What DNA does Edith Finch share with The Unfinished Swan, both in terms of its gameplay and its approach to storytelling?
Ian Dallas: Both games are about exploring the unknown. In The Unfinished Swan the unknown was more concrete — a white landscape you uncovered by splatting it — whereas in What Remains of Edith Finch it’s more about the mystery of why all of your family members have died and the murky nature of stories, where you never know the full truth — just one person’s perspective on it.
From a mechanics standpoint, both games also make an effort to constantly change up what the player is doing to help keep things interesting and also put players in the mindset of these characters. As a player you’re discovering new gameplay mechanics in the same way that the characters are discovering new worlds.
What are your cultural touchpoints with Edith Finch? Edgar Allen Poe? Roald Dahl? Brothers Grimm? Stanley Kubrick?
Ian Dallas: The genre of short stories people call ‘weird fiction’ has been the biggest source of inspiration for us. That includes well-known folks like Poe, Lovecraft, Borges, and Neil Gaiman — along with some new favorites like Lord Dunsany, Jean Ray, and Kelly Link.
Other big influences for us include One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Ugetsu, and with anything I do I’m sure there’s a bit of Alice in Wonderland in there somewhere.
Edith appears very human and vulnerable — she’s unarmed, she’s got no special powers. She defies traditional video game archetypes, which is obviously refreshing, but how do you sell that to the player and make her a heroine they want to inhabit?
Ian Dallas: Edith is a meant to be a bit of a mystery for players. It’s not so much a question of getting people to root for her as simply wanting to know what’s going to happen next in this world.
In keeping with our focus on the unknown, there’s a lot that isn’t clear about Edith at the beginning. We know she’s coming back to this house but we don’t know why. Like with the stories you find in the game for each family member, Edith’s own story is a deliberate construction and there are things she’s choosing to focus on or leave out.
We’ve got two very different worlds in the game, the Finch family house Edith is exploring and the more surreal, stylized world of the stories where each is meant to reflect the personality and emotional state of the family member that story is focused on. We’ve tried to make Edith feel vulnerable and familiar to give players a stable point of view on this pretty bizarre universe.
Thematically, the notion of “family” seems very central to what the game is about. How personal is this story to you? Are you pulling on your own experiences in any way?
Ian Dallas: My mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer mid-way through making The Unfinished Swan and she died during the first year of developing What Remains of Edith Finch, so that’s definitely part of why there’s a heavy focus on families in both of those games.
I’ve always been interested in death and impermanence, and I think families are a good contrast with that — something we make that lives on after we’re gone.
The stories in the game are all relatively short, contained experiences, so shifting the focus to the family also helps us look at how these events play out in a larger context and explore the themes we’re interested in.
While it’s not overt, there’s clearly a ‘horror’ element to the game. How hard is it to scare someone, and how do you measure success during development?
Ian Dallas: Our intent has never been to scare anyone. I’d say it’s more about creating a sense of curiosity and unease. Which is not to say the game isn’t scary for many people. It comes down to how you as a person deal with the unknown. And this is a game that hopefully gives you a chance to explore that feeling.
It’s a hard thing to measure in a playtest. It’s much easier to measure the opposite — what are the things that break the sense of mystery, or empathy, or immersion? And every time we do a playtest, we find lots of those problems and do our best to fix them.
Personally, the thing I’m always looking for is a moment in the game when most people will be so overcome that they’ll subconsciously let out a “woah.” You don’t always hit that, obviously, but that’s the goal.