*SPOILERS ahead for What remains of Edith Finch? and Gone Home*
What remains of Edith Finch? is a game that puts you in the shoes of Edith Finch and much of her family. You walk the many characters through key moments of their lives, and ultimately, their deaths. It sure as hell sounds like a game that belongs in the ‘Walking Simulator’ genre of games.
Walking simulators are perhaps best described as games that are usually shorter in length, and focus on environmental storytelling as you explore a game world.
But the developers and publishers of Edith Finch never went out of their way to market it on that premise. And in fact, it is a game with over 10 different gameplay sections, all with their own unique control schemes. Sure you spend a decent portion of the game ‘walking’ through the Finch family home, but the rest of the time you are thrust into smaller stories doing something entirely different.
Nevertheless, from the moment the game was announced, ‘walking simulator’ was the context in which the game was written and talked about. When your game is labelled something that you don’t necessarily think it is, what do you do? And how do go about marketing and selling it?
Thankfully, I think we’ve reached a point in which the label walking simulator has lost its negative connotations for the majority of people who enjoy games. I certainly don’t wish to use it pejoratively in this case study – I have enjoyed quite a few games that fit the genre.
Those who use it as an insult, I imagine, are people who would slap an ice cream out your hand because you ordered a flavour they don’t like. You don’t have to like the genre, but to get upset abouts its existence is beyond silly. The games you love are going nowhere.
So, I doubt the developers at Giant Sparrow or the publisher, Annapurna Interactive, were ever offended their game was framed as a ‘walking simulator’, but it does present a unique challenge. When your game is pigeonholed into a genre to which it maybe doesn’t necessarily belong, what do you do?
It could be a good thing. The categorisations give you a clear audience to target:
“Hey if you liked Gone Home or Firewatch, come play our game.”
But at the same time, what about those people who don’t like those games? Your game is a bit different to what they might have in mind – so how do you get them to give it a shot?
What is Edith Finch?
First off, if Edith Finch isn’t necessarily a ‘walking simulator’ – what is it?
What Remains of Edith Finch? Is a game where, to begin with, you play as Edith FInch returning to her abandoned family home. As you/she explores the bedrooms of each family member, the gameplay switches up and you play out the last moments of that family member’s life in varied different ways. In one scenario you might be a little girl who is pretending to be different animals, or a father taking camping trip pictures, or a teenage boy working in a factory while completely lost in his own imagination.
Really, Edith Finch is just a game without traditional game-like elements. There’s no combat, no competition, no way to fail, and no stats to boost or analyse. In that way it is very similar to other games placed in the walking simulator genre.
But here’s what Ian Dallas, the Creative lead from Giant Sparrow, had to say on one of the many occasions when he was asked if the game is a walking simulator?
“In our case though, I guess it does feel a bit strange to describe What Remains of Edith Finch as a “walking simulator” because you do so, so much more in this game than walking. Which isn’t necessarily true for a lot of games in this genre, that are happy to focus entirely on just exploring an environment.”
Gameplay wise then, it’s half walking simulator, half something entirely different; a collection of little experiences – all with different but intuitive control schemes.
More of the story is revealed to you as you walk through the Finch house in the form of narration and diary entries that magically appear in the environment. That approach and feel does make it feel similar to others in the genre, but some would say that it’s the focus on story more than anything else that links the game to the walking simulator genre.
That’s what games like Gone Home or Firewatch are all about – uncovering what has happened through environmental storytelling and narration.
Interestingly enough though, accordingly to Ian Dallas, the story is what came last when creating the game. It’s not a game that was made with the uncovering of Edith’s story at its heart. It’s a game about small vignettes that all link to an overarching theme and concept: The universe is strange and beyond our comprehension, but (real life spoiler) all roads eventually lead to death.
Ian Dallas in a Reddit AMA said:
“We don’t start out trying to tell a story. We’re trying to evoke feelings that we ourselves don’t entirely understand, like “what I remember about being on a swingset as a child”, and the story doesn’t come until the game itself is pretty far along.”
“I have a hard time getting into games that are primarily narrative driven. For me as a player, that’s not what draws me into those worlds. I’m less interested in story per se, than I am in the more visceral side of experience.”
So overall, ‘walking simulator’ is probably a good shorthand for describing the game. It gets people on the same page, but then if you delve down a bit deeper, it’s not the best descriptor. There’s so much about the gameplay experience that’s different to others in the genre – and whether that’s good or bad is entirely your own personal opinion.
Not being able to pin down exactly what Edith Finch is, I imagine actually pleases the creators at Giant Sparrow in a way. It might make their games harder to sell, but it’s somewhat its company goal:
“Giant Sparrow is focused on creating surreal experiences people have never had before. Our dream is to make the world a stranger, more interesting place.”
And if that’s Giant Sparrow’s stated aim – then they’ve landed with the perfect publisher for their goals. Annapurna bought the rights for the game from Sony a couple years into development. Annapurna’s mission statement is:
“To promote personal, emotional, and innovative games that explore the artistry and diversity of the medium.”
Of course, Giant Sparrow’s one and only previous game, The Unfinished Swan, was published and funded by Sony as a Playstation exclusive. When Edith Finch was first revealed, it too was set to be another Playstation only title.
But things have changed a lot since the release of Unfinished Swan in 2012. Back then I think it was fair to say Sony was chasing its competitors a bit, and as such, it wasn’t afraid to take a chance on smaller titles and embrace indies.
Bring on the huge success of the PS4, and while it would be harsh to say Sony has turned its back on indie developers, that segment is certainly not as important to the company as it used to be – its priorities now lie in the bigger titles and deals like Destiny 2. It no longer needs to take as many risks on smaller titles.
In the end, the sell to Annapurna Interactive was best for everyone involved. Annapurna has found success as a small independent producer of movies, such as Her and Zero Dark Thirty. In recent years it has expanded into the gaming world and actually taken a lot of talent from Sony Santa Monica studios to run that division of the company.
Industry veterans like Deb Mars and Nathan Gray made their way over to Annapurna. In fact, most of the producers Giant Sparrow had been working with at Sony had largely moved over to Annapurna – so it only made sense for the game to go with them.
Ian Dallas in a Reddit AMA said:
“In a way, staying at Sony actually would have been stranger, since we would have had to get used to a whole new set of producers.”
Leaving Sony also opened up some doors for Edith Finch. While initially announced as a Playstation exclusive at a PSX event in 2014, the switch allowed Edith Finch to simultaneously launch on Steam as well. A few months later, the game was also launched on the Xbox one.
So how did Annapurna sell the game?
So what did Annapurna do in order to to sell its ‘walking simulator’ that isn’t a ‘walking simulator’. They could have gone the full Tyrion Lannister approach. Forgive me if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, but the charismatic little dwarf from the Ice and Fire series tells Jon Snow the bastard:
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
One route for the game’s marketing could have been to have fully embraced its walking simulator status – but I don’t think it ever went out of its way to do that. Let me give you a key example.
Both when the game was in the hands of Sony and then later Annapurna, trailers were released for the game that very clearly tell anyone who’s paying attention that all the characters are going to die at the end of their stories. It’s something that’s immediately obvious as you start playing the game and look at your journal anyway. But I don’t think it’s something a traditional walking simulator, focused on narrative, would do in its trailers. I can’t imagine the Gone Home trailer ending with – ‘oh by the way – my sis is a lesbian’’
Even the name of the game – What remains of Edith Finch? – it doesn’t sound exactly like she’s going to make it to the end now does it? And in interviews during the game’s release, the death of each character was never kept secret, but explicitly talked about. I don’t think a traditional walking simulator focussed on uncovering a story would go with that title or that approach in the trailer and interviews.
It’s fair to say Annapurna and Giant Sparrow didn’t embrace the genre. For further example, Ian Dallas in one interview confirmed he never even played Gone Home, not wanting to be influenced by another game that on face value has a similar concept, a girl returning to a family home.
That might make you think they deliberately went out of their way to distance the game from the genre – but that’s not really the case either.
A sensible, agnostic and neutral approach is the route Annapurna and Giant Sparrow took. They never shied away from the topic but never looked to bring it upon themselves either. They were very clearly prepared, ready and happy to answer questions regarding the walking simulator label – and aimed to try and attract both walking simulator fans and those who might not find those games the most interesting. In the Xbox one AMA release, Ian Dallas put it like this:
“Our game LOOKS like a traditional “walking simulator” but that’s just the framing story.
“You could think of it as a “walking simulator for people who don’t like walking simulators. Our intent was to tell each of these stories through the gameplay mechanics, so rather than just being told a story as a player you’re actually living out all these different experiences and in each story you’re interacting with the world from a new perspective and in a new way.”
Telling the right story at the right time
In fact – the way Annapurna sold this game was pretty traditional actually. They did nothing unique or special on the social media that’s for sure. The Annapurna and Giant Sparrow Twitter accounts are both fairly quiet. The Facebook page for the game couldn’t be quieter, it’s not been posted on since 2014.
And Giant Sparrow’s site was updated every now again throughout the 4 years of development but nothing major and certainly with no regularity.
In terms of using streamers and let’s play there’s little evidence Annapurna went out of its way to encourage such content. To be fair, the game is only a short experience, and there are legitimate concerns that for shorter experience games, such content doesn’t neccessairly encourage people to buy they game but rather discourage, becasue they have already seen what the game has to offer.
What Annapurna did well, was get Ian Dallas, the creative force behind the game, a lot of publicity and exposure around the release of the game. The guy did interviews all over the web, with traditionally big gaming sites and the smaller ones. They also managed to get some exposure on sites outside the traditional gaming world and in publications with a wider cultural spectrum – such as Rolling Stone magazine. The reddit AMAs at the initial launch and then again during the XBox one launch where the best example of non-traditional marketing – but even then – they were achieving the same goal of getting the interesting and talented Ian Dallas in front of as many eyes as possible when the game hit stores.
Until the late build up to release, we really heard little from Giant Sparrow and In many ways I think it was smart move. It’s a little bit of a less is more approach. How much of a story have Annapurna really got to tell about its own game?
It’s not like it’s the next Elder Scrolls or Halo. It’s a short game, with not that many different systems, and aspects to unveil. Something like Elder scrolls could have one big marketing push about its storyline, another about its combat system, a third about its morale system, and so on and so on. They can build the excitement slowly and get players excited.
But for Edith Finch, it was better to hold off and unleash at the right time, rather than talk about everything that was interesting about the game too early. Giant Sparrow commanded enough respect and attention because of the success of The Unfinished Swan to take the risk of holding back somewhat. When they did come to the press, they found they were willing to listen, which is certainly not true of many other indie studios.
But if Ian Dallas and Annapurna had been giving interviews every 6 months, what would they really have left to say when crunch time came? There are not that many stories to tell about the development of the game and the game itself. You don’t want to give away every twist and surprise – the most fun I had with the game personally was anticipating what the next scenario I was thrown into would be. And with Ian Dallas spearheading the creative direction pretty single handedly of the game, you don’t want to tell his story too early either – because it’s a fascinating one. I recommend checking out some of the many interviews he did and AMAs.
All I would say is that it would have been good if, in these interviews, Ian Dallas had a strong online presence to send people back to – whether it be a twitter account or active developer website.
Bits and bobs
Why oh why does this game not have a platinum trophy on the PS4? I won’t bang the same drum over and over I’ve banged before… but a platinum trophy is an easy way to attract more players to your game – especially if it’s achievable like it most certainly would be in this game. Two things about the lack of a trophy really perplex me:
- The lack of a platinum trophy feeds into the bullshit argument that walking simulators or smaller games aren’t real games. They are, they can be great, and they should have platinums just like every other release.
- If the team at Annapurna, full of ex-Sony employees can’t get a platinum for its smaller games but ★★★★★ 1000 Top Rated can – a game explicitly sold purely on the premise of being a quick and easy platinum – What the hell is going on at Sony? The situation is so mismanaged.
Again, here’s Ian Dallas in one of his AMAs on the subject:
“I just asked our QA lead and our Annapurna producer and they said we don’t have a Platinum trophy because “we were not allowed to.”
As a small scale game, Sony’s policy is that we should deny our fans the satisfaction of a Platinum trophy. Those are just my words, btw, I think Sony’s official documentation phrases it slightly differently.”
A nod too far
In Edith Finch, you uncover the fate of many of the the Finch family members – and one character you don’t explicitly play as, actually has the most interesting ending. The disappearance of Milton, Edith’s brother, is perhaps the fate most hinted at throughout the game using a more traditional walking simulator style – newspapers with headlines about his disappearance are among the first things you stumble upon in the game.
Near the game’s end, when you find Milton’s room, you are not granted a gameplay experience that tells his story like the other characters, but you are just left an abandoned room to explore. It seems Milton liked to paint. The paintings will be very familiar to those who played The Unfinished Swan. Eventually you find a flipbook that suggests that Milton entered one of his paintings, hinting that he is ‘The King’ character from Giant Sparrow’s first title. And Ian Dallas straight up confirmed the link between the games as canon in his AMA.
It’s a really cool easter egg and nod to players of the first game. I enjoyed it – but I’ve played The Unfinished Swan. I’m fascinated how this part of the game must have played out for people who hadn’t played The Unfinished Swan. Describing the experience as alienating might be a stretch too far, but I can only imagine it was a bit confusing to say the least.
For players on Steam and Xbox one, they are unlikely to have played The Unfinished Swan, so I can’t help feeling such a big easter egg was a confusing conclusion for a character who had enjoyed a high profile build up within the game. It seems a strange approach to me – even though I actually quite enjoyed it myself.
The walking simulator path to success
What Remains of Edith Finch? currently sits on a metacritic score of 89. On Steam, 70,000 people own the game – and on Playstation, it has a completion rate of 84 per cent, which is unusually high. People certainly like the game. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how truly successful games are unless the people who make them come right out and tell you- it’s an esoteric and tight-lipped industry.
Nevertheless – to my mind, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that found success with a fairly traditional marketing strategy. It really is a game like no other, but it managed to strike a good balance – attracting both those that have played and enjoyed walking simulators before and plenty of those that have not.