What is wrong with these people?
I am so happy about the indie-revolution. Because of it, we're seeing a plethora of game-genres emerge (or re-emerge) that I didn't think was possible some 15 years ago. Back then I thought we'd pretty much be stuck with an endless line of Battlefields, FIFA's and Final Fantasies. Now we've got games that are more like toys, like Chuchél, games that more of everything like Undertale and then we have games that are more like books, like Gone Home and To the Moon. What Remains of Edith Finch falls into the latter category, although for some reason they've been a bit playfully, or spitefully, called "walking-simulators". It's understandable, if you were to traverse a book you'd mostly just do walking and reading, and so it is in these games. Some argue that they can't be called games at all, and I find that discussion a bit beside the point. They're interactive, but they don't have much of gameplay in the sense of being able to fail at things or achieve stuff. It's an experience, and it's inbetween reading and gaming. The fact is I don't know why these games don't fall under the "visual novel" category, because it would be pretty lame if it was solely because you can walk around in them.
I do feel these games, as I am going to call them nonetheless, fill a niche that a regular book couldn't though. Even with Walking-Simulators I didn't find very enjoyable, like To the Moon, I find it hard to imagine that the story would've been any good if it had been only text and no "gameplay" at all, even if the gameplay is what I found particularly weak. The interactivity of the medium gives life to a story that could've otherwise potentially not been as strong or entertaining. It's only fair that if we have a ton of games where the story only works as the backdrop, or excuse, for the gameplay the other end of the spectrum would be where the gameplay is only the backdrop, or excuse, to experience the story.
I know I've said there will be spoilers, and never is that more serious than with these games. They pretty much are their stories, so if you want to play it I strongly suggest doing so before reading this review.
What Remains... is a story about Edith returning to her childhood home to explore her family history. Four generations of Finches have lived and died in the house, and we pretty immediately find out that most of them died very young. This is due to a combination of Kennedy-esque bad luck and what can only be described as criminally neglectful parenting by the Finches. As you uncover more and more of the stories behind these peoples deaths, because that is the narrative of the game, you'll baffle at how no one seemed to learn from past mistakes. So we learn that Molly dies from eating poisonous mistletoe berries, that were kept in her room. Gregory drowns in the bath after his mom leaves him unattended to answer a phone call. Gus is left out in a storm and Calvin falls into the ocean because someone thought it would be a good idea to build a swing set right next to a cliff. Each story, and subsequent death, is experienced through a little mini-game which is different for each character and quite imaginative. It's difficult for me to wrap my head around whether the designers intended for these mini-games and stories to leave me sympathetic or chuckling. There is nothing funny about a toddler drowning in the bath of course, and the mini-game handles the matter quite delicately, but as a parent myself I found it a lot more frustrating than endearing to get to know the Finches. A lot of the time the stories left me thinking "really?", and not necessarily in the "wow, this is so cool" kind of way.
As Edith you walk around the house and slowly discover each story. I say slowly because sweet macaroni does Edith walk slow. Fortunately it's not something that becomes very annoying, simply because the game rarely requires you to move, or want to move, quickly anyway. But walking up and down stairs is unrealistically slow and I was glad it wasn't something that I had to do often. Speaking of unrealistic, for some reason the designers have some very un-human looking models in the game at places and they really broke my immersion. Overall however the game did an ok job with making me feel like I was visiting a real place, albeit one inhabited by what must've been semi-crazy people. Because of this the game is also perfectly linear, but if you expected something else from this genre then you should've probably gone for one of those "Pick your story"-books instead.
Here are some of the notes I wrote down while playing it;
- Right at the start of the game Edith comments that they all grew tired of eating salmon after her brother started working in the cannery. Let me just say it's impossible to grow tired of salmon, I could eat that all day, every day.
- If I've done my math correctly, Dawns dad is supposed to be 33 when he dies. He definitely looks like he is around 50 when we play his segment though, so I guess life wasn't kind to him.
- The first Finch (of the game family tree) is Odin, who is from Norway. Bit cliché to name a Scandinavian after Norse Mythology though, innit? Don't think Odin is a very common name in Norway.
- The end credits are really cool! Each name in the development team is accompanied by a picture of them as a kid. I wonder which picture of me I would choose for something like that?
The game is eerily similar to Gone Home, so much so that I had to check which came first to see which game copied the other (Gone Home was released 4 years before What Remains...). What Remains... is a much more fantasical game where Gone Home is a lot more grounded, and I definitely enjoyed the latter more. They're both only about two hours of gameplay however, and What Remains is still worth experiencing if you enjoy these types of games - if nothing else for the pretty far out death stories and they're accompanying mini-games. I will definitely give credit for those mini-games being quite memorable, especially the first one where you as Molly go on a hallucinogenic trip where you end up eating yourself and the last one where you as Lewis end up cutting your head off. Don't say I didn't warn you.
It makes you wonder though, who comes up with the idea of a game that is basically a whole bunch of kids dying in different ways?