Fragments of Him is a game that might test your limits. The story-driven indie project by Netherlands-based studio Sassybot isn't challenging — not in the conventional sense of the word. But what the game does, and does well, is force players to confront feelings and consider situations they might prefer not to address.
"We've had a lot of players in tears [during demos]," lead narrative designer Mata Haggis said before we tested the game ourselves during Game Developers Conference 2016. "We've been at conferences and [had] a lot of people crying at our booth."
That's exactly the reaction that Haggis and his co-designers anticipate and embrace. Fragments of Him makes it obvious from the jump that it won't be an easy game to get through, emotionally; the story unfolds over two-and-a-half introspective hours, during which players switch between four different characters.
These include Will, who dies in a car crash during the beginning of the game; his college ex-girlfriend, Sarah; Harry, Will's partner at the time of his death; and Mary, Will's grieving grandmother. Each character's story centers around Will's death and plays out with a series of vignettes. There are no puzzles, no alternate routes; Fragments of Him is a linear frame narrative, one that's heavy on self-reflective narration.
That's the point, Haggis explained. The highly personal game draws inspiration from theater and literature. It's meant to be a cathartic experience — and not just for the player.
"The best writing tends to come from drawing from your own life," he said. The game isn't autobiographical, but many elements, from the story to the design, draw on Haggis' past. Books seen on characters' shelves are those in the designer's own library; Sarah's dorm room is an exact replica of Haggis' from his college days. Haggis and Will, whose commitment issues and subsequent relationship woes form the crux of the game, are both bisexual, and much of the game deals with characters' understandings of his sexuality.
Despite these specificities, Fragments of Him aims to tell a universal story. "No matter who you are, heartbreak is still going to devastate you," Haggis said.
"[It's about] trying to find the most comfort in how we're all the same."
The abstract, minimalist art style is one of the ways that the game is able to translate a personal story of loss into one that's broadly impactful. The game is almost entirely in black and white, save for the colored outlines that highlight which object players need to select next to progress through the story. All of the playable characters have blank faces, and people in crowds or in the background are seen only in silhouette.
That stylization is meant to afford players stronger engagement with the storyline, Haggis said. Fragments of Him is as much about crafting your own relationship to the events as it is revealing the effects of them on the characters. Reducing the characters to avatar-like models and drawing attention to certain objects with just a hint of color is what he called an "emotionally neutral" choice, which asks the player to fill in the blanks. It's a subtle yet surprisingly powerful mechanic, letting the story — and our own empathetic experience — take precedence.
We found ourselves near tears toward the end of our demo, in which we controlled first Will, then Sarah. What at first felt like a static narrative without much visual intrigue soon became an immersive and overwhelming experience. That was thanks to the level of commitment the developer put into letting players understand the lead characters' emotions. Exploring their relationships to each other — and love and loss overall — in this stylized manner is truly moving, and it was hard not to get our own feelings about those subjects caught up during the cinematic playthrough.
"make me know why i'm shooting that anonymous robot [in destiny]"
There's another reason for that subdued, non-photorealistic style, however: Fragments of Him is developed by a three-man team.
"If we tried for photorealism, it wouldn't be possible," Haggis said. "Indies can't afford that."
He contrasted this with triple-A development, which he said emphasizes powerhouse graphics over story. Narrative games like Fragments of Him or the similarly intense That Dragon, Cancer are often the purview of indies, he said. But that doesn't mean it has to stay that way, or that indie releases are the only ones Sassybot is interested in.
"[Narrative] games are not the mainstream yet, and we all accept that," he said. Yet "I've spent 200 hours on Destiny, myself, but that story needs to get better. It brings more added value to the game — make me know why I'm shooting that anonymous robot, and then shooting that anonymous robot feels better.
"I don't think story and mechanics have to be at argument with each other," Haggis added. "Of course there will be people who skip every cutscene and just want to shoot that anonymous robot in the face, [but] it's now commercially viable, and there is a small feeling that there's an established audience out there [for story-driven games]."
Fragments of Him and Destiny have little in common, but Haggis hopes that making games like his will help all games get better.
"It's a virtuous cycle where indies try out these new things and triple-A [developers] say, 'I like this bit, let's bring that in,'" he said. "I try not to think of these as separate parts of an ecosystem."
Fragments of Him will launch on Windows PC and Xbox One in April 2016; a PlayStation 4 version will come later this year. With its launch, the team at Sassybot hope it will not just follow a trend of heart-wrenching indie storytelling, but instead lead the charge in making all games consider storytelling as of equal importance to gameplay.