Three Fourths Home is an interactive visual novel, which to some people is a fancy way of saying “not a video game” or “pretentious indie nonsense”. And, I suppose, that’s kind of justified. It certainly has very little in the way of traditional gameplay, and what’s there consists of turning things on or off and selecting dialogue options. There’s no challenge, which is the curve on which a lot of people like to grade a game’s worth, and there’s no real depth or complexity, either – at least not in the mechanics. But the pretentious accusation, which I’ve seen bandied around a lot in relation to Three Fourths Home, seems a little unfair. On the contrary, it’s one of the most grounded stories I’ve ever seen in the medium. There’s nothing snooty or condescending about it. That isn’t to say it’s in any way exceptional, or even all that riveting on its own terms, but it’s an honest-to-God tale about people who talk and think like human beings. That’s more than I can say for a lot of games.
Most of this comes from the writing, which by the standards of literature or even film is fairly mediocre, but in a video game feels revelatory in its plainness. The story concerns a regular twenty-something, Kelly, who’s driving through the storm-lashed cornfields of Nebraska to the home of her estranged parents and younger brother. That’s it, really. She calls to let them know she’s on her way, and that’s the rest of the game. A conversation. Sure, the player drives the car, but that’s just a case of holding down a single button, which at first feels like a carpal tunnel-inducing annoyance but eventually becomes quite meditative. You can mess with the headlights and the radio (the music is all foreboding strings, naturally). You can steer the conversation, to an extent, but not the car, which idles in the middle of the screen, halfway between left and right, as the monochrome background scrolls along. It’s the illusion of movement rather than movement itself, and the conversation is like that too. It isn’t really going anywhere, and you get the impression very few conversations this family share ever do. But that’s why it’s so compelling. It manages to locate what’s both tragic and hopeful about normality. Dad’s been injured at work. Mum’s struggling to hold it all together. Normal people, normal problems, something we all are and all have. It shouldn’t feel like as much of a novelty as it does.
The little brother’s a bit different. It’s heavily implied that he’s autistic, but the game doesn’t use that as a crutch to prop up the story or a bludgeon to beat the player with. It’s just a thing. But there’s a big midpoint digression in which he reads Kelly a story he’s written, and it hurts the pacing a lot. You keep expecting this surprisingly dark little tale to build to some kind of payoff, so you put up with the bare-bones writing not translating all that well to prose, and then the whole thing doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s literally just a story he wrote. Which wouldn’t necessarily be that much of a problem if it wasn’t significantly less interesting than the story it already exists inside of.
Still, the best stuff is to be found in the epilogue, which only features Kelly and her mother. It’s another left-to-right phone call, this one on foot, but it was here that the game began to legitimately move me in a way I wasn’t expecting. And, again, it isn’t heavy-handed or openly manipulative. It’s just unglamorously real. It gets right to the heart of what it can feel like to make mistakes and be afraid of confronting them head-on. It literalises the road not taken, lets you see and say the things you weren’t able to the first time around. Three Fourths Home is about Kelly, but you get the sense it could just as easily be about you. It’s unconcerned with saving the world, with magical artefacts or terrorist plots or grand adventure. It’s about menial jobs and bad relationships. It’s about reconciling with your loved ones while you can. It’s about appreciating where you are; recognising that you can’t change the path you took to get there, but you can change where it’s heading. It’s about living. And I don’t think enough things are.