October 16, 2015 10:30 AM | John Bridgman
The XBox One is not normally a place you expect to see purely narrative-focused games thriving. The console market has a certain reputation, and so often you see more experimental games left on PC rather than get brought over to the home systems. Digerati has put Three Fourths Home on the XBox One through the ID@XBox program as an extended edition that packs in some extra content for the players. After playing through the game, I took the time to ask Zach Sanford of [bracket]Games some questions about the game and the platform it's been released on.
The roughly hour-long game is the story of a woman named Kelly who has recently returned to live with her parents in Nebraska. She is off alone down the highway, and begins driving back to her family's house. During this drive, a call occurs between her and her family, with the player getting to decide how Kelly reacts as she drives. As this discussion goes on you'll find out about Kelly, her parents, her brother, and her life as the story unfolds with every passing mile.
This journey unfolds in a haunting greyscale art style, with almost everything depicted as somewhat angular silhouettes. It gives the scene a certain weight to it, and manages to keep the events that transpire ominous yet extremely personal. Interestingly, due to a small setting error on my own part, the additional dialogue choices I could made were impossible to read without moving the selection highlight to them, so the default felt in a way like Kelly's first thoughts on the topic. Sanford has assured me "That wasn't intentional, but it's not a bad idea!"
The art style was a decision from early on development. Sanford says "I briefly toyed with a very early version in 3D, but after some experimentation the silhouetted grayscale clicked as appropriate for the type of story I wanted to tell." Since he started working on primarily the story at first, everything grew from there. The tone and visuals of the story all were meant to blend together well and I believe they pulled off their aesthetic superbly.
A curious decision was made gameplay-wise to have the player hold down the right trigger to progress. When it's released, the game pauses completely, and the on-screen dialogue goes away. The rain that falls harder as you go through freezes in place also stops, giving you an interesting image on-screen too. This decision Sanford says was the game's most significant design decision after the main narrative, for two reasons.
According to Sanford, "I wanted players to have a connection to the events happening on screen beyond clicking through dialogue options." With prior experience in Twine games, he wanted Three Fourths Home to involve gameplay mechanics that were more than text-based. "I played around with different levels of complexity in the driving, but settled on a single input because it felt like a good balance between tying the player to on-screen events and not being a distraction; something that could just sort of be forgotten about after a while, much like keeping your foot on the gas while actually driving."
Keeping the trigger held down started off as a little odd for me, but it indeed did eventually settle into familiarity. Such that when I let go to pause the game for a little while, when I came back to it, I never noticed that I'd immediately set the trigger down and kept going right along. During the epilogue, a similar mechanic is used for walking, though you have more input into how you move about.
Second, this mechanic was implemented in order to make the player's input related to the story's "forward momentum". In Sanford's words, "There's a certain inevitability lurking within the game's themes. So requiring movement forward was partly an attempt to link together parts of the narrative and some of the game's simple mechanics." I think that the game pulled off this connection wonderfully and really helps draw the player into what is an extremely personal narrative and experience.
Seeing a game like this on the XBox One is refreshing. When asked about the viability of the console platform for narrative-driven games to thrive, Sanford said, "why not? ... If we're talking more atypical, smaller experiences like Three Fourths Home (as opposed to bigger games that treat narrative seriously), there's always room for different experiences." Because of the barriers to development on consoles, he says they were fortunate to be working with their publisher, Digerati, and the ID@XBox program to bring the game to the system. He also stated that the size and diversity of the console player base is another opportunity for these sort of games to thrive.
Three Fourths Home is an experience that I think the XBox One absolutely needed. It is something new from even the independent console market, and I hope that seeing such a high quality narrative experience make it to home consoles will open doors to other smaller, narrative experiences like it. Available on XBox One, PS4, Vita, as well as PC, Mac, and Linux, it's a great addition to the collection of anyone looking for a small, personal gaming experience.