The sublime horror of the unknown: Ian Dallas and What Remains of Edith Finch

Giant Sparrow director Ian Dallas sits down with us to chat the aesthetics underpinning his new collection of weird tales.

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking Giant Sparrow's upcoming PS4/PC adventure What Remains of Edith Finch for a hands-on spin. While I left feeling a little on the fence about how the game handles, the whole look and feel of Edith Finch -- the studio's follow-up to its 2012 debut Unfinished Swan -- is something I was desperate to drill down into further.

Director Ian Dallas, as it turns out, was more than willing to discuss the artistic and literary influences behind What Remains of Edith Finch with me -- as well as chat about a few paths the game did not end up going down.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Edith Finch director Ian Dallas (photo via Polygon). Edith Finch director Ian Dallas (photo via Polygon).

ZAM: I understand your original concept for what would become Edith Finch was an underwater game based around scuba diving, but you decided that wasn’t feasible. When ABZÜ came out did you say to yourself ‘damn it, we could’ve made the scuba game’?

Ian Dallas: Oh, no. This game was always about the sublime horror of nature [whereas] ABZÜ is a much more sentimental look at that subject. I would never make a game that was in that vein. It’s interesting, though, playing a game like ABZÜ, how little in the way of mechanics are needed to sustain a play experience. I think ABZÜ is very economical with what the player can do and how they can interact with the world. To the point where, as a designer, I might want more than that. Even as a player, I would not have minded having a little more to do. But looking at player reactions, it’s clear there are plenty of people who are perfectly comfortable to swim through a world like that and just take it all in.

[In Edith Finch] we often made things way more complicated than they needed to be and then scaled it back. It is impressive how simple ABZÜ manages to be throughout.

I’m curious if you’ve come across any undersea or diving games you do feel capture that tone of ‘sublime horror' you were looking for.

Not really. Usually, in games, when there’s even a whiff of horror it’s very grim. Gore, or jump scares. A kind of overwhelming dread. I feel that Edith Finch is paddling as fast as it can in the other direction. It brings up subjects that are ominous and overwhelming, but it’s really more about the ‘sublime’ part of ‘sublime horror.’ I wish there were more non-horror games that had that kind of ominous feel to them.

"'Weird fiction' is the most explicit media representation I’ve ever come across that directly confronts what it feels like to bump up against a world that you don’t understand."

Scott Benson, co-writer of Night in the Woods, once referred to his game and other contemporary works like Welcome to Night Vale as “humanist weird fiction.” Something more compassionate, more hopeful, than (say) Lovecraft and what everyone usually thinks of when they hear the term. Would you say What Remains of Edith Finch also falls into that category?

Oh, I would just say it’s weird fiction. I think “weird fiction” is the most explicit media representation I’ve ever come across that directly confronts what it feels like to bump up against a world that you don’t understand; that you feel you will never be able to understand. The cold darkness of the cosmos around you is not malevolent in any way, it just is. And I think that’s really beautiful, to look at something that is fundamentally inhuman. Our lives are so heavily mediated by ‘what it means to be human.’ I think it’s nice to step back from being human and imagine what it would like to be a member of the cosmos.

Magical realism also certainly influences [Edith Finch’s] tone. Surreal, but balanced against the much more mundane and familiar.

It’s interesting that you mention ‘stepping back from being human’ because that ties into the vignette we just played. Part of this scene feels very ‘embodied.’ The player’s asked to keep track of these repetitive physical movements with at least one half of their attention span.

Yeah! We’re trying to make something that feels evocative of the story’s tone. There is this physical, visceral embodiment of the hands moving around, the fish which exist both in the [character’s] fantasy and the real world of the cannery. The attempt is to balance some of those slightly more horrifying elements against the human side of it. Most of these stories are told from a first-person perspective. There’s a very human element to that.

"The attempt is to balance some of those slightly more horrifying elements against the human side of it."

Molly’s story [where she] becomes a series of animals is probably the most literal interpretation of ‘stepping outside of the human viewpoint.’ But I also think the whole project of telling a story about so many people dying has a slight distancing going on. [The player is] not getting too embedded in any one person. These people and their perspectives are temporary. They’re constantly moving on to something else.

So how did you get from ‘underwater sublime horror’ to arrive at ‘American Gothic/weird fiction’? It sounds like there must have been a few iterations in there.

It started from the specific horror of nature in Washington state, where I grew up. I think surrealism works best when it’s balanced with something that’s more relatable and mundane, and for me it was natural to embed it in something like Orcas Island, where we used to vacation as a family. Something specific like that.

How would you describe the 'specific horror of nature' of the Pacific Northwest, to someone who wasn’t from that region?

Well, it’s green. [laughs] It’s wet. And it’s alive. There are no stretches of concrete or dirt like in California. In Washington there’s this feeling that nature is all around you, even if you don’t want it there. It just falls from the sky.

I can see how that might relate to the ‘indifferent universe’ thing you were talking about before.

The hardest part was coming up with the gameplay for each of our stories. It had to be something that helped tell the story: an interesting piece of gameplay, something novel, something understandable for people so you could throw them into it without confusing them. Finding stories [that suited those goals] was quite difficult and time-consuming. Initially I think we were too focused on the sublime, this feeling of what it’s like to be overwhelmed, but once we had a couple of the stories on their feet, we were able to find the common element and we wove the larger story around that. Each of these stories is essentially someone getting lost in their imagination; achieving their goals but not necessarily in the way they expected to.

"[The house is] what we call ‘ramshackle majesty,’ a combination of the civilized world and a more organic feel, a concrete representation of the overwhelming."

The ‘Gothic’-ish house was something that emerged out of that fiction as well. Once we had the idea that this was a story about a family that closes the doors when someone dies, we asked ourselves: “What would that house look like over time?” That led us to what we call ‘ramshackle majesty,’ a combination of the civilized world and a more organic feel, a concrete representation of the overwhelming. When [the player] looks around the house, there are photos and memorabilia everywhere. It’s assaulting you with too much for you to possibly understand.

The house’s exterior does this too, there’s a history that’s embedded in [the architecture]. The family at some point went: “Well, we ran out of bedrooms, let’s just keep adding onto the house.” And it ends up looking like barnacles or moss attached to the building. It began as this civilized structure – a house, a place for people to live in – and it becomes something over time that’s a little bit monstrous and natural.

This, I assume, is where a lot of people draw a connection between the game and Edgar Allen Poe, who also built very strong characters out of his buildings. Did you look to Poe specifically for influence?

Yeah, although I haven’t really connected it [buildings as characters] that strongly to any of his actual work. Certainly “The Raven” and “Lenore” influenced our story.

"It was a breath of fresh air for us to make a videogame where nothing was falling apart."

Any The Fall of the House of Usher in there?

There is a sense of history [with these houses], a sense of it being larger than life. But the House of Usher was crumbling, and that’s very typical of Poe’s work: a cancer in this old family that’s eating everything away; the world dying of consumption; everything about to collapse at any moment. It was a breath of fresh air for us to make a videogame where nothing was falling apart like that. That was one thing we made very clear to the artists: these are not “beautiful ruins,” that “destroyed beauty” look a la Gears of War and so many other games. Those are all fine, but I’ve had enough of them. The jig is up.

The Finch house has been sealed up and preserved, like a time capsule. In this family that is a driving force and desire, to preserve the memories of their family members.

Unfinished Swan (2012). Unfinished Swan (2012).

One of my favorite surprises in Unfinished Swan was that you got Terry Gilliam, a director whose work often focuses on childhood and imagination, to play the King. Can we expect some cool voice cameos like that in Edith Finch?

We tried, we tried. It would be great to make it into a 'thing' our games did. [Unfortunately, Dallas could not go on-record with the names of any of the individuals his studio had contacted about a voice role.] Because of the SAG strike, we needed to cast all non-SAG actors. In some cases that worked out great, like when we wanted to cast the 10-year-old daughter of a friend of ours, which can be kinda tricky when you're dealing with SAG. We also got lucky, finding a lot of really great actors who'd recently graduated and didn't yet have SAG memberships.

Who is one individual -- in any creative industry -- you would like to work with someday?

I'd love to work with Weird Al [Yankovic]. Songs with lyrics are pretty rare in games, and they're almost always in non-interactive moments (like the ending credits for Portal). I think it'd be fun to figure out a way to integrate a song with lyrics into gameplay, and in a way that helps advance the story. In my dreams, Al and I put our heads together and come up with an ingenious answer for how to do that.

What Remains of Edith Finch arrives on PlayStation 4 and PC on April 25th. It stars Valerie Rose Lohman as Edith and is being published by Annapurna Interactive. You can check out more at Giant Sparrow's official website.