What Remains of Edith Finch – A House Haunted by Reality

Part of what makes Literature (the kind you read in English class) so enduring is how two readers can view a story from completely different perspectives, and the text could provide evidence to support both conclusions. For example, when Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost demanding revenge on his murder, you could argue that Hamlet literally saw a ghost, or you could argue it was a figment of his imagination. The play will actually support both theories. This ambiguity is one of the reasons why Hamlet is still circulated and discussed to this day.

With only two games under its belt, Ian Dallas and the rest of the team at Giant Sparrow have quickly become masters of imbuing this kind of mystery into their video games.

Giant Sparrow’s works, as listed on their website.

Beginnings: Finishing The Unfinished Swan

While I couldn’t find details about his growing up years, Ian Dallas’s career began in the film industry as a writer. His first step into the video games industry began by working for Telltale Games’ video game adaptations of Sam & Max in the late 2000s. He enrolled in the Interactive Media program of University of Southern California (USC) in 2007, the very same program that Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago had worked in a couple of years beforehand. One of his classes pushed him to produce game prototypes quickly, at least one a week, to help him gain experience designing different mechanics and different experiences. Dallas would eventually translate this kind of eclectic design approach to producing his own games.

In 2008 Dallas designed a prototype of what he called a “First-Person Painter,” where the player has to navigate an entirely white environment by inking objects and exposing their silhouettes. He entered this prototype into a popular indie game festival, the Sense of Wonder Night (SOWN). At the festival, someone captured footage of his gameplay and uploaded it onto the internet, which caught the eyes of several game enthusiasts, including Sony. Sony approached Dallas with a contract to complete the prototype into a fully-fledged game and release it on the PlayStation 3. Dallas agreed, and founded his own studio Giant Sparrow to complete the project.

Ian Dallas during a Developer Diary published by Sony.

From Dallas’ graduation in 2009 to finishing the game in 2013, Giant Sparrow grew from two developers to twelve. In four years Dallas learned not only how to develop and finish a fully-fledged game, but also how to manage an ever-growing team and help them all work together. The “First-Person Painter” hook remained loosely the same throughout the game, but the context for it changed with each new chapter. What began as inking an entirely white world evolved into shooting water to grow vines, and later shooting points to create solid 3D objects. At first glance the mechanics may appear to be too disparate to make much sense, but the narrative and emotional themes act as a thread binding them all together. The team sought to create a kind of interactive children’s book.

The Unfinished Swan was released in 2013 on the PSN as a Sony exclusive, with later ports to the PS4, Vita, PC, and iOS. It received mixed reception among critics, but won two awards at the BAFTA ceremony that year.

Ian Dallas and staff during a PlayStation Experience in 2014 previewing their second game.

Dreading What’s To Come: What Remains of Edith Finch

With their debut game out into the wild, and their contract with Sony completed, Dallas and company moved on to create a new emotional experience with Annapurna Interactive as their new publisher. Dallas felt impressed to recreate one of his strongest memories: while scuba diving, he once noticed how the continental shelf sloped out into the open ocean, the dark blue water filling his entire field of vision. This experience filled him with awe and dread simultaneously. He felt so small and weak looking at this large amount of unknown. At first he tried directly recreating the experience by designing a scuba-diving game, but it didn’t quite work how he had wanted. Using novelists H.P. Lovecraft and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as inspirations, the game shifted to a more intimate setting: a house.

Giant Sparrow sought to immerse players into that feeling of approaching the vast unknown by putting them in the shoes of Edith Finch, the last member of her cursed family, as she returns to the home of her youth to investigate the origins of the curse. With each new room the player would uncover details about a family member’s tragic death, putting them in the shoes of the person and giving them a new game mechanic to manage. From stalking a bird as a cat, to opening a can of peaches, to working in a fish processing plant while daydreaming about a fantasy world, Dallas wanted to have the player continually encountering new game mechanics to keep them in the state of figuring out what to do. The prototype-developing habits of graduate school were a perfect fit for such a game.

What Remains of Edith Finch was released on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One in 2017 and later on the Nintendo Switch in 2019. It received near-universal praise, winning several awards across media outlets and award ceremonies. Particular praise was given for the fish cannery scene and for the overall narrative.

My Interpretation of What Remains of Edith Finch.

Right from the beginning, when I sat on the ferry and walked up the path to the house, I was pulled into this story. When I learned that the game is set on Orcas Island, a real place off the coast of Washington State, I did a double-take. I visited Orcas Island about 5 months ago. As I approached the Finch family house, my mind returned the damp trails I had just walked this past summer. However, the house grows out of this landscape like the misshapen Weasley family home in Harry Potter. This juxtaposition of realism and fantasy is something I expected from master authors like Isabelle Allende, not from a video game. As I figured out a new game mechanic with each family member, I was in the exact emotional state Giant Sparrow intended. It felt like a modern Gothic novel set in the Pacific Northwest. And by Gothic, I mean the Literary use of the term – tales of haunted castles and monsters reanimating from the dead, a sense of dread of what could be lurking just around the corner… without crossing the line into outright horror.

The game is never graphically violent, but the stories are… unsettling, to say the least. I mean, each one ends in a person’s death, after all, and several involve young children. But it can be hard to decide which is worse, to attribute these deaths to a real, living curse, or to a more rational cause. Both are plausible according to the game’s text and subtext. Complicating the matters is Edith Finch’s grandmother, who is involved in creating both the house and the stories, but isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator. This mismatch in story details makes the player engage with a video game on a deeper level than what most other video games ask. It wants you to take the evidence and mull it over, applying your real-world knowledge to make a conclusion.

After letting the game float in my head for the past few weeks, it made me think about how we as people handle disaster, particularly if it involves innocent people. Isn’t it easier for us to move on with our lives if we say our problems come from some invisible force, or perhaps some conspiracy, rather than on real world causes? Labeling the family as cursed makes it all so simple, so easy to explain. And it doesn’t require us to make any introspection, or learn about our complicated world.

Similarly, when we consider our country’s recent turmoil, we see how people have handled it in very different ways. Some decided to label everything on some government conspiracy, while others explain it is caused by human neglect, pride, and recklessness. One is easy and doesn’t ask us to act; the other is much more difficult to face. It would require us to face our fears and face things we might not understand yet.

And that, in the end, is why I think everyone needs to play What Remains of Edith Finch, and to a lesser extent, The Unfinished Swan. These games push you to think about curses and tragedies, about stories and families. Are curses real, or do we make them up to help us escape the harder answers, the ones that require more of our time and effort? That feeling may seem as overwhelming as a vast ocean. However, seeing the vast ocean is better than remaining ignorant on the shore.

But that’s just my interpretation. You’re free to come to your own conclusion as well — that’s the beauty of such stories.

Further Reading / Sources

  1. http://www.giantsparrow.com/
  2. http://iandallas.com/
  3. https://www.linkedin.com/in/iandallas
  4. https://youtu.be/1-62TqgYvZg
  5. https://youtu.be/2jGLH8BlVWc
  6. https://youtu.be/A15hMzNvNbI
  7. https://gdcvault.com/play/1018037/The-Unfinished-Swan-From-Student
  8. https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025016/Weaving-13-Prototypes-into-1
  9. https://www.mcvuk.com/development-news/when-we-made-what-remains-of-edith-finch/

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