“And I was a cat.”
This is the voice of a young girl in the opening moments of “What Remains of Edith Finch,” an in-development video game that will receive its coming-out party at this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), North America’s largest video game trade show.
Created by the 15-person Giant Sparrow team led by comedy writer turned game maker Ian Dallas, “What Remains of Edith Finch” will vie for attention at E3 with games that have bigger budgets, lots of guns and recognizable brands. But Giant Sparrow’s title for Sony’s PlayStation 4 is far from an anomaly. Today more than ever, games that offer a more authored experience are stealing some of the E3 limelight.
And in “What Remains of Edith Finch,” narrative, in the form of little fairy tales, is the driving force. The young girl does indeed become a cat — or, rather, imagines becoming a cat. Soon players chase a bird around twisting Pacific Northwest trees, the kind that would look haunted in certain moonlight. Then she becomes an owl, craving rabbits despite their cuteness, and then she’s a shark and her tummy is rumbling for “fat, juicy seals.”
Amid all the surreal imagery and the munching on adorable critters, here’s another twist: This girl, Molly, is already dead.
“What Remains of Edith Finch” is a game about how we perish — how we live our lives and approach our final moments. The game is a collection of short stories, all of them strangely morbid but all removed from reality. Devoted to the end of the days, they approach the unknown with wonder rather than tears. Is that a monster under Molly’s bed, or is that all in her head?
“The game is essentially about people being overwhelmed,” says Dallas, the wiry 37-year-old creative director of Giant Sparrow. “I think there’s something fitting about that. There’s no victory.”
Thoughtful interactive experiences of the sort found in “Edith Finch” are starting to resonate with wider audiences outside of the game world. Not only will IndieCade, which stages an annual festival in Culver City dedicated to all things nonmainstream, showcase more than 30 titles on the E3 floor, this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival is offering moviegoers the chance to sample narrative-driven games. These include “Thralled,” which tells the story of a runaway Brazilian slave, and “Quadrilateral Cowboy,” a hacker heist game set in the 1980s.
Dallas wants more games that challenge player conventions.
“I don’t need to play another game that involves me moving around shooting things,” he says. “I would love to play a game about someone going through gender reassignment and seeing what that feels like.”
Monday evening, on the eve of E3’s official opening, Sony will stage a large media event at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. “Edith Finch” is likely to be on stage, sharing the spotlight, if even for a brief moment, with likely blockbusters such as the latest in the “Uncharted” franchise.
Though “Edith Finch” isn’t pegged for release until 2016, E3 is a crucial moment in building awareness for such a personal game, one partly inspired by Dallas’ own childhood and the loss of his mother.
“People who don’t play games are quick to dismiss games because everything that they see on TV is games about killing and action. They just go, ‘Oh, games aren’t for me,’” says Nathan Gary, creative director at Sony Santa Monica.
The studio, which has a reputation for working with young, experimental-leaning companies such as Thatgamecompany and the Chinese Room, among others, signed Giant Sparrow to a three-game deal, of which “Edith Finch” is the second.
“A lot of games of ours are called ‘weird.’ I think that’s dismissive in a way,” Gary says. “To me, if I shoot lots of people in a game, that’s weird. How is a game that’s trying to treat death as the momentous thing that it really is weird?”
“Different,” maybe, is a better way to describe Giant Sparrow. The studio was born while Dallas was attending graduate school at USC to study game design. Giant Sparrow’s first title, 2012’s “The Unfinished Swan,” is a children’s book sprung to life. Instead of a gun, players fire paint, which fills in the blank white canvas that is the game’s universe.
Like “Edith Finch,” “The Unfinished Swan” is slightly melancholic. It too deals with family loss. Yet Giant Sparrow’s games aren’t exactly downers.
“It’s weighty,” admits Gary of “Edith Finch.” “It’s all about the final moments of people’s lives, but it also has a strange exuberance to it.”
When the player, as Edith Finch, returns home, the house appears more magical than haunted. Books spiral every which way, and behind a door may be a room or a hidden passageway.
The house feels as alive as the Washington wilderness it is set in, and as Edith walks from floor to floor she explores the bizarre circumstances of how her family passed from generation to generation. She learns about Molly and her dreams of being a cat from the child’s writings.
“In this story, you are becoming a cat and becoming an owl and it’s hard to tell much about a person without other humans around with them to play off of,” Dallas says. “This is more about the exploring the zeal and callousness of a child. They’re not willfully un-empathetic, but they’re so consumed with their own desires.”
Dallas has compared “Edith Finch” to “The Twilight Zone” or “Twin Peaks” and says the initial inspiration came from remembering his days as a child when he went scuba diving around Washington’s Puget Sound, catching glimpses of the vast, unknowable abyss that lay before him. He wants a game in “Edith Finch” that channels that emotion — “kind of terrifying but at the same time really beautiful,” he says — but he also recognizes that that’s no easy task.
“A lot of games — and our culture in general — is about empowerment fantasies, of being confronted with something and then be able to overcome that,” Dallas says. “There are a lot of good stories about people overcoming obstacles. I don’t think I need to add any more.”
Instead, Dallas draws from his life. While making “The Unfinished Swan,” his mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. It weighed on him during the prep for “Edith Finch,” and she died while the game was in its beginning phases. Dallas says the game is not a direct response, but he struggles with articulating how much of his life made it into the still-unfinished product.
“I don’t know how to describe it. I’m still processing it,” he says. “It was not how I expected to feel afterward, for sure. The unexpected nature of it was maybe the biggest take-away to apply to this game. It’s very personal, and everybody’s experience will be a little bit different. In this game, we’re trying to do a good job of making everything colored and specific to these people.”
As a television writer, Dallas worked on such programs as Comedy Central’s animated “Drawn Together” and G4’s “Spaceballs: The Animated Series.” Despite such lighthearted credits, both of Giant Sparrow’s games have dealt with mortality.
“I now look at time very differently,” Dallas explains. “There’s something about having your parents still alive that makes it feel like there’s an unbroken link to childhood.
“The difference,” he continues, “between knowing a thing and experiencing a thing? It’s indescribable, and we’re making a game about that.”