Maybe seeing Synecdoche, New York so recently made me more receptive to feeling disappointed by media presenting mortality-metaphors involving impossible houses — and then, having presented them, don’t know quite what direction to take them. Well, it happened again.
What Remains of Edith Finch clearly expects an emotional connection with the player, but I struggled to find one. The game’s narrative contains a number of magical-realism elements which could have gelled into something amazing, especially as regards its setting: the vast house encrusted with towers and buttresses added over a century by a family obsessed with escaping its absurdly accident-prone history, entombing the bedrooms of those who succumb. Except not really, as the stories of individual (and tragically brief) lives you play out offer, as far as I can tell, no connection at all to one another or to the the story the house itself tells, or to the wonderful hook of the old-country paterfamilias who sailed his mansion over the sea to wreck it on the coast by Edith’s house. For a story ostensibly about a famliy, its parts all struck me as quite unrelated.
Did I miss a cue? Are the little tragedies to be read as reality, and their frame story a complete fantasy, perhaps one character’s memento mori memory-palace? I found no reason to believe that either, other than the presence of the strictly one-way connections from the characters’ stories into the house. The game’s structure just feels in serious want of a little more connective tissue, somewhere. Perhaps a different tone and art direction would have worked better, embracing the story’s apparent Edward Gorey aspirations more tightly, turning the seemingly unintentional humor of the family’s repeatedly fatal escapades into something more grimly celebratory. Photorealism and straight-ahead narration just feel too flat, here.
Friends have lauded the “triple-A Wario Ware” microgames that define the variously doomed family members’ tales. While the variety impressed me as well, most of these stories had an aura of pressing X to Jason, going through simple, sign-posted controller motions to meet the train whose headlamp you always see coming as soon as the vignette begins (and which at least once is a literal train). I will note that I enjoyed playing Gregory’s chapter and found Lewis’s chapter amazing, both engaging and interesting in spite of their mini-narratives ending exactly as you would guess from the outset. Either by itself could have a been a cool, morbid little game worth five minutes. I wish I could say the same about the two-to-three hours that surround them.
I wish, also, that I could borrow video games from public libraries the way I have lately enjoyed doing with movies. On the other hand, I feel confident that borrowing movies from libraries wasn’t a thing only a couple of decades ago, so maybe that too will improve, someday.