It's Better To Have Loved And Lost...
Reviewed on XB1
When the heart stops beating and the blood stops pumping and the physical body stops moving, the ethereal soul of humanity drifts to the abyss. What comes after life is usually described as either a grandiose eternity, a resurrection to an unknown form, or an enduring blackness, devoid of everything. Death is permanent. Except in games—death is not permanent. Death is difficult to accurately capture in games: too often we simply respawn, a slight, delicate slap on the wrist, prepared to redo whatever task or event we just epically failed at. In the generation of “spawn, die, spawn, die, spawn, die,” death becomes a mere game mechanic, a reminder that we screwed up; a kind of warning if you will. Rather than informing us that whatever decision we made was costly, death is treated as a little cat nap, to recuperate, recharge. In many instances in games, death is ephemeral and short lived. Fragments of Him reminds us that death is unavoidable, permanent, the destination with which we all reach—whether we want to or not.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Fragments of Him puts you in the shoes of… no one, actually. You are the observer, the bystander to a series of vignettes. These vignettes chronicle the life of Will, a college student turned travel writer who tragically dies in a horrific and heartbreaking accident. Through the epistolary tales of three individuals—Mary, Will’s Grandmother; Sarah, Will’s Ex-Girlfriend; and Harry, Will’s Boyfriend—you learn how these people deal with the death of Will. This is not a “choose-your-own-adventure” game; though there are [limited] dialogue options, your choices do not matter. There is nothing you can do. The destination has been set. The path has been carved. You cannot save Will—no matter how bad you may want to. You simply get to watch defenselessly as he perpetually departs their world in a series of fragments.
The beginning of the game introduces you to Will and his life before the accident occurs. He is leaving home. His boyfriend, Harry (probably drooling), is sound asleep in bed, wrapped in blankets like some makeshift burrito. As he whispers his goodbye to Harry, Will begins conversing with himself, convincing himself that he is going to escape these confining “patterns” he is trapped in. “I’m going to try something different,” he proclaims confidently, sure that the very next thing he does will break the mold. From there, he goes on a sort of soliloquy about “never noticing the little things”: he then points out the minute details in an elevator button, pays close attention to the “routine” of starting a car, examines the peculiarities in music, mentions the intimacy of window gazing. No more than fifteen minutes into the narrative and Will passes, with no real warning or explicit indication. Much like in the real world, death is an inconsiderate, unexpected bastard; showing up at the wrong times, crashing all the parties, death parades itself as the constant in this journey called life. Because death is so precipitous, there is no real way to plan for it: you’re kind of left in shock, devastated, unsure of how to cope. Fragments of Him illustrates the myriad of ways to cope with the loss of a loved one—and they’re not always healthy.
Take for example, Will’s Grandmother, Mary. Raising him with her own ideals, Mary was, ostensibly, Will’s protector, shielding him from the severity and insensitivity of the world. During her narrative, you come to learn of Will’s childhood and adolescence. Through Mary’s unique perspective, Will’s background and ideology begin to take shape, forming from an overtly sensitive little boy to a libertarian young man. However, because of the choices Will has made during his life, Mary decides to distance herself from him (the classic “generational divide.”) They go several years without speaking to each other because of Mary’s ignorance; what once was an unbreakable bond is now a severed limb separated from its host. All Mary wanted was for Will to become “kind and strong.” Both you and Mary come to find out that, although Will was “different,” he was just that: “kind and strong.” The news of Will’s untimely death cripples Mary, stripping the breath right out of her. Initially adamant about her decision to isolate herself from Will, she quickly regrets the choice, wishing she could approach him once more, to tell him how much she loves him, to apologize to him for her blatant negligence.
Or how about Will’s boyfriend, Harry. The two had a burgeoning relationship. Walking along the river in what looks to be Seattle, Washington, Harry and Will fed the ducks and talked about plans for the “not so distant future.” Will was Harry’s everything. Harry was Will’s everything (they had a very Shakespearean relationship, I must say.) Through Harry’s unique perspective, Will’s adulthood begins to take shape from a confused young adult to an adventurous, seemingly intrepid man. Their relationship was professedly perfect: living in the what looks to be the upstate of the city, they had a spacious, alluring apartment, both content with their current careers. Everything felt right. Everything seemed right. Everything was right. The news of Will’s untimely death incapacitates and perplexes Harry: he doesn’t know what to do, the way to act, how to feel. He resorts to the only thing that makes sense: rid himself of everything reminding him of Will. He swiftly clears the apartment, professing that he “doesn’t need two toothbrushes anymore.” He doesn’t walk down the same streets. He doesn’t eat at the same restaurants. He doesn’t even go out. As both you and Harry come to find out, trying to purge all memories of Will only kills him more. Harry learns to accept the shape with which Will has formed in the world, and carries that with him.
"Expert voice acting and masterful writing give
emotion and impact to the game's narrative."
It is these expertly voiced characters that give realism to the world of Fragments of Him. Each word spoken is tinged—charged, even—with emotion. From a melancholic lamentation to a reinvigorated determination, the actors bring these characters to life, allowing them to exist both inside and outside the game world. On top of deft voice acting, masterful writing gives the narrative its impact. Like reading a Shakespearean tragedy, Fragments of Him‘s narrative is both magnificent and despondent all at the same time.
Primarily rendered in a kind of low-poly aesthetic—with characters missing facial details and environments lacking apparent elements—Fragments still manages to feel believable, fully realized, and completely inhabitable. Thanks to the vitality of the world—the sounds of people walking by, the crescendo of music in a club, the hum of the city—the game has this aurora of being a real city just a few freeway exits away (hell, it could very well be the city you live in.) Interestingly, developer Sassybot Studio chose a very monochromatic color palette: varying shades of black, white and grey percolate the screen, providing depth and dimension to the juxtaposition of the otherwise low-poly design.
Not everything in Fragments is excellent, however. For some inexplicable reason, the game doesn’t run all that well. Considering the lack of detail in the game’s world, frame rate should not be an issue. Regrettably, it chugs at certain moments—like driving sequences—where the game reaches the pinnacle of its narrative, temporally interrupting the mood and atmosphere created in that instance. This occurs only a few times during the game’s relatively short playtime; it doesn’t detract from the experience too much—but taking into account the length of the game, the frame rate is always noticeable the more frequent it arises. Additionally, the incessant loading screens are exasperating and puzzling; there is a loading screen for absolutely everything in the game. Just finished a thirty-second exposition scene? Loading screen. Just entered/exited a building? Loading screen. Just went from one room to another? Loading screen. Unfortunately, their frequency is deplorable here; there is no excuse for this many of them. Although the graphical hitches and disruptive loading screens dampen the experience a bit, Fragments of Him still boasts a strong, worthwhile narrative.
Death is permanent. Fragments of Him reminds us that the end is nigh, inescapable, a part of life; we should learn to embrace death, and accept that all beautiful things have to come to an end eventually. In a generation of regenerating health, infinite lives, and refillable vitality potions, perhaps Fragments instills in us the ability to contemplate the end of life again. Maybe then will we have a new appreciation for living—or, at least, maybe then will we not take our next respawn for granted. “Life isn’t a planned event, it’s just a journey, and some travelers only stay with us for a little while.”