Poverty & Powerlessness Part 1 – Three Fourths Home

To be completely honest, the first impulse to write this article came simply from the fact that I played these three games – Three Fourths Home, Little Inferno and A Postcard from Afthonia – one after the other in quick succession, and I wanted to spend more time with them. But, by themselves, none of them seemed to inspire me to say anything interesting: they’re all quite short, and they explain themselves well enough, I thought. (Are you implying this article, by contrast, is interesting? No, don’t worry, I’d never dare)

But as I thought about them all together, I realized they actually have quite a few themes in common. This is an humble exploration of one of those themes as represented in these games: poverty and powerlessness.

By the way, this post also lives at Blackman’n’Robin

SplashA short definition before we start

I’m using ‘poverty’ in a very loose and, if you will, privileged way. In fact, I am not aware of many compelling representations of absolute poverty in videogames at all, not even of homelessness as present in Western society. All I can think of are games like Cart Life and Papers Please that represent families in economic difficulties, struggling to make ends meet. Videogames as a medium have a huge economical barrier of entry, if only because one needs to possess a computer. Predictably, they have a complicated relationship with those who cannot afford the ticket, and it’s definitely a subject that deserves more thorough exploration.

(Sometimes it seems to me that those below that barrier have been largely forgotten by the medium, as if relegated to a guilty unconscious, but that’s a claim I’m not prepared to argue for, and it may very well be a projection – still, it’d be interesting to read about poverty, especially in comparison to how it is often romanticized in survival mechanics. If anyone of you know any articles on the subject, please send them my way.)

Anyway, poverty in this case has to be understood in part as ‘struggling to make ends meet’, barely getting to the end of the month, like the characters of Cart Life and Papers Please; and in part as complementary to our other key word, powerlessness. This in turn can take the form of subordination, lack of economic security and independence, or occupying a very low rank in a hierarchy or in society as a whole. In fact, it’ll be easier to understand what I mean under this header when we come to the characters, but obviously these two terms blend into each other and influence each other in important ways.

Out here for a WhileThree Fourths Home

Three Fourths Home, which I briefly reviewed here, is a story about a broken family. The game consists of a long phone call between the protagonist Kelly Meyers and her mother, her father and her younger brother. Even though technically Kelly has already come back home when the game begins, we play as her driving towards home, after she left very early in the morning to do some soul-searching alone. With a tornado breaking up the call, the story ends before we can reach home, and the plot lacks a definitive conclusion: the future remains uncertain.

[A small note concerning my method: throughout the game we can choose Kelly’s dialogue from a number of options. Even though the story presents multiple choices, I think they are not alternative to one another, but complementary. Every option highlights a different aspect of Kelly’s personality, and provokes different responses from the other end of the phone call, but they all converge towards a unified character. Kelly’s actions and underlying motivations remain consistent no matter what we choose to say, as multiple playthroughs show. My understanding of Kelly, therefore, is built over multiple playthroughs, but it should be immediately familiar even to those who have only played the game once, since the choices do not create any substantial change. On the other hand, those who have only played once may have missed some vital information for understanding the Meyers family.]

The game mostly relies on text to deliver its content and its meaning, but the audio-visual and gameplay elements that are present all work to emphasize its major themes, above all the distance between Kelly and her family which she is trying to bridge physically by driving: in fact, if we stop the car, the phone call also stops. The two are not only thematically connected, but the minimal gameplay mechanics strengthen the link even more. Another keyword here is “Pathetic Fallacy”, a rhetorical figure through which nature and natural elements are charged with human emotions and moods: Three Fourths Home creates its atmosphere not through its writing alone, but also through its audio-visual cues, the rain, the black & white aesthetic, lightning and thunders, the emergency sirens and more. The player ends up feeling isolated, helpless, at the mercy of greater forces; and then gloomy, scared for the future, with the occasional bitter smile. It’s not completely hopeless, but the story is definitely characterized by a general pessimism, and the circumstances of the Meyers family are strained enough that it feels like they’re barely holding on, and just another little thing going wrong may cause a disaster.

The Meyers started off as a humble family, that much is clear. But it seems that they tried to participate in an archetypical narrative which promised them that the future generation, i.e. Kelly and her younger brother Ben, would move up in society, and that attempt is the root cause of all their present problems. This narrative is well-known and can be briefly summed up like this:

  1. Parents work hard and sacrifice themselves
  2. Children can afford to study and attend university
  3. With their degrees, the younger generation can find better jobs than their parents, be successful and receive a better pay, and in short move up in society

The Meyers failed to fulfil this narrative, which caused deeper economic problems. But it also cost the family more than just money and the parents’ sacrifice: it cost them on a personal level. Additionally, it created or exacerbated issues that, while ostensibly not economic, end up having an economic cost; and vice versa, the family cannot afford to even try to fix certain emotional and psychological issues. In short, these two spheres, the material economy of the family and the psychological, emotional well-being of the family, are closely inter-related, and feed off one another in a negative spiral.

We can see this in practice in the stories of Kelly, Benjamin and their father David. The mother, Norah, stands somewhat apart from the others: she is the one keeping the family together, she’s the only one working and therefore the only one materially providing for the others, she is surely stressed and exhausted, and certainly she’d prefer she didn’t have to look for a second job, but all things considered she actually comes off as balanced and healthy. Norah doesn’t suffer from any evident psychological difficulties of her own – in fact, she is all too patient and kind, embodying the ‘mother’ archetype as the primary caregiver despite being the one with a job. It’s almost hard to believe, really: Norah doesn’t seem to have any desire or aspiration of her own, no individuality, she only exists and acts for her family, pure selflessness.

Kelly is the one that most of all feels the guilt of failing, of having let her parents down and having wasted their sacrifice. She left the small, isolated country town she was born in to attend university in the (archetypal, unspecified) ‘city’, and she earned a degree, but subsequently lost her job and was kicked out of her house, which forced her to move back with her parents. The game doesn’t give much information about what she studied, or why she was kicked out, but we can easily imagine her feeling broken, defeated. And it’s important to note that, while I used the active form of the verb “to fail”, all this may have happened through no fault of her own. We definitely don’t know enough to establish that, but the narrative that Kelly arguably failed to realize relies on the assumption that society is meritocratic, at least to an extent, i.e. since Kelly studied and got a degree, she will naturally find a job placement adequate and proportionate to her qualification, and if she doesn’t it’s her fault. Of course we all know that our society is far from meritocratic in a number of ways, but that doesn’t prevent our collective unconscious from uncritically accepting these narratives and acting on them.

Pretty simple story so far. Things become more nuanced when Kelly, during her long phone call, realizes she has lost more than she thought: the very fact that she left home and was concentrated on her studies and on her new life created a rift between her and the rest of her family, especially between her and her brother. More than that, the family’s problems, in particular her father David’s phantom pain and her brother Ben’s mental health, worsened when she left home. It’s here that we start appreciating not only the economic cost of Kelly’s studies but the emotional and psychological toll, both on her and on her family. And mind, these issues would have arisen even if Kelly had succeeded: the dream of climbing the social ladder puts emphasis on the economic costs and benefits of ‘making it’, but ignores the more immaterial costs, such as separation from one’s family and loved ones. That narrative does not factor in those costs because they are not part of its implied values.

PickAt the beginning of the game, Kelly finds “a guitar pick on the side of the road”, and picks it up to give it to Benjamin as a present, only to find out Ben stopped playing the guitar shortly after she left. In fact, Benjamin’s negative spiral started with his sister leaving: he soon became more detached and apathetic; he stopped playing the guitar and then dropped out of school entirely. Ben also left the psychologist he was seeing, since he felt like he was being treated as if he was “crazy and dumb”. He shows obsessive behaviour, and initially refuses to talk to Kelly; he also dwells on morbid details, for instance concerning the tornado and Kelly’s possible death, without seeming to realize why those would make other people uncomfortable. The only positive is that he has picked up writing, so he has something to pour some energy into. Despite his distant demeanour, he’s actually very nervous and scared: he tells us so, but it’s also in his short story, and the stomach ache he reports is probably due to stress as well.

The guitar pick, which the game immediately presents as an important object, since it’s shown on screen before the game proper begins, becomes for Kelly the symbol of her detachment from the family, and she starts crying when Benjamin rejects it.

As for her father David, he has lost a leg and suffers from phantom pain, that is, his leg hurts as if it was still there. But pain management got easier for him since Kelly came back home, as Norah informs her, from which we can infer how badly he missed his daughter (another emotional cost). Still, the family cannot afford a psychologist for him – they can barely afford one for Ben – nor painkillers, and he resorts to alcohol to make it more bearable, drinking several cans of beer a day. It doesn’t seem like he has become an alcoholic or has lost control of the situation, but obviously he’s at risk and his circumstances are far from ideal. A sweet detail is that he occasionally swears on purpose, so that he has to put a dollar in the swear jar, saving money to eventually buy something for Ben.

Economically, the family is desperate. David tries to be cautiously optimistic: “Things have a funny way of… well, if not working out, at least going forward”. They are trying everything: Norah is looking for a second job, or at least one that pays better, Kelly is looking for a job as well, hoping to put her degree to use, and David is hoping for his disability pension to go through. As for Ben, they’re simply hoping that his new psychologist helps him more than the old one. But through constant allusions and hints, we get the sense that just a small thing going wrong may spell disaster for them, and the tornado may very well be that thing. Of course, we’ll never know.

What’s worse, the overall mood is very low, and that takes away from their energy, motivation and resourcefulness, which they need now more than ever. This is particularly evident in Kelly: she has been to a job interview the day before the action takes place, but it’s clear that she hasn’t really done her best to be accepted, and actually one dialogue option is for her to say, half-sarcastically half-truthfully, that she hopes they don’t hire her.

A creepy detail: there are only hints, and you do need to play the game at least twice to get it, but the family is almost entirely dependent on a medical corporation, possibly a health insurance company. When I realized it, a whole new dimension of the plot opened up. The stories of Kelly, David and Benjamin are more interlocked than it may appear at first, because they’re all, in one way or another, relying on this corporation for something, and their subordination, which is again underpinned by their poverty, allows the corporation to mistreat them without fear of retaliation, for instance in the form of a lawsuit. Ben’s former psychologist was part of this corporation, and Kelly almost panics, for herself and her father, when she fears that Ben may have said something offensive to the psychologist that in turn may have an effect on the rest of the family. It’s implied that David is hoping to receive his disability pension from the same institution, and they’re doing their best not to give it to him, delaying it and appealing to whatever fine print they can. (See: a real life example of the same). It’s also implied that Kelly’s job interview was for that same corporation, which again, discourages her father from doing anything more substantial than threatening a lawsuit. David also mentions his friend Hank, he too working for the same corporation, who may suffer the repercussions of David’s lawsuit.

There are a couple of interesting things here: firstly, the Meyers’ poverty reduced their options to the point that they’re practically begging for help. And they’re hoping to be helped by the same structure that, if it didn’t create their current circumstances, certainly is contributing to reproducing them, e.g. by trying not to pay their pension. And I use the word ‘begging’ because the power imbalance is so strong that it goes beyond the law and the official rights that every individual has on paper: David could sue them and stand up for his rights, but, even if he wins that lawsuit, the after-effects may be long-lasting and affect the rest of his family in significant ways; for instance, Kelly may lose a potential career, and Ben may not receive the psychological help he needs. And who knows what else the family may need, in terms of health care, a few years in the future, that the medical corporation may deny them as a result of that initial lawsuit.

Secondly, another effect of the family’s limited options and urgent needs is that they are hoping Kelly becomes a part of that same oppressive structure, which is very twisted if you think about it, but it’s a consideration that they cannot afford to do. And David’s friend Hank shows us what happens when one of them makes it in: the poor and powerless are made to fight against each other. (I’m making the assumption that Hank comes from a similar background to David) David is torn between caring for his friend and getting what he needs, and Hank is probably facing a similar internal conflict, between having to follow his orders and keep his job, and helping a friend with the risk of being fired. In A Postcard from Afthonia we will see a more optimistic view, in which the people come together and help each other, rejecting the powerful and the system that oppresses them; in Three Fourths Home the people are forced to think only about their short term survival, and so replicate and perpetuate the very structures that oppress them, out of necessity. People don’t fight back against the powerful abusing their power, they beg them. There is no sense of community outside of one’s immediate family: no one else exists in the text, other people are only mentioned in passing.

DriveThe game ends with Benjamin’s short story. Using mythological language and imagery, it presents an extremely pessimistic view of the future, characterized as eternal rot and inevitable, irreversible decay, with no one to blame for it: bad things just happen, there is no explanation, it’s simply how the universe works. However one wants to ready it (here are a few suggestions: the movement of wealth and life opportunities from the countryside to the city, therefore the devaluing of one’s place of birth and the need to flee it; people’s resistance to this, their attachment to their roots; the beast as symbol for the exploitation and depletion of natural resources that made the wealth of the land, but also for natural disasters, even for simple chance; more simply, Benjamin’s fears for the future of his family, what he dreads may happen should something go wrong) the bleak atmosphere it creates is undeniable. In fact, the silhouette of the “Beast” of Ben’s story can be seen in the background, when lightning strikes, as if polluting reality like it was polluting the fictional village of the story; and when the “Beast” flies away at the end it knocks down both people and what remains of their houses, clearly standing in for the effects of a tornado.

Being the last point of view that we encounter (after Norah and David’s tentative hope), there is no optimistic perspective to balance it. Therefore it colours our understanding of the whole game in retrospect, as well as informing the player’s perception of the tornado and the open ending of the game, when the phone call breaks up.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned how the game relies mostly on the written word to convey its meaning, and the other elements act mostly as reinforcements for those themes, but add little of their own. This makes sense in relation to the story we have explored so far. The plot could definitely have been delivered even with a heavier emphasis on gameplay mechanics, but only if those mechanics were to emphasize not player agency and freedom, nor manipulation of systems of rules, but the shrinking of options. The most notable example I’ve seen of that is in Depression Quest, which presents several possible actions only to deny them to the player; and that too relies mostly on the written word. Again, Cart Life has to be mentioned as a touchstone, but in CL there is a sense that one may very well hold on and live another day, if they try hard enough, if they know their way around the city, if they balance everything just right. And even that is a slightly more optimistic perspective than Three Fourths Home has to offer, because systems can be read, can become not scary but familiar, and they can be manipulated. TFH offers nothing but a one-way street, with an emphasis on the emotional resonance of that mechanic, but also on its inevitability: there are no choices to be made, the dialogue options offer only superficial alternatives. The player has no power to shape the story, because the Meyers have no power to shape their story, like they have no power over the tornado that is approaching their house.

Three Fourths Home is characterized by a bleak, depressing, pessimistic atmosphere that has its roots in the material conditions of life of the Meyers family, and it puts emotional and economic costs side by side. But it also shows us how the status quo perpetuates itself, through the negative mood it creates, obstructing access to the help people need, and by encouraging the oppressed to become part of the systems that oppress them, and making them fight against one another. In the next part of the article, we will look at Little Inferno: its characters are not as poor as the Meyers family, but I actually like to look at it as continuous to Three Fourths Home. It represents a plausible future for someone like Kelly, were she able to get a job in that corporation. Little Inferno argues that, even when people achieve a little bit of economic security, they still perpetuate their oppression and their powerlessness in different ways.

Thank you for reading. You can find Part 2 here.
See you next time! Meow ❤

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6 thoughts on “Poverty & Powerlessness Part 1 – Three Fourths Home”

  1. Well there’s the old adage on style: good writers imitate, great writers steal with impunity.
    I think it was Warren Ellis’ recent newsletter I read where he mentioned what it’s like for him as a writer to read the books of other people: he wants to enjoy the thing as well as anyone else would, but he’s someone who makes a living putting fiction to paper, so inevitably he ends up carving into and dissecting a perfectly beautiful and alive work and looking for the best bits to take.
    Gilles Deleuze went a step further and just straight up called it “buggery”.
    The metaphor I prefer is to equate what I do when writing to the way a frenzied whale strikes the harpooners; approach from beneath to stay out of sight, stave the boat, thrash about to maim and murder as many as possible, then swim off trailing blood, torn limbs dangling from crooked jaw. Of course that’s because I’m an incompetent hack and madperson besides and couldn’t make things stay coherent if all I had to do was describe a hammer. But that’s me so let’s ignore I just wrote that.

    On a note that I hope is actually relevant, what you’ve written on these pages so far is considerably more academic in tone and focus than most writing about videogames. The “arid tone” really does come with the territory, and if I’m honest, I reckon it’s more fitting than the “aggressively vulnerable” style (I’m in love with Cara Ellison’s writing btw but that’s a secret) mentioned in your related blog post. To charge an intentionally distanced and measuring analytic gaze with excess emotion might work well enough, but it might also end up feeling forced. Then again, experimentation is the father of the atomic bomb.

    Er. Shit. I hope I don’t sound patronizing. I hate giving advice or sounding like I’m giving advice, and I seriously don’t want this post to sound like it’s meant as advice. I just really felt like responding with my opinion (because I just can’t seem to shut the fuck up) to your derision of the style you use throughout most of your essays here (a style I don’t think is all that omnipresent; you did for example spend a good part of your Transistor essay spitting acid in the general direction of the internet’s collective of philistines and idiots, which I thought was an altogether lovely thing – but I’m a very hateful person so take that with a salt shaker).

    Like

    1. Just realised I put myself in one paragraph with Warren Ellis and Gilles Deleuze.
      Guess it’s time to put a cigarette out on my arm. Again.

      Like

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