Video game storytelling has evolved. In the early days, you’d be lucky to find a real story in a game at all. Mario must save the princess. Link must save the princess. Pit must save the — you get the idea.
Video games have gotten much better at crafting narratives since the NES days. That’s thanks in no small part to the indie boom that’s fundamentally changed the industry over the past decade. Titles like Oxenfree or That Dragon, Cancer have taken full advantage of the video game medium to reimagine how interactivity can be used to tell a story that’s unique to the medium.
To see just how far gaming has come as a narrative format, look no further than What Remains of Edith Finch. Not only is it one of the best indie games out there, but it tells a series of stories that work particularly well as a video game. For those curious about seeing how it works, it’s available to play via Xbox Game Pass on Xbox consoles and PC.
What Remains of Edith Finch is best described as a short story anthology. The first-person exploration game is set in a house belonging to the Finch family. It’s a towering structure with many rooms haphazardly slapped together. The goal is to explore the house and learn about how each member of the family died through bite-sized playable short stories.
In one tale, you’ll find yourself playing through a pulp horror comic, while another will put you in control of a squid dragging its way across a ship. The gameplay mechanics drastically change depending on each family member’s specific demise, which leads to constant surprises.
If all this talk about squids doesn’t make it clear enough, Edith Finch is not rooted in gritty fiction. It’s a textbook example of magical realism, a literary subgenre that blends grounded stories about the real world with more supernatural elements. Think novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude or the movie Big Fish.
There once was a time where comparing video games to novels seemed a little ludicrous. Games were always seen as a playful distraction, not an effective form of storytelling. Not to reopen old wounds, but gamers got up in arms back in 2010 when Roger Ebert famously penned a blog declaring that “video games can never be art.” It’s a short-sighted refrain that continues to bug players to this day, despite it being a one-sided feud.
Video games have matured quite a bit since Ebert wrote that piece and the worlds of cinema and gaming are closer than ever. Annapurna Interactive itself is a studio spun off of Annapurna Pictures, which has produced multiple Oscar-winning films. When What Remains of Edith Finch dropped out of left field in 2017, it was essentially a statement from one of indie cinema’s hottest brands that yelled, “The dividing line between these industries no longer exists.”
It’s something of a running gag to picture what Ebert’s response to the rise of indie games with weightier storytelling would be today. Would Edith Finch change his tune about video games as a storytelling medium, especially with a cinephile darling studio behind it? We’ll never know … but also, who cares? What Remains of Edith Finch is a stunning game about the deeply personal nature of stories. They can help change one person's view of the world or just seem plain superfluous to someone else. That’s entirely up to the reader — or the player in this case. Either way, What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the century's must-play games.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available via Xbox Game Pass on Xbox consoles and PC.
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