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It's common enough for games to take familiar casts of characters to strange new places; it's less common to find a game that takes you home again, and forces you to confront an upended relationship with your family.
[Bracket]Games hoped that such a game would strike a chord when it launched the interactive short story Three Fourths Home last year, and it paid off with a nomination for the 2015 IGF Excellence in Narrative award.
The game itself is striking and heartfelt, born from designer Zach Sanford's personal experience of moving back in with his parents after his life, in his words, "imploded."
It's the sort of experience you could get away with calling a poignant reminder that you can never go home again, and as part of our ongoing series of Road to the IGF interviews with nominees we chatted with Sanford about where Three Fourths Home comes from, how he built it and what appeal he finds in games as a storytelling medium.
What's your background in making games?
I've been making games since 2012, but didn't pursue it particularly seriously until 2013. I worked a lot in Twine at first, experimenting and sort of training myself to think about narrative through an interactive lens. I made a couple of bigger projects in Twine ([out] and Letters to Babylon) before working with Unity and learning bits of programming as I went along. A game jam or two and several prototypes later, I started work on Three Fourths Home.
Why choose to approach storytelling as a game maker, rather than through more venerable narrative mediums (books, films, etc.)?
The simplest answer is that I've always wanted to make games.
Something that you hear a lot from game developers is that it's something that they always wanted to do but there was some barrier that had to be crossed, essentially the “Wait, regular people make these games. Why the hell don't I give it a shot?” moment; I eventually took the plunge. And having always been interested in narrative-focused games (I was that kid who went to the mall to play the Japanese demo of FFVIII over and over and over again, then had that cloth map hanging on my wall until I was in middle school), it was just sort of an obvious route to take.
The more complicated answer, and the reason that I continue to be enamored with narrative-focused games, is because games offer something more than traditional storytelling mediums. The basic interactive nature of games allows a deeper connection between the player and the narrative.
There's a physical link between the player and the game, whether it's a controller or a keyboard or whatever, and that can be a powerful thing to utilize, especially if the game's mechanics are designed in such a way as to inform and supplement the narrative (as opposed to being “that thing you do between cut scenes”). It's that blend of design and writing that I find absolutely fascinating, and that provides the opportunity to tell stories in a way that can be much more meaningful and impactful than any other medium can hope to accomplish.
That's not to say that I think Three Fourths Home accomplishes everything I set out to do (or even most; your mileage probably varies). I approached the game with that union of narrative and design in mind, but it's a tricky thing to pull off. But it's what makes me devoted to using games as a storytelling medium.
What development tools did you use to build the game?
Three Fourths Home was made in Unity. I used Inkscape for all of the visual elements (except for menus).
How much time have you spent working on it so far?
I spent about four months (two of which I spent working on the game full-time) on the initial release of Three Fourths Home. It was greenlit late last year, and I've spent the last month-and-a-half sort of expanding it for the Steam release.
How did you come up with the concept?
It was largely inspired by my experience of having to move back to Nebraska (where my parents live) after my personal life sort of imploded.
The themes in the game were also a continuation of themes that I had explored in my earlier work in Twine, so for me it was a more or less a natural progression from one game to the next, until I got to Three Fourths Home.
Tell me a bit more about those themes. What are they, why are they important to you, and why is it important to address them through interactive games specifically?
An overarching theme that I find myself returning to, for one reason or another, is trauma and its effect on people and relationships.
I started writing my first completed Twine game, [out], as a game that I would want my younger self to play. It's ostensibly a game about coming out, but it's told through surreal imagery written with the intention of evoking the emotional experience that entails. It was a story that boiled down to the slow trauma that secrecy can cause. Letters to Babylon, another Twine, was a more overt attempt at examining trauma and the effect it has on health and relationships.
Three Fourths Home was, for me, another examination of trauma, but one focused on the trauma endured by a whole family after a series of events that more or less upended the foundation of their relationships with one another. Kelly was chosen as the protagonist because at the point in the story that the game picks up, she's still more or less coming to terms with the changed dynamics of her family. She, and the player, are attempting to piece together those underlying causes that shook her family.
It's a theme that I've found myself returning to again and again, largely because of events in my life that I was dealing with and that inevitably found their way into what I was writing.
Beyond that, though, I think it's an important thing to address in games because of that power that games have to connect players to a narrative in physical and emotional ways. It's sort of a buzzword at the moment, but I do think that connection has the ability to encourage an empathy in the player, to create a situation in which they can more closely identify with what's happening in a game's narrative. That said, my goal was never to mimic or induce the actual experience of trauma (something that could very quickly become irresponsible and harmful), or to use the experience of trauma simply to make a character more interesting.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I have! Most recently, I started playing 80 Days, and it's fantastic. This War of Mine is also really, really excellent. I've been meaning to play Coming Out Simulator 2014for quite a while now, it's just been one of those that I haven't been able to get to for one reason or another...