I keep wanting to call What Remains of Edith Finch What’s Eating Edith Finch?. In a certain way, What Remains of Edith Finch has a few things in common with the film Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). They both feature oddly named characters, they’re both concerned about the way peculiar families function, and they both meditate on death at certain points in their runtime.
It’s this latter element that probably defines the major thematic interest of What Remains of Edith Finch, though, as the majority of the game is spent pondering the inevitable ends of Edith’s peculiar family members.
Video games might seem a strange place to consider the seriousness and sometimes (in the case of What Remains of Edith Finch‘s universe) the absurdity of death. However, re-reading that last sentence makes me realize quite the opposite. Video games are a medium that constantly represents death. Indeed, it’s one of the few mediums that regularly asks its audience to experience death alongside its protagonists. So in some ways, it might be the perfect medium for the stories that this game wants to tell.
Death, however, is What Remains of Edith Finch quite cheap in video game worlds, and this is where What Remains of Edith Finch dramatically differs from a standard video game. The protagonist can’t die, but she and the player constantly relive the deaths of others, and in doing so, death isn’t cheapened. Instead, even when presented in its bizarre and magically realistic universe, death takes on a significant pathos as it’s experienced, confronted, and ultimately accepted as part and parcel of the human experience.
What Remains of Edith Finch doesn’t deal with death in the same way each time, though, nor does it deal with death in quite as straightforward a way as I may have suggested. Each death is quite personal, defined by the individual whose story is being recounted and also by the medium or the perspective that may, perhaps, best suit that individual and the story that comes also to define them.
A violent death, for example, is told in comic book form, and in the most salacious way possible. Its details remain unclear, even incoherent as, perhaps, that incoherence represents the difficulty of dealing with such an unusual circumstance surrounding the death of someone well loved.
Equally bizarre is the death of a little boy on a swing. The momentum of the manner that we control the swing matches the building momentum of the story being told. When the final moment appears, we look upon it with both wonder and a sense of expectations being met — a strange and curious tale of death, indeed.
Equally disturbing is the death of an infant while at play in the bath. The game plays up the idealization of the little one’s final “playground” through its strange dance of toys and balletic music and imagination. Someone was lost whose identity had hardly had time to take shape, and yet, in experiencing the imaginary reality of this infant we are left with something that does remain of the identity of that someone still unable to speak to us about who and what he is or might eventually be.
All of which might make What Remains of Edith Finch incredibly depressing — but it isn’t. Between the strangeness of the family and their seemingly supernatural encounters and powers and the fact that the protagonist is pregnant throughout the game, we are both enchanted by these tales of life’s end and realize that in a family life always continues onward, despite the eventual disappearance of those around us. There will always be someone new with another story told in another way.
Unlike What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, however, the title of Edith Finch’s game is presented as a statement rather than a question. The game doesn’t conclude in any open ended way but instead lives up to its title. What remains of Edith Finch, it would seem, is Finches. One is a new Finch who will suffer the same “curse” of death that all Finches do (but really everyone shares with them). But none of the Finches ever disappear utterly as they and their rooms remain the foundation of their home.
At one point, Edith explains that rumor has it that all of the Finches are buried in the library. This makes sense, since all of the Finches remain in their home through the vehicle of storytelling, be that through a life told through a comic book or (in my favorite sequence) through a simple flipbook in which we witness the dissolve of one of the Finch children.
What remains of Edith Finch is what remains of anyone who has lived a life — the stories told by loved ones about them, however strange and difficult to believe that those stories might be.