. But thankfully not all of the stories were as unusual as that one, and there’s a variety of styles used to tell them.

Jo: Each story is totally different, and you control each one differently too. I thought that was really clever.

Rik: There are also no ‘gamey’ tutorials or things that take you out of the world. You have to work things out intuitively.

Jo: Some of the controls reminded me of Fahrenheit, a bit. Like, when you’re turning a key, or opening the door to a passageway.

Rik: I flapped the mouse about ineffectually on occasion. And closed things that I wanted to open. Some bits are done automatically, and then it’s a bit like, ‘go on, open it the rest of the way’.

Jo: Yeah, the controls were slightly inconsistent at times. I kept looking for the control to climb the wall into Dawn’s loft, but then it just happened automatically once I was standing in the right place.

Rik: I think that would be one of my few gripes. Are you in control, or aren’t you? Did you play on PC or console?

Jo: Console. [Mr Jo] and I played it together originally. But having been at the controls myself second time around, I wish I had it on PC. I was actually telling him yesterday, that I much prefer playing on a PC to console. Particularly these styles of games, because it just feels more immersive. I ended up doing my second playthrough with headphones on – I thought it might make me feel a bit closer to the action.

Rik: I can’t play anything on console that isn’t a driving or football game. My mind just shuts down when it comes to using the controller.

Jo: It’s taken me a long time to get to grips with a controller over mouse and keyboard (and a lot of time looking at the sky, and then immediately at the ground while simultaneously walking in circles).

Rik: Some games are ‘sit back’ but some are ‘sit forward’ type experiences. A first person game is ‘sit forward’, in my view. I suppose the point is, interaction is a bit lumpy. You can only ‘see’ things and hear Edith’s description once. You’re not really invited to play around in the house. Or go back and forth much.

Jo: Yes, that’s true. For the most part you can’t really go backwards. Though, you do have the option at the end to replay each story again.

Rik: I also thought it was quite clever the way you’re led through the game. You think there’s just one way to go then when you double back on yourself you see there’s another way. But you were meant to go the way you went before you saw it. If that makes sense?

Jo: Yeah, definitely. The route to Barbara’s room is one that springs to mind and navigating through the cemetery. Having played quite a few of these now, I think there’s a sweet spot between being ‘on rails’ and having the freedom to romp about wherever.

Rik: As we’ve seen, there’s no point romping, if there’s nothing to see when you do so.

Jo: Pointless romping.

Rik: Another parody walking sim.

There’s open acknowledgement of the house’s eccentric structure.

There WAS a moleman!

Jo: So, there are the episodic stories about the death of each member of the Finch family. And then there’s the overall story of the family as a whole, how they came to live in that house, and the question of the family being cursed. Something I noticed was that you don’t really have the opportunity to process one story before you’re moving on again, and I wondered if that impacted how I put the overarching story together.

Rik: Yes. I barely wrote any notes the first time around. You’re meant to experience it then process it I think.

Jo: The curse dates back to Odin Finch…

Rik: Who tries to move to the US following the death of his wife and son, and dies in the process of doing so.

Jo: His daughter Edie and her husband, Sven, end up building a new house on Orcas Island.

Rik: I was a bit like, who sails a house? And a bit unlucky to perish at the very edge of your destination, having come from Norway. Another fantastical element, I think.

Jo: Yeah, I agree, but again, I kind of just accepted the house sailing bit. The cynical side of me just shelved that disbelief as it did throughout – like, getting into the extended parts of the house (definitely not in line with building regulations).

Rik: Odin blames the curse and it’s the motivation for the move, only to be caught by it anyway.

Jo: But this ties in with the life-long dispute between [great-grandmother] Edie and [mother] Dawn. Dawn is working so hard to protect her kids from it, whereas Edie is more accepting and says at the end something to the effect of, ‘You won’t escape it just by moving out of the house.’

Rik: I wondered about a supernatural element, at one point. Like, whether the stories had some kind of power.

Jo: I mean, that seems to be Dawn’s argument.

Rik: Or I guess you could read it as death is inevitable and you just have to go with it.

Jo: It never reaches a definitive conclusion.

Rik: Edith says she used to be more sympathetic with Edie’s point of view, but came to understand her Mum’s more.

Jo: Yeah, that was quite a touching moment.

Rik: I have to say, you would think of it as a curse after a certain point. So many deaths, so many different ways.

Jo: I was quite intrigued by the Edie/Dawn relationship. They were thrown together as they had both lost so much. But where Dawn was determined to not talk about it and shut out the past, Edie is keen to ‘honour’ the family history.

Rik: I wondered about the house being cursed, but obviously not. I just had a moment thinking, was Dawn ok when she was in India? But her husband died, and she had to come back. And the curse supposedly predates it all anyway.

Jo: It is hinted at in the way that both Edie and Edith talk about ‘the house’ both the old and new (the former still being visible at low tide), and they both mention dreaming bout it.

Rik: What did you make of Great Uncle Walter being in the basement?

Jo: I did wonder if he was the ‘mole man’ allegedly living under the house, as per the news clipping in Edie’s room.

Rik: Yes, I wrote that down: ‘There WAS a moleman!’

Jo: The main thing I took away from Walter’s story was that he had lived this small, very safe life hiding from something – maybe the curse, or maybe just living with the trauma of what happened to Barbara. Then he reaches this point where he decides enough is enough, he’d rather have some sort of life no matter how short. It was one of the most poignant moments for me (as someone who is scared of everything).

Rik: It manages tone very well considering what we’re actually dealing with here. I found the Barbara story very grim and nasty. And you don’t know what actually happened.

Jo: I can’t even say that I have an active theory.

Rik: But then it sort of is told in that comic book/horror pulpy style.

Jo: Yes, with the John Carpenter Halloween music…

Rik: And some of the exchanges are quite funny, especially Rick the hapless boyfriend. It becomes almost like a first person shooter when you take control. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve played XIII.

Jo: At first I thought my involvement would be just turning the pages, rather than controlling the action within the panels. Do you have any theories about the Barbara story?

Rik: Not really.

Jo: I think it’s supposed to be ambiguous – how much is what really happened and how much is fiction.

Rik: You are still thinking about that while you deal with Walter’s story next. Did he play a trick on Barbara and feel bad? Was any of it real, or did she just fall down the stairs?

Jo: There’s that bit early on where Edith says something like, whenever people ask about my family, the first thing they want to know about is Barbara. And at that point, I was thinking it’s because she was a child star, but then later realised it might be because they want to know the story behind what happened to her. I didn’t think about Walter playing a trick. But it’s possible as he’s hiding under the bed the whole time.

Rik: And then Walter’s living under the house. And you’re sort of thinking about him instead.

Jo: Does he go down there of his own volition, do you think? Or do you think Edie sends him down there?

Rik: I guess the bunker has to exist first. Either way, the family is complicit. It felt so inevitable that he would die as soon as he left. Although I was confused about how there could be a train so near the house.

Jo: Same.

Rik: When you go outside, the tracks are there but they fall away into the sea.

(Brief) first-person action in the comic book style, a la XIII.


Your parents are people too

Rik: I think it was after that point the emotions started to amp up again. From [Grandfather] Sam onwards. I guess that’s probably the point.

Jo: I felt like the Milton/Lewis/Edith parts towards the end were the turning point for me.

Rik: I guess I felt more that early relatives were distant from Edith, and though it was stories about her family history, they were still people that she never had much of a connection with. But then when you get to Sam and Dawn’s part of the family, it starts to feel more relevant to Edith. And why her mum was the way she was.

Jo: Ah, ok.

Rik: Like after the Sam section, Edith says, “Of all these stories, that’s the one I wish most that my mom had told me.” That got me.

Jo: Yeah, me too. I guess learning the history she’s coming to understand her mum more, and the choices she made.

Rik: Because it’s her mum’s dad, and they were together when he died.

Jo: I never thought of it like that. But I suppose that’s the thing about relatives further down the family tree. They’re still part of your family, but they’re almost fictitious in a way because you only know them through the stories you’re told.

Rik: At best, you think of grandparents in terms of how they were with your parents. But not of *them* as children, and *their* parents.

Jo: I guess this is kind of reminiscent of what we discussed in Gone Home. About how you don’t think of your parents as anything other than your parents.

Rik: Also as kids you tend to think your parents are harsh and your grandparents are nice. Edith says she felt her Mum was older than Edie.

Jo: You almost feel Edith gaining more sympathy for her mum as you go along.

Rik: Do you only see your parents as people when it’s too late? I do also wonder whether a 17 year old would have been up to this level of self-awareness and reflection. But I guess the situation itself might build resilience.

Jo: Yeah, exactly. She’s a 17 year old whose family has been plagued by death. By that age she’s lost both parents and both siblings – her entire family, in fact.

Rik: What did you make of the poem Dawn wrote about her brother Gus? Especially the end when she says she didn’t think about him at all?

Jo: My take on it was that they likely weren’t close, and perhaps he had a track record of being quite stroppy/rebellious. Edith says that her mother never wrote poetry, and that if she had been a boy they would have called her ‘Gus’. She obviously felt a lot of guilt for not thinking of him on that day.

Rik: I didn’t know how to take it. I think you’re right though, now you say that.

Jo: My virtual kite flying skills are almost as terrible as they are in reality. What about the Gregory story?

Rik: Another case of hiding quite a grim situation in quite a cartoony little sequence, in which you again have bits of ‘game’ stuff to work out.

Jo: I felt like I prepared for the worst with that one.

Rik: Was [Sam’s ex-wife] Kay trying to get away from the curse?

Jo: It’s not really clear, is it?

Rik: Or was Sam so paranoid about it that it ruined their marriage?

Jo: Because Sam is on the phone? Is he away at that point?

Rik: They’re having problems, certainly.

Jo: It’s weird because he enrols in the army at 18, and Edith says it was like he actively sought death. Then, as an adult, his kids are quite regimented, and he’s got the escape routes for the house all mapped out.

Rik: Maybe early in life he thinks he may as well get it over with. Then as things go on he thinks, well maybe it’s not that simple.

Jo: I suppose at that point it’s not just his own life he has to worry about.

Rik: The hunting trip death shocked me both times. Even though I knew it was coming the second time.

Jo: Yeah, same. It is shocking, though.

Rik: Not to go on about this but it’s like, imagine being a stroppy teenager giving your mum grief, and she never told you how her own dad died. You find out later what she’s holding onto.

Jo: I think the Edith and Dawn relationship is kind of integral to the story, really. Because she’s going back to learn about everything her mum was trying to save her from, and starting to see things from her perspective more. But I suppose the thing is, she didn’t know a lot of this stuff. If she had, would she have behaved differently?

Rik: I don’t think there’s one way of handling it that’s necessarily better than the other. You can’t skip forward in time to when you think someone will be able to deal with something and tell them then.

Jo: Something I’ve been thinking about recently, is about how our mum did this massive Christmas for everyone a couple of months after she lost her own dad. And were we all just accepting of that?

Rik: As teenagers, you know it’s sad, but you also think that old people die. And parents must be able to deal with it/be expecting it.

Jo: Like, where was her opportunity to grieve? And I was 17 at the time, was I just like ‘it’s your job to do Christmas and you’re a parent/grown up’

Rik: I think we were all sad. But you just expect your parents to cope I think.

Lewis’s room, on the inside at least, is more typical of what you’d expect from a man in his early 20s, living at home.


Blubbing part 2

Rik: The section with Edith’s brothers is what really got me. Not so much what happens, because you know they’re gone, but again just their untouched rooms…

Jo: Yes, me too. Milton is mentioned very early on, and again throughout.

Rik: Do you think he did die? The flick book shows him planning his own disappearance.

Jo: Well… again, it’s very unclear. I accidentally found out that there’s apparently more about Milton in [Giant Sparrow’s previous game] The Unfinished Swan, as they’re apparently set in the same universe. I haven’t played it, though.

Rik: No, me neither.

Jo: But Milton’s story is the most ambiguous, to me.

Rik: I think they space out the ambiguous and the explicit ones quite well. Too many of the latter and it would be too depressing I think.

Jo: Yes.

Rik: So after Milton then you have Lewis, which really is grim.

Jo: Yes, but again, told in a way that’s very effective, I thought.

Rik: I just find it awful to see a dead young man’s room, apparently untouched, after he’s died. A place where there were good times, hanging out etc.

Jo: Yeah. There’s a point before you go into Lewis’s room where Edith says (about Milton’s disappearance), “I think Lewis blamed himself” but then it’s not really explored further.

Rik: Just because he was the older brother maybe.

Jo: Maybe.

Rik: But the Lewis story is another one where some thinking about the ‘game’ stuff is required.

Jo: I thought the way you get involved with the monotony of Lewis’s job at the cannery was very clever.

Rik: It tests your skills of co-ordination. It’s a bit ‘pat your head while rubbing your tummy’.

Jo: Naturally, I was terrible at it. All my fish piled up, and my little man kept crashing into walls. I did get the hang of it eventually, but as soon as I noticed that I was doing the fish heads automatically, I messed it up.

Rik: As a left hander, it felt weird to be doing the keyboard bit from the left of the screen with my right hand and the mouse thing on the right with my left. Possibly this is easier for right handers. But the repetition of the chopping just makes you think of, and dread, the ending.

Jo: Yeah – you know it’s coming.

Rik: One of the things I didn’t quite understand is that the letter from the psychiatrist, is addressed to Mrs Finch (i.e. Dawn) but then it talks about ‘Lewis’s mother’ coming to the cannery.

Jo: Yes, I noticed that second time around. Possibly just a mistake?

Rik: Maybe. Or maybe it sort of makes sense, from a clinical point of view. To say ‘even his mother was unable to make him come home’.

Jo: Yeah, could be. I did wonder why she didn’t just say, ‘even you, his own mother’ instead? I felt the Lewis story hit me quite a bit.

Rik: I think it’s meant to. I was certainly going by that point. And then you get the final exit from the house and epilogue on top of that.

Jo: For some reason, and I know we’ve spoken about this via text, I had absolutely zero recollection of the ending. For some reason, I was sure it ended on the Lewis story.

Rik: The actual ending is sad although not unexpected I guess. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the pregnancy/death in childbirth angle. I suppose it does tie it all together and make it all make sense, even if it’s all a bit much to pass on to a kid [Christopher] who it turns out also lost his mother at an early age.

Jo: I suppose it’s back to that same Edie/Dawn dilemma we talked about. Do you just be open and honest about it, or do you try to hide it?

Rik: I guess she’d decided not to tell, unless she died, in which case these questions can be answered.

Jo: What was it that didn’t sit well with you?

Rik: Er, I think just that sense of them going, ‘aha! Actually, she’s pregnant so there is another Finch. And that’s the only reason you’re hearing this story…’

Jo: Yeah, I know what you mean. It didn’t ruin it for me. There are a few hints leading up to the point where she reveals she’s pregnant.

Rik: I’m not saying it ruined it. I don’t have a sense of what else I wanted/expected.

Jo: I guess it just kind of plays into her being in her mother’s shoes again.

Rik: Did you read Edith’s death as a surprise/shock/twist ending, or intended as one? It sort of washed over me a bit. I didn’t see it as a game where you were building towards a reveal, more that something was unfolding, building up to the time when Edith had to go back to the house. The other stuff was kind of like an epilogue I felt like I could have done without, somehow.

Jo: I don’t think I have strong feelings about it either way. I suppose, at the beginning, I assumed Edith and the person on the boat were one and the same, and then at the end was like, oh so that was actually her child coming to visit the island. But definitely not a shock twist. It had to end somehow, and I don’t think a big reveal was ever really on the cards.

Rik: So how does this one stack up for you?

Jo: I hold it in very high regard, I’d say probably neck and neck with GH. How about you?

Rik: It’s certainly up there. There’s more innovation here than some of the others we’ve played. Some may think it a little sentimental perhaps, but I’m into that kind of thing.

Jo: I’m a sentimental person, so that’s fine. I think it really gets that balance right. It deals with some really difficult topics, but at no point did I feel like I was being beaten over the head with it, and it didn’t feel pretentious at any point.

Rik: I think you could interpret it pretentiously, and I have seen it done. There are a couple of reviews that, if I had read them beforehand, would have put me off.

Jo: Yes, I think I read the same ones.

Rik: No judgement, but they would have made me think of something a bit more arty and less accessible.

Jo: I think if you go in knowing nothing, it’s better.

Rik: As always. Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Jo: I could talk about this game for ages. I just think it’s very clever, and beautiful and also surprising. And certainly this time around, found it incredibly moving. But we should probably wrap up.

Rik: Cool. Well, this was fun, see you next time!

What Remains of Edith Finch is available on Steam and GOG for £14.99.