What Remains of Edith Finch wastes no time explaining that it’s a game about death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the game’s much more interesting themes are a considerably slower burn. As instantly, world-turning-ly impactful as death can be, Edith Finch ably shows that death’s got nothing on the decay that comes afterwards.
The game’s plot, told in a series of vignettes, follows the final days and moments of Finch family members. The title character rummages through journals, drawings, ad hoc shrines to her dead ancestors—she even flips through one mass market comic book written about their passing. Together, the materials weave the tale of a supposed family curse that’s been stalking the Finches for generations.
Bit by bit
The opening salvo in the story is also the most fantastical, showing the surreal end of Edith’s great-aunt, Molly Finch. That early dive into the fantastic is important to the game’s impact. In this first vignette, you play as that 11-year-old great aunt. After being sent to bed without dinner, Molly first morphs into a cat, then a bird, then a shark, and finally a man-eating sea monster. The player lives through her ravenous hunger, as the game pushes them to swallow animals and people, providing a sense of the character’s simple yet propulsive motivation.
The most important part of Milly’s story is the way it sets expectations for what comes next. Instantly, the surrealism sets up the Finch family curse as a very real thing despite how surreal it all seems. Molly was a little girl. Her journal entry about becoming a monster could be the musings or hallucinations of a child. But by forcing me to play through her eyes, firsthand, the game pushed me to believe the reliability of this potentially unreliable narrator in a way that simply being told could never match. At the very least, it convinced me that the supernatural was possible in the world of Edith Finch.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this deep-end-first setup mimicked major parts of my own life—my own family’s legacy of believing and not believing.
Growing up Lutheran in a heavily Scandinavian, Midwestern town, religion isn’t something you talk about (like so, so much else). It’s just something that is. Occasionally, religion gets explained to you by people who, by nature of being ordained pastors, have the right to talk about that sort of thing in public. But for the most part it’s not something that “polite” people bring up.
The knock-on effect is that you tend to take belief for granted, at least at first. If something isn’t worth talking about—isn’t worth questioning or having argued to you, step by step—it must be such common sense that nobody needs to. It’s much like the way Molly’s story doesn’t need to rationally debate the reality of her monstrous tale. As a kid, I absorbed and accepted the possibility that everything my pastor read out of the Bible was true, if not the fact of it.
Since then, there’s been a slow decay of the spiritual and fantastical. My belief even in the possibility that good and bad things happen in the world only because some greater force wills it is all but gone.
My trips to Sunday School and Confirmation prep didn’t quite instill the fire-and-brimstone fear of God my previously Mormon and Baptist friends have described to me since. But neither did they lead to the same rubber band snap when I began to question and modify my own sense of spirituality. Unlike many of those friends, I still see and talk to my parents regularly, and we’ve never had anything like a falling out over my lack of religion, or even really talked about it directly since high school.
When my grandmother—one of the most openly religious people I’ve ever known, not to mention one of the best friends I’ve ever had—died a week before I graduated high school, I didn’t have an Edith Finch-style personal journal entry from her to know what she was thinking.
So instead, I prayed for her. I literally prayed for her, in the ways I’d absorbed through demonstration at church as a child. Yet when my own father was diagnosed with throat cancer at the end of 2015 (more than six years later), all I worried about was driving him to his treatments, visiting him in the hospital, and determining which foods he could comfortably eat after having his throat operated on.
Time, death, tragedy, maturity, and all the real-world consequences that come with them have worn down that nugget of childhood belief I once took for granted. I wouldn’t say it’s completely gone—I certainly don’t pretend to know every which way the universe turns. But today I see my family members and others who instilled that blind faith as what they are—narrators no more reliable than any other human being.
Believe it or not
What Remains of Edith Finch treats the reliability of its narrative in a similar way. Its vignettes aren’t told in strict chronological order, from Finch ancestor to Finch ancestor. Instead, they wind from most to least fantastical: from shape-shifting and sea monsters, to a man trapped inside his own head by the ache of unfulfilling work, to the narrow evening of a single dinner table argument.
Molly’s story is followed by Odin’s, which explains how the original Finch patriarch tried to escape his family’s curse by sailing a house across the Atlantic. It’s weird, certainly, but a far cry from tentacle clad killers from the deep. Then there’s Barbara Finch. Her finale also involves monsters, but it’s framed in a pulpy, off-brand Tales from the Crypt comic—the kind that adds “based on a true story” for added chill factor.
If Molly’s vignette established trust in the narrative, then Barbara’s is the first crack in that trust. Just as life experience taught me a difference between what people say and what’s necessarily true, a bit of media literacy was all I needed to not take a pumpkin-headed knockoff of the Cryptkeeper at orange-faced value.
Things only get more plausibly familiar from there. The rest of the Finch family deaths fade into always untimely, sometimes odd, but certainly relatable tragedies: suicide, accident, disappearance, and finally illness. Reality and its consequences supplant even the luxury of worrying about what supernatural forces might actually be to blame. The fantasy decays as the finality of all this death sets in.
For Edith and company, it was a curse. For me, it was a smattering of sermons that nobody around me ever talked about, so much as recited. In both cases, the legends skewed our realities until reality couldn’t be ignored any longer.
Though my childhood belief in the supernatural has decayed, it hasn’t disappeared. My beliefs aren’t what they were, but I only got to where I am today because of those old spiritual beliefs. They were swallowed up and recycled, yes, but only to spur me into questioning things I used to presuppose.
For that reason, I think What Remains of Edith Finch actually ends a little too neatly. We learn the final fate of Edith, just like we do with every other Finch family member. We know it’s another fairly mundane demise. The game chooses to cap the story on a clear, definitive note recounted by Edith herself, the most reliable narrator the game has on hand. For a story that’s all about the ever-evolving need to ask questions, What Remains of Edith Finch actually offers answers by its conclusion.
But today I’m still asking questions. Every so often, especially on long car rides, my dad will turn the dial to Christian radio. One of my aunts or cousins might make a presumptive comment about everyone going to church. Every time they do, I remember how I used to think. I remember how different it is from how I think now. Sometimes, I even ask myself if that’s how I still feel.
What Remains of Edith Finch brings up those same old questions—and it forced me to make those same reevaluations. But this game’s slow decay of fantasy reminds me of my entire, half-unspoken journey through religion and spirituality that led me to where I am now. It might explicitly be a game about death, but What Remains of Edith Finch stands out to me for how encapsulates this often overlooked portion of my own life.
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