Here's What Happened During Our Preview of the Beautifully Haunting What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is an upcoming video game about a girl named Edith who travels to her childhood home to learn about the supposed curse that's made her the last surviving member of the Finch family.

It doesn't release until later this year, but I got the opportunity to play a quick preview of the game earlier this week and speak to the game's creative director, Giant Sparrow's Ian Dallas, about this unique game.

What Remains of Edith Finch logo

(via Annapurna Pictures)


The Story

What Remains of Edith Finch sets up quite the mystery to uncover. When Edith grew up in this massive house, she wasn't allowed in many of the home's rooms. They were barricaded after the passing of their inhabitants to perfectly preserve their contents. Now, Edith returns to explore these previously forbidden rooms and finally unearth her family history.

What Remains of Edith Finch Theresa's room

(via Annapurna Pictures)

In the game, players don't only control Edith's movement around the house. As Edith discovers these old stories, players experience them as well, learning who they were and, in effect, controlling them right up to the ends of their lives.

The result is a haunting, gorgeous and absorbing game that toys with the idea of the inevitability of death. It can be at once joyous, as well as dark and disturbing, and while I can't recommend it to very young players, the game had me totally enthralled.


The Gameplay

When I first got my hands on the PlayStation 4 controller to play a build of Edith Finch, I wanted to dive right into the story. In the scene (which I'm told is actually placed closer to the end of the game), I controlled Edith as she explored the former bedroom of her older brother, Lewis. Through Edith's dialogue, as well as a letter from a psychiatrist among Lewis' belongings, I learned that Lewis had a troubled past and died young.

As Edith read the letter, the scene switched entirely. I was transported into Lewis' life, where his job was chopping heads off dead fish before sending them off. For a moment, the game lingered on this simple task, and using the right analog stick, I made sure that every one of those fish was properly beheaded and thrown down the chute.

But, according to the psychiatrist, Lewis' mind would begin to wander during work. Still, he continued to do his work diligently. This is when the gameplay got interesting—in a thought bubble on the left side of the screen, a small figure appeared. It took me a moment, but I soon discovered that I could control this character in his imagination with the left analog stick.

What Remains of Edith Finch chopping fish wandering

(via Annapurna Pictures)

As I led this little imaginary adventurer through hallways and mazes in the thought bubble, I continued Lewis' duty of chopping fish, balancing each task with each analog stick. Soon, his imaginary journey became more elaborate, with Lewis sailing across a sea in a ship, amassing a group of dedicated followers and being elected leader of his made-up world, falling in love with royalty.

What Remains of Edith Finch coronation walk

(via Annapurna Pictures)

As his imagination grew, it took up more and more space on the screen until the processing plant was gone entirely, saved for the fish that kept appearing in the foreground. Lost entirely in his dream world, he'd lost any connection to the real one. Still, I felt the responsibility to continue chopping, and did so even though I could do longer see the cutting mechanism or the chute to drop them down.

After a bit of this, the scene changed entirely. I was back to being Lewis in the factory. After his shift, he was neither chopping fish heads nor imagining his getaway world. Something about it felt wrong. I walked Lewis down down a corridor of lockers and out onto the work floor. Above, a window leading outside glowed, looking like a royal entryway.

What Remains of Edith Finch walking toward window

(via Annapurna Pictures)

I walked up a conveyor belt and through the window, where Lewis' realities collided. Now, when I moved him forward, I was actually walking through the imaginary world where he was king. All around him, figures celebrated his arrival. It was also an odd feeling knowing that as I allowed Lewis to fall further into his imagination, I was ensuring the end of his life, but I chose to continue further into his festive fantasy, and soon he met his end.

Immediately I was back in the room as Edith finishing the psychiatrist's letter. Like I had during the game, Lewis allowed himself to become totally absorbed by his delusions. The experience left me with some conflicted feelings. Luckily for me, creative director Ian Dallas was sitting across the able to field my questions.


A Mind Behind the Game

Sweety High: In developing this game, did the gameplay or story concept come first?

Ian Dallas: Giant Sparrow is all about making games that people have never seen before, so we usually start with a feeling—some small kernel that feels interesting. For Edith Finch, that feeling was the sublime horror of nature.

While we were looking at references that we felt evoked the same feelings, they tended to be short stories. The theme doesn't necessarily work well in a longer form—it works better in a story you'd see from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges or Neil Gaiman, whose works are more concentrated. They have these moments that are really intense like fireworks.

From there, we developed the idea of doing short stories, and for each one we started with a central idea. One of the stories is about a child on a swing. We didn't even have a story at that point, but we wanted to evoke the feelings we remembered from being children on a swing set. We figured out the mechanics of how that would work, including what buttons to press and what's happening in the scene beyond that. Once we had something that was interesting and made sense to players, we figured out what would be a reasonable story to fit around it.

What Remains of Edith Finch swingset

(via Annapurna Pictures)

The rest of the game developed in a similar way. Once we had a couple of these stories together, we realized that they were all about the imagination. The original inspiration was the idea of looking at something that's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, and we didn't foresee how important imagination would be within that.

We wanted to play with the shared experience of a designer and a player, and what it's like as a player to experience stories about people imagining things and getting lost in their own worlds. It felt like a great fit for the game, and when you give the players something do do, they keep doing it naturally.


SH: In my gameplay session just now, I found myself compelled to keep chopping the fish even as Lewis got lost in his fantasy. Do you find that most players do? 

ID: Actually, the person who was just here was the first person I saw in a long time who didn't chop fish. But we really don't want to have players feel frustrated that they have to keep chopping. We've had a lot of journalists play through this story in the game and for some reason they're so dutiful. I think they feel like they have a responsibility to chop and they keep doing it. Right now as you're interviewing me, you're technically working. Lewis is also doing a job, so you might be in the same mindset.

I think players in general are not going to be as dutiful. They'll probably try to figure out the least they can do to progress. It's interesting to see different players have different reactions to things that I assume echo either their current mental states or a prolonged lesson that life has taught them that they're expressing in the game.

Everyone does play these games a little differently. In the first-person areas of the game, it's always interesting to see what people look at and what they're drawn to. Where the camera moves is a very expressive performance on the part of the player.

What Remains of Edith Finch chopping fish sailing

(via Annapurna Pictures)

SH: I was also very aware of the fate that awaited Lewis at the end of the segment but I still felt I had to play on. How did you instill that feeling into a video game?

ID: That's something that really evolved out of doing a number of these stories. Since each story is about someone dying, once you play a couple of them, you go into the story already feeling that impending sense of ending. Within the first minute of this story, you're anticipating that.

My hope is that players are generating enough of that kind of angst or concern on their own just knowing the context that, as a designer, we don't have to do anything to make that happen. We try to have a very light touch, and players fill in the rest.

On our side, we're trying to counterbalance that, making things as joyful as we can because we know that players are in this darker place. We tried to make something that feels like you're joyfully marching towards your end in a way that is hopefully not too stressful for people.

In most games, death is something that you're trying really hard to avoid. Here, you know there's no way to avoid it. It's a weird thing, to try to relax and let the character you're playing as meet their end. You can'completely relax. But I think it fits nicely with the broader themes of the inevitability of death.

In each of these stories, you're dealing with inevitability. We're trying to provide an alternate viewpoint of what it's like for people to be in places where they can'control everything. Ultimately, this is all about experiences. We're trying to put people in places they've never been before and think about the world in new ways.

What Remains of Edith Finch spooky trees

(via Annapurna Pictures)

SH: How is creating a game made up of individual stories with different gameplay styles different from a game with one core set of mechanics?

ID: It's definitely more challenging because your fundamental controls are completely different from story to story. You're not always in first-person, and your actions as well as your environments are significantly different. In Lewis' story you have this cloud of imagination that's drawing this completely different story.

Each of the stories had a lot of their own very particular challenges that made them quite difficult midway through the game, once we had most of the stories that we wanted to do, to actually be able to polish those things and fix all those bugs.

Usually on a game, if you fix one problem, it fixes a lot of other problems, too, because that one element is used in a lot of different places. Here, that wasn't so much the case. Each one was its own unique snowflake.

To balance that, we try to keep each of these stories relatively simple. Since you're experiencing each of them for such a short amount of time, you get thrown into this story you have no idea about, and once it's gone you never see it again. They don't have to be as robust as they'd need to be if you were spending 10 hours with that one thing.

We try to find the balance between something that's simple enough to actually do as a developer but is complex enough that players still feel like there's an incredible world for them to discover. It shouldn't feel like they're just walking down a hallway. But in fact in a lot of these stories—if you were to peel back all the layers—there is a kind of a hallway, but it's winding around with all kinds of crazy things in it.

Part of the magic is to keep enough things going on. As designers, there's a tendency to want to make things more complicated, at least initially. When you think about it in the abstract, it might feel like there's not enough there to sustain interest. But once all of the pieces are there—the music, sound effects and visuals—there's really a lot going on.

In a lot of stories, we started with something that was much more complicated and stripped it back to something that was simpler, but a better fit for the story and where it fit into the game.


SH: Was it tough to make the overarching narrative bring all of the small stories together and make it really feel like one cohesive game?

ID: That was a huge challenge, especially within the last year. We didn't really know what the game was until we had a number of these short stories working together and one of the things that worked out really well was having it be about a family—you get a lot interconnectivity for free.

What Remains of Edith Finch Finch tree

(via Annapurna Pictures)

A lot of these stories take place in the same environments in different time periods, and that makes it automatically more interesting. Because these characters have relationships that are familiar to players, whether that's parent and child or brother and sister, watching these people's conflicts with each other gives a richer layer to the game.

Part of it is creating interesting stories that work on their own. When you put them all together, they naturally become better than the sum of their parts. We made that work by, after the fact, going in and establishing that characters you see might actually be ones you've encountered earlier. We tried to weave that through the story intentionally because it's powerful to see repeated characters and environments.

The house and Edith's sections were super challenging to thread through that needle when we didn't have the stories yet and when they were still constantly changing. I'm curious to see what the reaction will be when the game finally comes out.


After finishing What Remains of Edith Finch, you might want to cleanse your palate with something a little lighter. Click HERE to check out our interview with the creators of the adorable cyberpunk mobile game, Beglitched.