Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? What is Banksy’s newest work satirizing? At times it seems the vaguer a piece of art’s meaning, the more it is valued. Perhaps this is why many consider What Remains of Edith Finch to be a prime example of video games as art. It is not only beautiful, but also opaque.
At the start of the game the narrative seems straightforward enough: after the passing of her mother, Edith Finch returns to her childhood home to learn about her family. Upon arriving at the family property, a somber and mysterious mood is swiftly established by lack of other living beings and the imposing presence of the Finch house. Before the player even enters the house, questions arise about their surroundings. Why are there missing person posters clogging the creek? What is with the decrepit dragon structure in the front yard? Were the appropriate building permits obtained to add the precariously placed additions to the house? Things get even stranger when the player gains entry to the house’s interior. Why are local restaurants afraid to deliver to the Finches? Why are there references to Norse culture? What’s in the basement? What’s with the sealed off rooms? Is the strangeness surrounding this family supernatural, or something more “real”?
Not all of these questions are answered during the game, and the ones that are addressed are not answered completely. We learn that the Finch family is seemingly cursed, with only one member of each generation surviving to adulthood. The rooms belonging to deceased family members were sealed away by Edith’s mother in the hope that by hiding their untimely demise the curse can be forgotten, and therefore broken. Unfortunately, this tactic does not seem to work as Edith is apparently the last member of her family left alive.
While this information satisfies most of the broader questions posed, it fails to address some of the more intriguing aspects of the game. For example, it remains unclear if the family really is cursed or if the youthful deaths of many of its members is due to a placebo effect from belief in the curse. For some of the family it is not even clear how they passed away. An example of this is the death of Molly, who recounts in her journal turning into various animals before becoming a monster who eats herself. Given the eerie mood of the game at first I was under the impression that Molly’s experience was to be taken literally, but after doing some research I found that the general belief is Molly was hallucinating after eating poisonous berries. Yet after learning this I still feel there is more to Molly’s visions. What she experienced felt so real, and I’m skeptical that a young child would so cheerful write about eating a human even if she wasn’t in a normal state of mind. This dissonance in interpretation is what I believe truly makes What Remains of Edith Finch a work of art. By intentionally leaving so much of its narrative, events, lore, history, and outcome open to interpretation, players can’t help but continue to think about the game even after their time playing it is over.
Over the course of human history, a plethora of aesthetically pleasing visuals have been produced, and now more than ever people have access to works of art. Whether it is by a Renaissance master or an Indie game studio, most people can claim that they have experienced “art”. Despite this, if you were to ask a random individual on the street or in a chat room to name the title of their favorite artwork it might take them a minute or a quick Google search. We are surrounded by beautiful yet forgettable images. This is true of video games as well as more traditional art forms. Most games available today would fall somewhere in the range of looking “good”, but the ones that will be looked back on as pinnacles of art history are the ones that make us think. This is why What Remains of Edith Finch is art. It leaves things open to interpretation to force the player to think, and thereby staying in their mind long after the game has ended. Like other great works of art before it, What Remains of Edith Finch leaves a lasting impression on the audience.
I’ve recently been working on developing assets for a 2D side scroller game as part of a game art class. In this game, the player takes control of a ball as they roll through a museum collecting pieces of art. While the art style of this game is not very elaborate due to my knowledge of Adobe Illustrator being a work in progress, I’ve been able to make the game more unique by drawing upon something I am familiar with: the National Gallery of Art (NGA).
One of my earliest memories of growing up in Washington DC is roaming the halls and courtyards of NGA, staring up starry-eyed at the gorgeous paintings and sculptures. Over the years I’ve grown attached to certain pieces in their collection and have become well acquainted with the architectural elements of the building, such as the wood paneled rooms of the Dutch collection and the black columns of the West Building Rotunda.
Originally, I had not intended the game to be set in a specific real world location. However, the further down the design pipeline I went, the more I noticed how my familiarity with NGA was influencing my designs. For example, most of the pieces of art the player collects are part NGA’s permanent collection. Initially this was not a conscious choice on my part, but rather a consequence of brainstorming “famous pieces of art” combined with many memories of viewing NGA’s offerings. Though the more I thought about it, having the game take place in NGA made sense. My knowledge of the museum would be a readily available resource that could help me create a distinct game world.
With the internet and other modern technologies, it can be very easy to look up new and different things as inspiration. That said, firsthand knowledge and experience remains highly useful. I hope my experience with this project will encourage others to look inwards and see how their memories can improve their creations.