Interview: Developer Ian Dallas on What Remains of Edith Finch
What remains of Edith Finch is a collection of surreal short stories, each telling the tale of a member of the Finch family. Each story, we are told, ends with a death. Little more is known about the game, besides the strange shape of the house and the basic motivation for its main character to return. Drawn to the family home by her deceased mother’s favorite picture, Edith comes to search for meaning in the empty rooms that make up the misshapen old estate.
The mind behind this fantastic story of death and the persevering nature of family relationships is Ian Dallas, the creative force behind The Unfinished Swan and leader of indie game studio Giant Sparrow. Ian was kind enough to carve out time to answer our burning questions about the studio’s upcoming release. Read on to learn about the process behind What Remains of Edith Finch.
Q: What Remains of Edith Finch is an interesting concept for a game. Twelve stories about the past of one seemingly cursed family, with each ending in a death. What was the first glimmer of this storyline? How did Edith Finch come to life, and is the game in its current form anything like what you thought it would be when that first idea came to you?
The game didn’t start with a story, it started from an interest in exploring moments that were simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. The original description I gave the team was that this was going to be “a game about the sublime horror of nature.” I started looking for other creative works that had handled that idea and the best reference I found was Weird Fiction. Writers like Lovecraft, Laird Barron, Lord Dunsany, Neil Gaiman, etc. The things I responded to the best tended to be short stories, so that’s where the idea of doing the game as a collection of short stories came from.
It took an embarrassing amount of time to make the leap from a collection of random stories to a series of tales about a family. In hindsight it seems really obvious, but it was a long struggle to find a way to elegantly connect these stories together.
Edith’s own story was something we had glimmers of early in development, and certainly the idea of coming back to the empty house was there pretty early, but her motivations and internal story was something that changed a lot as we created the game. We focused on each short story and tried to make those work as well as we could before asking ourselves how it would all connect. The benefit of that approach is that we could write Edith’s story to echo the experience players were already having as they played the game.The final game is quite different from what I originally imagined. I think the tone is pretty close, but the path to get there evolved a lot. That’s a big part of what makes the process interesting as a game developer, you try things out and either you realize right away that they don’t work as well as you thought they would, or you put in front of players and THEN you realize how wrong you were, so you keep adjusting and eventually end up somewhere unexpected and ultimately more interesting.
Q: You’ve said in other interviews that What Remains of Edith Finch is a short game, and you’ve kept making it shorter as development has gone on. What is that refinement process like? Do you feel like all of the changes have helped you communicate the story better for players? Are there any parts that had to be cut back to streamline the game that you would put into a personal director’s cut?
We started out by making lots and lots of small prototypes for stories and mechanics. Then we put those in front of players and gradually got a sense of what was working well and what wasn’t. Some of that was pretty standard game design stuff, of find out which mechanics were confusing and whatnot, but a lot of that was also just the game developing into something that felt cohesive and realizing what felt like it still belonged in that world.
In terms of the things we cut, a big focus was trying to keep the pacing up in the stories, and also having a consistent level of quality. The whole experience is meant to feel a bit dream-like and as a designer I’m also nervous about moments that are going to “wake the player up” in the sense of reminding them that they’re playing a game.
In our case, because players are being thrown into new situations so often, and with mechanics they’ve often never experienced in a game before, it was critical for players to be able to easily pickup the controls and also understand that character’s motivations. Maybe “easy” isn’t the right word. More like “not frustrating.” It’s fine if it takes players a little while to discover how a story works or who this new character is, as long as it’s not something that’s frustrating, because then they’re going to say “hey, how can I possibly understand how to do this, there’s no tutorial here you just turned me into an owl and now I have to catch rabbits.” But if that process works, and they catch rabbits without it being a big deal, it’s magical.
So we streamlined things to reduce frustration and hopefully make an experience where players can look back on it after it’s all over and be amazed that so many bizarre things happened and that all of it just seemed to work.
Q: You’ve said that all of these stories are about the characters being overwhelmed. How does that factor into the overall story? Is this the tale of a family slowly brought down by monotony and routine, or is there something more sinister at work in their history of untimely demise?
The stories Edith finds, and the one she’s telling, are pretty open to interpretation. Each family member’s story is an attempt to present a unique perspective on the world. As a player, you could look at all these people who died in unusual, memorable ways and see that as a tragedy or you could see it as a way of celebrating these brief but interesting lives. We’ve seen a wide range of reactions from players.
Q: Edith experiences the stories of her family in some very surreal scenes. Did you decide to use surrealism as a method of telling these stories before you knew what each story was, or did the way each story is told come about after it was a complete thought? How much did your appreciation for Lovecraft and Gaiman influence Edith’s experiences?
For me, the thing I respond to the most in Lovecraft and Gaiman is their appreciation for the unknown. They suggest a world but they leave a lot of questions unanswered. As a reader, it forces you to engage your imagination. We’ve tried to preserve a similar level of ambiguity and murkiness in our stories.What I like about surrealism is that sense of the unknown. With more traditional horror, like something about vampires or zombies, you get lots of rules and conventions. With surrealism anything can happen. A lot of traditional horror movies have scenes of people preparing for what’s coming. But in surrealist films like the ones from David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, there’s no way to prepare for anything because you have no idea what’s coming at you. For me, life has always felt more like that. And death is a great example, the ultimate surreal moment, where for many of us we have absolutely no idea how or when it’s coming until suddenly, there it is.
Q: Some of the stories are only a few minutes long. Was this a result of pruning back unnecessarily difficult sections, or was it designed to balance the player experience from the outset? Do you feel like the shorter stories are as meaningful as the longer ones? Was there ever a point where you felt like the longer stories were too long or overwhelming?
We tried to make each story as long as it needed to be. They’re like jokes or songs — there’s a core idea being explored and the pace of that story is an important part of conveying the tone we’re aiming for. I also personally loved the idea of being able to explore moments and game mechanics that most games would never bother with because it wasn’t something players would want to do for more than a couple of minutes. It felt like a rich area for us to explore. Early in development there was some concern about having stories that were such different lengths but I think it all worked itself out. Each of the stories feel like they’re as long as they need to be.
Q: Without spoiling the game, what can you tell us about the Finch residence? It is the cover image for the game, and we’ve seen shots of it in the trailers. It is massive and odd on the outside with strange additions built onto the top, but the images inside look like any family home you’d walk into today. The Finch family and their stories are intriguing, but even the house itself seems to be a mystery. I feel like it may be as much of a character in the game as any of the family.
The house is the family’s history, told through architecture. A lot of what we’re exploring in this game is pretty abstract — families, relationships, death — the house was a way to make that story concrete.In the Finch family, whenever someone dies they close the bedroom door and leave it as a monument to that person. After awhile, they start running out of room in the house. So each generation has to build on to the house, and the whole thing gets a little less stable and more fantastic. We wanted to create something that felt like it was starting from a very familiar, human place, and then growing over time into something that’s simultaneously beautiful and organic, but also a little monstrous.
Q: Annapurna Interactive jumped onboard with What Remains of Edith Finch towards the end of the project. What has that been like? They are not new to entertainment, but the lineup for Spring 2017 is their first foray into video games. Has it been helpful working with a company that doesn’t necessarily have a formula for how a game should be made? It seems like that could be a huge benefit for an indie company working on a project as cerebral as Edith Finch.
Annapurna has been fantastic to work with. In our case, almost everyone we’re working with used to work at Sony Santa Monica, so it’s been a very easy transition. Although we’re technically Annapurna’s first game to release, everyone we’re working with has a lot of games already under their belt so it’s been easier than one might imagine.
Q: What do you hope players gain from this game? What has been your favorite player feedback so far about What Remains of Edith Finch?
The nicest thing I’ve heard someone say after a playtest was that the game “made me want to call my cousins.” My hope is that the game gives players a chance to see the world in a new way, and to think about their own relationship with death and family.
Q:Who (or what) is your favorite character from the game?
I feel a strong connection to Odin Finch. He’s got grandiose ambitions that are simultaneously admirable and foolhardy, like any game developer.
Q: What comes next? Will there be any DLC added to What Remains of Edith Finch later, or is this story wrapped up? Are there any nascent plans for your next game?
We’ve joked about doing a “Finch Petz” DLC. It seems less crazy now than it once did, so who knows. It’s going to be awhile before we talk about our next game. It takes ages and ages to figure these things out.
What Remains of Edith Finch releases on April 25th for PC and PS4.