Spoiler warning: this article includes spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.
Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch is often lauded as an excellent narrative-driven game. It presents a rich world based around the Finch family house and a genealogical mystery as you move through it, unravelling the secrets of the lives and deaths of the previous generations.
What Remains of Edith Finch has a darkness at its core. It’s a game whose narrative focuses on the question of whether there is a curse on the Finch family, or whether it’s an unlucky history of freak accidents. In framing the narrative this way, the game ignores the child neglect and cruelty that appears central to its story.
Not every Finch died when they were children. Plenty died as adults, resulting from construction accidents or by suicide. And some of the children’s deaths, the ones concerning kites and swings and perilous playtimes, could arguably have been accidents rather than negligence of not observing children at play.
But there are other instances that seem to stem directly from neglect, cruelty, or abuse.
Take the case of Gregory: a baby who is constantly left by himself in a bathtub full of water. He drowns as his parents argue, and everyone is shocked and saddened and tries not to blame themselves. Except, surely, they should blame themselves. We know that a baby should not be left in a bathtub of water. This was not a curse or a freak accident. It was child neglect.
Then there is the story of Molly, the little girl who dies from an unknown malady and writes in her diary about having strange dreams of eating anything in sight. Molly was locked in her room, in at least one instance overnight and without supper, and eventually died of a mysterious illness while imprisoned.
There is also the purposefully obscure death of Barbara, whose story we view through the stylized pages of a horror graphic novel. With intentional obfuscation of the facts of the story and the history of child abuse throughout the game, I was left uncomfortably wondering what the true story of this young, vulnerable, pretty girl’s death was.
And finally, Walter, the little brother of Barbara who was there when she was killed. He became agoraphobic after her death, refusing the leave the house and eventually living out his lonely life in the basement of the Finch house. He died as an old man, struck by a train when he finally left his bunker. Surely parents and guardians had a fundamental duty of care to take this child to see a therapist or a doctor, and ensure he had a formal education, even during the sixties?
In addition to the individual stories of death by neglect or abuse, there is also the macabre, almost Victorian sense of memento mori in the house itself. A genealogical time capsule for the player, who gets to find items like the remembrance paintings on slabs of wood for the dead children. Or walking through the house and finding the bedroom of Calvin and Sam. They were twin brothers, and when Sam tragically dies, Calvin is forced to grow up with his dead brother’s side of the room forever roped off like a morbid museum piece.
This idea of a genealogical time capsule is repeated throughout the story, as each child’s room is forever preserved from the moment of their deaths. This has the added neglectful side effect of later generations being forced into living in even more dangerous structures, ending with Edith and her brothers staying in a rickety rooftop-treehouse at the summit of the Finch home. These children are banished from the safe and stable structure of the family home due to the ghosts that remain within.
A lot of these mini stories within the game had a chance to explore mental illness or physical disease in an intelligent, thought-provoking way. Molly could have been suffering from Prader-Willi Syndrome, and Walter’s trauma and agoraphobia could have been explored more. I felt the game treated Lewis’s death by teenage suicide with empathy and understanding, and his story resonated with me in a way these abusive deaths did not. I would like to have seen more thoughtful discourse in the other stories like this part demonstrated. Instead it feels like most of these tragic deaths are trivialized and made fantastical for the sake of entertainment.
I understand this is supposed to be a whimsical game, a magical-realist explorative narrative that focuses on the old, eclectic house and the strange family that called it home over generations. However, there is enough flippancy in the narrative around these questions of neglect and abuse that makes it sit uncomfortably for me. I don’t think we should be flippant when dealing with an issue as serious as the continued neglect of children that leads to their untimely deaths.
What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t the story of a fantastical family curse preying on generations of unsuspecting children: instead it’s a story of a dangerously neglectful family history of mistreating its children.