I didn't go home for Thanksgiving this year.
In truth, I rarely go home for Thanksgiving. I've been living away from home for basically my whole adult life—first just an hour away during college, now much further away in San Francisco—and I visit sporadically. Once or twice a year. Usually for Christmas.
But as a new game has reminded me, there's more to keeping in touch than visiting.
Three Fourths Home is a game about family. Created by Bracket Games, it casts players as a 24-year-old girl named Kelly who's moved back into her parents' house in rural Nebraska after an extended period of living away from home. She lost her job. She was out of options. So now she's back home, but things have changed—and so has she. One day, Kelly wakes up early, hops in her car, and decides to just... drive. Into the pouring rain, past the vast expanse of nothing and corn fields that is her hometown.
Then the phone rings. It's Kelly's mom, wondering where she is. At this point, players can do two things: drive and talk. If you stop driving, stop pressing onward, further and further from home, everything else grinds to a halt. The car idles and all action on screen slows down, eventually stopping completely. Your dialogue choices, the howling of the wind. Even the rain.
The first time I play Three Fourths Home, it's past midnight. My bedroom's lights are glowing in this way that makes the walls look a faintly ill shade of yellow. I came across the game kinda on accident, because I thought the art style looked cool. I have no idea what to expect. I start playing.
It immediately puts me on edge. I mean, it's made to. The whole thing is thick with foreboding. A slowly worsening storm, an unsettling droning noise in the background, people separated, worried. On top of that, it quickly becomes apparent that Kelly and her family—mom, dad, and little brother—have grown distant. Every question Kelly's mom asks—where are you, is there enough gas in the car to get home, why did you leave—is met with a series of aggressively terse dialogue options. "I'm driving." "I just needed to get out." "I needed some time alone."
These people still care about each other, but they don't know how to communicate anymore. They can't do it face-to-face, so instead they use a phone. All the while, the car engine whines, driving them further and further apart.
"I don't really know you anymore," my own mom once said to me, her tired eyes shifting downward in disappointment. We were sitting in a Spaghetti Warehouse, in the aftermath of an hours-long discussion about politics and religion and other things upon which we no longer agree. She didn't say it in a mean way. It was merely a statement of fact, and when I thought about it later, I found it to be true.
I did a lot of growing up at home, under my mom's roof. She watched it all, guided it with a steady, caring hand, even though I was a pretty autonomous kid. I had to be. My little sister was never easy to raise, and when my parents got divorced it hit her orders of magnitude harder than it hit me (I was ten at the time, she was six). So I did my own thing a lot, I guess because I felt like I was helping bear some of the weight.
I did even more growing up away from home. College and the years after (in San Francisco, a city almost the polar opposite of Dallas, Texas) were a whirlwind of new people, new challenges, and new experiences, and to my mom, it must have seemed like I walked out the front door and walked back in a new person. Time moves quickly, and it takes as much as it gives.
I'm always surprised by how much my mom has going on. She has a job working with developmentally challenged kids now. She loves it. She has co-workers who are my age, and they want to do karaoke all the time. She doesn't love that part as much. Her home has become a mewling asylum of homeless kittens because HEARTLESS MONSTERS booted them out of a shelter where she was volunteering. So she took them all in, temporarily.
She used to put all her time into parenting. I don't think I ever noticed just how much of her time I personally took up. I assumed it was mostly my sister. I imagined myself as a mouse, skittering around underfoot, not overturning so much as a crumb. Maybe I was actually an elephant.
"Christ," says Kelly's mom in Three Fourths Home, "you could have told someone you were heading out."
"Sorry," I have Kelly reply, somewhat non-committally, "I'll let you guys know next time."
"You better," says Kelly's mom. "I was worried sick for a minute there."
"Like I said," I have Kelly reply, this time feeling kind of irritated in real life, "I'm sorry."
"You may be 23," replies Kelly's mom, "but house rules still apply. I just want you to be considerate."
"I'm 24, mom," Kelly responds. I imagine her gritting her teeth as she does it.
My mom calls from time to time,to see how I'm doing, and to update me on her life. Shamefully, I answer about half of those calls. Personally I prefer text messages, but even then I'm terrible when it comes to responding. Sometimes I just don't want to talk to... anybody. Other times it's like, well, my mom's family, right? My closest family. She used to remark about how I was just like her, how we were basically the same person. She'll always be there no matter what. She can wait a few minutes or a couple hours or a day or a week or…
Sometimes the reason I don't answer my mom's calls is because I'm afraid I'll have nothing to say. My mom's right: I've become a different person, and I don't really remember how we used to talk. I remember that we talked—and watched TV together and complained about my dad together and chatted outside late at night while trying to wrangle the hyperactive dog together—but I don't remember exactly how it went. I remember the dance, but I've forgotten the steps.
In Three Fourths Home, Kelly's most complicated relationship is with her little brother, Ben. He's a teenager—which would be enough of an interpersonal minefield on its own—but he doesn't act like a typical teen. He's... removed. Aloof. Obstinate and willful, but seemingly blind to basic social cues. At first he doesn't want to talk to Kelly on the phone at all, and as I played I only managed to get his attention by suggesting I might die in the storm, in which case he could maybe have my computer.
Ben used to play guitar. Then Kelly left home, and he stopped. It's around the time Kelly's mom informs her of this that the in-game storm kicks it up a notch. Tornado sirens start. Their drone cuts through the sound of the pounding rain. In real life, my heart races.
Kelly's mom tells her that these days Ben's all about stories. Writing them, telling them. Well, that and storms. He obsessively watches the weather, knows the gruesome ins and outs of precisely how a tornado can kill someone.
After snatching the phone, Ben informs me/Kelly that his memory of his most recent story is crystal clear. He can recite it word-for-word, meaning that he doesn't have to run upstairs to grab a physical copy, risking potential tornado danger in the process. It's an odd time for the time-honored tradition of oral storytelling, but Ben seems on edge—like he's frightened of the storm even if he doesn't want to show it. I tell him I want to hear it, hoping it will help him feel better.
(That's what a good older sister is supposed to do, right? Respect and encourage your younger sibling—no matter how far apart you've grown. Or maybe that was just my own guilt talking.)
Ben goes on at length about a small, rural fantasy civilization overtaken by a massive Beast. One day the Beast landed in their midst, and then it slept for years and years and years. In that time, a great rain began to fall, and their once-fertile crops drowned, rotted away. The people fell into despair and starvation.
However, one day—totally out of the blue—the Beast left with a leap that very nearly broke the sound barrier. The people rejoiced. But nothing changed. The poison rain had ruined the soil.
"Why did you write that?" I had Kelly ask Ben.
"I just wanted to write something," he replied matter-of-factly.
"OK, but what made you want to write that?" I pressed further.
"I don't know," he said, mildly frustrated. "I just wanted to write something."
It's the summer of 2014. I'm visiting Texas, out grabbing sushi (yes, they have that in Texas) with my mom and sister. We're catching up, talking about my mom's new(ish) cat, work, my increasingly frail grandparents, home life—all of that.
I ask my sister—who's largely absorbed in her phone—how she's been, what's she's been up to. Last I'd heard, she was in this sort of not-quite-college, not-quite-professional-environment learning to be a video game level designer. That made me glad. Obviously I love games, and I thought she could really excel making them.
She informs me that she's still going to that place—as she has been for the past couple years—but she's not really into level design anymore. That hurts. I know I told her once or twice that I thought what she was doing was really cool, but those moments were few and far-between. Truth be told, though, nothing's really held my sister's interest for long over the years. Nothing except online social games like Gaia Online and, back in the day, Neopets. They're the only spaces where she feels like she's a part of something, for better or worse.
It's here I feel I should mention that my sister has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder "characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests."
Communicating with her has always been unpredictable and difficult, even when a situation seems clear-cut. She's struggled a lot over the years, with people and herself.
I've always had trouble understanding my sister. Back when we were kids I didn't know why she was so awkward, so seemingly out-of-sync with my mom and me. I just knew that something felt off, and I didn't have any idea what to do about it. So, regrettably, I played the big brother card. I picked on her quite a bit. Took advantage of the fact that I always seemed to be a step ahead. Made mean, heartless jokes at her expense. I didn't embrace her for who she was, for the things that made her unique.
"Why don't you play World of Warcraft the right way?" I remember asking my sister when I was 16 and she was in middle school. "You've been level 20 for two weeks, and you have, like, ten level five alts."
I failed to realize that she used games as a safe space for communication with other people, a place where those social cues she could never quite master wouldn't hamstring her so much. WoW, Gaia, games like that, they don't require you to read facial expressions, vocal inflections, or tones of voice. They let her achieve goals and be important in her own unique, uber-creative ways. I let my sister down in not embracing that sooner.
Back at the Texas sushi place, things start to get nasty. My sister still lives with my mom, and they butt heads a lot. As is often the case, my sister brings up something seemingly unrelated to the conversation at hand—that my mom allegedly picks on her a lot—out of the blue, somewhat ironically after saying some pretty hurtful stuff to my mom.
At first I stay quiet, but it's tough to watch my sister be so brazenly mean, especially given that my mom—at least in my experience—is the sort of tireless parent who will literally drop anything for her kids. I suggest that my sister's essentially a pot calling a kettle black, and she simmers down. She's pretty quiet for the rest of the meal.
That evening, I'm out with some friends, and I get a text from my mom. "Your sister's having a meltdown over what happened earlier today," she wrote. "Says we ganged up on her. She's really upset."
I wonder if I should've handled the situation earlier that day differently. Maybe I should've bit my tongue.
Maybe it's just my reading of Three Fourths Home, but I'm pretty sure Ben is on the autism spectrum, too. He strikes me as almost an alternate version of my sister, the way she could've turned out if a few small dials were tweaked in different directions. He has trouble understanding why people get upset with him after he casually makes horrifying suggestions, and he explains himself in an oddly terse way. In his head, it all makes perfect sense. Everybody else, that's what he doesn't get.
During my playthrough of Three Fourths Home, I found a guitar pick near an old barn that used to belong to Kelly's grandparents. I decided to offer it to Ben, as a gift, a reminder that I was proud of him for taking up guitar like his big sister.
After he finished his story, I told him as much. He replied—in what I read as a dry, emotionless monotone—that he didn't want it. He was done with guitar, he objected. When Kelly left home to go be An Adult—disappeared right out of her family's life, to boot—Ben's passion for the instrument went with her.
That broke my heart. Letting down a sibling who looks up to you is devastating. I think that's something any older (or even younger) brother or sister can identify with. It's even worse when you realize you were somebody's anchor, and that your negligence has let them down. Maybe you just didn't care as much as you thought.
In Three Fourths Home, you try to reconnect with your family while actively moving away from them. With a single hand on the arrow keys, you both select dialogue options and hold down an arrow key that propels your car onward, forward. The dialogue choices don't affect the outcome of the story so much as they flavor it, decide how Kelly reacts to the less-than-ideal situation she's put herself in.
It's a simple game where the actions you perform are relatively low-impact. You're not ducking as bullets whiz past your nose or even solving puzzles. You're just… thinking, participating in very real family drama that it's hard not to identify with, at least on some level. All the while you're surrounded by white space, a blank canvas expanse on which to imprint your own experiences.
The game is something of a blank canvas, or a mirror. Every family has its fair share of dysfunction. It's hard to avoid using these sorts of games as a means through which to take a long look at one's own issues.
Three Fourths Home forced me to confront a problem I've had for a long time, to play it out in a (relatively) safe space, to consider every facet of it. It, and games like it, are important. They help us, even if they're painful to play.
In Three Fourths Home, Kelly's dad has grown two tomato plants, and he defends them like a lioness protecting her cubs. But what else can he do? He retired and, worse, he's crippled. A recent accident left him without part of his leg. But life goes on.
When discussing Kelly's dad with her mom, I was not particularly kind. I chose to say I thought his tomato garden obsession was silly, and I thought he was being irresponsible by drinking to cope with phantom pain he'd been experiencing instead of taking his painkillers.
I wasn't much kinder when he got on the line. He still tried to treat Kelly like "daddy's little girl," and it was just... weird. Worse, he wasn't any good at dealing with Ben or his issues. He either babied him too much or had his mom deal with it. He was dropping the ball all over the place.
But there was an earnestness to him, a goodness in his intentions, even if his actions were confused and sometimes contrary. When the storm started he rushed outside, forgoing all notions of personal safety, to shelter his tomato plants. Because it was something—a portion of his life he could still control—amidst all the chaos and change.
And when I, as Kelly, laid into him about his weird decisions, he took it all in stride. More than anyone else in the family, Kelly's dad made it clear that he still loved her, even as I had her raking him over the coals.
My own childhood memories of my dad are... mixed. I remember a time he wouldn't take my sister to an important therapy session because he was too busy clipping trees in his big backyard—something he could've easily resumed after he dropped her off. I remember all the times he was too busy working late to come home and tuck me in at night. I remember crying about that a lot.
But I don't remember him ever disapproving of my decisions or my sister's, or taking away our means to achieve our goals. He's always been proud of both of us, even if he's struggled with the whole "parenting" thing at times.
I used to run around in his office when I was little. That's where I first played Warcraft. That's where I got my first Super Nintendo (someone was about to throw theirs out). I figured out a lot of who I was, who I was going to be, behind those dull, gray walls. My dad would bring me stuff from his business trips, too. I had Pokemon Gold and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (in Japanese, admittedly) before any of my friends. Things are no replacement for closeness and affection, but it always felt like my dad at least put some measure of care into the things he got us.
But I've always harbored resentment, too. His brand of parenting has really hurt my sister over the years, let her down when she needed stability. On top of that, his bad habits—ignoring people who care in pursuit of self-enriching goals—have rubbed off on me. I'm becoming more like him by the day. Parts of me are really not OK with that. Parts of me are mad at him for that, even if, ultimately, these are my decisions.
Still, he always offers me a place to come home to—even when I'm far away. Earlier this year I was going through a particularly rough patch, and he just so happened to call me. I'd been cooped up, alone for days, in a dingy, paint-coming-off-the-walls Los Angeles hotel, and I just kind of told him everything. He was the first person I'd spoken to in days. I had to let it all out.
To my surprise, he calmly listened and talked me through the whole situation. And at the end, after I'd tired myself out, he said, "You know, I'm really happy. That's the first time you've opened up to me in years."
That made me smile like a Cheshire Cat with smaller Cheshire Cats for teeth. That's when I knew everything was gonna be alright.
I'm in elementary school. It's an early summer morning, and I'm about to head off to a week-long boy scout camp. I stand there clutching my backpack in a parking lot before a massive van that will transport my whole troop, and I'm terrified—just like I always am of anything that involves going away from home, away from my mom or dad. The air is clean and crisp, a nice breeze is blunting the summer sun's oppressive edge, and I feel nauseous.
When I was young, I used to hate being away from home. I just hated it. I would be terrified that something awful would happen in my absence. As I got older, it got easier, those fears return from time to time. "I'll call my mom first thing tomorrow," I tell myself, to quell them.
I haven't called my mom since her birthday, which was in September. It's been even longer since I talked to my dad. I hope my sister's doing better than she was the last time we talked. But I can't say for sure.
The skies have darkened in Three Fourths Home. I can barely see anything on screen except a small, weathered shelter of light directly in front of Kelly's car. Rain pounds like a child throwing a temper tantrum, the outburst of ugly emotion nobody in Kelly's family can quite let out.
Kelly's not doing so hot. Ben won't accept the guitar pick she found, the one she'd saved as a gift for him. Time, distance, and negligence made a rift. It's gonna take more than a tiny piece of plastic to bridge that.
She bites back tears as she talks her mom about Ben. Two options appear. "He can be such an asshole," says one. "Ben's fine," says the other. I pick the latter, admittedly familiar with that sort of situation. "Kelly I—" her mom replies, and then the phone begins to cut off.
"Ben, get— down— basemen—" the voice of Kelly's dad blips through the phone. The rain pours harder as tornado sirens wail and screech.
"Shit," she says. No one on the other end responds.
Kelly is cut off from her family, and the metaphor is finally laid bare. She kept driving, just like so many of us do. She left her family behind, and now she may never get to talk to them again.
"I should really, really call my mom," I think to myself. And I should. It's been months.
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