“If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things. But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”
– Edith Finch
The walking simulator genre is divisive for many videogame lovers. Even the genre’s name sounds as much like a term of disparagement as a descriptive label. Hearing that a game’s interactivity is mainly premised on walking in a character’s shoes doesn’t exactly connote ‘fun.’ And yet the generic signifier has come to represent some of the most widely acclaimed narrative-driven games of the past decade, from Gone Home to Firewatch to Outer Wilds. Most AAA games offer the simplicity of walking and roleplaying as a specific character together with a range of more complex gameplay mechanics and systems to accommodate whatever genre the game is rooting itself in. Perhaps, then, what really defines the walking simulator as a categorical label is that its games refuse to complicate (and potentially detract from) their visions of simple and pure interactive storytelling with traditional videogame-y elements. Depending on the artistic talent and focus behind these games, this conscious distillation of what we understand a videogame to be can either make for some unique and impactful interactive experiences or some boring excuses for gameplay. What Remains of Edith Finch is certainly an example of the former.By representing the deaths of its family of characters with a haunting permanence antithetical to the normalized immortality of player characters, the game manages to carve a unique identity for itself as one that successfully thematizes the finality of death.
The opening scene of Edith Finch places us in the shoes of the only living character in the narrative’s present moment, Christopher Finch, who is on his way to visiting the grave of his mother, the titular Edith Finch. As Christopher we can observe the scenery around us until we look down on our lap and see our mother’s journal. Christopher opens it, begins to read, and the game proper begins.
Edith Finch is structured as a series of frame narratives told within a larger frame narrative. The larger frame narrative, which makes up the bulk of the game, has us play as Edith, who has returned to her family home for the first time in years to learn more about the family history that her recently deceased mother attempted to shelter her from. Through Edith’s narration we come to learn that the Finch family has apparently been afflicted with a curse that causes all but one child of every generation to die – allowing the family line to continue but marring it with tragedy. While exploring the presently uninhabited yet memorially cluttered Finch house as Edith, we begin to discover documents pertaining to the deaths of the other Finches that transport us to interactive segments that have us play through the moments leading up to each individual character’s untimely end.
Our progress as Edith is always informed by the text from her journal, which physically manifests in the game’s environment as we move through it and is accompanied by Edith’s narration. This gameplay premise extends to the vignettes of the other Finches as well, which feature narration from whoever wrote the discovered document, which may or may not have been the deceased Finch themselves. The manifested text serves the doubled ludonarrative function of drawing the player’s eye towards important spaces and objects while contextualizing the gameplay as an interactive recreation of the content of a written document. Ontologically speaking, writing always exists as a trace of the past in which it was written, and Edith Finch mobilizes this philosophy for the entirety of the game.
Aside from Christopher’s brief opening scene, everything we play through has already happened in the game’s fixed history, or has at least presumably happened according to the many written documents we discover as Edith. The 10-year old Molly’s vignette, for example, comes from her own journal where she describes her intense hunger after being sent to bed without dinner. She proceeds to eat inedible objects around her room (such as toothpaste and some likely fatal berries), and imagines fantastical experiences hunting prey as a cat, an owl, a shark, and a monster, which in the gameplay takes the form of short minimalist action sequences. This mix of fantasy and realism in Molly’s story informs much of the rest of the game’s tone as some of the characters’ fates are clearly communicated while some are shrouded in more ambiguous mystery. The player is often left to piece together the family narrative based on these interactive vignettes and by observing the memorialized rooms of each individual Finch, preserved by Edith’s grandmother, Edie. The ambiguities establish an important commentary on the limited factuality of historical documents, while also recognizing that searching for objective historical facts is not necessarily more important than engaging with the personal, human subtexts that underlie such writing.
The core gameplay loop therefore consists of: 1) entering a different Finch’s room, 2) extracting details about their personality and interests by observing the objects in their room, and 3) learning about their deaths through the interactive vignettes. While simple in its ludic engagement – the controls mostly just demand a pseudo-embodied use of the controller’s analog sticks and shoulder buttons to replicate the motions of Edith’s hands – this loop naturally immerses us in Edith’s task of piecing together her family history. By occupying every room and allowing Edith’s writing to color our experience with her own personal thoughts on the different objects we focalize on, the setting begins to resonate more intimately just as our connection with Edith deepens. Playing through the final moments of each Finch, meanwhile, requires us to simply accept the inevitable reality of their particular demise, just as Edith surely must have as she wrote about them in her journal. Moreover, it steeps the gameplay in the experience of death in a manner that reflects the narrative’s main thematic concern. Crucially, these deaths do not function like traditional videogame deaths, in that they only play out a single, linear scenario and allow no retries. With a poetic irony that stands against the medium’s standard of nonlinear gameplay structure and functionally immortal avatars, we cannot ‘fail’ to lead any of the Finches to their death. They are part of a history that cannot be reset but must instead be reconciled with.
By focusing on player characters that are all already deceased, Edith Finch finds an effective means for depicting human finitude in a medium where the stories and characters are usually determined by the techno-logic of immortality. This is a problem I’ve addressed in my theory on the importance of reflection for ludocriticism, and Edith Finch manages to encourage reflection inherently through its narrative design. The moment when the game makes this metacommentary explicit is with the penultimate story of Lewis Finch, Edith’s oldest brother, which is triggered by reading a letter from Lewis’ therapist. While observing Lewis’ room it becomes apparent that two of his greatest interests were videogames and drugs, both of which he abused as a means to escape from his undesirable, unheroic reality. As Lewis, the player is engaged in shift work at a fishing cannery. With the right analogue stick (functioning as Lewis’ right hand), we must grab every fish corpse that falls in front of us, position it under the nearby guillotine to have its head decapitated, and throw the remainder back on a conveyor belt. This cycle sums up Lewis’ monotonous shift work. At the same time that the player is engaged in this repetitive task, the therapist’s narration begins telling us that Lewis had begun deriving true value in his life through imagining a different existence for himself. Immediately, a bubble manifests on the screen within which we take control of a generic videogame avatar with the left analogue stick, who we proceed to guide through fantastical kingdoms as we receive praise for our apparent heroic deeds from faceless and speechless NPCs.
The tension between Lewis’ imagination and reality is cleverly reflected in the segment’s control scheme, as movement with the left stick is used to control Lewis the Hero (represented in third person) while the right stick is relegated for Lewis the Cannery Worker (represented in first person). Furthermore, Lewis’ increasing investment in his imaginative exploits becomes manifest in the increasing size of the bubble, as it slowly overtakes our sight of the cannery work until it fills up the entire screen. It is also notable that only in Lewis’ imaginative bubble is the player ever given any sense of agency in the game, as we are provided with choices such as whether we want to serve a “beautiful prince” or “handsome queen” for Lewis’ fictional quest. The ultimate triviality of these decisions emphasizes the deceptive sense of empowerment and individuality that videogame agency can instill during gameplay. After all, no matter what choices we make in this segment, we must still end it by leading Lewis to his imminent suicide. By presenting Lewis’ estrangement from his own reality as an overpowering immersion in a generic videogame, the vignette presents a poignant critique of the dangerous allure of the medium’s technocultural rhetoric surrounding infinitude and incorporeal existence. “My imagination is as real as my body,” Lewis’ therapist reports him having said. It’s a wonderfully idealistic thought that sounds like a psychological antidote to the alienating effects of monotonous work, but it is also a delusion that rejects the primordial truth of human mortality. An imagination cannot exist without a body.
Through allowing its players to enact only the single, unchangeable demise of all its characters, the gameplay of Edith Finch serves as a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life, the fixed yet elusive truths of history, and the often incomprehensible “curse” of spontaneous death. The game’s thematic engagement with the importance of discovering one’s genealogical history, together with its disregard of player agency in favor of telling the fixed stories of its deceased characters, breaks new ground for how a videogame can honestly represent ‘real’ human experience. Furthermore, it’s worth acknowledging that the authentic resonance of the gameplay is indebted to the dynamic simplicity of the walking simulator genre, which trades in entertainment value for a more reflective pacing.
I feel I need to say a little more about the walking simulator as a generic label, as I’m noticing myself bringing it up in my writing for this website quite often so far. Games like What Remains of Edith Finch are testaments to how minimalist gameplay can still make for impactful interactive storytelling. Instead of basing gameplay around reiterations of generic standards (e.g. RPG leveling; FPS shootouts), walking simulators contextualize gameplay around the more grounded stories they want to tell. While this design philosophy doesn’t often result in exciting ludic challenges, it does usually produce more dynamic, streamlined narrative experiences. Much of the success of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative impact, for instance (as I mentioned in my discussion of the game), came from the moments that it broke from its FPS trappings by taking away the player’s gun from in front of the screen in favor of more novel (and pacifist) environment-driven and story-driven sequences. For lack of a better term, I compared these moments to the gameplay of walking simulators because they stood out structurally from the rest of the game’s recognizable shootout-based progression. What we associate with the term “walking simulator,” then, strikes me less as a classifying ‘genre’ and more as an approach to narrative design that rejects generic gameplay structures. Perhaps if we begin to appreciate the storytelling innovations of the best walking simulators in this more fluid manner it will help game designers discover a balance between dynamic narrative design and more compelling and varied interactivity.