Review | Three Fourths Home

Three Fourths Home is about that conversation you always wish you’d started, and that regret you might not be able to repair. More literally, it’s about talking, driving, and closure.

TFH is a piece of interactive fiction with a simple premise: protagonist Kelly is on her way home from visiting her grandparents’ now-empty house when a storm approaches. Kelly’s mum calls to locate her, and their struggle to communicate forces their complicated family dynamics to unravel there and then. The entire game is held within this one conversation; as Kelly, all you can do is keep driving and keep talking.

Initially I found suspending my disbelief and getting involved in the story difficult. Its hard to understand why Kelly’s mum stays on the phone at all. Why didn’t she hang up to let Kelly fully concentrate on avoiding the incoming thunderstorm? Why is now the appropriate moment for everyone to unearth their resentment and seek catharsis?

The game’s minimal nature, and its central idea of unfolding the plot through one conversation, unfortunately make TFH’s first few minutes the weakest. In some moments the conversation feels unnatural, with some awkward segues and exposition. The opening also sets the characters up as a patchwork of dysfunction; within five minutes the conversation covers isolation, redundancy, trauma, alcohol dependence, mental health issues, and physical disability.

But this is a common problem for dialogue-led games and interactive fiction, and TFH is not the worst offender. With a few minutes of investment, TFH becomes more coherent and lets you understand how the seemingly-different family members fit together and make sense to each other. The patchwork instead becomes a braid of causes and effects. Similarly, each character — Kelly, her mum, her dad and her brother Ben — becomes sympathetic once you take the time to think about their situation.

The game includes an Extras menu which contains Ben’s short stories and Kelly’s photography project. Ben’s stories are meant to feel like they were written by a novice; they contain realistically awkward “ripped from fantasy books” descriptions and clichés. However, the stories worked well enough to make me look for parallels between Ben’s creations and what I knew about Ben’s experiences. I was looking for patterns, for secrets in his work which might tell me more about his character.

That game’s ability to make me wonder about a character’s motivations outside of those explicitly shown in the plot, and to encourage me to find out more about the characters,  shows how the story left a mark. TFH carried out its promise of evocative and emotional writing, and created immersion that rivalled a good piece of dead-tree fiction.

Although the main story of TFH succeeds, the true star is its epilogue, which at first appears to be a prologue. The story again takes place within a conversation between Kelly, who is struggling in college, and her mum.

A new dynamic appears in the epilogue, as you choose between plain-text replies or [square-bracketed replies]. Plain text is polite, open, and friendly — the idealised option. Square brackets question the conversation while it’s happening. They show where Kelly knows a question wouldn’t really have been asked that way, or a feeling wouldn’t really have been expressed. Square brackets are the present leaking into the past, blocking Kelly’s attempt to create the memory she would like to have.

By forcing you to be aware that your choices are wish-fulfilment or even outright untrue before you make them, the epilogue cleverly amplifies the main story themes of guilt, openness and closure. This leads in to the three potential endings; none can be labelled as a “good” or “bad” ending, only as “open” or “closed”. The ending achieved by choosing mostly plain text is fuller than the [square text] ending but not necessarily more satisying, while the remaining ending is impactful not because of what happens but what doesn’t.

I came into this game as a fan of interactive fiction, so if you haven’t liked the genre before then TFH probably won’t change your mind. As a game, there isn’t much to say about TFH beyond how the mechanic which forces you to keep driving to progress the phone call is an interesting touch, while the soundtrack works with the visual style and atmosphere well. The game’s monochrome silhouette style is also effective, although I would have appreciated having the option to stop the on-screen raindrop effect from affecting the dialogue.

One aspect I’m unsure about is Ben’s design. Most conversations about Ben centre on his nonspecific yet severely-impactful mental health/ neurological issues rather than anything else, while its difficult to tie a stable age or traits to Ben from his in-game dialogue. In his direct and overheard dialogue, he oscillates between teenage-like stubborness, child-like reassurance-seeking, and obsessive repetitions of thunderstorm facts. (Other reviewers have suggested that Ben’s traits could represent someone with an autism spectrum condition, which seems like a sensible guess.)

Inconsistency and variability are part of many mental health conditions and neurological conditions, and a major aspect of why they can be confusing for others to understand. In that way, Ben’s portrayal is realistic. But there is a division between creating a complex character who doesn’t just show a textbook example of a single condition, and creating a character who holds whatever collection of symptoms works for the plot. I’m not sure which side of that gap Ben’s character is on.

As a piece of dialogue-driven fiction, TFH initially suffers from the same pacing and exposition issues as other interactive fiction games. However, it grows over time and builds from a decent start to a memorable and affecting epilogue. The epilogue is complex and messy, and it makes you choose options while knowing that you couldn’t really have chosen them. It makes you acknowledge how you’re manipulating the dialogue to get what Kelly needs to hear, rather than to show truth. Normally I hate when games create that kind of conflict as I find choosing the “wrong” option difficult: this time, I understood why the wrong option might be more important and helpful than the right one.

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