What Remains of Edith Finch is another artistic achievement for developer Giant Sparrow, a team best known for its PlayStation-exclusive debut, The Unfinished Swan. The studio's second game is an intimate, somber tale documenting the long history of misfortune that follows the Finch family is brimming with an overwhelming sense of beauty and sorrow.
And at the center of it all is its protagonist, Edith, whose story is highly affecting for those who have experienced loss or know the burden of a long, tumultuous family history. Edith's plight is well explored within the game, but it's also yields an openness to interpretation, especially in its stirring conclusion, that has deeply resonated with players that have experienced it.
We recently got the opportunity to unpack some of the deeper aspects of What Remains of Edith Finch's origins with Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas, discussing what inspired the game, the openness of its ending, and its connection to The Unfinished Swan. Be wary; if you haven't beaten the game, there are slight spoilers below.
GameSpot: What inspired Giant Sparrow to make What Remains of Edith Finch?
Ian Dallas: We had an interest in the sublime. That's where all of this started; we wanted to make an interactive experience that evokes what it feels like to have a moment of finding something beautiful, yet overwhelming, like being on the top of a mountain. For me, what I always go back to when I think of a moment like this, was my first time scuba diving and looking at how the ocean floats away from you into what seems like infinite darkness. It was this astonishingly beautiful sight, but it was also ominous and unsettling. In its early stages, the game started out as a literal version of this, where we'd put you into an equivalent of a scuba diving simulator. We pushed off from there, but moving always with this goal in mind to make something that combined these intense feelings.
When we eventually grew the initial prototypes into drafts of what you see in the game now, we found that they were most impactful during the moment where you knew the character you were playing was about to die. You found yourself joyfully marching towards your end only because you understood there's nothing else that you could do. Once we did a couple of these stories where that emerged as the high note, we started to make a bunch of stories that headed towards that direction, while also emphasizing this overwhelming beauty we discovered in our prototypes.
I heard that you and your team started the project before the story was set in place? Is that true?
Yeah. Certainly for Edith's story, that's true. A lot of the individual stories were finished piecemeal. We'd work on one, but then we'd shift over and work on some others. Each department had their own thing that they were working.
We did have ideas about the overarching story when we started. We had preposterous notions about what was going to happen at the end, but it wasn't until we got enough short stories in place and playable that we got a real sense of where that balance should be and what we wanted to do (like how much time you'd spend as Edith and what her role was really going to be).
Because Edith is doing so much work in terms of binding all of the game's different experience and piecing them together tonally, her own story sort of took a backseat for us. It's like when you build the frame of a house before you paint it. We didn't really know what color her story was going to be until there was enough there that we could have people play through big chunks of the game and then ask them: "how does it make you feel?" Then, we basically wrote Edith's dialogue to echo what players were feeling, explain things that might seem confusing, or raise questions that might be important to get players in the right head space. It wasn't about telling a particular story even for Edith. It was about how we guide the player through this experience.
Had the game's family narrative structure been set in place, though?
That wasn't in there at first. I think we originally had the game focusing on a group of high school kids telling stories, kind of like Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
But it was within the first couple months that we eventually figured out that framing these experiences within a narrative about family made the most sense. At that point, we did have some idea about how the Finch family had this legendary curse that caused its various generations die. The very broad strokes were there, but the actual characters that made up these generations, how many there were, how they died, and what the house felt like; all of those things came in quite a bit later. We basically started working on the individual stories because that felt like a place we knew we wanted to be.
In the past, you've said the game is about the unknown, so a lot of explicit details are left out from the fate of each member of the Finch family. Was it difficult retaining such ambiguity throughout the game?
We wanted the endings to be open because there was this central conflict of the different versions that the story suggests happened but doesn't actually tell you. We were highly influenced by Weird Fiction, a literary genre made popular by authors, like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, that often discussed what it feels like to be in a universe that is stranger than you can imagine. The hallmark of that genre is a murkiness that asserts that not only do you not know what occurred; you can never know. It's not that the universe is confusing; it's that your brain and your lifespan are both too small to understand what's out there.
But there's a lot that we don't know and will never know; stories are a part of that as well. Even when we're trying to document things and pass on information, it's hopelessly muddled and colored by the stories that we internally want to tell. Our impressions aren't facts; they're versions of events, so from a storytelling standpoint, it was more interesting to leave it up to the players to interpret.
We hope that it doesn't come across in a way that feels like we're avoiding the responsibility of telling a story, but more like this story is an interpretation of what happened and you're constantly trying to guess what the perspective of the person who's telling that story was.
Do you think this openness is what has captivated so many people?
I'm not entirely sure. I think it's impossible to say what any one person is going to be interested in. There's a lot in our game: it's about the sublime and the unknown, but it's also about family and death. There's a lot there that people can grab onto, and it's nice that the game also supports players who are just interested in learning about the Finch family and about the stories of each of its members.
That said, I was not expecting that so many people would be emotionally devastated by it, talking about how they cried at the end or how they silently stared at the wall for an hour. I suppose all of that is shaped by what players bring to it. There are a lot of games out there with stories that have a very specific narrative and message they're trying to relay, but our game is more about letting you bring whatever you want to it, so you can contemplate it. That sounds like a mixed metaphor, but I believe the openness of the narrative is part of why people seem to be responding to it in very personal ways.
What was the most difficult part of the game to design?
The ending. We probably had five different versions of how the game ended, but it wasn't until fairly late into development that all of that coalesced into something full. In hindsight, I realize we probably should've worried less about the ending because it's difficult to end something when you don't know the details of everything that comes before it and what the tone of that is.
It also didn't help that our story was unlike any other that we've told in the past. We tried ending the game with the twist endings we had used with the individual stories of each family member, but it just didn't feel right to end the entire game that way. It felt like that would've just been a continuation of what you'd seen before. It didn't feel like it wrapped things up.
That's part of why the ending gave us so much trouble; we were trying so long to make the best version of what we had done before. We already had high notes like Molly's and Louis's stories, so how were we going to top those? Ultimately, we realized that the ending should be a totally different thing. It shouldn't be about ratcheting up the tension or making the drum beat faster and faster; it should be about gently taking people out of this and giving them some time to reflect.
What was your favorite story to create for the game? What parts did you enjoy making the most?
My personal favorite was Calvin's story because it was so focused; plus, it was a story that I couldn't imagine being in any other game. The short length of that experience allowed us to introduce a simple mechanic of what it feels to be on a swing set, and then by the time you realized how that worked and what was going on, it ended. The brevity of Calvin's story is a big part of why it's so effective. For that reason alone, it's my favorite part in the game.
I also really enjoyed working on the moving text you see in the game. That was something that I pretty much owned on this project. It was a lot of fun to craft because much of the game's visuals and environments are static, so the text was really nice burst of life that added to the feeling of everything.
Near the end of the game, there's a clear reference to your previous game, The Unfinished Swan, in Milton's room. In a recent reddit AMA, you confirmed that Milton was the King in that story. How come you chose to allude to that game in What Remains of Edith Finch? How'd it come about?
It has been too long for me to remember exactly what the seed of that idea was, but I think it was when we realized that What Remains of Edith Finch would delve into similar themes as The Unfinished Swan. We thought to ourselves: "Oh shoot, we're making the same game again!" [Laughs]
I came upon this realization as a creator that there are certain subjects and tropes that I'm fascinated by that inescapably find themselves into my work. With how What Remains of Edith Finch addresses imagination at times, explicitly referencing The Unfinished Swan made a lot of sense. But when we put it in, I was very concerned that it would feel like a joke, that we had this otherwise fairly serious game and then people would be like, "Oh, this is out of place and it ruined the experience for me." But people have actually taken it quite the opposite; they feel like it's a very serious thing that links these worlds together. It helps that the game has so much variety that it doesn't feel unbelievable that there would also be a reference to a whole other game universe inside of it.
What's next for Giant Sparrow? Do you have any vague ideas about what you're looking to tackle next?
The next game that we're looking to make is focused on animation. My plan is to spend the next two years going to school to train to become an animator, so that on the next game, I have a better eye for how animation works and can talk to our animators and animation programmers in a language that they understand. What animators have been able to do in games, like Ico, and movies like Spirited Away, has always been something that impresses me; I'd love to dig a little more into the medium's expressive power.