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.
— By Dr. Random

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

A tea box scaffolds the memories of Will and Mary, his grandmother.

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.

Personal Archaeology

People and their relations remain the center of this game

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.

Actually, I am Darwin
Doc Random is is editor at Interactive Pasts, co-founder of the VALUE Foundation, and Assistant Professor at the Leiden University Center for Digital Humanities. He has an eclectic taste in games and vows that he can talk archaeology with any random game title you can come up with. He also likes piñas coladas and getting caught in the rain, but only when in the Caribbean.
Here be spoilers!

What happens to Sarah: An Object-Oriented playthrough

No voice-over, no subtitles.

Scene 1: Arrival

  • Arrives somewhere, with parents?
  • Dad? grabs her boxes.
  • Sarah enters building
  • Enters empty room: campus room?
  • Dad arrives with all the boxes
  • Mom carries boxes too
  • Brings stuff upstairs
  • Looks behind, someone else near a car, a station wagon (Volvo); it is him, Will.
  • He waves, fade-out to black

Key items: cars, box, empty room.

Themes: arrival, beginnings, independence

Scene 2: Party

  • At the university of Winchester
  • Will is there, behind a window
  • He sees…me?
  • Open door, music intensifies, left first person view and we see Sarah
  • Sarah seems hesitant, enters party room, music loud, some sort of student union bar
  • Sarah makes her way over, but lots of people are in the way of him; social anxiety?
  • Sits at bar, drinks a beer; Dutch courage?
  • Will is also at the bar, with Harry
  • She talks to him, grabs his hand, perhaps bolstered by the drinks she’s been having. Will leaves Harry and goes with Sarah to the dance floor?
  • No, they walk outside. Open door, fade to black

Key object: doors, music, lights, the drink

Themes: challenges of being new/social groups, daring to connect to others

Scene 3: Outside…

  • Will and Sarah leave the party, sit on the grass near the canal
  • Talk, fade to black

Key objects: the grass, being outside

Themes: connections, liking each other instantly, kindred spirit.

Scene 4: Class, no… cinema: date.

  • Cinema in Winchester
  • Will and Sarah enter, sit… [choice] in the back
  • Watch a movie about freerunning and acrobatics?
  • Sarah moves her body closer. Will seems hesitant. Her locket or head can be activated but nothing happens. Locket was a gift from Will?
  • Letters on the wall activate, twice?
  • Sarah puts her hand on his knee
  • Will leans in to kiss her
  • Movie has ended and they walk out, fade to black

Key items: the chairs that separate, locket, somehow the letters.

Theme: hesitant first date, bodily separation, making the move, having intimacy returned.

Scene: Sarah pensive in her room.

  • Sarah is in her room, looking at the ceiling
  • Opens box with stuff: A toy bunny, dumbbells, book, something else
  • Bunny goes on the desk, on a book on oils and aromatherapy. On the desk we also find the locket. Above the bed is a picture of the White Hare from Alice and Wonderland and
  • The dumbbells aren’t dumbbells but candleholders? Sat next to the tv.
  • Books go in the bookcase above the bed, books are scifi/fantasy, also a photo of a young girl on the beach, a wood engraving etch by Gustave Doré that was part of a book “Les Chémins des Ecoliers”, by, lesser known French poet and novelist, Saintine. It shows a weeping girl flying away with a skeleton, perhaps Eros and Thanatos?
  • The unknown objects were little tapestries? Hung on the bookshelves.
  • Not happy with the room, shuffles around objects. Books go somewhere else. Candlesticks go with a black and white copy of St. Michael Vanquishes Satan, by Raphael.
  • Goes back to bed
  • Fade to black

Things: The box with its contents, the furnishings, the books, the paintings

Theme: thinking over things, while rearranging things. Brooding

Scene: Christmas

  • Sarah is not feeling at ease.
  • Will tries to do his best? Pours the drink, cuts the turkey
  • Sarah is not happy
  • Fade to black

Key items: the meal, body posturing

Theme: Awkwardness of family in law. Not feeling in one’s place.

Scene: In Sarah’s Room

  • Will is asleep, Sarah is still awake. Many nights pass this way
  • Stack of non-descript books activated, other place. Days fly by.
  • Keeps on rearranging stuff, photoframes. Days fly by.
  • New books appear on the shelves: trainspotting, bridget’s jones diary, art of war
  • Wineglasses indicate lots of drinking?
  • Shoes are at another spot.
  • All the stuff sort of moves around, days pass, but nothing happens.
  • Mattress activates and colours Will and later Sarah
  • Sarah and Will disappear. Fade to black.

Key items: Stuff

Theme: inactivity, listlessness, indecisiveness

Scene: In a rustic… pub, somewhere in Winchester.

  • Fireplace, tables,  old maps and illustrations of Winchester city and its cathedral, its bishops.
  • Pub eventually turns out to be quite crowded
  • Food, plates and ashtrays on the table.
  • While I am re-decorating the restaurant, Will and Sarah are talking. I slowly get closer.
  • The pub could be the Wykeham arms, which is an old coach house and the pub has illustrations of bishop Wykeham on the wall.
  • Both are drinking a beer.
  • Somehow a speech bubble pops up! We need to talk. They are breaking up.
  • Sarah and Will dissolve. With it I disassemble the pub.
  • Fade to black

In a living room, years later. Sarah is looking out the window.

  • There are more things in this room, but also many of the things that used to be there in her old room.
  • I touch all the old things. Somehow everything is still cluttered, but more organized and at peace.
  • Only thing I do not recognize is some sort of plaque.
  • Phone rings.
  • Fade to black

Key items: New and old things.

Theme: growing up. Still (over-)thinking and attached to the past and her relation with Will.