Fragments of Him is a game about loss, grief, love and life. It's a devastating two-hour narrative journey into the inner thoughts of three people who look back on the life of a man they loved, as well as into the memories of the deceased.
It takes most of its running time to rise to its emotional heights, but when it finally gets there, it does so with a searing and open humanity that connects the player with each of its characters, and, fleetingly, with the immensity of their desolation.
Will is an unremarkable man in his prime, living a good life. He has passed through a challenging and often disorienting youth. We join him as he settles into the comforting routines and sunny challenges of early middle age.
He enjoys a successful career. He lives with a man he loves, and who loves him. He wishes to complete their union with marriage and, perhaps, a family.
Fragments of Him is a game of small tasks and big ideas.
In the early game, the player follows Will through a morning of mundane activities. Get out of bed, turn off the alarm clock, brush your teeth. We are literally following Will around and obeying clues to do boring stuff. An object in the room is highlighted. Click on it. Watch a scene unfold and listen to Will musing on this life, his wants, doubts and ambitions.
The player connects with Will and the game's other characters by hanging out, pottering around, observing and listening. Fragments of Him is a game of small tasks and big ideas.
We are able to move around each scene to explore the surroundings. But this is a sparse world, and the scenes are sparely written, with neither waste nor padding. There's not much to do, other than to be with these people. Fragments of Him is a drama in which the player is asked to merely turn the page, to click, in various manifestations, "Continue."
Early in the game, Will is involved in a fatal car accident. It is a moment almost as humdrum as the rest of his morning. A screech, a crash, blackness and silence.
The point of view then turns to his college girlfriend, his grandmother and his lover. Each in turn remembers Will, the good times and the bad. A picture emerges of his passage from boyhood, through the confusions of adolescence, into something fuller. We find an ordinary person leading an ordinary life, and we find that his life, like all lives, is invaluable, unique and infinitely precious.
As the game progresses, it becomes clear that these characters are telling us their stories, not just Will's. It also becomes dreadfully clear that we will be required to witness one of the biggest moments of their lives: the news that Will is dead, and how they will cope.
There are moments in this game, particularly early on, when its somber tones weigh oppressively. The world is beautifully and cleanly realized, like an architect's drawing, but this coolness continues in the visual representations of the characters.
They always look sad, even in situations when they ought to be happy. There's something creepy and mannequin-like about their appearance. It takes a while to get beyond that, to fully accept them as the humans being transmitted to us through this game's outstanding writing and voice acting.
Gloomy visual tones are accompanied by a sorrowful tinkly piano soundtrack that is fast becoming something of a cliche for sad narrative games, like That Dragon, Cancer. It's accomplished, but overly familiar.
There are moments when the game decides to remind itself of some obligation to insert a burst of interactivity into proceedings, asking the player to click on multiple items in order to progress the story. This can feel like a chore. But there are other times when these actions are clearly making a powerful point.
We must make of one another all that we can.
On a few occasions, the player is offered dialog options, but these barely qualify as choices. The particulars of interaction are not as interesting as the unfolding drama of standing within the lives of people suffering the universal condition of grief.
Fragments of Him (out today on PC, with console versions to follow) is mostly content to place us within a few feet of a character thinking aloud, asking only that we watch and listen.
No doubt, the tiresome "but is it really a game?" crowd will add this to their oft-scorned roster of "walking simulations," as if action were the only noteworthy characteristic of the form.
Wherever you wish to file it in your schema, Fragments if Him's definition is not nearly as arresting as the light it casts and the shadow it leaves, the stark reminder that none of us is here for long. We must make of one another all that we can.