striking cacophony of organ notes play with no apparent melody as the black screen behind the game's title softly fades out to a view from a small ferry treading the ocean under an overcast sky. This is how the game opens: an audio ambush that delights; and then, an opening image that embodies the maudlin grey sky morning in Vertical Horizon's Best I Ever Had. Giant Sparrow's latest game is adept in constantly navigating between those two emotional spaces as it explores the silly joys and the lasting melancholy of the lives lost in the Finch family. This brisk two-hour game is also one of the best video game examples of vignette gameplay I've played.
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Systems: PlayStation 4, Steam
Genre: First-Person Narrative Adventure
Price: $21.99 (CAD)
Death is not the opposite of life, but just a part of it, as Murakami would say. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, death permeates the lives of the Finch family through several generations. While a game about familial deaths may sound overly morose, it continually serves up moments of awe and elation too. The game is a first-person narrative-heavy game where you play as a young teenage girl named Edith who returns to her old family home to learn more about her family's beleaguered legacy. Here, you'll search refrigerators, scan bookshelves, gawk at half-used soy sauce packets — and, you'll also play as a frog-baby hybrid at one point too. This juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastical happens regularly throughout your journey in the Finch household.
An abandoned house is creepy enough, but the Finch family ups the ante by boarding up the rooms of its deceased and keeping their rooms intact. Thus, these rooms effectively serve as memorial/museum sites. Rather than audio or text logs, the rooms provide insight into the departed Finches' deaths via the game's series vignettes — each with their own distinct visual and gameplay style. Remember that cage mini-game in Final Fantasy IX? It's the one where you're in Alexandria (2nd visit) and you have to press left and right as Steiner to escape from a cage. As noted here on Kotaku, it's a one-time gameplay mechanic that never shows up again. Indeed, conventional game design gives you a mechanic used throughout the game to allow for mastery, but this game forgoes that philosophy by introducing new control schemes for each Finch death vignette. This outlandish patchwork of one-time mechanics lends a more handcrafted feeling to playing the game. I couldn't help feel morbidly drawn into learning about the next Finch death, if only, for what new gameplay laid behind that closed-off door.
As you explore the Finch haunt, there's not much in the way of action prompts, but these quiet moments never feel like filler either. It's immediately apparent when you first see the old Finch abode from outside that it is a series of building code violations through the decades. Your path not only takes you through all the crevices and rooms of the forsaken home, but the adventure also extends outside where you can walk through the cemetery that hosts more than deceased family pets. There's also snippets of narration that punctuate moments along with a pretty maudlin musical score. Visually, Giant Sparrow deserves props for taking the time to make the Finch house feel lived-in as the devs do a great job of imparting environmental storytelling.
Of course, the different shut-off rooms deserves praise too as they feel like time capsules of the person's lifetime, each featuring relevant decor to reflect a certain era. Remember, this house has been constantly renovated to include new rooms for new Finch members through multiple generations. Thus, each room embodies a different snapshot of Americana. As for the vignettes in those rooms? They begin with an aesthetic that matches the exploration, but each new sequence gets increasingly more daring with its own visual flair. My favourite of the bunch was Barbara's campy sequence which I shan't spoil here.
One thing that surprised me when playing was that it was mostly a fairly linear affair with no real choice in what room you would unlock next. Looking back, it makes sense why they chose this focused structure. Some of the deaths are a lot more tragic; thus, it'd be hard for the game to build an emotional arc if you had free reign to enter any room upon stepping into the home. The game also has a nice rhythm where you go from experiencing soaring highs (or lows) in those vignettes to the sobering reality of being back at that home. That sharp turn shows more than anything that while we can imagine all the grand, fantastical ways that the Finch lineage died, in the end, all that remains are the long-deserted bedrooms in a decrepit house.
We've had plenty of strong first-person narrative heavy games since Gone Home such as Firewatch and Virginia, and this game is another solid addition to that growing list. I'd argue that its refreshing vignette gameplay does enough to convince those who generally abstain from that genre too. And if you enjoy that style of gameplay, then you'll feel right at home here.