A haunting sequence from What Remains of Edith Finch, one of the best indies of the decade…
Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. This week we’re looking back at a memorable escape from reality in the brilliant What Remains of Edith Finch.
What Remains of Edith Finch is essentially a collection of haunting vignettes, each more heartbreaking than the last. But even among a baby drowning in a bathtub or a hungry child eating poisonous berries, the saddest story in the game is one of the simple drudgery of daily existence.
Lewis Finch is a troubled young man. Mentally disturbed and battling a substance abuse problem, Lewis seeks help through a therapist. Like all of the members of the Finch family, we already know that Lewis is dead before we begin, so this therapist is our narrator for this section, recounting Lewis’ tragic final days before his suicide.
As Lewis returns to his job at a cannery, he leans into the monotony of it all while hiding away a tiny bit of hope in his heart. Eventually that hope evolves into a secret world of his own creation, one where he can find meaning and a sense of purpose.
From a gameplay perspective, What Remains of Edith Finch shows this dichotomy by allowing both worlds to exist on the screen. With the right analog stick players control the real Lewis, mechanically grabbing one fish after another before beheading them and placing them on a conveyor belt. The left analog stick, however, controls another Lewis, one on a grand adventure.
Though it begins as a simple labyrinth that the player must navigate from a 2D perspective, this world continues to grow and evolve as Lewis’ delusional otherworld becomes more and more of a refuge for him. Soon it has grown into an isometric dungeon crawler akin to Diablo II. The subversive ways that these changes show Lewis’ increasing detachment from reality are an especially brilliant touch.
While this section of What Remains of Edith Finch begins with the fantasy setting as a simple game that takes up only a quarter of the screen, it grows to take up the entire point of view of the character by the end. Each time the perspective of the fantasy world takes over more of the screen, the gameplay and style of the game grow more impressive and inviting.
Still the player, like Lewis, is tethered to the boredom and tedium of the real world through the monotonous back and forth clicking of their right analog stick. The chopped fishes still appear in the fantasy world as well, occasionally blocking Lewis’ progress until he severs them. These subtle additions show how Lewis’ real life still occasionally impedes his fantasy world. Soon his mother is visiting him at the factory, pleading with him to come back to reality, but even this quickly fades away into mere wisps of smoke in his otherworld.
Soon Lewis is the mayor of a utopia, then an intrepid explorer, on a series of conquests. Finally he finds himself seeking love, choosing a mate and questing for a legendary item with them. At this point there truly does seem to be two Lewis’, as the dissociated fantasy Lewis becomes judgmental of the real man, watching him with disgust in the cannery before rising back to his fantasy realm, as if ascending to the heavens.
Naturally this scene adds a sense of foreboding, as the 3rd person perspective of the game shifts to 1st person, now blocking out all of reality. As Lewis ascends the steps of his golden palace to accept his crown from his new love, he must place his head in the guillotine to receive it. As Lewis is crowned in the fantasy world, he places his head in the chopping machine of the real one, killing his last connection to the real world.
Heartbreaking in its utter relatability, Lewis’ story in What Remains of Edith Finch will be painfully familiar to anyone who has worked a soul-crushing job to make ends meet, all the while feeling their dreams slipping away with each passing day. We may not all stick our heads under the blade at our lowest moments of despair but we’ve all had days that made us want to.
The execution of this sequence is the crowning achievement of What Remains of Edith Finch, a wonderful game that is still vastly underplayed. It’s a brilliant experience of a game and one you won’t soon forget.