“How ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ Transforms Walking Simulators” – Video Transcript:
Due to their unique ability to offer agency and interactivity to their audience, video games have the potential to tell stories unlike any other medium. Rather than solely relying on fictional commentary and discourse, games are able to imply meaningful & emotionally complex narratives through their play space. In their GDC lecture from 2010, Arkane Studios’ Harvey Smith and LucasArts’ Matthias Worch describe environmental storytelling as “the key to the creation of game spaces with an inherent sense of history; game spaces that invite the player’s mind to piece together implied events and to infer additional layers of depth and meaning.” While several of these experiences share their story through traditional exposition, the Half-Life, Fallout, Myst, & Dark Souls series all masterfully utilize environmental storytelling to help create a more convincing world that’s revealed naturally through play.
Emerging from the indie development scene that had been revitalized in the late 2000’s, a handful of developers started to completely forego the narrative devices & mechanics that had long been industry staples. Their projects stripped our ideas of what comprised a video game down to only the bare essentials that were needed to tell a story. In lieu of stunning cinematics, groundbreaking combat design, fiendish puzzles, or gargantuan open worlds, players were presented with smaller, explorable environments through which they would gradually uncover pieces of a coherent story. This reductive and somewhat controversial approach to video game design lead to the birth of a new genre, deemed the “Walking Simulator.”
These projects prioritized the conveyance of an emotionally-charged narrative over the design of compelling mechanics, player agency, or fail states; therefore, they were often referred to as “non-games” during the infancy of their existence. Over the years, however, walking simulators have been able to shed the negative stigma that once hovered over them by successfully sharing stories that other genres have been unable to replicate. Despite now being accepted by the majority of video game communities, walking simulators are still quite new and therefore still have their own set of challenges and hurdles to overcome.
Luckily, every few years a new game releases that further refines the genre. With their release of Gone Home in 2013, Fullbright helped players relate to their story by filling the explorable environment with the trappings of many of our childhoods. Later, with the help of Henry and Delilah’s believable banter and progressive relationship, Firewatch taught its audience that walking sims don’t have to be lonesome experiences. The latest project to innovate, and the one that pushes the walking sim genre forward more so than any other release to date, is What Remains of Edith Finch.
Set in a family estate that’s now in the possession of its seventeen year old heir; players will follow Edith Finch as she explores the many rooms that make up her family’s house, as she tries to uncover the truth behind an apparent family curse. Through its pairing of literary vignettes and clever level design, What Remains of Edith Finch graciously disposes of any sort of predictability; and after all was said and done, I looked back on my three hour journey through the Finch estate in awe.
I have to say, the most impressive part of the experience was watching the story unfold through the aforementioned vignettes, which served as short interpretations of the scattered journal entries throughout the household. While most episodes introduced a new mechanic to the player, the strongest ones were stylized to the point where they became an entirely different game. After reading Molly Finch’s journal, which documents her bout with a fatal hallucinogen, I was transformed into a giant sea monster that was tasked with consuming drunken sailors on board a ship that was out at sea. Lewis Finch’s dreary day-to-day life at a fish packing plant is perfectly illustrated through a mechanically complex sequence wherein I had to navigate through one of Lewis’ vivid daydreams with one hand, while simultaneously working the fishery’s assembly line with the other.
By nature, the vignettes within What Remains of Edith Finch were more focused on conveying meaning through imagery rather than explicitly unveiling the tragic end to each of Edith’s family members. On several occasions, these personal accounts improperly foreshadowed certain events in the story which were later revealed to have occured completely differently. In order to fully connect the dots, players eventually learn to filter these stories through Edith’s commentary and perspective, which in turn makes the family’s tragedies sting even worse.
Through these tactics, Giant Sparrow brilliantly humanizes their story and safeguards What Remains of Edith Finch from ever becoming predictable. Instead of solely learning about a character through objects in the environment (like other walking simulators), we’re able to live out the Finches’ experiences through their perspective, which in a short game, allows us to more quickly establish a connection with them.
What Remains of Edith Finch innovates and improves upon its competition’s weaknesses by creatively implementing gameplay and level design that perfectly reflects the personality of its characters. Through the game’s use of vignettes, it disposes of the linear monotony which often plagues the walking simulator genre. For all of these reasons and more, What Remains of Edith Finch gracefully qualifies itself as the best of its kind, and sets a new benchmark for the market it inhabits.