A Video Game That Finally Engages with Death and Succeeds
Facing personal loss and existential terror with a demo for the upcoming What Remains of Edith Finch.
So many video games are about killing, but they rarely engage with the fear or experience of death in an honest way. They numb players to one of the only certain and terrifying facts of life through mindless and repetitive reenactment, rewarding the player's triumph over death without real consideration.
The upcoming narrative game What Remains of Edith Finch flips the script, wading directly into death's unknowable and unavoidable fog. And based on the hour-long demo that included two of the game's thirteen short stories, it amazingly doesn't fall flat on its face for trying.
Inspired by the speculative fiction of Lovecraft, Gaiman, and Borges, the next title from Giant Sparrow (the creators behind 2012's seminal indie game Unfinished Swan) takes you through the demise of the entire Finch family. As the last remaining Finch, Edith returns to her family home in Washington state, where the player uncovers vignette-style short stories detailing the untimely deaths of her family members, spanning across various generations and locations. The most recently released sequence centers on her brother Lewis' suicide and, after finishing it and finding myself fighting back tears, I was left in awe. Not only because What Remains of Edith Finch delivers on the untapped potential for games to address death—but also because a video game helped me process my own sister's recent suicide more than any other piece of art or media has come close to in the months that followed.
"We try to set the table and let players experience [death] for themselves," says creative director Ian Dallas when I ask about the team's approach. "Players already bring so much heaviness on their own that there's no need for us to add any. It would be redundant. Also, the less we suggest how we want or expect players to feel, the more room we open up for them to consider their own family history."
As any suicide survivor (the term used for loved ones left behind) will tell you, you spend much of the early grieving process haunted by a need for answers that no one can provide. You pour over every detail of your loved one's final days like a detective, collecting statements from all parties involved, in the hopes that a pragmatic approach might give some semblance of shape to this unimaginable horror. In the game, Edith picks up a letter addressed to her mother from Lewis' psychoanalyst, with an opening line that sympathizes with her need to make sense of it, before launching into her own understanding of what went wrong—of when, exactly, they both lost the battle for her son's sanity. Then, players are dropped into the experience that fuels every suicide survivor's obsessive search.
You become Lewis, his psychoanalyst narrating while the player reenacts the drudgery of his job as an assembly line worker at a cannery factory, chopping off fish heads and sending their lifeless bodies back onto the conveyer belt. A familiar wave of dread comes over my body, as the psychoanalyst explains how Lewis turned to his imagination in order to cope with the harsh reality of his life. While she speaks of the imaginary place Lewis created for himself, a small side world appears on screen, splitting the game's controls in two as well. The left analogue stick allows me to maneuver around the 2D top-down labyrinth inside Lewis' head, while the right stick forces me to continue the repetitive motions of his cannery job (grab, sever head, discard—rinse, repeat, over and over again).
Giant Sparrow is best known for its design philosophy of "play, don't tell." Last time, Unfinished Swan brought meaning to first-person shooter mechanics with a paint gun that allowed players to spew ink to reveal the game's storybook world piece by piece. What Remains of Edith Finch plays out the same principle, leaving the hard work of emotionally processing each story to the player as she embodies the life and death of each Finch. "We put players into the shoes of these people by involving them in the process," Dallas said.
Slowly but surely, Lewis' imaginary world invades my field of vision, taking over the screen as it transforms from a simple 2D labyrinth into a full-fledged 3D fantasy realm called Lewistopia. Eventually, the cold, impersonal, repetitive violence of the factory disappears, leaving behind only the warm, colorful world of friendly faces that crown me king. Distantly, I hear the sadness in the psychoanalyst's voice as she admits that, at this point, she still thought she might be able to save him. But the consequences of Lewistopia don't hit me just yet, swept up in the celebration of Lewis' coronation, as he lowers his head over a guillotine that will allow him to stay in that world forever, leaving the life of severed fish heads to the other Lewis.
"Unfortunately, the minute you get close to all the main characters of our game, they're gone," Dallas says, later informing me that he lost his own mother a few months into the game's development. "You don't really get to hear from them again, but instead you hear from their parents and their siblings. The family felt like an appropriate through line to the stories as well as a lens into death—the ripples of death, outside of just the person [who passed]."
When I'm back in Edith's body, back in the starkness of reality, she's standing in her late brother's room, clutching the letter from his psychoanalyst. I'm filled once again with the certainty that none of the people left alive will be able to give me the answers I'm looking for. I feel a lump in the back of my throat because words cannot capture the magnitude of our loss, not only of my own loss, but the loss of color in a world deprived of her bright gaze, her misspent creativity, and irresistible fantasies. "My brother was really cool," intones Edith's narration, speaking to someone left nameless. "I wish you could have met him."
Dallas explains that, when it came to tackling the subject of death, the team worked hard to try and strike a balance between both the personal and conceptual experiences. "We tried to distill something that is ineffable into something mundane, because death is both those things at once. It's this transcendent, impossible to know concept. But we all experience it ourselves, too, and we're going to experience it first through the people that we know. We wanted to make a game that bridged the fundamentally boring, mundane, obvious side of death with the unknowable, fantastical, surreal side of it."
But, funnily enough, Dallas doesn't really consider What Remains of Edith Finch to be a game primarily about death. "It's about the bizarre experience of being alive at all," he tells me. "Death is just a way for us to highlight how temporary and fragile that is."