Justin Keever | Aug 29, 2014
Videogames are all, by their very nature, multiform narratives. That is; all games, by nature of requiring player participation, allow for the exploration of possible outcomes of widely varying actions. The implications of these multiform narratives are often inconsequential: the outcome of taking two steps to the left is having taken two steps to the left. Thus emerges, in most people, the desire for consequence, for the exploration of a possibility space to have some easily tangible meaning in relation to some perceived goal. From these desires the prevailing structures of most mainstream videogames arises: movement is given a tactical gravitas, a means of avoiding obstacles or otherwise responding to challenges, and clear narrative choices are offered to the player, with the promise of some palpable effect on the broad strokes of the game’s plot, particularly the conclusion. While the supposed necessity of “challenge” in games is irksome to me, the latter manifestation of the multiform narrative in mainstream game design, or at least in what the mainstream player appears to want from their videogames, is the most frustrating trend in the modern videogame discourse. Somehow, possessing multitudes of varied end-states has become the be-all and end-all of videogame narrative: videogame discourse’s absurd war on the author manifests itself in this desire for there to be an impossible number of conclusions to game stories, as though a game doesn’t earn its gameness until 300 people can all have different plot outcomes. It’s an attitude that lends itself to a reductive, anti-analysis view of game narrative, where one can safely abandon any thematic/allegoric considerations of a game’s story in favor of tossing around meaningless terms like “illusion of choice” and pretending that you’re having a worthwhile conversation.
Perhaps I fell in love with Three Fourths Home simply because it so resolutely rejects the manifesto of the end-state. Three Fourths Home works within the genre conventions of the western neo-visual novel/interactive fiction, but subverts the expectation of the branching narrative associated with those conventions: the dialogue simply doesn’t branch in varied directions in the way we expect interactive conversations to branch. Instead, Bracket Games applies the ethos of Coming Out Simulator 2014 to their own game, letting the player’s choice in dialogue flavor the experience, rather than letting the player’s choices dictate the direction of the plot (a distinction that Nicky Case himself helpfully spells out in a recent blog post. In doing so, Kelly’s family members retain their own agency, giving the game’s lengthy phone conversations a genuine emotional heft. The player’s input is not privileged with some sort of preternatural persuasiveness; it’s just speech. Three Fourths Home is not about shaping the lives of your family, nor is it about shaping your own. When the end comes, Kelly is just too far away from the people she cares about to make a difference. Circumstances change in a way that words alone can’t affect, robbing the player of that sense of self-determination they’ve come to expect from interactive narratives. The words you choose are inconsequential because they change nothing: there is one end to Three Fourths Home. The words you choose are consequential because they change everything – every choice carries meaning, changing the context of every line that came before and every line that’s coming later.
Three Fourths Home is about the empty promise of the future: about how we desperately cling to the idea that no matter what adversity we face in the present, we will arrive at a relatively satisfying status quo. As much is the message of Ben’s story: a society of farmers – who live in a place called “The Trough” – is struck with a plague, seemingly brought on by a great beast. The people of the Trough commit to inaction, waiting for the beat to leave, and for the wind to blow away the rot that has consumed their land. Eventually, the beast does leave, and the rot fades away, but in its place is dry, infertile ground, damaged irreparably. With this little mini-narrative, Three Fourths Home shows its philosophical hand, revealing the give-and-take between self-determination and fatalism that colors its gameplay structure and its narrative. There is a strong sense of inevitability in Three Fourths Home: its ending presents the player and protagonist with a situation which they are powerless to prevent, a distant tornado, forcing both Kelly to surrender to chance, and the player to surrender to a pre-authored event. The logic of narrative agency is rejected, in favor of a disempowering, fatalistic statement about how the rest of the world operates outside of personal comprehension. And yet, the farmers in Ben’s story don’t seem to be slaves to fate. Their own inaction is their undoing, after all: they had ample time to abandon their valley and find a better home. Three Fourths Home leaves us at this intersection between free will and fate, where the avoidable and the unknowable work in tandem towards the ruination of the individual. Still, there is a commonality between Kelly and the people of the Trough: a belief in the unassailable constancy of their status quo. Just as the farmers wait for the return of their precious soil, so too does Kelly mistakenly believe in the stability of her family. Her failed attempt to give Ben a guitar pick as a gift, even though he hasn’t played for years, is a symptom of this grander flaw: her family’s changed in a way she isn’t able to cope with. And by the time she’s home, they’re gone. An individual life does not progress elegantly with the rest of the world: instead, the two operate with almost with autonomy, until the some unknown variable of the latter irrevocably changes the former. Both Kelly and the farmers of Ben’s story commit to their own self destruction by simply expecting everyone and everything else to remain as stagnant as they are.
Yet, somehow, I can’t bring myself to describe Three Fourths Home as grim. It’s presented with a minimalist beauty that bestows upon even a distant, lonely power station a certain picturesque quality. The hum of the engine, the patter of the rain, and the crackle of the tape deck provide an aural blanket of melancholic comfort, romanticizing the experience of driving through the rural landscape of Nebraska. Three Fourths Home is decidedly more human than most games, but it doesn’t purport to take place within the strict rules of reality. It is stylized, and integrates into its grounded narrative elements of fantasy, particularly in the final act, where Ben’s story begins to color the world around you: where birds become beasts and mountains materialize on the horizon, if only for a second. It’s with this in mind that I want to turn this discussion towards a few things, the first being this exchange between Kelly and her father, David:
David: Things have a funny way of, if not working out, at least going forward.
Kelly: I guess we’ll see, huh.
David: That’s unavoidable, isn’t it? For the most part.
Here we see the game directly address that unavoidable forward motion of time, the certainty with which things will move forward (a certainty that is reflected by the game’s very structure, in that the protagonist is literally always moving forward on a linear path, with no ability to veer from it). This isn’t a positive observation: it speaks to that sense of fatalistic inevitability that has been previously discussed. The first line fails as a reassurance, since after all, Kelly’s forward progress only moves her ever closer to the game’s tragic conclusion. What’s key, though, is David’s assurance that things going forward is only unavoidable for the most part. Keeping this detail in mind, I want to briefly jump away from the proper game of Three Fourths Home, and instead look at a supplementary feature: the “keys” screen, which outlines the controls. Depending on which control scheme you use, the right arrow key/’d’ key/right trigger is labelled “drive” in the game’s control diagram. At first, this control scheme appears straightforward: press the right arrow key in the beginning of the game and, sure enough, Kelly’s car accelerates in response. What’s strange, though, is how the game responds if you let up on the key. Kelly doesn’t simply stop driving. Instead, the world slows to a crawl: the dialogue fades from view, and the rain slows its descent to a crawl, the sound of its patter against the pavement reduced to little more than a whisper. You’re clearly not just in control of Kelly’s foot on the accelerator. Instead, when the player holds down the right arrow key, the player is control of the progression of time: Three Fourths Home doesn’t give you control over a single person’s progression through space, it gives you agency over the progression of time itself.
Videogames are partially defined by the requirement of player effort: for a game to work, it needs to be played by someone. If the player stops playing – I don’t mean by turning the game off or pausing it, I mean by putting down the controller/stepping away from the keyboard and not offering any input – then the player character stops moving. As the progression of the protagonist ceases, so too does the progression of the world: NPCs may keep walking around, and the player character may enter some kind of idle animation, sure, but nothing really changes when the player stops playing. In most games, this kind of stoppage is awkward. Games assume the player will do what’s expected and act; that the player is constantly motivated enough to push forward through the narrative. If they don’t, then everything freezes, like the star of an amateur theater performance forgot his lines and the rest of the cast can’t improvise. What most games don’t realize is that this kind of purgatorial stillness brought on by inaction is tremendously freeing: only in a game can one control the pace at which life moves forward. In reality, things always have a way of moving forward: we watch the world decay around us, and ourselves decay right with it, with no power to make any of it stop. Every minute we lie dormant on our beds is a lost opportunity to learn, to work, to improve ourselves in some way. I have trouble sleeping most nights because I know that I’ll never get that time back: I’m afraid to spend hours unconscious each day, because I feel like I should be reading or writing. I’m a two years younger than Kelly, but the fears that she grapples with: of never leaving home, of not finding a job, are all growing more and more real to me as I near the end of my bachelor’s degree. Every minute just feels like another step towards some inevitable disaster: that I’m moving towards my own kind of cleansing wind that’s ready to rip away the rot from my life and reveal just how little I have. So stopping in a videogame becomes an act of resistance, a comforting way of fighting inevitability. Three Fourths Home understands this: by giving the player agency over time, instead of just over Kelly, Three Fourths Home offers a distinct brand of tragic power. Stopping ceases to be an awkward failure to follow the script of play, and becomes its own act of control. The control diagram never specifies what exactly we’re driving, after all: we assume that “drive” refers to the car, naturally, but as in just about any game, the act of moving carries additional layers of significance. When we move, we drive the world forward. When we stop, it stops. Three Fourths Home comprehends this, and despite everything else, gives us a safe space to stop. The world doesn’t bungle along, waiting: it stops with you. Going forward is avoidable. Just this once, the tornado can wait.