Railroading and the Finch House

Railroading is when the DM ignores the player’s good ideas for no reason other than “that’s not what I want you to do.”

Matt Colville

In the opening scene of 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch (WRoEF), the ludic style veers dangerously close to abandoning mechanical elements in favor of cinema. It continues to hew closely to the dubious “walking simulator” until the player reaches the first flashback. Linear gameplay and level design binds the syuzhet like a film or book traditionally does. While this linearity keeps details from being missed or assembled incorrectly, it also removes deep mechanical engagement. To define the mechanics available, the player is able to move, look, and “interact” from certain POVs. 

Interacting sounds broad but unfortunately it is limited to objects marked by a meta-icon of a bright white circle. There is no in-fiction reason the POV character can’t interact with more objects; it’s simply not part of the narrative WRoEF tells. Typically games aim to be minimally invasive with modifications to the player’s look input, but WRoEF employs an uncomfortable technique. Since there is almost always a book being read during the player’s interactions, the game has floating text that accompanies the narrative and functions as a sort of waypoint. The camera control tears away from the player when the text appears to ensure that the player is looking at it. Even with constrained “interaction” and interrupted camera control, the game could still have some interesting sjuzets with a level design that encourages some variation. WRoEF is set in a spiraling mansion with extensive grounds, so there is high potential here. Unfortunately the player’s path spirals around a mansion that has doors literally sealed shut to prevent crossing paths. (This is at least explained away fairly well in the narrative). The level design never breaks the player out of their experience, but the player never loses the sensation that this was the only possible experience. 

For the average game, this would be enough to dismiss it as a wannabe movie. Instead WRoEF juxtaposes the tight syuzhet and gameplay in a way that elevates the experience. The narration can be absolutely heart-wrenching, especially when the player knows they succeeded. When the player knows this is what really happened. The first flashback brings this to the fore by swapping the POV to the long-dead Molly as Edith reads her journal aloud. The player as Molly must eat some poisonous food to progress the story. Through her imagination they must next jump off a cliff as a cat catching a bird, and catch prey too large to swallow as an owl. The gimmick is clear. The player must relive the actions that led a character to their death. After Molly, the player controls the young Calvin who adored astronauts before he died. His brother memorializes him in a journal entry that the player experiences in his flashback scene:

“My brother said he’d die before he ate another mushroom. And he did.”

Annapurna Interactive

In this flashback the player is sitting on a cliffside swing. All the player can do is “swing” as Calvin’s mother calls him to dinner and the narrator slowly reveals text from the journal. This scene is much clearer immediately to the player, Calvin clearly dies in the next few moments because mushrooms are on the table waiting for him. The player has no narrative control, the syuzhet is set in stone. The swing goes higher and higher. The fence in front is broken, and the player wonders if they will be impaled. The branch creaks as the player rises ever higher, and the player wonders if it will snap to bring them crashing down. Suddenly, Calvin has the momentum to flip all the way around the swing. He spins faster and faster, and as inertia flies him across the coast, the player knows they died. The game is tasteful. It doesn’t need to show you a mangled child. Through the context awarded by tight narrative control, the horror of a single input was enough. Maybe you just don’t need more than one syuzhet when you are killing children.

Roller coasters are on rails, and people seem like to those!

Probably Matt Colville

I probably wouldn’t mind the railroad of the Finch House if I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons. The designers seem to have put the game through substantial development and testing, and I think they ended up with a tight product that perfectly met their goals. Its possible that a Finch House with opened doors and non-linear progression would be a chaotic mess. I guess most D&D narratives end up being a bit of a mess too. Even if the players go from A. to B. in a module, they probably stopped to chat up a local blacksmith and accidentally changed the course of the kingdom by inciting a rebellion. But I think that’s the nature of games, the ability to meaningfully make a difference. Movies and roller coasters aren’t games. Even Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t games.

I ended up enjoying the mechanics of WRoEF but I don’t think I got over the delivery. The game has an awesome replay feature but I may as well watch a YouTube clip for 90+% of the gameplay. If only the game took the player a little bit more seriously, trusted them to have good ideas, then maybe the experience could feel more unique and game-like.

At least I know to make sure my upcoming D&D adventure has non-linear spaces with non-deterministic mechanics and license for players to engage with whatever they find interesting.

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