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The story behind the haunting What Remains of Edith Finch

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The critically acclaimed What Remains of Edith Finch launched on Xbox One yesterday, but those who had a chance to play it on PC and PlayStation 4 when it first debuted in April have had a few months now to process the story. Developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Interactive, it’s a narrative-driven adventure game about a doomed family that’s been described as haunting.

I caught up with Giant Sparrow’s creative director Ian Dallas to look back at the design process behind Edith Finch and what the fan reaction has been so far.

“It all started with exploring a sense of awe, particularly the kind of awe I’ve experienced in nature,” said Dallas over the phone. “The kernel of that originally was the experience of scuba diving in Washington state, the feeling of looking at the bottom of the ocean sloping away into seemingly infinite darkness. The way things can be simultaneously beautiful, but also overwhelming.”

Edith Finch follows the titular character as she returns to her family home to find out the truth about what happened to her relatives. You play as each of her family members, witnessing each of their deaths from a first-person perspective. Each scenario features a kind of magic realism to it — Molly turns into various animals, Lewis escapes into a fantasy land, and Milton simply disappears, leaving behind a series of inky black drawings.

Some of the deaths are more concrete, whereas others are left up to the players’ imaginations. Barbara’s death has turned into an urban legend, obscured through various retellings including an off-color comic book that sketches out a fantastical ending for her using horror movie tropes. Dallas says the genre of “weird fiction” was a large source of inspiration, citing authors like Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allen Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges.

“I expect that players will wrestle with their own interpretations of these things,” said Dallas. “What we found is that—another part of weird fiction is that sense of murkiness. Your inability to ever really understand what is going. And not because the truth is being hidden from you. It’s a lot worse. Like in H.P. Lovecraft and a lot of other stories, the world is just too complicated or too bizarre for your brain to understand.”

Dallas says that some players were upset that the ending didn’t fully resolve all the mysteries of the game. The family’s curse, for instance, is never actually confirmed to be real. At the end, just as you finally get to revisit the sunken house from the Old World, you literally have the story torn away from you — or maybe, you’re meant to believe that there are no answers to be found. Some of the subtext suggests that imagination and stories were the real culprit behind all the tragic deaths. Dallas says that it’s much more interesting to him to leave the story open-ended and let players digest and process it for themselves.

“We’ve gotten a lot of strong positive reactions, people saying the story was one of the most impactful experiences of their whole life,” said Dallas. “People have called out the ending specifically. They really like the way this wraps up. And then other people feel upset that things didn’t get resolved.”

Dallas says that the main thrust of the game is to provide a space where players can consider the topic of mortality, not to wrap things up neatly with a bow.

At first glance, What Remains of Edith Finch might remind people of so-called “walking simulators,” a term that was originally used disparagingly to categorize games where the main mechanic is to walk around and interact with the environment. The term isn’t used as pejoratively anymore, especially since the release of critically acclaimed titles such as Gone Home and Firewatch, which featured strong stories and characters.

Dallas says that Edith Finch isn’t really a walking simulator per se, but there isn’t really a better term for this kind of genre right now. It shares some traits with other titles — after all, you guide Edith Jr. through her childhood home and inspect the environment — but he says that Giant Sparrow worked to add a lot of different types of interactivity to complement the exploratory aspect.

“It was extremely challenging to come up with—I don’t know what the final tally was, but something like 13 different control schemes for the game, each one having to be tuned a bit and evolving over time,” said Dallas. And then the challenge of, in this game, really, combining all of those things into something that feels somewhat cohesive.”

Dallas said that they actually created several stories that didn’t make it into the final game. They culled the vignettes down based on watching people playtest them and seeing the emotional responses. The theme of getting lost in imagination wasn’t even part of the game at the start; that theme actually emerged organically after several prototypes and playtest sessions.

“With 13 stories or so, there was a lot of organic, back and forth to the stories. And even more so with Edith herself, trying to figure out what Edith’s perspective on all of this should be,” said Dallas. “Ultimately the question is, as a player, what do you care about? What’s interesting to you? What can Edith be talking about when you enter a room that feels like it’s speaking to something you’ve already prepared for, and doesn’t feel like just a voice in your ear prattling along about something you’re not really connected to?”

He added: “For players, what we found – and so what we created – was this sense of not quite knowing what to believe in any of these stories—a lot of them can go in various ways depending on your interpretation of events. Because that was already there for players, we made that the centerpiece of Edith’s own story.”

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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