"He worked really hard, he loved his job. On Sundays we would go to the park to feed the ducks. He loved ducks. They always made him smile. It was our place to be together."
When someone close is no longer in your life, it's impossible to know what might trigger the next wave. It might be the sight of a restaurant where you had dinner, it might be throwing away a t-shirt they left behind, it might be hearing a song. Fragments of Him tries to capture these quietly paralyzing moments.
In Fragments of Him, players slowly navigate environments plucked from the real-world: an apartment, a restaurant, a park. Some objects can be clicked on, and these objects trigger short narration. It becomes clear this narrator is recovering from a severe psychological trauma, one that's slowly revealed to be the loss of a longtime partner to a fatal car crash.
Fragments of Him started as a game jam project, and you can still play that version on Kongregate. The surprising response to the game jam version encouraged the team to work on an expanded version, set for release this winter sometime. This game jam was part of the internationally-focused Ludum Dare, and the theme was minimalism. Given the Ludum Dare only allows for 72 hours to develop a game, there's something humorous about a theme that's backed by a tiny development time.
"[I] woke up at four-o'clock in the morning, saw the theme for the jam, and it was minimalism," said game and narrative designer Mata Haggis. "[I] went to sleep, woke up a few hours later, and thought 'what kind of person would live in a minimalist house? Why would you have minimalist decoration in your house?'"
Haggis pitched Fragments of Him to a couple of students he'd taught at the My Academy for Digital Entertainment in the Netherlands. These days, he juggles game design and teaching. In a previous life, Haggis worked on big-budget games as a designer, including Burnout Paradise and Aliens vs. Predator. His students are part of SassyBot, a four-person team that's been collaborating on several games.
In constructing a reason for someone to remove a person's possessions, Haggis kept coming back to the end of a relationship.
"That idea of intense pain driving these actions was something that really spoke to me," he said.
The relationship that forms the narrative backbone of Fragments of Him is between two men. One of them dies. While such a relationship remains somewhat unique to games, the story hardly makes a fuss about it.
"I think it emphasizes the universality of these feelings to have that slight difference to a large group of the [playing] audience," said Haggis. "That was really the origin of all that."
In the last few years, developers have tried to explore ways for games to express new kinds of stories. It's a trend anchored by games like Papers, Please, Journey, and Gone Home, and the approach for each was different. Games have become particularly good at expressing particular kinds of stories, and we often see them repeated over and over again. New stories demand new kinds of gameplay experiences.
"You think of an emotion you want to convey, you think of an experience you want to go through," said Haggis. "Then, you have to try and work out 'what actions would this person want to do in that space?"
Fragments of Him tries to explore the largely invisible process of grieving. In one way or another, we all experience this. When an emotional upheaval occurs, the shock is enormous. Eventually, that wears off, and the business of getting back to your daily life, a life without that person, begins anew.
As someone who's received emotional body blows the last few years, I can tell you it's the hardest part. I wear my father's wedding ring. What I'd figured would be my greatest honor is also a curse. It's a constant reminder. When the people leave us, objects, and the memories we imbue to them, are what remain.
Many games tell stories after the events have occurred. Fragments of Him is near-present, but does not indulge in shocking the viewer with a spectacularly destructive and fatal car crash. Instead, it's focused on the seemingly mundane. But anyone who's picked up the pieces after the loss of someone will tell you the same story: the mundane moments are the ones that, oddly, become the most tragic and heartbreaking.
"At some point in our life, everybody is going to experience the emotion of grief," said Haggis. "If we’re lucky, most of us experience this through a breakup. That’s some sense of grief that we have in a relationship breakup. It’s that taste of what comes when we lose someone really, really important to us forever. One of those things you get with these kinds of moments, this grief, is not necessarily your pain at that exact time which is the problem, it’s the pain that continues always. That sense of a lost future together."
Your actions in Fragments of Him remain simple throughout. Clickable objects are highlighted in yellow, and they eventually fill a meter that triggers the next scene. It's undoubtedly a clunky interface, one made more frustrating when you can't find the one bookshelf that's needed to move forward, but it works.
"At some point in our life, everybody is going to experience the emotion of grief. That sense of a lost future together."
SassyBot and Haggis knew the team was onto something when it had to start bringing tissue boxes to events where they were showing off Fragments of Him in person. It's also where they discovered how different objects would trigger different reactions from people. Though Fragments of Him tells a very specific story, it's one explicitly designed with universal appeal in how it's told.
"One of the parts from the prototype that always seems to get people is when they step into the bathroom, and they take away a towel, and they leave one towel there," said Haggis. "There’s no audio cue for this, there’s nothing recognizing you’ve taken this step, just that tiny moment of going 'oh, that person’s not coming back.' [...] I remember very clearly doing that after a breakup of a relationship once. I think I was coping pretty well until that point. It was such a tiny thing to do. [But then I felt] the enormity of what happened, all those hopes that I had, how things had changed."
The upcoming version of Fragments of Him will, again, focus on loss, but from the perspective of many, exploring how a single life can impact so many others when it's suddenly and unexpectedly extinguished.
"I’m not writing this to be over-the-top dramatic, he said. "I’m not intending this to be this massive tearjerkers. I’m writing this to be a good, honest story about emotions that I’ve felt, that I believe other people feel."