When Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures got into the film business, the company produced movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik, Kathryn Bigelow, Harmony Korine, Spike Jonze, and David O. Russell—and that was just the first two years. Now Annapurna is moving into video games, and if What Remains of Edith Finch is any indication, the Annapurna Interactive division is going to bring the same willingness to bet on distinctive, ambitious, auteur-driven work to their new medium. In this case, the authorial voice comes from designer Ian Dallas of Santa Monica, California–based production studio Giant Sparrow—the people behind the Terry Gilliam–starring interactive fairy tale The Unfinished Swan—and there’s a moment early in the game when their artistic ambitions become almost unflatteringly clear.
I was playing as Edith Finch, a young woman who, as the sole survivor of the unlucky Finch family, has returned to her ancestral home to learn about the fates of her relatives. I found my way into an enormous bookshelf-lined great room, and, in video games as in life, the first thing I did was scan the titles. Usually, video game bookshelves are a chance for the game’s graphic designers to show off by creating plausible-but-fake volumes, like the pitch-perfect series of fictional crime thrillers invented for Firewatch, but in this game, the shelves are mostly filled with real books, with titles that say as much about the company What Remains of Edith Finch wants to keep as they do about the taste of the person who stocked the shelves. The Finch family library includes Pastoralia, The Metamorphosis, Slaughterhouse Five, Infinite Jest, and—boldest of all for a labyrinth of interconnected stories like What Remains of Edith Finch—Borges. Lots and lots of Borges. It’s the kind of move that you’d write off as thirsty in any other medium (if you weren’t complaining about the authors’ common denominator), but in video games, where it’s rare to admit any artistic influence more ambitious than Saving Private Ryan, the brashness of dumping a reading list into a game is refreshing. Does What Remains of Edith Finch deserve to be on the shelf next to Labyrinths? Not quite, but it’d be insulting to put it next to Grand Theft Auto V.
In fact, the game’s premise and structure may remind players most of two things, neither of which is Borges: Gone Home, the other recent narrative-based game in which players explored a deserted family home in the Pacific Northwest, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey’s macabre little alphabet book about children coming to bad ends. The player, as Edith, explores the Finch home, a sprawling Winchester Mystery House in which the rooms were sealed off over the years as members of the extraordinarily unlucky family died. Secret passages lead into the long-preserved rooms, where Edith finds documents that tell her more about her past. So far, this is just like Gone Home, which is itself just like any number of epistolary novels, telling its story through letters, newspaper clippings, divorce agreements, diaries, and the like. But while Gone Home simply let players read the documents, each discovery in What Remains of Edith Finch launches a unique level set inside the head of a member of the Finch family, with both aesthetic and gameplay elements that are colored by that person’s perceptions, making each into a sort of first-person unreliable narrator. Where does Edward Gorey come in? At the end of each person’s story, he or she comes to a ghastly end.
That repeated structure and the way video games can effortlessly make players identify with their protagonists are used to great effect throughout the game. For example, in one chapter, far enough along for players to know how each story ends, Edith searches the bedroom an outer space–obsessed 11-year-old Calvin Finch shared with his brother Sam. Finding a note from Sam about his brother, the player is suddenly sitting on a swing outside the Finch home in the fall of 1961. A little experimentation—the game never tells you how to play it—reveals that the controller’s thumbsticks each control one of Calvin’s legs. By moving them in unison, you can make him swing higher. What choice do you have but to see how high you can make the would-be astronaut fly?
This is where What Remains of Edith Finch differentiates itself from both the written word it is so in love with and most games that precede it. Pull the thumbsticks to swing, and you really feel like you’re the person straining to make the impossible loop-the-loop. Since by this point you know the rules of the game, you also feel like you’re the person propelling Calvin Finch toward his doom. It feels a little sadistic, no matter how much the music swells, but as Finch family stories go, Calvin’s death is an easy one. On the tougher end of the scale is a gorgeous Esther Williams–style water ballet, performed by rubber ducks, whales, and a windup frog, as conducted by an infant who’s been left alone in the tub. It’s both the highlight of the game and one of the cruelest things I’ve experienced in any medium; although there’s no James Salter on the shelves of the Finch family manor, as authorial sadism goes, this is right up there with “Last Night.”
The idea in each story in this video game anthology is to force the player into a sort of ecstatic embrace of death, to make you deliberately sail off the swing, plunge under the bathwater, investigate the basement on Halloween night, and engage in a variety of other equally doomed endeavors. Whether or not you think that’s a worthwhile artistic goal, there’s no question it’s an artistic goal, which preemptively steers What Remains of Edith Finch clear of the dullest debate in gaming. The question isn’t whether the game is art; the question is whether it’s any good. The answer, it turns out, is that it’s got a lot in common with life: What Remains of Edith Finch is sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful, sometimes torture, and sometimes sad. And no matter what you do, the ending is always the same.