‘Fragments of Him’ Is an Affecting Interactive Reflection on Loss

It doesn't matter how great a gamer you are, you can't undo the sadness that runs through this unique indie experience.

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17 February 2016, 1:35pm

All screens courtesy of Sassybot/ICO Partners

It's no spoiler to tell you that Fragments of Him begins with a death. One of the game's four "playable" characters, Will, is involved in a car accident within ten minutes of starting. Everything that happens afterwards, be it told through flashbacks or present-day ruminations, through any one of three other characters, is connected to Will's passing. The fragments that the game's title alludes to, the pieces, are the memories of Will that those close to him – his boyfriend Harry, ex-girlfriend Sarah and grandmother Mary – continue to hold onto. Through them, we learn about Will's life, hopes, loves and regrets. We form a picture of a man whose fate cannot be altered by the player's actions. Fragments of Him begins at a set point, and ends at one, too – your involvement, your direction, cannot change where this story's headed.

"The player does get to make their own decisions along the way," the game's narrative designer, Professor Mata Haggis (also a lecturer at NHTV University, in the Netherlands), tells me, "but the way we use the choices is more to express the emotions and experiences of the characters.

"I think players are used to decisions in games being a way for them to express power over a the narrative. But here, you're dealing with a situation over which you have no power. We don't want to give the player the idea that they can rewind time and save anyone, or that you can somehow change the ending of the game, as that'd be underselling the theme, and the story we're trying to tell here. So there are dialogue choices in the game, but they're all to do with the emotions the characters are going through, rather than a way for the player to dictate the narrative."

Fragments of Him places its emphasis not on action, puzzles or any other form of demanding precision, but on a very clear and emotionally engaging plot, split between the recollections of four distinct individuals. I get to play around a third of the game and spend time with Will and his university-period girlfriend, Sarah. The two are (well, were – the game flashes back to the late-1990s) students at the University of Winchester, and Sarah's dorm room is modelled on Mata's own that he had while studying in the same English city. Incidentally, Winchester is where I was born, and I spent plenty of nights during my late teens and early 20s drinking my way through its various public houses – so when I see an evocatively built in-game version of the Royal Oak pub, I crack a nostalgic smile. It is, however, a rare moment of gaiety – Fragments of Him is not a happy tale, and while some of Sarah's memories are sweet, it's not too long before her relationship with Will begins to change, and Harry comes into both their lives.

As well as its story being relatable but singularly structured, how the game plays feels unique. You hover around the characters, directing them towards glowing objects, flashes of colour against a monochromatic background, which when clicked trigger the next stage of any given scene. You don't steer anyone directly, like you do in most first- or third-person games. Mata calls this a "second-person perspective".

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"It's like you're the director, walking onto the stage with the actors. They've got their script, or will be improvising around it; but the director can stand there and point at something, and then the actor will go ahead and interact with it. So the director is there to bring the story to life, to help the actors get through it – not to change the story, but to help the expression of it. And that's where the player is in the game, really.

"Although it's played first person, we're sort of selling it as playing from a second-person perspective. You're not controlling who you see in the third person, as you might in an Uncharted game, and you're not the person's own eyes, as you might be in Gone Home. You're that second person, which is something a little unusual, and it might feel odd when you start playing the game. All of our design choices have been made in order to keep this very consistent narrative."

The story of Fragments of Him, likewise the foundations for how it looks and plays, began at a games jam three years ago. "The theme of the jam was minimalism," Mata recalls. "I already had an idea for a puzzle game that looked at the breakdown of a relationship, and the things that are left with you. The minimalism theme led to thoughts of people living in places with no objects in them. Why would you choose to live in a minimalist environment? And the answer I came to was that all of the objects you might have would bring back painful memories. So from that image, the rest of the game began to take shape – who was this person, what was that relationship like, what happened before a particularly painful moment, and what happened after it?"

You can see the jam prototype of Fragments of Him online, here. While comparatively basic against what's coming out commercially, it attracted plenty of attention from players and potential partners alike, which ultimately led to the game I've played.

'Fragments of Him', cinematic trailer

"We started getting emails from right across the world," Mata says. "We had people telling us about their own grieving process, and how they could relate to our character, Harry. One guy said how happy he was to see that there was this point you reach where you can cope with loss, and grief turns to hope. And one of the things that really moved us was that we were getting messages from people whose own circumstances weren't directly related to the game, but who could still associate with it, and come to terms with grief in a very clear way. It didn't have to be about a partner, or an accident, or anything like that. But the expression of love that we have in this story is something that a lot of people closely linked into.

"Then (Dutch studio) Sassybot, who I'm collaborating with to make the game, with programmer Elwin Verploegen and creative director Tino van der Kraan, said that they wanted to make it a full title. In the years since those discussions, we've toured the world with the game. Everywhere we've been, a lot of people have found it to be a powerful experience, in terms of what they think regarding what emotions games can bring out, and also about the potential of the medium to tackle heavier issues."

Mata is pleased to see Fragments of Him come out in the same year as That Dragon, Cancer, the console ports of Gone Home, Firewatch and more games that prioritise storytelling over "traditional" gameplay elements, and also risk to the player themselves. "There does seem to be a trend for more serious topics being covered by games at the moment, and I'm happy about that." Much like Firewatch, Fragments of Him won't take up a lot of its player's time – I got through around a third of it in just under an hour – but really, if you're still weighting up the "value" of a video game based on the hours you get out of it versus the money you put down for the privilege, I think you need to reconsider how you're approaching the most progressive entertainment medium in the world.

"It's funny," Mata says, "but when you compare video gaming to other entertainment, we talk about games in a different way. I went to see the latest Star Wars movie at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and I paid $19.99 for a ticket. And I look back at that experience, and I loved it, and I have no sense of how I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd paid less.

"I suppose in the end it comes down to personal consumer choice. Small teams like ours can make 2D platformers that have hundreds of hours of gameplay with procedurally generated levels and all kinds of things. Or, we can make these personal, heartfelt stories. And because of the quantity of content that has to be handcrafted to make these games, unless you're as studio with hundreds of thousands of pounds already in the bank, you just can't create lengthy experiences."

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And yes, I know what you're thinking. Maybe what you've been thinking since that first paragraph, where I made it clear that you, the player, can't change the outcome of Fragments of Him. "Is this even a game?" If you're asking yourself that question, you won't be alone. We've seen it asked of Gone Home, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, That Dragon, Cancer and many more titles before now – and, as the medium develops, it's a discussion that'll appear more frequently around new titles that go somewhere new with their style, playing out almost more like interactive films than what's typically regarded as a video game.

"I know people will say that this isn't a game," Mata says. "And that's okay. It's up to them, and that's their opinion. I think it's a game, but there's a strong argument to be made either way. And in the end, I don't mind. As long as they find it interesting, and it reaches enough people, I'm a happy man. And that's what this is about – creating something that an audience finds emotional, or drama-based, for their 'play' time. And I find it fascinating that the big platform holders, like Xbox and Sony, and Valve with Steam, are so excited for something that's really on the borderline of even being 'a game'. Xbox knows this isn't the 'typical' game that its players are going to gravitate towards, but I know that Xbox values having a variety of content on their platform. And this is something Sony really wanted on their platform, too. We really hope that existing players might want to try something a little different."

Fragments of Him will be released soon for PC and Xbox One, with a PlayStation 4 version following before the end of 2016. Find more information on the game at its official website.

@MikeDiver

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