Why 'What Remains Of Edith Finch' Could Be The Best Walking Sim Yet

Why 'What Remains Of Edith Finch' Could Be The Best Walking Sim Yet

Giant Sparrow

Part mystery, part meditation on the passing of time and loved ones, the literary 'Edith Finch' celebrates a much-maligned genre

Part mystery, part meditation on the passing of time and loved ones, the literary 'Edith Finch' celebrates a much-maligned genre

A canned history of the Walking Simulator: The name was was originally pejorative, a tag given to narrative-driven experiences judged not to be "real games" by the people who judge these things and then make tags about them. Brave gamers unafraid of exploring Hebridean islands without the ability to wall-run have since reclaimed the name to an extent, and a new genre of exploratory, meditative games from Dear Esther to Firewatch has gathered under its banner.

The walking simulator feels like it might be a reaction to velocity, as though somebody realized that speeding through painstakingly crafted landscapes at the speed of violence was a massive waste, and decided to make a game about the ground. Certainly, as small-scale game development has surged, walking simulators have offered a more resource efficient way of making games, with fewer moving parts, moving people, or intricate systems of physics and action.

As such walking simulators (the best ones anyway) are brilliant catalogs of loss, involving the investigation of absence, of missing things and missing people – as often signalled in the titles themselves: Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter. They represent storytelling through exploration and reconstruction, and What Remains Of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow might be the best one yet.

Which is to say that What Remains Of Edith Finch looks set to be the crowning achievement of walking simulators in the terms we have come to know them. It is about a house, full of books. More than that, it is about a house that is like a book – about a reading story from a place like words from a page – as though it had seen how its predecessors wrote meaning into geography and decided to nudge the metaphor along a notch.

It is, too, about a young woman called Edith Finch, returning to her family home after the death of her mother. Both the family – who are Finches, after all – and its now empty house are arranged on trees. The house is an impossible thing, a layered pile growing from a once-normal square building, a tree erupting from its upper floor and carrying with it several extra rooms in a teetering tower. The family, peeked at inside Edith's journal, is a tree of names and dates, closed brackets of time showing that Edith, drawn holding her phone up as if taking an illustrated selfie, is the last Finch left.

The game's mystery is never really announced, but presses itself more urgently over time

Edith walks down the forest path leading to her old home and begins exploring, scouring the house for stories. This is something it has in common with Gone Home, and other walking sims. But what Edith Finch understands that sets it apart from others of its type is the particular power of returning to the site of childhood, where memories and self-conceptions are forced to realign themselves with rigid physical reality. Or they would be, if we could be so sure that this impossible place had a rigid physical reality. "The house was exactly like I remembered it," says Edith, looking at its fairytale tower, "The way I'd been dreaming about it."

The game's mystery is never really announced, but presses itself more urgently over time. Why is the house empty? And – after closer scrutiny of the numbers on the family tree - why are so many of the Finch children's lives so sharp and short? It makes Edith's survival seem suddenly precarious, as though there is something dangerous about the house she squeezes herself into through the garage doggie door.

Inside there is a growing sense of a reality ever so slightly distorted and fabulous. "Nothing in the house looked abnormal," says Edith "there was just too much of it." Chiefly, there are too many books, stacked under and over tables, flowing off the end of shelves, an overgrown garden of words. There are clear and repeated titles that the game is keen for us to see: Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist, The Age Of Innocence, Wuthering Heights, Persuasion, The Great Gatsby – a century of novels about places and people, inheritance and expectation. There are books about journeys of discovery, too – Siddhartha, The Odyssey – and others that hint at the house's infirm hold on rationality, like The Trial, Peter Pan, and Alice Through The Looking Glass.

Edith tells us that her mother sealed the house's old bedrooms when her brother Milton (1992-2003) disappeared. This is the setup that lays out the structure of Edith's exploration – in ordinary houses rooms are shared and passed along, making them shifting and communal spaces. But here each locked room remains the property of absent occupants, the house itself preserving the people who once lived inside it. Memories of Edith's family are waiting to be opened like the books that line the house walls, an analogy underlined in triple by the game when Edith comes to investigate her great aunt, Molly. The key Edith's mother has left her doesn't open any door – instead it opens a padlocked book, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which opens to reveal a hidden entrance to a secret tunnel into Molly's room.

Molly's story is a beautiful, surreal snapshot of a ten-year-old girl Edith thinks she'd have been friends with, "if she hadn't died in 1947." Her diary recounts a night on which she's sent to bed without dinner and wakes up, ravenous. She eats her gerbil's food, then a tube of toothpaste, then berries from a branch. "I ate a lot of things that night," she writes. Hearing a bird outside her window, she transforms into a cat – a neat mixture of Kafka and Alice – and chases it through the trees. Molly is a disarmingly un-squeamish narrator, thrilled with catching the bird and then transforming first into an eagle, eating rabbits whole, and then into a shark, bouncing off the cliff behind the house to hunt in the ocean. "I wanted fat, juicy seals." Eventually she becomes a monster, plucking fishermen from a boat, before crawling back into her own house and hiding under her bed. She wakes up knowing the monster must still be there, that it is just a matter of time before it eats her. "And we both know I... will be... delicious."

When Edith puts the diary down, she opens her own journal and sketches a picture of Molly above her name in the family tree. She knows Molly, now, and is closer to knowing herself.

This was enough, when I played an early version of the game, to convince me that What Remains Of Edith Finch's literary playfulness – and metaphorical literalness – are likely to make it a beautiful, self-aware instance of a walking simulator. In a genre all about reading place, it features a place which, the game tells us over and over, is just like a book. It even tells us what kind of book. In the demo I played there was one more story – the details deserve to be enjoyed fresh, but it featured more allusions (Peter Pan! Lost boys, and flying) and another history told through a room of sad souvenirs. This room is accessed through a locked book, too, but this one was home-made for the Finch children, full of lift-up flaps and panels. The house – and the game itself – is a kind of pop-up book, a feat of both storytelling and engineering, of secret spaces and discovery. And in drawing the connections between all these things, and making them part of its own journey of discovery, What Remains Of Edith Finch sits, self-knowing, on the very top branch of walking simulation.