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Grief’s a hollow feeling in ‘Fragments of Him’

Sassybot

“Fragments of Him,” released this month for Windows PCs by the indie studio Sassybot, is exactly the sort of interactive storytelling I’d like to see more of in the gaming world. Unfortunately, this particular story is severely hampered by sketchy writing and some baffling gameplay mechanics.

Through the perspectives of four characters, “Fragments of Him” offers a brief (about two hours or so) look at Will, a young man from the UK, and how his life and sudden death affect his grandmother, live-in boyfriend, and ex-girlfriend. As the product description page notes, “it is played in detached first-person view, as if you were the subconscious mind guiding the characters.” So you’re just sort of hovering around as the characters do their thing. The story is delivered in a slideshow-esque way: To advance to the next bit of dialogue or movement, you click on an outlined item. At one point, for example, you click on a patch of ground, and Will’s grandma continues weeding.

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“Fragments of Him” does have some really nice set pieces. Apartments, a pub, a dorm — everything is well designed, and the locations feel real and lived-in. So for fleeting moments I could imagine what these characters’ lives must be like.

But other than that, the experience of the game was consistently, disappointingly hollow. That’s mostly because so many of the characters and interactions fell flat. The adage “show, don’t tell” is apt here: Yes, we see characters doing all sorts of intimate, personal things — brushing their teeth, reminiscing about love lost, and so on — but that doesn’t really bring us into their worlds. There’s a sense of distance that the game rarely, if ever, is able to crack.

As I played through “Fragments of Him,” I kept thinking about two wonderful, affecting works of drama: the game “Gone Home” and the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” Both struck themes similar to those in “Fragments” — about family, sexuality, shame, overcoming loss. Both worked because of the meticulously crafted, often subtle and quiet ways they showed exactly what these concepts meant, in practice, for their characters.

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“Fragments,” on the other hand, has a lot of its characters telling us how they are feeling. Will tells us he feels like he’s slipping into a boring routine. Will’s grandmother tells us she is struggling with accepting his sexuality. And especially at the emotional climaxes, clunkers abound. Will’s boyfriend is one of the biggest offenders as he grapples with the loss of his beloved:

“I don’t need two toothbrushes here anymore.”

“It’s OK to long for him still, but I know it’s OK to live again, too.”

“It’s enough to know part of him lives on with me.”

Will’s grandmother, meanwhile, has her big moment of accepting Will for who he is because . . . Will helps her when she sprains an ankle. There’s no texture or real emotional rockiness to any of this; there is a lot of emoting. Even on those rare occasions when characters talk to each other, you don’t quite see them interact — rather, it sounds like they are reading their lines from a script.

I also found the game mechanics frequently maddening. The only level of interaction is when you click on those lightly outlined objects or people, bringing you to the next “slide” of the story. But sometimes, due to the color scheme, I couldn’t even figure out exactly what I was supposed to click; I’d wander around, unable to keep the story unfolding.

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Even if we chalk that up to incompetence on my part, why should I have to click multiple times just to get an old woman from her living room to the kitchen to make tea? Why should I have to click to make her weed one section of the garden, and then another? What is the gameplay or storytelling upside? So much of the clicking merely filled time.

I do want more games like this! I do. Every well-done game about loss or sex or family or whatever else makes the entire medium better and inspires smart artists and writers to dabble in those areas. But these are subjects that need to be handled in a nuanced way, and the interactive elements of interactive stories need to be thought through. Neither happened here, and that’s why “Fragments of Him” doesn’t deliver.


Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.