Published on Tuesday, 07 June 2016 15:43
Written by Ash Cohen
We at AbsoluteGaming are priviledged to be able to get in contact with Sassybot and ask them a few questions about their latest release on the Xbox One. Fragments of Him is a 2 hour long game that takes you through the eyes of four characters, bonded together by love, and the story of love and dramatic tragedy.
Tell us a bit about the story, for those who dont know Fragments of Him?
Fragments of Him is a modern period drama. It's set in London and southern England, and happens mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. It features four characters in the cast, each with their own story arc and life-challenges to overcome, and the four stories join together to form one whole story of love, memories, and hope. It deals with themes of friendship, family, and overcoming loss in a movie-length, slow-paced interactive story experience.
The story revolves around Will, a man who dies in an accident at the start of the game. We hear his thoughts in the final minutes of his life, and in the following hours learn more about his feelings on that final morning. We also learn about how he influenced for the better the lives of others around him: his ex-girlfriend Sarah, his grandmother Mary, and finally his partner at the time of the accident, Harry. Through these four people, we understand that each moment of our lives has the potential to changes us and others forever; a phrase in a conversation as a teenager, or a conversation that later blossoms into love, and many more moments can be important and powerful.
In your review you mention it's like going to the theatre, and we very much agree with that comparison! Players are like an invisible director on stage among actors: the script still exists, and the actors pretend the director is not there, but the director helps the play continue - the player is that director. The game does have some choices (particularly an early choice that leads Will to think of either Sarah or Mary first), and if players play a second time they will hear many different lines and phrasings mixed with the familiar lines from the first play through. There will always be the same emotional content and outcome, like how a the director doesn't get to change a play while it's in progress, but we have added variation in there to help the performances feel fresh each time.
What was the inspiration for the game?
In the weeks before making the first prototype for Fragments of Him, I had an idea for a very simple puzzle-esque game about a break up. I had also been teaching classes where I work at NHTV University (in Breda, the Netherlands) about interface design for a few years, and had recently started teaching about narrative design. I'd found very few examples of games that had an entirely real-world setting, with no fantasy, supernatural, or science-fiction elements and thought it would be a great challenge to make a story in a realistic setting. In particular I wanted to see how player interactions could highlight the internal and external feelings of a character.
Additionally, I am a bisexual man and I don't usually recognise my own sexuality in the few bisexual men that are in games, where the whole goal is seduction of as many people as possible and it feels like sexuality is a mini-game. Trying to represent an everyday bisexual man was something that I was aware would be good to do... If it fitted with the experience! I don't think of diversity as something that should be (or that is being) forced into games, instead I think diversity pulls creators towards it. I want to create unique, unusual, and interesting experiences, and if I only design and write for the same Hollywood leading-man stereotypes then I won't have the same palette to create with compared to a richer range of characters.
The final piece fell in place at the end of April 2013. Sassybot invited me to join them for a game jam, Ludum Dare, and the theme for that time was 'minimalism'. I imagined a man sitting in an apartment that was stripped of all personal items and asked why he would choose to live like that. The story I had been considering about a break up did not resonate strongly enough, and so the sudden accident was introduced to the story. In that weekend we created a short and simple prototype, telling the story of Harry over its 15 minute duration. That was played tens of thousands of times and got praise from both players and from developers in the games industry, so that inspired us to create a full version of that story.
Any games that inspired you as a team?
Personally, I was very inspired by Dear Esther. I was working at Rebellion on Aliens Versus Predator when Dear Esther was released, and a producer at the company told me about it. It was the first Half Life 2 mod version, so I broke it completely on my first play! That's pretty much what game designers do... But when I consciously chose to stop playing like a designer and restarted, I found myself on a beautiful journey unlike anything I'd seen attempted in a game before.
I completely understand that Dear Esther, and now Fragments of Him, will not appeal to everyone, but I found it incredibly exciting to see how The Chinese Room had stripped away all barriers to progression in the story and used the landscape as a metaphor for the internal processes of the character. Without Dear Esther, we can see that Gone Home or That Dragon, Cancer wouldn't exist, but I also think it had an influence on more traditional games such as Journey or even The Last Of Us.
For me, what Dear Esther achieved was similar to the recharging shield in Halo: they took away something that was considered an absolute essential to video games and found a new way to balance the experience. Before Halo, your shield was a finite resource that would have to be topped up. Bungie decided to eliminate that element to make the game less about punishing the player for poor performance, forcing them to always be scavenging for artificial shield pick-ups, and instead focus on what they wanted the player experience to be, i.e. engaging in fun gunplay with the enemies. Dear Esther made a different choice: the intention was to tell the story without any distractions or blockages. Like shield-health pick-ups, puzzles in story games can be an obstacle to narrative immersion, and so everything was removed except navigation.
I've mentioned Gone Home above, and as a team we were very happy to see it released, because we could see it was exploring similar territory to us, but I didn't actually play it until I had finished the full design and script for Fragments of Him because I didn't want to be consciously or unconsciously influenced by their story. Of course, I've now played it and love the approach Fullbright took. If people haven't played Gone Home and enjoy Fragments of Him, then they should definitely check it out!
How long did it take to draw up the concept?
The basic concept came together in the single morning of the game jam: we wanted to make a game that was incredibly simple to play, with no barriers to experiencing the story, and where the interactions of the player were both consistent (in terms of player activity) and matched the internal experience of the characters (in terms of in-game response to interaction).
Fulfilling that vision and creating the full design specification took, I think, about another two years. Many parts came to me at 4 o'clock in the morning, so I had to drag myself out of bed and work on the story documents before my brain would let me get back to sleep!
What message, if any are you trying to portray across to the audience?
There is quite a clear and specific message: cherish the people you love. Don't let differences blind you to the virtues of the people you care about most. Follow your heart, and tell people how you feel. Sometimes this kind of openness and honesty is very hard to achieve, but it's worth it.
I've seen Fragments of Him inspire people to call their loved ones immediately after playing, just to say that they love them. I can't really express how amazing it feels as a creator to be able to help players see the love that they have in their lives and value it just a little more. It's a beautiful thing, and completely different from the games that were around for me to play as a child and teenager. It's an incredibly exciting time to be making and playing games!
The Narrative for Fragments of Him is gripping, compelling and emotional, is this something you targeted from the beginning?
Firstly, thank you for the compliment! We're very happy you were so touched by the story.
Yes, creating an engaging emotional journey has always been the sole goal of Fragments of Him. All design decisions, scenes, and script choices were made with that in mind. We also worked with professional and experienced actors to capture the best performances of that script, knowing that the voice performances would be the crucial part of the story for players.
The plot outline and the main interactions of a scene were written in Word, then full script was written in Excel alongside the every interaction. There was never a separation of script and interaction, and this was done to ensure we didn't get a typical game-story structure of gameplay that unlocks the next cutscene without the two being tied intimately together. All of the interactions are chosen to bring out and match the internal and external states of the characters, so they might walk into an elevator and think about feeling locked in to a situation, or they are stuck in a repetitive task which mirrors their own looping thoughts that don't let them progress.
Was the idea always for it to be a shorter game or did something stop you from making it longer?
The objective for the game was always to tell the story that we told. When writing it, I didn't know how long it was going to take to play through, and it was only when all of the scenes were complete that we actually knew how long our game was!
There were no scenes added or taken away during production. There were tweaks made based on testing feedback, both to the interactions and script, but these had very little impact on the length.
We always expected it to be between one and a half and two and a half hours long when we were finished, and we ended up with progression-focussed players usually taking around two hours, and people who want to look at the detail in the world taking two and a half hours or longer. There are lot of details in the world for players to notice, such as in the pictures on the walls and books on their shelves all being matched to both the time period and the character of the people living in that space.
For the kind of experience we wanted to create, we always believed that a single play session was going to help it work the best. We probably could have either cut or stretched the game if we had wanted to, but it wouldn't have served the story and I think it would have lowered the emotional relationship with the characters. There's a reason that plays and films are this length, and I think it's only natural that our story ended up this way.
The game is very simplistic, in terms of a click and discover game. Is that something you feel is beneficial to the game in terms of it`s story-telling?
Absolutely. For this kind of game, I think a very easy interaction system is very important. I don't know about you, but I've had many experiences of games where I am fully in the flow, and then I hit a puzzle or a boss and I'm thrown out of that experience: I'm no longer Lara, Drake, or Shepard, I'm now a player using a game function to look for a scrape on the floor to solve a block-puzzle, or tweaking my magic system to compensate for a lack of ammo drops. These can be great gameplay systems, of course, but they aren't part of a storytelling experience. That kind of moment is player versus game, not game character versus their world, and I think the latter is best for narrative immersion.
What is in the pipeline next for Sassybot?