[Ed. note: This is the second part of a series exploring Fantasy in Video Games, originally written for the author’s university course, Fantasy in the Archive.]
The crossover of design elements throughout video games doesn’t stop there. Although video games are unique, they do not contain unique elements in their design. For example, some video games are cinematic, with cutscenes played out by actors in real time, often recorded by motion capture (like The Last of Us (2013) or God of War (2018)). Other games place a large amount of emphasis on their visual art elements, such as illustration and animation, and rely on them to bring the game together thematically (like Gris (2018) or Hollow Knight (2017)). But most games incorporate each of these different aspects, and more – art, animation, music, writing; some games even incorporate the sciences, like philosophy in Soma (2015) or psychology in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017). The different elements that games use are not unique in themselves; it is the way that video games bring together all of these aspects in one cohesive medium, while adding the final, essential component of a player’s agency, that makes them truly unique.
Now the very first question in this essay can be answered: video games are so good at storytelling because they are the intersection of the narrative and ludic process. Good examples of this are seen all throughout the horror game genre, as they are intentionally being designed to affect the player as much as they can, and the best way to get noticed is to create a unique world around and with the mechanics they’re trying to employ. This is how games like P.T., FnAF, and Hellblade have become so popular. While other games don’t employ most of the techniques that horror games do, they certainly share elements of design, such as in-depth world building and mechanics derived from narrative structure. These mechanics can range from holding and shooting a gun, as is common in games like Call of Duty where modern, gun-centric combat is closely tied with the narrative, to your character in Gris changing her shape to reflect the different stages of emotional growth she achieves over the course of the game. Or, in the case of What Remains of Edith Finch, mechanics can be so deeply ingrained into a story that the narrative becomes practically untellable without them.
In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player starts the game off knowing that they’re being told a story. This is evident by the very first scene in which the first person camera must be tilted downwards in order to view the journal lying in the lap of an unknown character. A voice begins to narrate the words in the journal, and the point of view switches to a woman walking down a forest path towards what she tells us is her childhood home. Edith Finch, as she soon reveals is her name, has returned to her old house to find answers about her family that had been hidden from her throughout her life. The player must walk Edith through her childhood home and guide her to the secrets about her family that she seeks. Eventually, the player has enough information to piece together what’s happened to Edith’s family, and why she is the last Finch to remain.
Since they arrived on the shores of Orca Island, Washington, the Finches have been what some would call cursed. Most of Edith’s family members have either disappeared under mysterious circumstances or were victims of truly unlucky incidents, such as a freak storm or terminal cancer. The player learns this by finding secret passages in Edith’s house that lead to the bedrooms of each of her deceased family members, each containing an artifact of their past that sends the player into a flashback of how they died. These flashbacks range from experiencing a father and daughter on their first hunting trip to a child’s vivid experience of turning into several different animals. At the end of the game, it’s revealed that the entirety of what the player is experiencing is a flashback, and the narration is coming from the journal seen at the beginning of the game, which is being read by Edith’s adolescent son.
What Remains of Edith Finch stands out as a game because, unlike most games, it manages to perfect the intersection of narrative story and game mechanics. Although Edith Finch, on the surface, appears to be a walking simulator – a shorthand term for a game that has very little stakes and the main requirement exploration of a setting – it is cleverly designed to seamlessly integrate the player with the character they control. The very first scene of the game opens with the player’s first person perspective sitting on a boat. There is little indication of where to look, and only after looking left and right would the player naturally look down, seeing that they are in the perspective of a character, and that there is a journal in their lap. The player needs to only click the mouse button or hit E on the keyboard (if playing on a PC) to open the journal.
But here’s where Edith Finch solidifies its particular brand of mechanics. The journal on their lap doesn’t open at the touch of a button – it requires the player to either move the mouse to the right, imitating the movement of the journal’s cover, or hold down the corresponding arrow key. In order to do anything in this game, whether it’s open a door or turn the crank on a music box, the player must imitate the action or follow through with the movement in some other fashion. It requires the player to interact with the environment in a more kinetic manner than most games. What’s more is that the games control scheme changes based on each flashback Edith experiences. One involves the player pointing and clicking to imitate the shooting of a camera. Another requires the player to move a character with the arrow keys on the left side of the screen while simultaneously using the mouse to move an object across the right side of the screen. Ian Dallas, Edith Finch’s creative director, cites that the game has 12 control schemes throughout its entirety, compared to most games that have simply one, or up to three at their most creative (Chan). In addition to stellar game design in all other areas, such as character design, environment design, and sound design, Edith Finch’s mechanics truly allow the player to not only experience the narrative, but become a part of it.
Another marker that Edith Finch hits is that it perfectly encapsulates a slightly outdated type of story: that of the fantastic narrative. As defined by Tzvetan Todorov, a fantastic story is one that exists between fantasy and realism – the natural and the supernatural. In Todorov’s words, “the fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature confronting an apparently supernatural event.” (Todorov)
And this is exactly what Edith Finch manages to do, whether it’s purposeful or not. There are three main parts to Todorov’s definition. The first is that the reader, in this case the player, must experience hesitation relating to the apparent supernatural events. As Edith Finch neither confirms nor denies any of its fantastical elements as fictional imagination or a true supernatural event, this is certainly true. The second is that the player must be able to identify with the character. The character Edith Finch and the player are both experiencing the events of the game for the first time. Additionally, Edith herself doesn’t know whether to believe or write off the stories she reads about. In this way, the game also fits Todorov’s definition. The last part is that the reader must understand that they are experiencing fantastic literature. Video games, as a genre, have not been known to represent literal, real worlds. Some games even rely on the fact that they are games, and not literal or real, in order to tell their stories. Edith Finch does not rely on this fact outright, but definitely expects the player to pick up on its fantastical elements very soon into the game.
Many of the stories that Edith experiences have supernatural elements. The first in the game details the child Molly’s last night, in which she turns into several different animals, including a cat, an owl, and a shapeless monster. Edith’s older brother, Lewis, experiences a fantastical journey in his imagination. Her younger brother left behind only a small flip book that shows him entering one of his own drawings and disappearing. One thing the game is never clear on is if any of these supernatural events are actually real. They are certainly real to those who experience them, as Edith remarks more than once. Another thing that’s never clear is whether or not Edith’s family is actually cursed, or just exceedingly unlucky. Edith comments that she suspects her mother never told her any of these stories because the stories themselves caused the “curse” by letting her other family members believe they were cursed. At the end of the game, it is entirely up to the player to decide what type of ending to interpret. This is the true strength of Edith Finch and the Todorovian fantastic: allowing the player to experience a world and then come to their own conclusion. It is the closest a game can come to true immersion, since in reality, one has no choice but to experience a series of events, to hear others’ stories, and then come to their own conclusions.
Video games are now a widespread source of entertainment, and with how well they incorporate themselves into a culture of storytelling, there’s little wonder as to why. Video games’ immersiveness has led to some of the deepest exploration of fantasy and most beloved franchises in history, being coveted in similar manner as stories by Tolkien and, after a long battle to win the public eye, their inclusion in the MoMA as genuine works of art. Despite the prolific discussion of the fantasy genre in video games, there has been little consideration of the fantastic story, a concept that is perfectly suited towards being explored through video games because of its inclusion of supposed supernatural elements, which are often assumed to be included in video games, and a dependency on the individual thoughts and conclusions drawn by the consumer.
There still remains several questions for exploration, however. Why should these claims about fantasy and fantastic stories in video games even be risen? Why focus on these genres over others, such as those that directly explore social issues in our society such as Wolfenstein? For simplicity’s sake, I’ve elected not to talk about video games’ most immersive state, virtual reality, which, because it’s become increasingly accessible over the past few years, deserves some thought and discussion. In what ways can VR development actively contribute to the development of story-specific video games? Should it? Although they have have been produced at a rapid pace ever since gaining popularity, video games are still a young medium. As a genre, as a medium, and as an art form, video games have left plenty yet to be explored.