What Remains of Edith Finch: Genealogy in the Most Unlikely of Places
Most people commonly associate first-person video games with intensity, and for good reason. Two of the most popular video game franchises, Call of Duty and The Elder Scrolls, feature “up close and personal” combat (be it medieval or modern) as a crucial element of gameplay. But in one 2017 first-person game, you, as the player, neither lease spectacular magic upon goblin hordes nor lob grenades at enemy encampments. On the contrary, you use the familiar, typically viscerally-charged first person perspective to do perhaps the most sedate thing to ever grace the stage of interactive media—piece together a family tree.
What Remains of Edith Finch is but one major member of a very specific demographic of games—ones that seek to provide gripping and touching cinematic experiences, rather than an escapist release. Other titles of such “walking simulators” (i.e. games with detailed, observable settings, straightforward control schemes, and little capacity to “lose”) include Gone Home, Firewatch, and the Life is Strange series. The player, stepping into the shoes and mind of the eponymous young adult Edith, investigates her childhood home for evidence of a family curse spanning back as far as the late 20th Century, and possibly persisting into the present day. In traversing and interacting with the houses many objects, Edith reveals her thoughts as blurbs on walls and picture frames, and, as she studies the journal entries, vital records, and creative works of her ancestors, gains glimpses into how those who came before met their eerie and bizarre early demises.
But why is it on the Chronos Heritage Services blog?
What makes Edith Finch such a valuable entry into the “video games as art” movement is its potential to popularize genealogy as less of a hobby for the retired, middle class, Ken Burns enthusiast, and more as a deeply rewarding art form that can be valuable to anyone, regardless of age. Surely enough, the game includes some fantastical elements (I never, for instance, thought I would ever pilot a shark in real time, assume control of a pulp horror comic’s protagonist from inside that very book, or telepathically manipulate toys as a baby). It wouldn’t be as engaging otherwise. But beneath its fictitious surface lie many themes that are essential to Chronos Heritage Services. One of these is chronotopes.
To directly quote our website, “…we create meaningful stories that place your ancestors in a rich and meaningful historical context…[and] bring you the chronotope, places ‘where time and space have fused to create culturally and historically charged locations...’” If a chronotope, then, can be defined as a fusion of space and time, then the Finch mansion is bursting with them. Each and every “bolted” room, at first, only visible via peephole, is replete with aesthetic details of its time. The ten-year-old Molly’s room, from the postwar 1940’s, looks so hypereffeminate as to be the pipe dream of a unicorn, and that of Barbara, a former child star from the decade after, is bedecked with coils of film, and wallpaper bearing her name on the Hollywood sign. Like your own room, or any one of the locations you’re likely to visit on a CHS Focal Ancestor Travel experience, the objects left behind survive beyond their owners, and act as proxies in telling their stories. In flittering between memories of the past and realizations of the present, a player of Edith Finch has the privilege of noting in quiet how things have stayed the same as much as they have changed, an experience any genealogist will tell you is essential to their work.
Another element of What Remains of Edith Finch that is immediately relevant to Chronos is its emphasis on empathy. From my very first day of joining Chronos’ community, my first and foremost objective was, ultimately, “[t]o articulate the mission of engendering empathy for issues surrounding human migration, as well as the impact of political conflict on families for several generations.” Without spoiling much, the whole of Edith Finch’s plot originates from one grand migration, and, while politics rarely, if ever, takes center stage, generational impact does throughout. In witnessing the death of one Finch, references to another and their own experiences are made. Each of their final memories is vividly and uniquely captured, aided by the game’s perspective, myriad art styles, and diverse musical score. Informal, messy, and entirely out of order, Edith’s pedigree gradually reassures her and the player that her family is far from ordinary. Though she finds her work taxing in many other respects than mental strain (she even has to retrace the tree-acrobatics of one ancestor later on), she finds the sense of belonging in the grander scheme of history to be more than worth the effort.
Why does it matter?
Imagine the implications of this little game, then. If, at my pace, around four hours, you can come to be captivated by the lives of fictitious characters from a fictitious Washington and their fictitious death curse, imagine what genealogy could do for a community of experienced historians, writers, and translators.
Imagine what it could do for you.
If you wish to dive into the Finch family’s timeworn secrets as I did, What Remains of Edith Finch is currently on Steam. All photos here are screencaptures taken during my own gameplay.