Happy New Year and welcome to the first OnlySP interview of 2016.
This time we’re featuring What Remains of Edith Finch, the latest release from The Unfinished Swan developer Giant Sparrow.
The Unfinished Swan won plaudits for its interesting design and novel approach to storytelling and with What Remains of Edith Finch, they hope to repeat that success. Giant Sparrow’s hallmark are the intriguing and immersive worlds that they create, drawing on personal experience as well as imagination to try and create relatable and enjoyable games.
“I started off as a comedy writer,” says Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas. “In my last year of college I started freelancing for The Onion, a parody newspaper that’s still around online. So after that I moved to New York and worked there for a few years before going out to Los Angeles to work some low-level writing jobs on a few TV shows.
“I always kind of expected that I’d go into video games eventually. Before I really knew anything about games, I thought they were something that just got made in Japan, but I thought that I’d eventually go into games as a writer. The plan was to spend some time writing for television, then get into games. I then realised that as writer, you don’t really get to do much in video games, so I shifted focus to teaching myself how to program and ended up at TellTale Games working on Sam and Max.
“I applied for grad school up at USC and got into the interactive media department. I was there for two years, where I made a demo of what eventually became The Unfinished Swan. I was taking that around some festivals, just to show it off, when I got a call from Sony saying that they were interesting in making a game out of that. I ended up signing a deal with them, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
From that phone call Giant Sparrow came into being, starting a creative relationship between Dallas and Sony.
“I really don’t see it so much as a company, but as a shell, or a band of people that’ve come together to make this thing,” says Dallas.
“When we were doing The Unfinished Swan, it was just me, the artist who’d helped out with the original prototype – he had to go back to France, he was in school himself and took a year off to come and work on the game – and over the course of it we scaled up to about 12 or so people. After The Unfinished Swan, we went back down to about three or four, but now we’re back up to 16 as of today. The company expands and contracts depending on where we are in the process.”
Giant Swan’s publishing deal works almost like a record contract, where the studio are signed on to produce a certain number of games in association with Sony. The publisher provides the financial backing and the tools, while Dallas and the rest of the team bring the talent.
“It’s a little bit more personal than a normal publishing deal,” Dallas explains. “Sony calls it an incubation deal.”
“In addition to providing funding for development, they provide us with space and equipment and some advisers who come in and look at the game periodically to give us advice on PlayStation specific stuff. It’s development plus plus.
“Because we’re located inside of the Sony Santa Monica studios building, we see our publishing friends on a day-to-day basis. With a normal publisher, you might do Skype calls, but you don’t actually see each other. For us, it’s much more low key. If I have any questions, it’s just right down the hall – a lot more casual and friendly.
“It’s a very symmetrical relationship too. I think a lot of times, the publisher and developer want very different things. The publisher wants to sell as much as possible and recoup their money, or at least that’s a very high priority. But with Sony, at least from what we’ve seen, their focus is much more on making a really great game – making something that stands out and is unusual. It’s nice that our goals as a developer are pretty closely aligned with Sony’s. There’re definitely disagreements, but we’re definitely trying to get at the same goal.”
That idea of symmetry is important to the development of Edith Finch. With the rumblings of unrest circulating after the recent release of The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sony exerts undue pressure on its indie partners. But in Dallas’ experience, that isn’t the case.
“The deal that we have has been really helpful for allowing us to focus all of our energies on making the game,” he says. “Not having to worry about finding a space or keeping the lights on, it’s been great to have the physical and mental space to pursue the kind of strange experiences that we want.
“It’s really hard to tell, because we are a small, separate organisation inside this massive conglomerate, so I have no idea what really goes on at Sony. I just know that the people I interact with, and the vibe I get from them – our publisher friends do a really good job of shielding us from internal politics that I’m sure goes on – is that they’re looking for fresh things, experiences that Sony as a corporate behemoth couldn’t create. That gives us a lot of freedom as a developer. As a publisher, they don’t want to make a lot of changes because if they wanted something they knew what to expect with, they could just make that game. They’re looking to us for something out of left field. So they’re more afraid of messing it up than thinking they can make it better.”
“The broad creative stuff for us so far has been incredibly free,” he adds.
That creative freedom allows Giant Sparrow to take their next game in new directions.
“What Remains of Edith Finch is a collection of short stories about a cursed family,” says Dallas. “Each story follows a different family member on the last day of their life, and you get to experience the moment of their death. The game’s inspired by weird fiction. Things like Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, The Twilight Zone, and a bunch of Japanese short stories, ghost stories and things of that nature. It’s a game about what it feels like to be overwhelmed, hoping to create a space where players get to experience the feeling of being very small, confronting forces that they don’t understand and cannot control.”
Edith Finch explores some of the themes from Giant Sparrow’s earlier work. Given the Finch family’s tendency to die young, it’s not unfair to say that death is central to the experience. While in The Unfinished Swan, protagonist Monroe’s mother dies within the opening sequence, and the rest of the game is spent searching for meaning in her favorite portrait. Gameplay in Edith Finch is similar, building on some of what’s come before, while expanding into fresh arenas.
“The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch are both games about the unknown,” Dallas says. “For me as a player, what I’m most drawn to is an opportunity to explore. I think that games as a medium do a really great job of giving players the freedom to trudge out into a space which is unlike anything in the real world.
“I’ve always been really interested in death. I think it ties back to that interest in the unknown – that death is the ultimate unknown thing. It’s also the most inescapable part of our lives and so with Edith Finch, we’re trying to create a framework that lets us look at that experience of death from different perspectives. You only get to experience one death, so this is a change hopefully to see what I might be like for a lot of other people.
“With The Unfinished Swan, our goals were to try and mix up what the player was doing every 15 minutes or so. We talked about trying to make it feel like a tutorial, where you don’t really know what your buttons do and you’re not sure how the world works, so the player never feels comfortable. With Edith Finch, it’s a bit more systematized. You’re coming to these different stories, and not only do the controls change, but the time period, who you are and what your concerns are. Narratively it changes as much as it does mechanically. It gets back to that idea of keeping the player on their toes. We’re trying to evoke the sense of the unknown, and one of the ways you can do that is to make players feel as if they’re always beginning again, opening your eyes for the first time.”
Narratives in gaming are usually long form, and while indie games tend to be short, they’re often presented as a standalone piece. With Edith Finch, Giant Sparrow needed to find a way to make their collection of shorter stories hit as hard as something which has had hours to build up.
“One of the things that we learned the hard way, making a bunch of prototypes and seeing what works, is that the ending is the most critical piece,” says Dallas. “In a short story, a lot of what you take away from it is in the last 30 seconds. [We’re] trying to have everything come together harmoniously in a surprising, but satisfying way. The Twilight Zone is a great example of that. Most of the stories that people remember really come down to the last 15 seconds or so.
“For us, because we’re telling so many stories, there’s a need for economy so we’re trying to make things understandable very quickly, because you don’t have a lot of time to acclimate to these things. What we’ve shown at E3 and PSX is a demo with a little girl that wakes up and is starving. So something that people can relate to and doesn’t require more set up than, ‘I woke up and I was starving.’ As a player, I understand what my goals are.”
He continues, “As well, I think having stories that’re different lengths has been really powerful. Communicating the kind of ensemble piece we’re making, having stories that’re only one or two minutes long is something that What Remains of Edith Finch does really well, and is something that’s really unique.
“You feel the loss. As a player and audience member, you have this expectation of length. Even if it’s only 10 minutes, and you find out that the story’s only two minutes long, I think it really echoes a life cut short.”
While the individual stories in Edith Finch might be short, that doesn’t mean that the whole game’ll be over in a matter of minutes – Giant Sparrow hope that there’ll be enough on offer to satisfy players.
“The game overall will be about the same length as The Unfinished Swan. It’ll be well under 40 hours,” Dallas jokes. “The specifics of how many and how long is hard to say right now because the game’s still very much in active development. When players hear there’s going to be 17 levels or five vehicles, they can become fixated on that. Development for any game, especially the bizarre experiences that we make, is pretty fluid, so it’s anyone’s guess – but roughly the size of The Unfinished Swan.”
When most people think of shorter stories coming together to make a cohesive whole in modern gaming, they think of TellTale; and while Edith Finch is very different from an episodic adventure in terms of gameplay, Giant Sparrow are working to similarly weave connections between the interlocking narratives.
“It’s an organic process,” Dallas explains. “I hope that it feels like you’re exploring a family tree, like you’re opening a photo album of a family you distantly know, or maybe your own family that you’ve never met – seeing a little bit of the history and the strangeness that any family has if you look deep enough. One of the things that the game does really well is having these connections between stories that just sort of bubble up. We’ve found that stories that’re even just set in the same physical environment, give them a real strong connection. The world feels more real when you’ve been able to experience it from a bunch of different perspectives – seeing that place evolve over time gives it a reality, an off-screen world that keeps on going even after the curtain is drawn.”
Edith Finch is also a game about perspective, and that’s what forms the foundations of the gameplay. Each story has unique aspects to play through, as shown in the E3 demo, where Molly Finch’s starving hunger is represented by an aerial hunting section, where players swoop for rabbits as a circling bird of prey.
“[The game] spans from roughly 1900 or so to the present day, a couple of generations of this family,” says Dallas. “Each of the levels, or floors of the house, is a different generation. As Edith, you’re exploring this house, going into bedrooms for these family members, and finding a story about how they died. One of the pieces of mythology is that when someone in the family dies, they close their bedroom door and that becomes kind of like a tomb or a museum of that person.
“Eventually, they run out of bedrooms, so the next generation has to build a floor on top of the house. They’re very stubborn people. They hold onto these traditions. There’s a lot of variety, but they come back to this tenacious, fairly imaginative, strange quality.
“One of the reasons we chose to show that story is because it’s a good microcosm of the game as a whole. As Edith, as you’re exploring the house, as you’re living out these stories – finding them and experiencing them as smaller games, you’re taking on the perspective of these characters. So in the same way that Molly becomes a series of animals, Edith becomes a series of different characters throughout the game. I don’t think it was our intent when we started, but the game has kind of become about the process of telling stories. It’s a series of stories while you’re hearing the story that Edith is telling you, so you’re never getting access to the truth, it’s always mediated by someone’s version of those events.”
To create that twisted perspective, Edith Finch draws on a variety of influences.
“For me, a lot of it goes back to surrealism,” Dallas says. “Things like [Luis] Buñel, the filmmaker – particularly Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois. I looked at a whole bunch of movies and books that were ensemble pieces, things that weren’t just one story, but lots of little ones. Honestly, I didn’t find many which were a good model. I think a lot of things feel like very disparate elements stuck together, and they don’t have any overarching totality. The Twilight Zone is an interesting reference there, because each of the stories are only a half hour long, none of the characters are shared, but there’s a continuity of vision that you get partly because Rod Serling is writing and directing a lot of them, but more concretely, you get Rod Serling himself at the beginning and end of every episode who comes on and sets the scene. The fact that you have this little bit of continuity makes The Twilight Zone feel like a totality, there’s a world view that’s expressed. I don’t know if it’s always successful in that, there’re things that feel overly sentimental or repetitive – but when it works, it works really well. We’re trying to draw on that balance of freshness like, ‘oh my god, I have no idea what I’m going to see in 10 seconds,’ it could be about astronauts, gamblers, prisoners of war, anything, with enough of a through line.
What Remains of Edith Finch is built with the Unreal 4 engine, and is scheduled tentatively for a 2016 release exclusively on PlayStation consoles.
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