The Characterization of Trauma || What Remains of Edith Finch
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Some 3 years late, I finally got around to playing What Remains of Edith Finch, Giant Sparrow’s mark on the ever-growing map of walking simulators. While the game’s interactive vignettes were simultaneously whimsical and moving in both concept and execution, its crowning achievement is its nuanced portrayal of characters coping with trauma and varying degrees of mental health. I was pleasantly surprised to find that hidden among the Series of Unfortunate Events-esque ridiculousness of random, tragic, and unexpected death, there was a legitimate cautionary tale being told about the danger of refusing to open a dialogue about mental well-being.
It’s important to talk about how the game centers around a family that doesn’t really understand mental illness. There are characters dealing with depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and just general feelings of self-doubt and isolation, and they’re growing up in a family that doesn’t understand those concepts – that passes what may or may not be suicides off as an unavoidable curse.
Beyond the shock and whimsy of playing through these characters’ deaths, there’s a cautionary tale being told about the lack of proper support and coping mechanisms, and it only really works because of the vagueness of the topic. No character comes straight out and says, “I’m depressed!” That would have been heavy-handed and taken away from the story being told. However, What Remains of Edith Finch portrays characters struggling with their mental health in a way that feels believable and without reducing them to stereotypes.
That brings me to how the characters’ stories were told. I found it extremely charming – and also immersive – that the delivery method for each story reflected the characters’ personalities. It made them feel unique and helped me to better understand what they were going through in the short time I got to interact with them.
For example, for how horrible and disturbed Barbara’s story was, the cheesy, insensitive, tabloid retelling of her death helped me understand her as a character more than the content of the story could. The lack of privacy she had, and the awful dramatization of her trauma spoke to her struggle: wanting to continue her acting career but being unable to live up to expectations fans had from her days as a child star. She was being forced to rehash roles from her past, seen only as a circus highlight and not a human with goals and potential.
Or, look at Gus’s story. Gus sits atop a hill, overlooking the attendees of his father’s wedding from afar. He feels like he’s in a different world from everyone else. He feels like he’s been
isolated and pushed away by the new addition to his family. It reflects that feeling everyone’s had in their life of being on the outside looking in and reinforces just how alone Gus thinks he is.
My favorite character portrayal, though, is Lewis. The way the player gets to follow the monotony of his daily routine into his escape to his imagination is powerful and relatable. Everyone gets lost in daydreams at work, but Lewis’ growing inability to separate reality from fantasy lets the player fall down a slippery slope most people are able to avoid in their own lives, but one that remains a present fear for many, especially those with
mental health disorders. While a lot of impactful things are said about every character in the game, listening to Lewis’ psychiatrist express her concerns about Lewis hit harder than most. While other Finches have some unaddressed, vague mental hang-ups, Lewis is the only character we know is receiving treatment for his mental health. There’s something very humanizing about listening to a clinical professional ramble on about a person’s disconnect from reality while at the same time knowing that the person in question is doesn’t exactly want help, or at least doesn’t know the type of help they want.
That, I think, is the ultimate triumph of the character writing in What Remains of Edith Finch. The ways characters are portrayed to the audience – through their eyes and the eyes of those around them – truly humanizes them. When it comes to writing compelling characters and narrative, we can take a lot of cues from Giant Sparrow’s portrayal of genuine human struggle.