In the every growing list of comparisons made between games and film, I have a new proposal. If AAA releases are Hollywood blockbusters and indie games are their Sundance film counterparts, then Ludum Dare games that go on to a full release are the French New Wave of video games. In the case of Ludem Dare games and the French New Wave in cinema, both represent creative works that seek to experiment with the conventions and form of their mediums as well as to push the boundaries of what is acceptable or even possible. When thinking about games like Pony Island, Gods Will Be Watching, Superhot, Titan Souls, and Dark Echo, this feels to me like an apt comparison.
The idea came to me in the first place because Fragments of Him is the most French New Wave video game that I think I’ve ever played. The game conveys the feel of the mythical oeuvre of an art house work that doesn’t really exist, but feels like it does, thanks to the game’s art direction. The grayscale world is mixed with sepia tones and tinged with occasional muted forest greens and wood browns. It’s a striking visual pallet that is meant to be noticed and one that contrasts with the extremely down to earth, realism of the story.
Fragments of Him‘s story consists mostly of the narrated memories of several people with close relationships to the game’s protagonist Will. The game begins with Will leaving his apartment and driving off to work and eventually dying in a car crash, before then rewinding to a time before the game’s start. Now, we see Will waking up and getting ready for that fatal day, during which he muses upon the direction that he would like to take his life and if he is ready for taking steps toward it. This part also acts as a frame narrative for two other characters, his grandmother and ex-girlfriend, to also tell their stories.
The whole of both of these two womens’ stories are tinged with melancholy, a melancholy brought on by a sense of time marching ever forward and also by a sense of having lost someone that meant a great deal to them. After the flashback catches up to the beginning of the game, the focus shifts to Will’s boyfriend, Harry. It was their apartment that Will was leaving, and the loss hits him the hardest.
Even this simple summary reads like a canonical film of the French New Wave.
The writing is excellent, as it should be for this type of narrative experiment to work. Taking its cues from literary realism, rather than from the genre fiction that games are most often associated with, the story isn’t so much concerned with plot as it is with the interior lives of its characters. There’s very little in the way of plot, but a lot of information is conveyed and a series of quiet dramas are played out, which I enjoyed.
Even though I wasn’t subject to the big swings in emotional engagement that video games have accustomed me to, I felt the subtle nuances of the relationships and characters’ differences in personalities more acutely, which is no small feat in itself. However, my real issue with Fragments of Him is how it chose to tell its story.
The game is a first person walker in which you look around the scene for a highlighted object or person and then click on it. This will activate an audio file of the current character narrating for a little bit before you have to find the next highlighted object or person to continue the narration. It breaks up what is otherwise just constant narration for the sake of allowing the player to act.
Sometimes you end up clicking the same person several times (and no audio activates) to cause them to “walk” across the room. Each click makes the character disappear and then reform elsewhere, often a few feet away. I can see what the game was going for. Along with the color scheme, this presentation of action evokes a sense of memory through snapshots of time. It’s a major theme of the narration, yet, the structure itself doesn’t add a whole lot. The narration pauses the ability to act upon the scene, and the action becomes a frustrating way of pausing the narration.
Several times while I was playing, I asked myself: why is this a game? Wouldn’t it have been better off as an audio drama? It would certainly not be a book because the voice acting is too good at conveying the unwritten subtleties not to include. However, while the visuals do standout as an artistic choice, I don’t think that they are essential.
For most of my time playing the game, this criticism seemed reasonable. However, there are the moments when Fragments of Him does interesting things with basic interactivity that highlights a feeling or clarifies the purpose of a scene.
When Sarah breaks up with Will, for example, she starts off by saying, “Let me set the scene..” During this portion of the game, you click on the transparent outlines of furniture and wall decorations in a pub, turning them into solid objects. Then people appear sitting around the tables in the establishment. After a few dialogue choices during this break up speech, you have to click everything again to make it all disappear. Undoing all of the set perfectly matches Sarah’s feelings as Will leaves her life. The game does this same kind of thing again (but in reverse this time) when Harry is dealing with Will’s death. Harry wants to get rid of everything that reminds him of Will and of his pain.
Another great touch is the generic models used for everybody but the principle characters. When Sarah has to cross the university bar through crowds of repeated, faceless models of students to get to Will to say hello to him, it works. The details of the world outside of Will are unimportant, and her focus is clear. However, these touches are few and far between, and the few ideas that the developers came up with to leverage the medium’s capabilities to tell the story are repeated.
Not every French New Wave film was a masterpiece and not every experimental game has to hit it out of the park. The story is great in all of its elemental parts, but it is let down by how those parts are presented as a whole, and consequently, the whole thing becomes more than a little exhausting to play. Those who might want to play it are those most likely to those who want to see areas of fiction and emotional resonance left largely unexplored by other video games.