Fragments of Him is an empathy game, through and through. If you’re not into these kinds of games, list it as a ‘walking simulator’ and keep on stepping. If you’re into emotional experiences, know that this isn’t the best out there. It feels pretty amateurish; like an ambitious and heartfelt project that turned into a sophomore’s poem. There are some impressive moments, brilliant camera work and heart-shattering thoughts- but there’s not enough in this two-hour experience to get fully committed or wowed. This stylized walk through painful memories is well made, but not nearly deep enough to get immersed in.
º An interesting approach that tries some new things for the genre.
º Narration lacks nuance, and the performances feel rushed.
I’m not sure what it is, but I tend to get all the tearjerkers at Mouse N Joypad. In Between, Goetia, Between Me and The Night, and Afro Samurai 2. Jokes aside, I guess everyone there knows I’m a big softy, and I’ll probably get the most out of my time with any game about death, sorrow and existential themes. So, when I was handed Sassybot’s Fragments of Him, a new PC and Xbox One game about death and the lives it leaves behind, I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my box of tissues and got ready for the video game equivalent of Oscar moments.
After searching, it turns out the most prestigious acting recognition in gaming is from Geoff Keighley’s Game Awards… That fact just made me sadder than this game ever could.
Fragments of Him is a story about a young man named Will, who dies in an automobile accident after deciding that he’s finally going to propose to his boyfriend. Taking place outside of all the character, as if you’re a fly on the wall, you explore his past, present and the aftermath of his death. Each character from his college girlfriend to his grandmother recounts their relationship with Will in downtrodden narration, exploring the life of a good man who died too young.
Games like this, it has to come down to the story. I must confess; I found my time with Fragments of Him to be a little underwhelming in that department. Because you don’t take control of any character, the game lacks a real sense of agency. While the game throws in the occasional dialogue option and minuscule choices such as the order of your clicks, it just comes down to clicking objects to progress the storyline. You have no sway over where anything goes, and the joy of discovering anything is sorely missed. It makes the experience feel more like a film than an ‘interactive narrative.’
I try not to compare games to others, but many empathy games have you take the role of one character or even multiple, so you have a stake in what’s happening. You might be able to pick up objects or alter your environment so you feel like you have some pull in that world. Because you don’t actually engage with anything, you feel more like you’re walking along a very narrow path- unable to put your mark on the game in any way. It makes it even weirder when suddenly you’re allowed to answer for Will in a conversation, something that only happens twice in the story.
That’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic moments. The world does have a real sense of being alive with activity, and when you start driving around the city streets as Will moves headlong into his destiny, you’ll get chills. The dialogue, while pretty stilted, does an excellent job of keeping the flow going. There’s some real clever use of the environment, such as having the passing of time illustrated by the rapid movement of items in a room. Various memories are recreated by the placement of items around the characters. This all, of course, is just more clicking to progress through the story, but it does add some emotional weight as the narration underlines the action.
I’ve read some complaints about the art style, and it makes me want to slap armchair critics for being so dense. The graphics aren’t meant to be photo-realistic; they’re the recreation of memories, blurred by the passage of time and pain. Most of the elements are grayscale, providing a dark tone and broken aesthetic, while the important and familiar is always more detailed. Every character is not only emotionless but faceless as well, passing by shadowy strangers and half-forgotten locations. One only has to look at the breathtaking backdrops and passion put into the assets to know that these are cohesive and thought out models. Sadly, when you click on characters, they sometimes walk while other times disappear and reappear; something that looks more like a not-so-clever way to skip time-consuming animations. It’s strange too, as the game touts motion capturing, but outside of some generic walk cycles, I don’t see where this technology was used. Despite this forgivable lack of realistic movements, the game still looks fantastic and is a real treat for the eyes.
Audio is okay, but it’s nothing worth spending a lot of time talking about. The soundtrack is kinda forgettable, and it could’ve been pulled from some generic royalty-free catalog under the ‘Drama’ section. Ambient sounds are pretty decent and do help in the scenes set at restaurants, movie theaters, and parties. Voiceovers, while consistent and on point, tend to drone to a frustrating level. There’s inflection and delivery, but it’s the same every line, and you can really start to tell that the actors had one day at the studio to get it right. In a game with such a minimal approach in art and interactivity, I was really hoping for some top-notch performances. Sadly, it does nothing to hinder the tale, but it doesn’t help it either.
In the end, Fragments of Him ends up feeling like a student film; not lacking heart, but perhaps the experience to make it feel unique. There’s some really beautiful moments and scenes that will tear your heart out, but they’re muddled by a slow-paced narrative. When it comes to entertaining your audience, even when you’re trying to make them cry, the worst thing you can do is be boring. I won’t call the story that- but it does skirt dangerously close to tipping off that edge, with shining moments of brilliance pulling it back from becoming unredeemable.