The Tobacconist

Genre: Historical Fiction, German Lit
Setting: Vienna, Austria 1937-1938
Pages: 234

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (originally published in German as Der Trafikant) is a story about a young man named Franz Huchel, who travels from his idyllic homeland in the Salzkammergut in Austria to Vienna to go to work for a tobacconist. It is set shortly before the start of the Second World War and as the story unfolds we witness the increasing furor that accompanies the Nazi’s rise to power, alongside Franz’s coming of age. The latter entails him falling in love with a girl, having long conversations with renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and learning some hard truths about the cruel and often confusing aspects of human nature.

I’ll start by saying I wish I had read this when I was much younger. Although I am only 25, I am sure I would have found this story much more profound and interesting when I was 16 or 17, closer to Franz’s age. The book starts out promising. Its comedic undertones and description of character and setting give it a tonal quality similar to Wes Anderson’s films. Unfortunately, the young Franz is occasionally tiresome to read about. His obsession over his crush Anezka, and his classic male feeling of entitlement to her and her body are beyond irritating. He is a naive character and at times that naivety is endearing, but in this particular aspect, and in our current zeitgeist, its a tiresome trope to be confronted with. Having said that, Anezka seemed like a far more interesting and more real character. I probably would have been more attached to this story had the author taken attempts to develop her character more.

That isn’t to say the story doesn’t have value. There are plenty of novels set during this time period, but this book carves out a special niche for itself by painting the times through the eyes of a young protagonist who hasn’t yet decided where his allegiances lie, or who has even fully developed an understanding of the need to pick a side. As illustrated by the mistreatment and arrest of Franz’s employer, the few people who try to rise against the tide are crushed. By the time Professor Sigmund Freud is forced to leave his homeland as a very old man because he is Jewish and Vienna is no longer safe, Franz has become a man who knows, if not what he stands for, at least what he stands against. It is an interesting portrait of what it means to show bravery, honor, and steadfastness as a tiny force against a seemingly insurmountable one.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One

What Remains of Edith Finch is the most interesting game I played in 2017. Not the most beautiful, or breath-taking, or mechanically sound–which is not to say it has any glaring flaws on any of these fronts–but it was certainly the most thought-provoking. Overall, I found it to be one of the most profound accomplishments achieved by a game studio in 2017, and that is certainly no small feat.   

Part of my strong attraction to the game was due to me relating to it on a rather personal level. A few years ago my father passed away, my mother moved in with my sister, taking our pets, and I moved into an apartment with my boyfriend. When I come back to my childhood home, no one is there, just the objects that used to be part of my family’s daily lives. Walking around an uninhabited but fully furnished house has the eery effect of making you feel like you’re the ghost. This general aura was so deeply echoed in What Remains of Edith Finch, that it was like a punch in the stomach. In fact, one of the first, and very poignant lines of dialogue uttered by Edith upon entering the house is, “Instead of a family, there were just memories of one.”

This ends up setting the tone for the uncanny and generally quite tragic gameplay experience that follows. The game operates as a first-person, narrative experience à la Gone Home. For me, it was much more effective than Gone Home emotionally, for a variety of reasons. It was much less predictable due to its more surrealist nature, and the variety of ways the player experiences the memories of the deaths of Edith’s family members (whether by dream, comic, or through a camera lens) was highly original. Each flashback experience was captivating enough to make you forget that a death is the inevitable termination of each memory.

House Through the Trees, What Remains of Edith Finch

If there was a specific message you were supposed to take away at the end, I’m not sure I picked up on it. Or if I did pick up on it, I rapidly discarded it. Unfortunately, the game seemed to have an overarching theme of how you cannot escape your family history. I don’t find this mindset particularly useful, especially if your family history is “cursed” like the Finches. This might not be intentional on the part of the writers, however, that doesn’t make it any less difficult to ignore.

A much more uplifting take away for me, was the idea that each of these family members was so much more than their untimely deaths. They should be remembered for the person they were, rather than the tragedy of their demise. Even if the best part of them lay within their imagination (such was the case with Edith’s brother, Lewis), they were all important. They had ambitions and dreams, passions and hobbies, and beautiful imaginations.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a treasure of a game that has defined new boundaries for narrative gameplay experiences.