The following essay on walking simulators/critical look at What Remains of Edith Finch contains spoilers.
But now I’m starting to worry the stories themselves might be the problem. Maybe we believed so much in a family curse, we made it real.
One of the dullest questions on computer/video games is, ‘are games art?’ The debate surrounding this question elicits equally dull disquisitions on the semantics of ‘art’ and ‘games’, delivered with a shared, inexplicable passion from both sides, all fueled by an affectation of quite exaggerated preciousness. It’s a question that hides a sad incuriosity about the medium itself, irrespective of whether it achieves the apparently important label.
I would say that in John Dewey’s sense, games are indeed art, and that sense (which is focused on a complete aesthetic experiences) is plausible to me. Still, I don’t consider the point especially worthwhile defending or care overmuch if you disagree. Neither the games I like nor those I dislike need to be either rejected from, or put alongside, dead artefacts in the decontextualizing context of art galleries. To do so would change little, other than making the curators a little cringe.
A similarly dull question, which has preoccupied segments of the gaming community, is ‘are walking simulators games?’ Wiktionary supplies a good enough definition of this term: ‘(video games, sometimes derogatory) An adventure game focused on gradual exploration and discovery through observation, with little in the way of action.’ That is, in walking simulators you interact with the game merely to travel through its set pieces and story, but without the winning and losing possibilities of a conventional game.
I enjoy walking simulators and I have no problem admitting some of my enjoyment is akin to what I experienced as a child on the Drayton Manor Theme Park’s ghost ride (my favourite attraction there). I have thoroughly benefitted from titles such as Lifeless Planet (which is not quite a walking simulator), but also Layers of Fear (which is), The Stanley Parable (probably?), Paratopic, Bientôt l'été, The Beginner’s Guide, Dear Esther, and most recently, What Remains of Edith Finch.
What Remains of Edith Finch stands out for me as emblematic of this type of game’s strengths, a great showcasing of what the walking simulator is capable of achieving that is unique to it. First of all, however, it does not do this because it is a good game on the level of being a game. Indeed, the mechanics are not overly praiseworthy. It’s best described as clunky. (In ways that are, thankfully, irrelevant to its charms.)
In this game you walk about an improbably constructed, multi-tiered house, variously climbing through hidden doors, windows, tree-houses, etc. and interact with objects to unlock different deceased characters’ stories, told via different genres and aesthetics. But while the music and environments are wonderfully realised and integrated, both the player’s movements and means of interacting with objects are rarely fluid or intuitive. What is lovable about this game is not its mechanics, but its mood and diversity of storytelling techniques.
Befitting its type, there is no losing in this game, and it is mostly linear. However, it uses the limited interactive scope of a walking simulator to create an emotional investment in the idea that you are exploring areas of this house that the titular player character has forgotten, or was even prevented from knowing. Crucially, every situation and revelation involve a high level of emotional investment. That is its writers and makers overriding concern: empathy.
The house, situated off the coast of the state of Washington, is really the central character of this game. Edith is coming back after many years, with the stated aim of learning about the deaths of various generations of her family. The lower portions of the house are now a series of shrines to Edith’s older relatives, some of whom she never knew, and the higher, more difficult to access regions concern her mother and siblings. It is an anthology of these lives, accessed through memorials, coming together to build a picture of the mythic curse of the Finches.
What Remains of Edith Finch is not incidentally told via this medium. As suggested, many of the lives you access are conveyed in unique and novel ways. We assume the POV of a baby in a bathtub imagining his rubber duck and other toys into an elaborate dance sequence; of a young woman whose fate is told in the pages of a horror comic book; a little girl who, Mabinogi-like, metamorphs into various creatures to satiate her midnight hunger. The computer game dimension is drawn on heavily to differently render these dissimilar experiences.
Were these accounts conveyed in a short story or film they would have a different texture. The immersion, here, lends the game a unique quality. This is powerfully true for Lewis’s story, Edith’s brother who loses himself in a fantasy to escape the monotony of his life working at a fish canning factory. We experience Lewis’s fantasy while we also engage in the monotony of chopping the heads off of salmon on a work line. It’s a strange chapter, and one that only a walking simulator could really pull off so aptly. The player is forced to bifurcate their attention between an idealised fantasy and a tedious reality, and it forces a very direct kind of—again, that word—empathy for Lewis’s predicament.
The walking simulator lends itself to something that more open styles of play have always struggled to achieve, creating a satisfying narrative in the scope of a computer game. The elements of a story are all authorially controlled in this type of game, as much as with a novel or film, so that the core narrative game difficulty of integrating the player’s choices is merely obviated. The player interacts with, but does not alter, events. A clever walking simulator disguises this, encourages player identification, while making full use of that authorial license to shape a satisfying emotional tale.
It is perhaps apt that What Remains of Edith Finch is an exploration of the human need for stories, but also the harm that stories can cause. Walking simulators tend, after all, to be about our interactions with stories. It is suggested in the game that a belief in the family curse functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the central conflict is over whether to ingratiate a new generation of Finches into these stories or protect them from the power of the past to dictate the future. On this question, Edith is both agnostic and driven, nonetheless, to know every account as a kind of homage and redemption.
And while Edith’s mother, Dawn, takes the view that her only surviving child needs protecting from the stories, she nonetheless grants her daughter the key to all of the hidden pathways through the house. Edie, her great-grandmother, turns every room into a commemoration of their dead occupants, and as Dawn locked these rooms away, Edie constructs peepholes into the locked rooms. Everything about the house is a struggle between remembering and forgetting, grief and love, between the stories that we imperfectly construct around our lives and the need to be free of them.
The game itself is not subtle about its themes. Books pile every available space of the house, often classic and modern novels. It is a story fascinated by storytelling. Moreover, Edith’s narration, which accompanies you everywhere, likewise obsesses over the nature of stories and memories. The total effect is of melancholy, wistfulness, but also a desire to be liberated from a sad history. Another feature, which takes up huge importance in one of the flashback sequences, is of photography. And the mood of going through childhood photos is something the game developers are consciously evoking. (They even use their own childhood photos in the credits!)
The metaphors are all pointed, too. Water, being under water especially, recurs a lot. At one point literal fog and forgetting become almost perfectly aligned. Flight as a symbol of freedom, but also of danger, occurs a few times too. As do various forms of artistry and contrivance besides those contained in books (from building to painting to film). Walking simulators are sometimes dismissed as pretentious, and this one has been too, but the charge here seems highly unjust; the game has very few pretenses about what it is about. It is a quite simple story on a big, easily relatable subject.
So, are games art? Are walking simulators games? If walking simulators are not games, can they be art? None of these questions matter much to me compared to the fact that the experiences I associate with titles such as What Remains of Edith Finch loom large for me, that this was aesthetically and emotionally rewarding and that I would consider it worthwhile anyone trying it out for themselves to see how they get on with its explorations of narrative and memory.
You will not be able to have this precise experience with another medium, and that is a good enough reason to give it a go.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.