Giant Sparrow’s creative director, Ian Dallas, explains the game’s inspirations, the difficulties in creating a narrative from a collection of prototypes and how not to throw out the baby with the bathwater

What Remains of Edith Finch started life as a scuba diving simulator. For anyone who has played the game this may sound completely bizarre, but as soon as you consider the game’s themes, it all clicks into place. A feeling of being overwhelmed is what developer Giant Sparrow was striving for during development. Of being immersed in a sublime experience. When observed through that lens, What Remains of Edith Finch hits all the right notes and you can begin to see how Giant Sparrow’s initial concept grew to the BAFTA winning title that’s playable today.

Another inspiration that, on the surface, seems to only have a tangential connection to the final game is the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Giant grotesque monster gods don’t feature much in Edith Finch, but the unnerving sense of perpetual dread certainly does. Giant Sparrow’s creative director, Ian Dallas, explains to us why looking at ‘genre fiction’ helped development of the game so much.

Ian Dallas, Giant Sparrow's creative director

Ian Dallas, Giant Sparrow's creative director

“A scuba diving simulator was an idea that I had in graduate school in around 2007,” Dallas says. “I don’t know quite where the first glimmer of it came from, but I’d been reading a fair amount of H.P. Lovecraft at the time and was interested in weird fiction. Things that felt ominous and overwhelming but not necessarily traditional horror. The interesting thing to me about genre literature from the 30s, that H.P. Lovecraft is a part of, is that it happened before genres got defined. So I was interested in exploring something in that space. I initially started off with a scuba diving simulator because when I think about moments that have a sense of the sublime, of a thing that is overwhelming but also quite beautiful, I think back to scuba diving as a kid in Washington state and the way the bottom of the ocean slopes away into this infinite darkness. It makes you feel very small and fragile and out of your element, but also astonished by how beautiful the world is.

“So it was a scuba diving thing, but then there was also an element of short stories and what would a game feel like if it was a collection of tales, which is very common
in the source material we were looking at. I think the theme of the sublime works best in small doses. It’s very powerful.”

These short stories were the main driving point of the game’s development. Having played the game, I had assumed that Edith’s central narrative as the player explores the house was the first thing to be created, with each of the smaller mini-games going into her family’s past being built from that central theme. Apparently that’s entirely wrong, as the developer spent a lot of time prototyping mini-games that would eventually become each of Edith’s family members’ stories. A central narrative was then wrapped around these protoyped experiences.

“For the very first prototype, we began with the scuba diving simulator,” Dallas explains. “We had some limited success there. It was kind of interesting looking at flotsam swirling around and being able to control your buoyancy felt like that could be an interesting mechanic. But none of that ended up really feeling like the game we wanted to make. I think it was just a little too mechanics-oriented. When you’re swimming underwater it’s very hard to forget that’s what you’re doing and in a video game it feels pretty artificial.

“So the game shifted a bit to experiences that were a little less alien in terms of the way they controlled. The frame story for Edith, coming back to explore the house she grew up in, was something that was primarily born out of necessity. We had a bunch of these stories that we were interested in and we weren’t sure how to tie them together. There was a very legitimate question on the team of whether or not we even needed to tie these stories together. But for us it felt like it would be more powerful if there were some threads that connected these things together. The house felt like a good concrete representation of many of the themes that we were interested in exploring, specifically the transition from the civilised world to the natural one and the way that humans feel simultaneously connected to the natural world but also kind of apart from it.

“And the house, in this kind of gargantuan but also organic way, is a visual representation of that, where it’s a very civilised object. A house that people have built to live in, but that over time has taken on a more organic shape and appears to have almost been grown rather than designed.”

THE WRITING PROCESS

So how do you build a game and a narrative around a set of wildly different prototypes that need to be somehow connected? With difficulty, it seems.

“One of the things that was inherently tricky was to find something that unifies a lot of stories that were created without much thought for what would be the connective tissue. Because the stories themselves individually are so difficult,” Dallas says. “In order to find a suitable frame story and a connection between the stories, we needed enough of them to exist. And then by the time the story existed, we needed to make changes to them to make it easier to connect them. It’s a chicken and egg problem.

“But I think in our case it worked out relatively well because everything proceeded from a wellspring of exploring the experience of the sublime and the relationships between people and the natural world and the way that stories develop over time in a family. Those are the jumping off points for all the stories. And so the frame story of Edith exploring the house, and this family, really touched on those themes a lot and helps to reinforce those elements together.”

As for the individual stories themselves, the writing process would change from one to the other. Some, like Lewis’ tale in the cannery, were inspired by Victorian prose (The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap by Lord Dunsany, in this case), while others started life more thematically. Others still, like Gregory’s story, were more contextual than thematic.

“Gregory’s story felt like an interesting mix of playful and a little bit overwhelming,” Dallas explains. “So we knew in that story we wanted to have it be in a bathtub but there’s a lot of limitations, especially if you’re playing an infant, on what kind of interactions you can have in that world. Gregory’s story is a fairly good example of the way the writing process worked, where we initially had no concept of who you were, other than that you were an infant, or what the situation was. But we knew you’d be in a bathtub and we knew that you’d eventually die because that happens in all these stories.

“And so we started working on a lot of prototypes for how you might control one of the bath toys. There was probably four different designers/programmers who tried to make those controls feel good and appropriate to those constraints. One of which is that for activity that involves jumping and swimming, any movement through 3D space, it can be very difficult when the camera is locked to one place in the world, which is the infant’s perspective. So a lot of the initial ideas that we had for the more traditional platforming gameplay were very difficult from that fixed camera perspective.

“There was a lot of back and forth until eventually things started to coalesce and feel okay. And then we wrote a draft of the story that was a bit heavy handed and expressly trying to evoke the feelings we wanted players to experience. Over time we realised that none of that was really necessary. That most of the emotional impact comes just from realising that you are an infant in the bathtub who is going to be dead in a few minutes.

“So the story in that case became very light. Just something to move the action along and provide a little bit of a sense of framing within the larger narrative in terms of which Finch family members are involved. But the actual story of that is really more about setting up the context than what the traditional script is bringing to it.”

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KILL YOUR DARLINGS

As the player explores the Finch household and learns the family’s life stories, a clear commonality emerges. Edith’s family are all dead. Some as adults and some, like poor Gregory, as very young children. It’s a tricky subject and one that requires the grace and subtlety that video games can’t often afford (or haven’t often). You have to wonder whether Giant Sparrow encountered problems trying to include these themes.

“I would say the most specific issue we ran into was someone at our publisher telling us to stop,” Dallas says. “They had concerns early on about that. And I think they were warranted. And our approach to that was to try to be as sensitive as we could.

“In the case of Gregory’s story in particular, which involves the death of an infant, to bring in playtesters who were parents because we found that parents reacted very differently than non-parents. And so trying to incorporate more feedback from people with diverse backgrounds was the most concrete step we took.

“We didn’t set out to make a collection of short stories about children dying, but it just sort of emerged that those were the characters who felt most appropriate for the prototype we were making, that it seemed to work best.”

It was the night of the BAFTA Game Awards, from which Giant Sparrow took home the well-deserved Best Game prize, that Dallas realised that even with sensitivity and feedback, it’s impossible to please everyone.

“We haven’t received angry letters from people about it, although something fascinating happened at the BAFTA ceremony itself,” Dallas says. “That night three different people came up to me and they all wanted to talk about Gregory’s story. Two of them said that they loved the story and thought that we had really effectively threaded the needle there.

“And then the third person said that they felt that it was really emotionally manipulative and terrible. I would like to think that in the wider world we’re doing better than two out of three there, but it was interesting on that particular night to see that you can’t please everyone. It’s surprising how little negative feedback there has been online as well.”

And the award itself? How can a scrappy indie game win against behemoths like Zelda and Assassin’s Creed?

“I think having a dozen stories with different game mechanics... For anyone who makes games this would seem like a preposterous notion,” Dallas says. “There are good reasons why most games do not contain a dozen different stories and we just got very lucky. These things came together in the end but I think other game developers and, presumably the people who are voting for BAFTAs, do have an appreciation for the kind of foolhardiness and luck that the game represents.”

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