Design Reflection: What Remains of Edith Finch

Warning: Spoilers!

So in this blog series I’m going to be analyzing different games that I’ve played to completion, or played enough to fully understand (some online multiplayer games can’t be completed for example). I’m not exactly reviewing the game, though thoughts and opinions may come up, I’m more analyzing the game and noticing its design choices.

The way I’m doing this is by randomly selecting cards or “lenses” from Jesse Schell’s Deck of Lenses, which asks the developer design questions about their game. I’m actually writing this roughly 5 days after completing the game, but ultimately the goal is to be able to both play a game, but also analyze it at the same time. This kind of experience is how Schell put it in his book: The Art of Game Design: “When you enter this state, it is almost as if you have two minds: one moving, engaged in an experience, and one still, silently observing the other. […] It seems to be something like the Zen practice of self-observation, and it is not unlike the meditation exercise of trying to observe your own breathing cycle.”

So with Zen in gaming being my ultimate goal, my job now is to try to analyze a game as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean analyzing the game itself, but how I feel and react when playing the game.

To move things along, this post will consist of 3 randomly chosen observations:

The Lens of Venue

The places that we play exert a tremendous influence on the design of our games.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

It is truly amazing to randomly get this lens (it WAS random, I promise!) because What Remains of Edith Finch is all about what surrounds you. In the game, you are tasked to travel back through your home that you left long ago, uncovering the unspoken stories about each of your family members along the way. The way you uncover these stories and the way you experience these stories are all tied into the different parts of the house.

Part of the enjoyment of this game is finding all the different secret passageways that are unlocked through handles in hollowed-out books. This game is very linear, so “finding” the passageways isn’t difficult, but as the player, it felt like I was discovering a brand new world.

While I could get wrapped up in describing all the intricacies and details that were placed in the set design, let’s talk about what the set did for the game. Each family member of the Finch bloodline has a very strong theme: an uncle’s bedroom is covered in space and flying gear, an aunt’s bedroom is covered in her own movie posters. The bedrooms themselves almost describe the lives of those that inhabited it. Each bedroom held that owner’s story, and the player would walk around reading these stories, which turned into small little games. It feels strange to call these segments “mini-games” because they more felt like small set pieces rather than a game. Some set pieces were more intricate than others, while some just had the player flip through a hand-drawn flip book. What became more interesting than the story, was how the house opened up more after the story was done.

One of my favorite moments in the game was right after you complete Calvin’s story where he “learns to fly” (I’ll try not to give it away too much). The character you’re playing as then says something like “After that incident, his mother roped off the room, and his brother joined the army as soon as he was 18.” Having to walk back through the room to get to the next, I started to notice this long, red velvet rope outlining the center of the floor. Then looking up, I saw the two brothers painted on their bedroom door, one in a space suit and one in a military uniform. Above these photos shows scratches in the door where they were measuring their heights as they grew older. Recognizing their meaning, the scratches above the space suit only reach a certain height while the one in the uniform went up higher. Just these little details in the set made these stories feel so real in how they all tied in together.

Okay, just a little bit more, then I’ll move on. It’s good to note that the game WANTS you to look at the scenery; it knows its correlation between the stories and the setting. How does it draw the player to look at the scenery, couldn’t the player breeze through the game without looking at anything? Well the short answer is, no. For one, the player character walks really slowly, so it’s not like the game can be ran through so quickly. This choice could maybe be from the developers wanting to extend gameplay, but I think ultimately it is to slowly read to you the player character’s thoughts. That brings us to two; what the narrator says actually appears in the scene. This means that if the player character were to say “I remember playing near that stream,” the screen would turn around from wherever you’re facing and look at the stream with the same words she spoke hovering above it in the scene. This means the game FORCES you to look at stuff. Obviously the designers believed the scenes they created are important, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken control of the player’s view so fiercely. With all the illusions to books, opening secret passageways held by books, books lining the whole house, the last room you go into is the reading room, the game itself is basically a book as you read the narration that floats around your head. While normal books contain merely pieces of paper, this booksaves you the trouble of imagination and comes up with its own world for you to explore.

The Lens of Control

This lens has uses beyond just examining you interface, since meaningful control is essential for immersive interactivity.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

In this lens, there are two parts: what the player does to control the character and the level of control the player has on their surroundings.

In Edith Finch, the control scheme is very simple. During the regular gameplay, the player moves around with the left joystick (I played the game on an Xbox One), and interact with objects by pressing the right bumper. With only two inputs, it the game seems pretty straightforward, but I question the interaction button. In most games, the A button, or X button on the PlayStation, is the simple interact button, not the right button. First learning this, it felt un-intuitive to a typical player. Why did they choose the right bumper button? One possible answer could be that they chose a button that is present on all the major consoles. While the A button is not seem on every controller, the right bumper is, so porting the game to different systems would be easier. Another possibility, one that is more intriguing, is how a player presses the button. Since the button is located on the top of the controller, the player would use their pointer finger to press down on it. By simulating the motion without the controller, we notice we are making a kind of pinching motion, like we’re trying to pick something up. In the game, we are mostly picking up objects, or lifting up hatches, so by pressing the bumper button it feels natural to see things being picked up in the game.

The affect the player has on the surroundings is very minimal. The game is more like a museum where the player can look at things, but not really touch them. The only time a player really interacts with something is during the minigames. These little games are also minimal in their actions, from taking photos, to moving your legs back and forth on a swing set. The choices players make in the game serve no real outcome at the end. The only real choice the player can decide upon is whether they look at each story or not. In a way, the player is pulled along through the game, having no real choices they can make themselves. I think it would have been interesting if possibly some stories had varying endings that skewed them just a bit. Reflecting back on the whole game, it feels a little disappointing knowing that the player never really had any choices in the game.

The Lens of Meaningful Choices

When we make meaningful choices, it lets us feel like the things we do matter.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

Going off of the Lens of Control, there’s really no choices that they player can make. This can be for a reason, however. The designers may have wanted the player to experience the story in a very specific way, and without a direct guide for the player, the story could have become mixed up and confused. Experiencing the stories in a certain way is important because it adds to the pacing of the game. If the player was allowed to go to any story they wanted to, they could accidentally choose the last story and get the ending to the game before really digging into it. Since a lot of the scenery reflects the stories, if the player was able to access any part of the house, say the graveyard, the player wouldn’t have understood what all the gravestones meant. While the gameplay may feel restrictive to the player that wants to go and explore, the game wants the player to take their time and experience things only when the game is ready for the player to.

The lack of choices doesn’t mean the choices we make aren’t meaningful. The whole game is about uncovering the stories about each of the family member’s death, so to the player character the choices the player makes are really meaningful, even if the only choices are to read the story or not. Video games are all about the player’s choices, so when there is a limited amount of things we can do, the choices we make are that more important to the game.

Thanks for reading! You can find the “Deck of Lenses” by searching for it on the app store. You can find Schell’s full book “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” here. Try “What Remains of Edith Finch” for yourself here! What did you think of the game? What were your favorite and least favorite parts? Let me know in the comments below. Have a great day!

Writing About a Game that Doesn’t Exist

Part 1: Goals, Rules, Obstacles

Hello!

So through this blog series I’m going to be describing my thought process while creating a new video game.

I want to make this blog quick, so today we’ll just go over a few simple things:

Goals

What do I want in this game? Well here are a few things I want to accomplish:

Make a scary game.

No, I don’t want it to be a game that involves cheap jump scares, or there’s something chasing after you like in most games. Games that come to mind are Slenderman and Five Nights at Freddy’s. While they’re both widely known and popular games, the emotion I’m trying to capture is something more sinister. When playing my game, I want players to feel uneasiness, like going down into the dark basement, or the feeling of being followed. While jump scares have a quick moment of fear, I want to create something that ebbs and flows in intensity throughout. The feelings one experiences while watching the movie Hereditary is something I want to capture in the game. Hereditary uses the sly tactic of letting the viewer find the horror for themselves. Instead of having a jump scare that involves a quick flash of disturbing images and a musical sting, people are seen hiding in the shadows, waiting for the viewer to notice them. I find this kind of fear more gripping as it gives uncertainty to what’s about to happen.

Make an interesting game.

Sadly enough, there are not a lot of scary games out there that are interesting. Well, hold on a second, what do I define interesting as? What interests you may not interest me, so I guess this goal is a little more subjective. By interesting, I mean keeping the player engaged the entire time. There are a lot of games that become too repetitive, whether it’s the same kind of action that a player must do, or the game doesn’t move past the one core scare tactic. There are some games like the ones that I mentioned earlier that thrive on this, but to me, once something is repeated, the player is less afraid the second time. This lack of fear ultimately comes from expecting what will happen, almost like the player is becomes numb to the fear. With this game I hope to make it compelling at every turn and only use repetition as a way to make a player feel calm.

Rules

By rules, I don’t mean the rules of the game itself, but the limitations that I want the game to have. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Igor Stravinsky when he says: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” I want a game that is focused on achieving the goals I have stated, with a fully fleshed-out and realized story. With that in mind, let me list some rules I want the game to have.

Be first person.

Simple and puts the player in the hot seat.

Be black and white.

In trying to keep this game as simple as possible, I think having it black and white (and maybe an accent color) will help in the visual clarity. There’s also another reason for making it black and white, but I’ll explain in the next point.

Be pixelated.

Ok, why pixelated? Well besides the point that I’m not a great artist (though I might hire someone outside to help), I think pixelated art is probably the best way to go. Another thing to add is that in pixel art games, our mind fills in the details that are missing. A great little indie game called Faith (in two parts) was a very effective horror game, besides being a simple 2D pixelated game. Because it was all pixel art, the player was left in fear by not knowing exactly what kind of creature they were looking at.

Be 3D.

The real kind of perspective and look that I want in this game is something like Doom 64, where items in the world look 2D while the player moves in a 3D space. I think having both the black and white color scheme and the pixelated art style will benefit from this kind of perspective.

Be a multi-branching story.

Having recently been playing the Outer Worlds and working on a different narrative story, I think for this game I’d like to have multiple endings and choices that can be made. The kinds of choices that a player can make, however, will be a mix of both on-screen prompts (press X to speak, etc.), and in-game choices that the player may not realize has multiple options. A reason to have this branching story is for one; replay-ability is present, but also two: they may get a different ending than someone else. Due to the abundance of streamers showing off games, having a game with multiple endings can help bring in players to play the game, rather than them stay as viewers because the watched the whole run through.

The #1 rule: Nothing repeats.

This goes off of the goal of wanting to keep the game interesting. I don’t want a scary monster to come at the player, kill them, then they have to restart the level over again. To keep the game interesting, I’m thinking of adding certain kinds of puzzles, or even mini games within the game. Since I always want to keep the game at a certain pace, the game may continue even if the player doesn’t complete a puzzle. This design choice may leave the player feeling like whatever they do doesn’t matter, but by having negative repercussions the player can be encouraged to try their best.

Obstacles

At the end of the day, this project is merely a side project, floating in the sea of other side projects that I have.  My main job, being a full-time musician, comes first. Then school work. Then finishing the card game I’m working on. Then finishing a point-and-click puzzle game I’m almost done with. Then finishing-okay you get the point. Lots of projects, lots of ideas, lots of things to do. Of course, I always follow my one rule, even though it’s terrible, There’s always time for everything. Of course, this may not be true, but it keeps me from making excuses as to why I can’t do something. It also keeps me productive and on track with all the things I have to do. Besides being a total workaholic, there’s specific things that I have to figure out to make the game.

Story and Setting

Who is the player playing as? Where are they? What are they suppose to be doing? These questions and more need to be answered to develop a story. Good thing I have my friend Kerik helping me flesh it all out.

Unity3D

I’ve worked with Unity many times, and I am currently working on two other games that use the engine, but I’ve never made a 3D game, so I’m going to have to peruse YouTube and StackExchange for some how-to’s and helpful tips.

Art

If there’s one thing I’m bad at (trust me, there’s more) it’s art. I’m pretty bad at it. Just assume that most art you see from me, I probably traced it off of something in Photoshop (except for my logo, that’s all me). With that being said, I’ll either have to hone my skills in the sprite editor Aseprite, or ask a possible friend to help me out.

Conclusion

Well thanks for reading my first blog! Don’t worry, I’ll start getting into the game’s juicy details in the future, but for now, have a great day!