FBT takes a walk in the slow lane.
It’s all Gone Home’s fault. That game was so good it caused me to seek out other walking sims, and What Remains is top of the digital rambler’s association list of great walks. But is it worth the slog?
In a diary flashback, Edith Finch recalls her family’s strange history, and how every member has passed away in strange circumstances. Having discovered she’s pregnant, Edith was determined to understand if the family is cursed or just clumsy, and returned to the family home to investigate the deaths. What Remains isn’t a walking sim, it’s a shuffle sim. Is Edith a zombie? She is agonisingly slow – I finished it in five hours and four of those were getting her from room to room. You can’t argue she’s slow due to the pregnancy, Edith is sliding down poles, clambering through tunnels, out of windows and across tree branches. Not like I want to do a speed walk but this is excruciating. Partly because I’m really interested in what happened to the Finch family.
Edith has a family tree, and right off the bat you can tell some of the stories are not going to be pleasant. There’s a lot of death on that tree. Edith’s Norwegian ancestor literally brought his house with him on a boat to the US - where it sank, drowning him. His daughter Edie and her husband rebuilt the house as a hobby, using bricks and materials that washed up, while adding secret passages, puzzles, and rooms as they started their own family. Until they all started dying. As each member shuffled off, their room was sealed and replaced ...
The house is cavernous and suspicious looking, it reminds me of the Winchester House legend, a disturbing, disorientating place. The fact that she also built the graveyard before the house tells you something about the family’s history. It is nicely eerie, having been abandoned when Edith’s mother bolted with her in tow after her siblings died, suspecting the house was the cause of the curse, but it’s not a cobwebby Hill House - aside from the odd additions it seems like a fairly typical New England homestead...
Once you figure out how to enter one of the rooms/shrines, you poke about until you trigger a memory, at which point we switch into the last moments of the room’s occupant. Some of the vignettes are astonishing - and heart-breaking. Molly, a little girl is sent to her room without any supper. While there, she nibbles on things she finds, eventually eating Holly berries … and then she turns into a cat which chases a bird, an owl hunting for rabbits, a shark chasing a seal and then a sea monster that attacks a trawler. And we're controlling the animals in her hunts. It’s surreal and amazing, a Grimm’s Fairy tale of a walking sim.
And Molly’s story sets the tone for the other Finch family members. A standout story is Lewis, who finds himself in a dead-end job working in a cannery. As we listen to his therapist’s report, we have to keep chopping the heads off fish – or not; how we interact in the flashback affects how the therapist describes him, but we can’t escape Lewis drifting into a fantasy world. It’s one of the most affecting moments I’ve played in recent times, realising what’s happening yet so caught up you're unable to stop Lewis drifting away.
Some of the stories point to the supernatural – one child disappears, which is left unresolved (it’s actually a frustrating reference to Giant Sparrow’s game The Unfinished Swan which is no help when we’re trying to understand the family’s curse), while another standout is playing as a child in a bathtub who can control his toys - with tragic results. This family is cursed.
But the thing is, we’re not investigating the curse, just Giant Sparrow’s favourite stories from Tales from the Crypt (The Twilight Zone was supposedly an influence) but Edith’s a lot less interesting than the Crypt Keeper and doesn’t have the gravitas of Rod Sterling. I was just hoping for more from Edith; she’s pregnant, surely she’s trying to understand or break the curse, yet seems content to meander about, cataloguing her family’s fate. The Matriarch of the family clearly had an inside track and a scene gets dangerously close to Edith discovering something tangible, but instead we’re whisked back to plodding about.
Another frustration is Edith’s ‘poetic’ thoughts appear onscreen. The game demands you look at them, removing you from the moment. I can hear her, I get what she’s musing, but I don’t need whimsical thoughts onscreen like some JustGirlyThings post on Insta.
There are some wonderful subtleties, references and explanations within the stories, but I was hoping for more Rube Goldberg meets Final Destination events you can tease apart – the curse is just a trick to get you in the house and experience the self-contained fairy tales.
Like all walking sims, you’re experiencing rather than affecting, but it doesn't present any hints you can hang an opinion on what’s caused all this - whimsy is all very well and good, but it leaves you distant; and it's a huge distance with Edith’s slow-ass walk. It’s a thought poem on death; beautiful, often moving, and incredibly original. It would make a great Terry Gilliam film. But as a walking sim, meh.
I’m not saying I wanted everything laid out, and it did stay with me afterwards. I found myself pondering if there really was something supernatural to the house, or a curse, or that death just affects people in different ways, with explanations that help the grief - just romanticised retellings - it often reminded me of Tim Burton's Big Fish. I was genuinely moved by some of the Finches fates, more-so when I imagined the reality behind the fantasy, but it is just a collection of deaths, and the obvious sadness that brings - with no reveal.
While it’s great to have an anthology game, it’s ultimately uninvolving - reading a comic book about a babysitter being chased around the house by a hook-handed man is not as compelling as uncovering the truth behind it. Especially as they actually use Carpenter’s Michael Myers’ theme for that sequence; that’s going to get you thinking isn’t it. It doesn’t really build to anything, you’re not invested in uncovering anything other than the next fantasy tale, so while it’s wildly inventive, What Remains for me is an even deeper appreciation for what Gone Home achieved.