Am I even playing this? That thought crossed my head a couple times while clicking my way through the latest title from Sassybot, Fragments of Him. Technically, yes. There is no way to progress through the game’s examination of coping with grief without engaging in the point-and-click controls. You, as the player, must manipulate the world of the game in order to move the action forward. I believe that would qualify as the basis for interactive entertainment, but the gameplay (or lackthereof) does say something about a game.

There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing about how much interactivity is required of games these days. Whether it is the “walking simulator” genre or people complaining about the long cinematic cutscenes of Uncharted, all too often we tend to be dismissive of games that fall outside of what we perceive as traditional game design. But we might be missing the point. The amount of control offered by developers is a conscious choice, not one made in vacuum, and it says something about the games in question.

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Fragments of Him is, perhaps, the simplest gameplay experience I’ve had in recent years. The mechanics of the game are to select objects or characters in a confined space to move the action forward. Occasionally the game will allow for these selections to be done in an order of the player’s choosing, and there were a few dialogue choices, but for the most part the game is about aiming the camera at a certain place and selecting it a specific object.

What makes Fragments of Him even more eccentric is it’s paper-thin plot. There’s no mystery to the story being told as almost the entire game is exposition. The perspective flips between characters without much rhyme or reason except to continue filling in backstory. When the action finally starts moving forward it’s not to present more plot points, but rather to continue circling around the only event that has happened in the game, one that was revealed to the audience in the opening minutes. The whole arc of the narrative is: Hey, this happened, let’s talk about it.

Sassybot isn’t trying to tell a story – at least, not a traditional one. Fragments of Him is a think-piece, an experiment in narrative. It leans heavily on mood and contemplation. I don’t know if it always does this successfully, but it certainly seems aware that it’s brushing off traditional storytelling conventions.

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I’m gonna use a couple of dumb words that have gotten really overused since Bioshock Infinite: ludonarrative dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, look it up, or find any opinion piece written about Irrational’s last offering. We often shove ludonarrative dissonance in a game’s face as if we’re expecting an apology. Rarely do we bring up good examples where the gameplay and narrative work in exceptional harmony. Fragments of Him, isn’t a traditional game, to call it a point-and-click is almost a disservice to the point-and-click genre, to call it a walking simulator isn’t accurate either. The game rather defies categorization. This experimental gameplay meshes with the non-traditional storytelling quite nicely. A gameplay design that is almost meant to be meditative – not necessarily fun, but simple – that blends with a narrative more concerned with mood and emotion than story.

You can take the marriage between gameplay and narrative even deeper. The game’s exploration of grief and life usually focuses around that which we can not control. As the supporting cast reflect on the life of the protagonist, there is a feeling of helplessness that is reflected in the game’s mechanics. You are not controlling the characters, you are but a spectator in this world – forced to watch life pass you by. When you do get to make choices in the game, they come at a time when the characters are making important choices themselves. When a character chooses to end a relationship, you can pick what was said. When another character decides they are going to get married, you choose how to start that thought process. This idea of infusing choice at specific moments is effective in communicating a theme to the audience and establishing an outsider perspective.

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Another game where detractors complain about interactivity is the Uncharted series. The most common criticism of the game is how it is a movie with occasional breaks for players to jump in. But this is the entire point of the series. Uncharted is supposed to make players feel like they are a star in their favorite action movie. It is trying to tell a very focused story that leaps from beat to beat without taking much time think about whether it all makes sense or not (it often doesn’t). Uncharted doesn’t allow time for quiet contemplation, it funnels players along in a desperate attempt to keep the intensity high. The characters are meant to be fun, the action is meant to be spectacular, and the game doesn’t want to you focused on something jumping out at you when it’s telling its playful story, it just wants you to have fun.

Another game to exemplify this is Fullbright’s Gone Home. The “isn’t even a game” argument didn’t start with this title, but it certainly was a rally point for those players who thought games were losing some of the interactivity that made their medium so unique. The argument gave birth to the term “Walking Simulator.” The term has a pejorative connotation, generally referring to the action in the game being reduced to simply walking around an area. But I don’t take offense when people use the term to describe games. Especially in Gone Home. Again, that’s the whole point. The game tells the story of your sister whose struggle with this odd house mirrors your own. The exploration-heavy gameplay allows for the misdirection of players assuming the house contains supernatural secrets, only to find out that it’s a simple love story. If told in a Telltale fashion, Gone Home would be a mediocre love story filled with cliches and rote ideas. The game only works because Fullbright found an interesting way to deliver it, subverting expectations and creating an organic experience for the player.

The amount of interactivity in games isn’t spelled out. There’s no ratio to determine if something is actually a “game”. Instead, this is a tool for developers to use in favor of the experience they’re trying to create. This marriage between interactivity and narrative doesn’t determine whether a game is good or bad, but it certainly helps clarify the relationship between the player and the action. I have to tip my hat to Sassybot on this, it’s something they truly demonstrated in their latest game. So instead of asking the question I brought up earlier, “Am I even playing this?” We should be asking ourselves what comment the gameplay is making and what it says about the experience the developer is providing for us.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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