What Remains of Edith Finch is one of those games that has stuck with me over the years. It left a deep impression on me because of the difficult questions it asks... and those it leaves unanswered.
A Cursed(?) Family’s Odd Way of Dealing with Death
Rated T for Teen, this first-person exploration game developed by independent company Giant Sparrow tells the story of Edith Finch, a young woman who has lost most of her family through a series of tragic accidents due to a supposed ‘curse’. Players walk in her footsteps as she returns to her family home for the first time in years to try to make sense of this curse and learn more about her relatives who have died. Her great-grandmother coped with the deaths by leaving each deceased person’s room exactly as it was on the day of their death, making a small shrine in each room to preserve the memory of how that person died. As Edith discovers each relative’s shrine and learns of their fates, the player must puzzle through unreliable narrators to discern what really happened.
© Giant Sparrow. All rights reserved.
What most struck me in this game was the treatment of death and how each family member coped with loss. Two extremes are embodied by Edith’s great-grandmother, Edie, and her mother, Dawn. Edie is a firm believer in the family curse. Her way of memorializing the dead by leaving their bedrooms untouched seems on one level to be a way of remembering her deceased loved ones and keeping them as a part of the family. On the other hand, it leaves the surviving family members preoccupied with death, wondering where the curse will strike next. Dawn, in contrast, believes that Edie’s obsession with the curse is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that dooms the family to early deaths (and seeing the paranoia or substance abuse in certain family members lends credence to her theory). She believes healing can only happen if they let go of the past and move forward with their lives. She insists on sealing up the bedrooms of the dead and forbids anyone from speaking about what happened to them so that Edith grows up ignorant of their stories.
Edith strongly feels this lack of family history, which is part of why she is determined to know the truth for herself. But as the game progresses, she also comes to see the wisdom in her mother’s point of view, questioning if these tragedies would have been better left hidden. About halfway through her journey, Edith muses, “Now I’m worried that the stories themselves might be the problem. Maybe we believed so much in a family curse [that] we made it real.” But despite these reservations, she still asserts that people should know about their families and the histories they are a part of no matter how tragic or strange those families may be.
© Giant Sparrow. All rights reserved.
Death in a Christian Context
The game provides no clear answers as to whether Edie or Dawn was right in the end, leaving many plot points open for interpretation. But it does raise a number of interesting questions from a Catholic perspective. What is the best way to remember our dead? How can we find healing from the loss of loved ones without forgetting them? Is there a way to make sense of tragic or untimely deaths? What does death mean to us? For that matter, what does family mean to us?
In the Church, there is an ancient practice called memento mori. This is a Latin phrase that means “remember your death.” Over the centuries, many saints and holy people have mediated on the Christian meaning of death and prepared for their own deaths by reflecting on this theme. This may sound morbid or depressing, but actually, the practice of memento mori should be a profoundly consoling and hope-filled experience. As Christians, we do not believe that death has the last word. Jesus defeated death once and for all when he died on the Cross to save us from our sins. He resurrected from the dead, and he promises resurrection to all who believe in him. For us, death is not the end, but rather the door to an eternal life spent in heaven with God. Our deceased loved ones are not gone forever. They are awaiting the resurrection of the dead, and we are still connected with them through the Communion of Saints. We offer prayers for them, and they also intercede for us before God. Memento mori is a reminder that we must live our lives well now because our time is limited. But it is also a promise for hope in the resurrection. When we remember death, we always do so in the light of the resurrected Christ.
Memento Mori as a Key for Understanding the Game
Taken from this perspective, What Remains of Edith Finch becomes a heart-wrenching exploration of what memento mori truly means and how difficult it is to deal with death without Christ in the picture. Edie’s way of painstakingly preserving relics of her dead loved ones to the detriment of her living relatives shows her inability to entrust their souls to God and look forward to the future resurrection. Instead, she is stuck in the past, fixated on what she lost, unable to grow or move on. This is a false sense of memento mori taken to an unhealthy extreme. She has a strong love for her family and remains loyal to them to the death—and beyond—longing to pass on their stories to future generations. But she clings to the deceased so tightly that it becomes a harmful obsession.
Dawn takes the opposite approach, looking to the future and focusing not on what the family has lost, but on protecting the good they still have. Her name suggests hope: the dawn of a new day where they are no longer fixated on the tragic death of their loved ones, but can instead move forward as a family unburdened by their obsession with the ‘curse.’ Coincidentally (or not), Dawn is also the only character in the game who is religious. It is heavily implied that she is Catholic, since she keeps a rosary and Bible and especially likes the image of the Cross— a powerful sign of Christ’s victory over death. Edith tells the player, “Religion was another thing my mom never talked about, but I think it helped her a lot after my dad died.” Dawn finds consolation in her faith. It grounds her so that she can find meaning in the death all around her, knowing that it is not the end and she will see her family again someday, not in their memorialized bedrooms, but in heaven where they are truly alive.
© Giant Sparrow. All rights reserved.
Hope for the Future?
The atmosphere of What Remains of Edith Finch is dark and oppressive, mostly taking place at twilight or night in a setting shrouded with fog. This reflects Edith’s feelings of being trapped in her fate and the eerie hopelessness and ambiguity of her family’s situation. But this is not the note the game ends on. When Edith has finished her investigation, she makes no claim to understand all the things she has learned. She merely comments, “In the end, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.” She affirms the value of life and family, and of sharing the stories of those who have died. And, perhaps most powerfully, she confidently emphasizes that we should not spend our whole lives grieving the dead. Instead, we should be filled with gratitude and wonder that we were ever alive at all.
Edith has discovered memento mori in its true, life-giving sense. She strikes a balance between Edie’s determination to lovingly remember the dead and Dawn’s conviction that we must also move on with hope and be open to new life after death. The final scene shows white lilies—a symbol of the resurrection—being placed on a grave while the sun finally shines. As Christians, this is where our reflections on death should lead us, not to shadows and despair, but to hope in a new day where Christ will be all in all.
For more resources on the practice of memento mori, check out Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s Memento Mori Prayer Book or follow her at @pursuedbytruth.
Sr. Allison Gliot, a novice with the Daughters of St Paul. She is from Falls Church, Virginia, and has a degree in Theology and Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America. She loves video games, but not as much as she loves Jesus. You can find her on social media at @sister_allison.