Walking simulator is something of a derogatory term used by some to describe games where you're basically just pushing your analog stick forward to progress the narrative of an adventure. But not all narratives benefit from being broken up by puzzles or encounters with enemies that need to be dealt with. In some cases, it's okay to just enjoy the journey and concentrate less on the paddling and instead focus your attention on the scenery.
What Remains of Edith Finch is one such game, even if it makes clever use of its few game mechanics. This is the story of the cursed Finches. A family that has seen more hardship than most, and a family that for some reason leaves the past unresolved and instead continues to expand its house with new floors and rooms, leaving the rooms of their departed relatives untouched. This is the house you explore. Edith is the last remaining Finch alive, and as her mother was reluctant to fill her in on the details of the family's misfortunes, Edith explores the house and experiences the tales of her departed relatives.
This sort of purely narrative-oriented adventure may not be to everyone's liking. There's no real challenge here, no fail state, yet we find ourselves immersed deeply in the various stories of the Finches, and we find mechanics that are tailor-made to fit each subplot. Its strength lies not in what you accomplish in the game, as much as it does in the insights you gain from playing it. This is a poignant, extremely self-conscious effort that deals with family, fear, and death in a most entertaining and heart-warming manner. At times macabre, and at other times deeply moving and dramatic, you get the sense that each chapter has been given just as much care and attention as the five-year development cycle seems to suggest.
There is no filler in What Remains of Edith Finch. Even the "walking" is fairly minimal, and that helps create a narrative with great pacing. We doubt it's a game you'll feel an urge to replay straight away, even if we appreciate the ability to replay chapters individually after having finished the game, as you may see certain bits differently knowing what happens next and to other Finches. All told we finished the game in just over two hours, pretty much what you'd expect out of a feature film. But having finished the game we didn't feel as if anything was missing, nor that the narrative had been rushed, instead we felt completely at peace which would seem to indicate the length was just right for this particular game.
The entire game takes place inside or near the Finch mansion, a building that was constructed as the original Finch house was lost at sea during a storm when the cursed family made their way across the Atlantic from Norway. Edith herself has never been inside most of the locked rooms in the mansion, as they were sealed off when a member of the family passed away, and instead, new rooms were built to accommodate new Finches. The house itself is detailed and characterful, every room full of things that tell us just who the person was who used to live there. The house is completely littered with stacks of books, which tells us something of Edie, the family matriarch and daughter of Odin, who made the venture across the sea from Norway only to succumb to a storm a few hundred meters from shore along with his house. Stories run through the blood of the Finches, and the stories you'll experience around the deaths of your family won't all the completely realistic.
As Molly, you'll be tumbling down a hill as a shark, and slithering like a snake as you eat men on board a ship. As Gregory, the toddler, you'll enjoy a bath where you've got a telekinetic ability to move a toy frog. As most of Edith's relatives passed away as kids, these retellings are seen through the eyes of a child, which gives the rather grim tale a more humourous and warm tone. Some episodes are just altogether depressing like the one about Walter, who lived out his life in the cellar. A couple of episodes stood out above the others, child star actress Barbara and her comic book styled Halloween-themed demise and the daydreams of cannery worker Lewis. The hunting trip with Sam and Dawn was also very special. In fact, it's difficult to imagine the game without any of these chapters as they are connected in a way that makes them all feel vital to the overall plot.
From a technical perspective, the game does a capable job, even if it's not really pushing any boundaries. The music and presentation are excellent as are the voice actors lending life to the Finches. The way the story is told through what Edith writes in her diary and how it is written on the scenery is an excellent way of managing the player's attention, making sure their eyes focus on what's important. Throughout there are loads of neat little design decisions like this one that shows just how much thought that has gone into every scene.
For some reason, we've always subconsciously added a question mark to the end of this game's title. Turns out the question mark was most definitely purposefully left out. There's no mystery here, this is simply a game about what remains. It's a beautiful, well-crafted, moving, and highly memorable experience that you owe it to yourself to experience if you've got even the slightest interest in these sort of narrative-driven adventures.