Fragments of Him is a game about dealing with loss. The loss of a friend, lover, or family member and how this impacts those who took part in his or her life. It is also a game about how we are all part of an assemblage of persons and things that pattern and punctuate our daily lives. It is about what happens if one person suddenly is no longer a member of this assemblage and how this person’s presence lingers through the objects he interacted with. It is a personal archaeology.
On Saturday evening my father was there, on Sunday morning he was gone. Three days later, I went to the place where he spent his final day. It was my grandparents’ house, the place where my father grew up. My grandfather and grandmother had died a couple of years previously and the house was for sale. My father had difficulty saying goodbye to this place and was often there by himself, rummaging around, fixing things, taking care of the garden, keeping up appearances.
On Saturday he had been mowing the grass in the large pasture behind the house. Originally a job for my grandparents’ flock of sheep, but they had long gone too. The grass hadn’t disappeared though and kept on growing and growing. My father had resolved to mow it with one of those little lawn mowers, I think it was an MTD.
For Dutch home standards the area of grass was large and the tractor mower small. In short, like so many things that begged for attention in this old house, this was a multi-day project. Thinking he’d finish the job the next day, my father had left the mower outside the garage. Sunday would be another day of beautiful weather and there wasn’t going to be rain in the night.
My father had lingered in the house for a bit longer. He sat in the living room in the old chair that used to be my grandmother’s spot, with his green lumberjack-style shirt draped over the chair’s back. He would have faced the garden with the doors to the veranda opened wide. His mug was on the coffee table. Old coffee stains still inside. He hadn’t bothered to rinse it off, since he would use it again tomorrow. Sitting there in the late June sun, he had been savouring the coffee and the moment. He was perhaps also thinking about what his future would bring.
There were some worries there: for his relationships with his loved ones, some of which were in stormy waters, his job, where he was having a tough time, and the house he grew up in that he would soon have to sell. Strangely, I do not remember if I saw an ashtray with cigarette butts on the coffee table. There likely was one. He smoked too much, which probably contributed to the heart failure that killed him that night.
Two days later, I walked out of the veranda doors to the lawnmower and parked it in the garage. We left the grass to its own devices. My father’s green vest and coffee cup stayed where they were for some months, an everyday shrine to a man who was special for us. One year later, we had emptied and sold the house.
Silently Talking Things
Objects speak to us, if we are willing to listen. Of course, objects don’t talk, but they do tell stories. Stories about us and about others. Most of us are not willing to listen to them, being too much involved with their day to day use. Even archaeologists mostly interest themselves professionally in those objects that speak about others that lived long ago. However, objects that are more proximate to us in temporal and social terms can provide a fragmented yet kaleidoscopic narrative of ourselves and others around us. As the personal archaeology of my father’s last day shows, or that of Will and his partner Harry, his grandmother Mary, and friend Sarah in Fragments of Him, objects make themselves loudly heard when they have lost one of the persons which they were tied to.
There are several reviews of Fragments of Him out there, some of them thoughtfully considerate, some of them not. Most of them describe it as an interactive fiction that is told by clicking on objects in the world to propel the story forward. For me, as an archaeologist or as a person that gets way too sentimental about objects and the memories they hold, it is a game about loss as felt through objects. The titular fragments refer to the objects left behind as well as to how we live on as memories, as fragments of other people’s lives.
More than the narrative itself, this simple idea is what shaped my experience of Fragments of Him. Everything else takes a back-seat. The world is coloured in shades of grey, with some toned-down colour tints here and there. People are faceless, with all but the 4 main actors being simple, grey models. Their gestures and movements are rudimentary. The environments, the very shape of the world, is minimalistic. Even the voice overs are toned-down, hitting emotional notes through inflection, not volume dynamics. Yet objects, especially ones that are key for the mimetic identities of the actors, are pronounced, highlighted, designed with an eye for detail.
Object Oriented Gaming
Most of the actions in the game are object-oriented. One of the mechanics used here is one of slow and deliberate handling. A box needs to be picked up, walked over, set down, opened, unpacked and the assemblage of stuff inside of it rearranged into other assemblages. Rearranging stuff, bringing things together as assemblages and splitting them up again, happens frequently, especially during key parts of the story. The position of some objects is also reflective of a repeated handling, indicative of the deep, daily patterns with which they are concerned. The stories told by the actors are memories, which are evoked by objects that feature silently yet centrally in them. A tea box stands for a grandmother, a toy bunny for the switch from adolescence to adulthood, a toothbrush for a loved one.
If there is one wish that I have for this game it is that the developers could have tried to push this object-orientation a bit further. Sometimes I felt myself interacting with objects that made no sense narratively, or mostly clicking bodies and body parts. The latter are arguably a kind of “object”. But if considered as such, they are, from the perspective of the philosophy I read into this game, a slightly lazy choice. Perhaps, with my archaeological perspective and lack of a game designer’s eye, I ask for too much. Fragments of Him may be exactly how far one can and should push this assemblage of objects, persons and memories and still have the persons come out on top.
I appreciate greatly how, even if this story is entirely built on and around objects, it is still human beings that take centre stage. This is a difficult thing to pull off, as anyone will know who has recently read some of the scholarly work that is concerned with “flat ontologies”, “new materialism”, and “actor-network-theory.” All too often these thing-theorists end up constricted in the material worlds they focus on, thereby contributing little to a genuinely human understanding of them and of humans themselves — granted, many, like the game critic and cultural philosopher Ian Bogost, even adopt such an object-centred perspective by design. Yet as any archaeologist and developer Sassybot knows, even if objects tell stories, they can never be the end of it.
Every scene, sentence and object-handling feels relevant and at two hours, Fragments of Him certainly does not overstay its welcome. I do not want to discuss the goings on during those two hours with any specificity. Those who want to engage with this story of personal loss and thereby maybe come to a deeper understanding of it, should experience it for themselves. For those archaeologists and others who are interested primarily in the stories the objects tell, I do have one suggestion: first play (parts of) the game with voice audio (found in the options menu) on 0 and subtitles off. This way you will not hear or read the story — with the exception of a single dialogue tree in the middle of the game—, but will experience it through objects alone.
After I had played the first hour of the game, this is exactly what I did. The result is, we get an experience that is even more focused on the objects, as they and the interactions the actors have with them are the only guide for understanding what goes on. It thereby becomes a game of personal archaeology rather than voice-over narration. Like any good archaeologist would, I was bound to get some of the details wrong. Still, it is remarkable how much of the context, subtext and narrative flow I was able to get right. I even delved deeper than what would otherwise have been told directly to me, by trying to figure out the objects in the game and what they say about the characters.
If you scroll to the bottom of this review a section titled “What happens to Sarah” will appear. Here you can find out what I think happened to Sarah when I was playing through the objects without listening to the voice-overs or reading subtitles. It covers a considerably large segment of the game. Please do not read it if you have not played it yet, as even this object-oriented description can spoil the story for you. Yet if you should choose to do your own no-voice, no subtitle playthrough when you first play the game, this should not spoil it for you. It did not for me. In fact, the second time around I found I had a better focus on the details and the nuances in the voices and the body language that fleshed out the story the objects had previously told me. If you do, consider writing it down! I’d love to compare notes with you, since the multi-vocality of objects makes me think we could come to some interestingly different conclusions of what is going on.
I suspect, though cannot know, that even if the story of Fragments of Him is linear, tightly controlled and thus the same for all of its players, its experience will differ per person. It should, because we all carry our own unique fragments of those who are no longer here. We all have our own personal archaeologies.