As you may have seen, earlier this week we debuted a new trailer for What Remains of Edith Finch, a new PS4-exclusive adventure from the same team that brought you the enigmatic The Unfinished Swan on PS3.
The game follows the titular character as she returns to her remote rural family home to unravel the mysteries of her forebears. It’s essentially a compendium of short stories, each focussing on a different member of the Finch clan and built around a distinct gameplay mechanic.
As a big fan of The Unfinished Swan, I caught up with the game’s Creative Director Ian Dallas to delve a little deeper into his vision for the game. And duly, I learned enough to peg Edith Finch as one of the most intriguing prospects in PS4’s 2016 in-tray.
Read on to find out more, but to cut to the chase, any game that channels Edgar Allen Poe, Dark Souls, This American Life and Twin Peaks, all tied up in a nice, heavy existential bow, has to be worth keeping an eye on, right?
“Any game that channels Edgar Allen Poe, Dark Souls, This American Life and Twin Peaks, all tied up in a nice, heavy existential bow, has to be worth keeping an eye on, right?”
What DNA does Edith Finch share with The Unfinished Swan, both in terms of its gameplay and its approach to storytelling?
Ian Dallas: Both games are about exploring the unknown. In The Unfinished Swan the unknown was more concrete — a white landscape you uncovered by splatting it — whereas in What Remains of Edith Finch it’s more about the mystery of why all of your family members have died and the murky nature of stories, where you never know the full truth – just one person’s perspective on it.
From a mechanics standpoint, both games also make an effort to constantly change up what the player is doing to help keep things interesting and also put players in the mindset of these characters. As a player you’re discovering new gameplay mechanics in the same way that the characters are discovering new worlds.
What are your cultural touchpoints with Edith Finch? Edgar Allen Poe? Roald Dahl? Brothers Grimm? Stanley Kubrick?
Ian Dallas: The genre of short stories people call ‘weird fiction’ has been the biggest source of inspiration for us. That includes well-known folks like Poe, Lovecraft, Borges and Neil Gaiman along with some new favourites like Lord Dunsany, Jean Ray and Kelly Link.
Other big influences for us include One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Ugetsu, and with anything I do I’m sure there’s a bit of Alice in Wonderland in there somewhere.
“I’ve always been interested in death and impermanence, and I think families are a good contrast with that – something we make that lives on after we’re gone”
Edith appears very human and vulnerable – she’s unarmed, she’s got no special powers. She defies traditional videogame archetypes, which is obviously refreshing, but how do you sell that to the player and make her a heroine they want to inhabit?
Ian Dallas: Edith is a meant to be a bit of a mystery for players. It’s not so much a question of getting people to root for her as simply wanting to know what’s going to happen next in this world.
In keeping with our focus on the unknown, there’s a lot that isn’t clear about Edith at the beginning. We know she’s coming back to this house but we don’t know why. Like with the stories you find in the game for each family member, Edith’s own story is a deliberate construction and there’s things she’s choosing to focus on or leave out.
We’ve got two very different worlds in the game, the Finch family house Edith is exploring and the more surreal, stylised world of the stories where each is meant to reflect the personality and emotional state of the family member that story is focused on. We’ve tried to make Edith feel vulnerable and familiar to give players a stable point of view on this pretty bizarre universe.
Thematically, the notion of ‘family’ seems very central to what the game is about. How personal is this story to you? Are you pulling on your own experiences in any way?
Ian Dallas: My mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer mid-way through making The Unfinished Swan and she died during the first year of developing What Remains of Edith Finch, so that’s definitely part of why there’s a heavy focus on families in both of those games.
I’ve always been interested in death and impermanence, and I think families are a good contrast with that – something we make that lives on after we’re gone.
The stories in the game are all relatively short, contained experiences, so shifting the focus to the family also helps us look at how these events play out in a larger context and explore the themes we’re interested in.
“We’re definitely trying to capture the balance of a limited human presence surrounded by a large, untouched wilderness”
And what of the house itself? Is it a familiar place to you? Did you grow up somewhere like it?
Ian Dallas: The Finch house and the stories within the game are based around Orcas Island in Washington state, which is a place my family visited a lot when I was growing up. And we’re definitely trying to capture the balance of a limited human presence surrounded by a large, untouched wilderness that you can still find on the island today.
The Finch house is nothing like the house I grew up in, which is a good thing. The Finches aren’t very stable people and their house reflects that — it’s an enormous jumble of architectural styles and, like most houses in games or movies, wildly impractical. But I did spend my entire childhood, more or less, in the same house and I think that’s reflected in the way we approach the Finch house.
It’s a place where you can feel the weight of many people making small adjustments to it over a long period, imprinting themselves and their concerns on the landscape around them.
I hear you’re a big fan of the This American Life podcast, and that its approach to thematic, short-form storytelling has influenced your work. Can you expand?
Ian Dallas: I love the intimacy of radio journalism. On a show like This American Life you can have a soundscape of people digging a subway tunnel a mile underground paired with an old Jamaican man talking about what that kind of work does to your joints, and as a listener I’m able to keep both of those things in my head at once.
It’s a very artificial world, made up entirely of sounds, but it feels strangely real. I think in stripping away so many of the things that we’d normally be focused on, it’s easier to appreciate the unique character of what’s left – like the person’s voice.
On The Unfinished Swan we used mostly non-professional voice actors because they sound more natural and I think it’s easier to connect with them emotionally. They’re not acting; they’re just being themselves. And we’ve done the same thing so far on What Remains of Edith Finch.
It’s very hard to make anything in games feel intimate and human but non-professional voice-over actors have worked really well for us so far and I think that echoes some of the feel of a show like This American Life.
“It’s very hard to make anything in games feel intimate and human but non-professional voice-over actors have worked really well for us”
While it’s not overt, there’s clearly a ‘horror’ element to the game. How hard is it to scare someone, and how do you measure success during development?
Ian Dallas: Our intent has never been to scare anyone. I’d say it’s more about creating a sense of curiosity and unease. Which is not to say the game isn’t scary for many people. It comes down to how you as a person deal with the unknown. And this is a game that hopefully gives you a chance to explore that feeling.
It’s a hard thing to measure in a playtest. It’s much easier to measure the opposite – what are the things that break the sense of mystery, or empathy, or immersion. And every time we do a playtest we find lots of those problems and do our best to fix them.
Personally, the thing I’m always looking for is a moment in the game when most people will be so overcome that they’ll subconsciously let out a “woah”. You don’t always hit that, obviously, but that’s the goal.
“The thing I’m always looking for is a moment when most people will be so overcome that they’ll subconsciously let out a ‘woah'”
It’s fair to say that Edith Finch and Unfinished Swan are not ‘typical’ video games. There’s not much out there that’s like them. What’s your relationship with games? Do you play a lot?
Ian Dallas: I play fewer games than I used to and I think that’s a combination of lack of time, the fact that most games feel quite familiar by now, and the sense that most games don’t have much to say to me.
I think most games are either meant to be challenging or to be a pleasant time waster. And a lot of people are looking for that, but I’m not. For me personally, I love games that show me something I haven’t seen before and that effectively explore a character, environment, or feeling.
“Eventually, everybody is going to die, right? The most we can hope for is an interesting life and a satisfying conclusion”
The last game I got really into was Dark Souls, which was not a game I was expecting to enjoy. I think that game does a fantastic job of conveying a sense of struggle. I love how inscrutable the world is, how vast and unknowable it feels. For me, the thing that makes Dark Souls so compelling is how unified it feels, that all the various elements – the lighting, the economy, the lengthy attack animations – all contribute to this feeling of heaviness and struggle.
Another theme appears to be the trivial, temporary nature of humanity versus the infinite vastness of nature. That sounds a pretty heavy topic for a piece of interactive entertainment! Can you promise us a happy ending?
Ian Dallas: Eventually, everybody is going to die, right? The most we can hope for is an interesting life and a satisfying conclusion. And I think that’s what players can expect from Edith Finch and the rest of her family. It’s definitely going to be interesting.