Agency is a big deal and character choice is super important. What you make a character do and say affects the story and wildly impacts everything and is interesting and complex and I love it and could write dozens of articles about that. I’m gonna spend the next couple minutes talking about almost the exact opposite.
(WARNING: I’m going to be talking about Three Fourths Home, Home, and Coming Out Simulator 2014 so you know if you don’t want to be spoiled you have been warned. But if you can I’d recommend playing all of them they’re all great and interesting enough that I’m writing about them)
I’m telling these games as i experienced them in the wrong order but it’s the right order in some way.
Earlier this Spring I played a game that was unlike any other and completely turned my expectations on their head. The game was Home A Unique Horror Adventure. It really was unique. It was one of the first times I had played a game where I had shaped the story. Well I suppose it wasn’t the first. I had played interactive games and so on. Most notably The Walking Dead Season One and Fahrenheit(a good example of a great game and a horrible one). But Home was different.
Let me just give you a rundown of the game. You wake up with amnesia in a mostly empty mansion. The regular horror video game narrative plays out. It isn’t too interesting to be honest. The world is oddly large and deep and very easy to miss. That being said you make dozens of choices. Most seem small and insignificant. Do you grab this gun for protection? Well yeah I’m in a horror game. Do you pick up your wallet? Yeah I’ve been looking for that. Dozens of these prompts come up either resulting in immediate progress through a puzzle or some unknown effect.
Anyway as you make your way back to your home to find your wife you try and piece together the mystery of what happened. Why is your friend dead in his home? Why are your wife’s possessions in his home? Why is the mail stacked up in your home? Did your wife leave you? Your mind is cluttered with questions and clues and desperately needing answers. You finally make it home and after a (annoying) final puzzle to get to the basement you find some large garbage bags with what seems like a corpse leaking blood in it. You’re chilled as you see it there in the corner. Then the game gives you the same prompt from earlier only this time it doesn’t really ask what you do. “Did I find my wife’s corpse in the bag?
Yes / No”
This moment in the game changed my whole outlook on story telling in the medium. I wasn’t just changing the story through the player character’s actions, I was changing the entire story. You see when you go through the house the first time he always narrates the descriptions. “This is the bookshelf in our room. Half of these books are my wife’s sappy books,” one description reads. But if you choose “No” when finding the bags and go examine the case again he narrates heartbroken about how, “I guess these were mine all along and I didn’t recognise them...” You can then choose his different reactions upon learning he made everything up and he never had a wife, or she left him, or something else! The game is so wild and convoluted it’s absurdly deep and the finer parts to each ending flesh them out and make dozens. Home is a wonderful game because not only does it let the player shape the story through the player character’s actions it also shapes it through the player’s actions.
Now from a game where the player decides almost everything about the game to a game where the player has almost no agency.
I got Three Fourths Home on sale earlier this week and played through all of it in less than two hours. That’s including some written short stories included and a short replay of the epilogue. Three Fourths Home is an odd game. It’s short. Even compared to it’s walking simulator cousins it’s pretty short. You also only have about four buttons: one to drive forward towards home, another to select options, and two others to select options(technically there are others to change finer details to the game like wipe your windshields and change songs on the radio but). While I do love the main game I want to talk about the epilogue(DLC?). The epilogue is almost completely different than the main game. In the main game you just go to the right and do different dialogue options. In the epilogue you can also move to the left and get on a bus and not have dialogue options at all. It’s a weird departure.
While the main game takes place in the present while the player character Kelly is driving home in a storm calling her family sorting through their problems the epilogue strangely enough starts a month or so before the main game and can consist of Kelly ignoring her family and going about her daily business. I’m going to come back to this in a bit.
While both paths are legitimate and interesting the bulk of the epilogue is a conversation between Kelly and her mom about why her life is shit. You start and go through similar dialogue options affecting little over the overarching conversation but changing the smaller details and questions as dialogue trees usually do. Then comes the first interesting bit. Your mom asks if there are any problems with your significant other. This character is slightly alluded to in the main game too. Then you get to decide whether or not Kelly has a boyfriend or a girlfriend as they never clarified it up until this point. I wouldn’t call it a revolutionary bit but it’s the turning point and a queer representative that I am always in support of.
After that it gets more weird.
Some of the dialogue options are odd and are in brackets. Sooner or later you’ll use one voluntarily or not. Then it goes to a conversation in Kelly’s head and the logo of the main game appears in the background as the trees part in the middle. You can hear the faint sound of the car and rain from the main game in these sections. Thats when you realise this is all in Kelly’s head. The reason you can get on the bus and leave without calling and get the achievement “Canon.” She never called her mom that day at the bus stop and she is regretting it and playing through it in her head wishing she had and guessing what her mom would have said to support her. This game does what Home does, with the player shaping the story of what would have happened on that phone call. Except it does it smarter and in the confines of the games story with the anxiety and paranoia of “What If?” that Kelly is most certainly thinking driving home wondering if she’ll ever see her family alive again.
Three Fourths Home’s epilogue is great because it furthers the characterisation of Kelly and her mother. As well as let Kelly go through a transformation and partially overcome some of her problems. It continues off from the end of the main game while not getting rid of the ambiguous ending that makes it so great.
I played Coming Out Simulator 2014 first over a year ago. I saw it featured on Kotaku thought it looked interesting(and more importantly free) and gave it a look. I wasn’t disappointed. If you haven’t already go play it now. Hell I will too just to refresh my memory.
Okay and we’re back. For those who had never played it before how awesome right? For those who have what a great reminder. I feel I don’t need to talk as much since we all experienced the same thing but we can each take something completely different from it so.
One of the overall interesting choices is how meaningful your choices are. He can easily do this with such a short focused and tight narrative. But even small things you say come back later in conversation in little roundabout ways. Another way your agency is presented is in where you’ll be presented with three options at the beginning and at the end, when you go through the first two making your choice about which option next it brings you back showing the available choices even when there’s only one left making the game constantly have YOU pushing through this story and making your decisions. At the end when you choose to learn about the Truth, Half-Truth, and Lie he even remarks at whichever option you chose last. “You chose to hear the Truth last. What does that say about you?” It’s another wonderful moment in a beautifully crafted game with a deep chilling question both prodding your morals personally and gamer culture everywhere how we just click on the options to see all the content in the game over time.
The other great thing that I obviously love is all the lying and deception. The main character’s father is featured prominently in the game as the driving force of Nick’s anxiety over it all and a piece of shit antagonist in every way to root against. But in the end Nick says he wasn’t even there and that he left the family years ago. The other artistic choice to have the player’s speech bubbles the same colour as the dad speaks volumes too. Top Coming Out Simulator 2014 with all the lies and stories leading to the same outcome really speaks to player choice in gaming overall and the meaninglessness of it all at the end. But the middle is no less enjoyable when the end is the same. The message really comes across that our actions are meaningful and shape what we do but in the end we’ll always arrive at the same destination and according to Coming Out Simulator 2014, it gets better in the end. Thanks for reading.