What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains (Logo)
I first heard of the game What Remains of Edith Finch when Jim Sterling posted a video about it, and immediately I knew I wanted to play it. As much a piece of interactive storytelling as a game, it reminded me of Gone Home, a game I loved, which involved your character exploring an empty house, reading documents and receiving pieces of story through voiceover narration.

Gone Home, however, contained very little game – it mostly involved picking up objects to read them, and occasionally inserting a cassette tape into a stereo. On that measure, What Remains of Edith Finch is quite different. While the basic mechanic of exploring a large, empty house is similar, Edith Finch uses this framework to connect a series of short stories, each told in a different style through a different mini-game, with varying levels of interactivity. The first, for example, is the diary of a young girl, and you play as her through the increasingly fantastic story she tells in her final entry, with the movement and actions changing as the story twists and turns in the way that stories by small children often do. Other stories can be as simple as a slideshow, or a flipbook cartoon.

The story goes like this: about a century ago, the Finch family travelled to America from Norway in an attempt to escape the family “curse”. After arriving, they built the big, strange house in which the family has lived since, and it’s in and around this home that each member of the family has died, one by one, some as children, some as parents, very few having reached old age. In the game, Edith Finch Jr., currently the only living member of the Finch family, has returned to the house in search of their stories. The lives of the Finch family are preserved in their rooms, each one abandoned exactly as it had been when the occupant died, and later sealed shut; the rooms hold their stories, and each story is about a death.

This could have been a very dark game. It’s definitely a sad one. But the game doesn’t just tell us how a group of people died, one by one – it tells us the stories about how they died, each coloured by the perspective of the storyteller, and often with a dose of whimsy that cuts through the sadness. The darkest, saddest chapters in this narrative are also usually the most fantastical. The death of children is always going to be a difficult subject, but What Remains of Edith Finch manages to capture in each child’s story the sense of wonder and happiness those children held in themselves while they were alive.

In a sense, Edith Finch is about the power of stories. This is a family that is constantly telling stories about itself, the “family curse” among them. We see stories used as a way to come to terms with loss, but we also see stories that keep people trapped, preventing them from moving on. Maybe Great Grandma Edie was wrong for keeping the stories alive; maybe her daughter Dawn was wrong for protecting Edith Jr. from those same stories. This game isn’t about giving definitive answers to such things. These stories aren’t there to give us the truth but the feeling of it; just as the game is not so much a challenge as an experience.

I played What Remains of Edith Finch on the PC, but it’s also available on the PS4; I hear the controls might be a bit better there – they could be a bit finicky in places with the mouse. Either way, I highly recommend giving it a try. It’s a short game – about a couple of hours – but worth it.

Frozen without Olaf

I saw Disney’s Frozen just before Christmas, and it’s a pretty good film. I enjoyed it a lot, and particularly liked its subversion of the traditional Disney “true love” trope.

What I didn’t quite enjoy so much was the character of Olaf, the talking snowman. Now, I know these films are targeted at kids, and there’s nothing wrong with putting in these goofy characters for comic relief. I personally just found him a little annoying, and not all that important to the plot.

Anyway, I was idly thinking about this and I decided I’d try to use it as an exercise in building a story, and write down how I’d change Frozen to remove Olaf without significantly altering the story. Here’s what I came up with.

Note: Spoilers to follow. Obviously.

The way I see it, there is one key scene in the movie where Olaf played a significant role such that his removal would cause problems. That scene is toward the end, when the protagonist Anna is locked in a room to die by her fiancé Hans, having just revealed his true nature. Olaf arrives comforts Anna, starts a fire to try to keep her from freezing, and ultimately leads her to realise it was Kristoff she should have gone to, not Hans.

Without Olaf, Anna dies in that room. To make that part work, someone needs to come to her aid. The question is, who could? What other character could help Anna at that time, in that place, without significantly altering the story?

It would help if the film had included some other character in the palace who knew Anna and was close to her, but no such character has been established, and introducing one would require significant changes earlier on that might undermine the image it made of her isolated childhood.

After thinking about this for a while, the solution that finally came to me was to redeem the Duke of Weselton.

The Duke is introduced on the day of Queen Elsa’s coronation. He’s established as a greedy and selfish man whose only interest there is money: the kingdom has been isolated since the King and Queen died, and he wants the newly crowned Queen Elsa to reopen trade with Weselton. When things don’t seem to be going his way, he even instructs his men to kill Elsa, considering Prince Hans more likely to give him what he wants if he becomes King. At the end of the film, he is disgraced, sent home with the news that Elsa is severing all ties with Weselton because of his actions. He is a pretty clear cut villain of the film.

My idea would be to take a slightly different direction with the character. The differences would come in small.

When Hans suggests a search party to retrieve Elsa, he offers his men to help – but the audience would not see him instruct them to kill her. Their attempt on her life would come as a surprise, then, but not an unexpected one, as the Duke seems very much like a villainous character. Most likely the viewer will assume he has evil intentions regardless of whether they are shown.

But later, when Elsa is imprisoned by Hans, he would reveal that he had not intended to bring her back alive – he had, in fact, bribed the Duke of Weselton’s men to kill her, thinking to keep his own hands clean and blame it on the Duke.

Around the time of Anna’s return, when Hans announces that she has died after speaking her wedding vows, the Duke, ever looking to his own self-interest, would attempt to broach the subject if trade with Weselton. To his dismay, he would find that Hans intended to favour his own family’s kingdom, and had no interest in the Duke’s offer.

And thus it is that the Duke, his efforts to gain Hans’ support having been for naught, somehow comes across the room where Anna lies dying. Here, the Duke of Weselton’s true nature is revealed: he is horrified that Hans has left her to die. My Duke is still a weasel of a man, but not a murderer. He is too much a coward to confront the new King and his supporters alone (though he may promise to challenge his rule later, after gathering support), and in any case, Anna asks him to stay with her, believing that she is going to die regardless. So he lights a fire, and tries to comfort her – perhaps he even has daughters of his own, back home – and somehow his words cause her to realise that it is Kristoff she needs to find.

And so the ending proceeds as it did, and the kingdom is saved. And in the end, the Duke of Weselton is granted trade agreements with the kingdom by Queen Elsa (though perhaps not quite so favourable to him as he’d prefer).

The Duke is redeemed while keeping his essential character intact, and with very little difference to the remainder of the story.

And not a single talking snowman was needed.

***

If you’ve read all this, thank you for indulging my nonsense. I’ll just say again that Frozen was great, and I’m not claiming these changes needed to be made. I just thought it was a fun exercise to go through.