SassyBot Studio's Fragments of Him, releasing soon for Windows and Xbox One, may or may not be a game—and narrative designer Mata Haggis is okay with that. “We are entirely expecting people to say ‘this isn’t a game,’ and that’s fine. I respect that they feel that way. I’m not even sure I entirely disagree with them,” he told me when we met at last month’s Game Developers Conference. “I hope these people are also going to go, ‘Okay it’s not a game. What is it?’ Whether it’s a game or not, I hope people show enough interest in seeing an experiment like this to at least give it a try.”
‘Experiment’ is a good word to describe Fragments of Him, a roughly 2½ hour experience that has the vibe of an art-house film. “Basically, Fragments of Him [explores] love and memories through the eyes of four characters,” Haggis explains. “It centers around the life of Will, who’s a young man who dies in an accident, and as we go through the events surrounding the end of his life we also have memories of Sarah, his girlfriend in university, of [his grandmother] Mary, and we also have Harry, who was Will’s boyfriend at the time of the accident.”
After playing a 40-minute demo that introduced two of these characters and gave glimpses of the others, I think the price of admission needs to include a box of Kleenex. “It does have sad moments, of course, but really it’s about exploring love, the meaning of being in love with somebody else,” Haggis says. “And though there is grief, obviously—because [part of] going through that process of grief is coming out on the other side—it’s not like the game ends there, at the lowest point. It’s about finding meaning in having been that way with somebody, having opened your heart to somebody. Even if it was for a short amount of time, love was worth it.”
One of Sarah’s lines during the demo stuck with me: “Did you ever have a love that you felt so strongly, you knew it had to end?” A sense of doomed inevitability seems pervasive in Fragments of Him, and not only because we know Will’s going to die. Sarah loves Will, but Will loves Harry—an age-old tale with a twenty-first century twist. “For me it’s just about creating the most interesting experience,” Haggis says of his characters. “Sometimes the best story you could possibly tell for that experience is going to be a straight, white, cisgendered, middle class guy, and that’s fine. If that is the best character to tell your story, tell it with that character. But sometimes it won’t be. Sometimes it will be a bisexual guy. Sometimes it’ll be a woman of color. Sometimes it’ll be a transgender character, or a person who has PTSD after being in the war. These bring in factors that can actually become inspiration for gameplay, inspiration for mechanics, inspiration for scenarios. We can [turn] that game into an even more exciting world, an even more engaging world.”
It certainly is an unusual world, but that has more to do with its presentation than the story being told. First- and third-person viewpoints are mixed—sometimes you’re moving and seeing through the eyes of the playable character, but then you click on something and the character appears before your eyes as if he or she has just climbed out of your body and into the scene. Other times, the character stands frozen within the scene waiting to be clicked on; when you do, the character fades out and reappears, slightly farther away, enticing you to follow. At the bar where Sarah first seeks out Will, you must click on clusters of people to make them disappear so you can find him. Later, the restaurant where their relationship takes a sad turn starts out as a barren room that fills in with diners and furniture as you click to fill in empty areas. You can interact with the world using a gamepad, a combination of keyboard and mouse, or the mouse only based on personal preference.
Interactivity provides some of the game’s only color: as you approach something you can click on, a blue outline turns yellow to indicate you’re now close enough to “use” it. “We’re trying to look at the ways we can use one really simple mechanic, which is walk around a space and click on stuff that’s highlighted, to create all sorts of different meanings with the result of that click,” Haggis explains. But in this narrative experiment, even clicking on hotspots doesn’t have the usual effect—more often than not, clicking an outlined item simply prompts the character to relate a memory that serves as the next sentence in the story they’re telling, possibly not even related to whatever you clicked on.
Fragments of Him’s minimalism carries over into its aesthetics. The world isn’t exactly black-and-white, but it’s devoid of color, and many of the people only appear as gray silhouettes. Even the more fully formed characters are faceless, their features only hinted at. “The four faces of the main characters are unique and all individually crafted to fit their age and demographic and all these things,” Haggis points out. “But they are blank, and the first time people see them, people kind of go, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ and then they sort of pause for a sec, and they go ‘Okay, that’s what it is’ and they move on. They don’t try to pick holes in it. If the world didn’t look right, you’d pick holes in it.”
Similarly the environments, though detailed, are also stark—as if the artists have yet to take a final pass to add texture and color. “There’s quite a few different reasons for this art direction. Some of them are very practical. We’re trying to create a whole world with a large number of locations—a whole chunk of London is the very first five minutes. You would be mad to try to make that photorealistic,” Haggis explains. “But you also want people to know it’s the real world. So we’ve got this style that’s halfway between the two: it’s realistic enough that you know that’s a TV, that’s a painting. By choosing this [style], we’ve reduced a bit of the artwork load that needs to be done, but I think we’ve also left a potential emotional space. We’ve left the space for imagination.”Continued on the next page...