Video games can make you feel like you’re a soldier, a racecar driver, even a limber archeologist. But in the upcoming game What Remains Of Edith Finch, which will be out April 25th for PlayStation 4 and PC, the developers are trying to make you feel like you’re both reading a sad book, and the subject of the sad book. How exactly does that work? To find out, I played a small part of the game while peppering Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas, the game’s Creative Director, with some questions great and small.
To start, what kind of game is What Remains Of Edith Finch?
It’s a collection of short stories about a cursed family in Washington State.
Okay, but what kind of game is it?
It’s a game about exploration and ultimately about the sublime horror of nature.
Since you used the phrase “short stories” in your description, I assume there are some literary influences on What Remains Of Edith Finch, right?
So what authors and which of their novels do you see as being the biggest influences on What Remains Of Edith Finch?
I think weird fiction as a genre, but in particular such writers as H.P Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Any specific works of theirs?
No, I just think their writing in general. All of them write about people who are in over their heads and are in places where they’re struggling to understand the universe and then realize they will never understand it, that it’s beyond their comprehension. That’s more or less what this game is about as well. Though in our game, the idea is that rather than being told the story, you’re experiencing what it feels like to be that person.
Our through line is the Finch family. You play as Edith, who’s coming back to the house she grew up. What’s unusual about the Finch family is that whenever someone dies, they shut their bedroom door and seal it up, leaving it as a tomb for that person. In the game, Edith goes into their rooms, and in exploring them, finds a playable story about them.
Okay, so looking at the menu that’s on the screen right now, she goes into Walter’s room, which hasn’t been opened since 2005, where she experiences his story, and then later she goes into Calvin’s, which has been sealed since his death in 1961, and experiences his story, and so on.
Precisely. The frame is that Edith has come back to try and figure out what happened to her family. In fact, let’s play Calvin’s story. It’s actually Sam and Calvin’s room. They were twins, but one of them died when they were ten, while the other becomes your grandfather. It’s one of the earlier bedrooms, and when you’re in the bedroom, you’re playing as Edith.
Going back to the Lovecraft thing, do you think of this as a horror game?
I wouldn’t say horror. It kind of depends on what you mean by “horror.”
Well, there’s obvious tension here, and there’s certainly a gothic quality to it, but there’s a difference between scaring the crap out of someone and just having a weird world.
Well, our goal is not to scare people, which is the goal in a horror game. Our goal is more to create an environment that encourages players to think about their own mortality, and the effect that someone’s death has on other people in their family.
It also makes me think of the Lemony Snicket books.
A little bit. I think there’s some crossover there. Though I think those books are a little bit played for laughs, and the narrator is removed.
So like if those books were told from the perspective of the older daughter.
Here, take the controls.
Okay, I’m going to narrate this. There’s a playhouse in this room, and in it is a space helmet.
Use the right trigger to interact with it.
Thank you. Okay, there’s a note, which seems to be written by Sam about Calvin. And now I’m on a swing, near a seaside cliff. Oh, and if I move the two thumbsticks up and down, they control my legs, and I’m swinging higher and higher while the kid reads the note.
Right. During this part, you’re playing as Calvin, but it’s being narrated by Sam, who’s reading his note.
[What happens next will be left out to avoid spoilers.]
Okay, I’m now back in the room, and I’ve found something else I can interact with. But I notice that, unlike in an action game, you’re not just hitting the “action” button to engage, you’re using the controls to simulate the movement you’d make. Like how I had to move my legs up and down to make the swing move.
Does this mean you tried to make What Remains Of Edith Finch a VR game?
Well, we tried some prototypes, but while some stories worked well, others did not, so we abandoned it. This one, for example, didn’t work well at all. We had a lot of trouble with it.
Not really. They’re trying to do similar things. We’re trying to make you feel like the character. The word “immersive” gets thrown around a lot. I feel like if you just hit a button to do something that isn’t like pushing a button that it would pull me out of the game. At least for this game.
This also makes me think that What Remains Of Edith Finch is really much more about the story than about action or puzzle solving or anything like that.
Some stories have more action, this is one of the more limited ones, in part because it’s only a couple minutes long and the goal was more to remind players what it’s like to be on a swing. But there are some that have more action. It depends on the story and the room. There’s no combat. Though you do, at one point, become a shark that’s chasing a seal.
I also noticed that you have the subtitles being written on the walls as a graphical device. But is that just if you turn the subtitles on, or is that part of the game and everyone sees them?
They’re on for everybody. But it’s primarily a way to remind players that they’re listening to a story, that everything they’re experiencing is someone describing something that happened in the past. Though it’s also a way for us to lead the player’s eye.