Picking up the pieces

Everybody who has lost a loved one knows them, these small pangs of pain: Hearing that song that you know was his favourite,  walking past the café where she first said “I love you”  or seeing her now obsolete toothbrush in the cup as you get ready to sleep. Remembering that person, which so often brought up feelings of joy and happiness, is now hijacked by grief, pain and despair. Loss is an experience that everyone has to go through eventually, and it is one of the most painful things to endure. Many video games try to capture the day-to-day aspects of human life, and still it seems like developers are trying to steer clear of this issue. Fragments of Him finally dares to approach it. Yes, there are many examples of it when you look back. Watchdogs, Gears of War, Final Fantasy 7 and pretty much a substantial amount of games in the last decade have approached this issue. Be it through a breakup or death of a loved one. But out of all these games, how many of them really look at loss? I mean, really look at it from the viewpoint of an ordinary person? Fragments of Him, a first person point and click narrative experience developed by Sassybot Studios aims to change that. I had the chance to speak to Mata Haggis, Narrative Designer for the game. We sat down and chatted about the history of the project, the themes contained and inspirations for the game.

Starting as a Game Jam project for the Ludum Dare with the theme of “minimalism”. It was the given funding by the  Dutch government for a full fleshed out title based on the project. “I had an idea for a couple of months before the jam about a person who was coming to terms with loss and was trying to remove painful memories of a relationship” says Mata. “When the theme came through, I was imagining an empty flat or a very minimalist sense of decoration and asking ‘why would a person want to live there’? That came through to the idea that those objects were too painful to continue living with. That was the way I wanted to tie it in.” Taking what was learnt from the game jam, Fragments of Him is shifting its focus of minimalism and exploring the realm of loss and grief. The game follows the lives of 4 people, as they each cope in their own way with the death of a person they all have in common.The player moves between the characters and learns about their life and their relation to the recently deceased. It’s a game about coping as it is as much about loss, with a focus on deep character story and development.

There is a tiny amount of story branching according to Mata, but the focus of the game is on a linear narrative that offers a movie-like experience within the video game format. “It’s a very tricky medium to get right and we’ve been talking in the studio and with other people about whether it’s even a game that we are making. We tend to term it a ‘Playable Interactive Narrative Experience’. As an acronym it fits into what we are trying to make. We try to avoid using the word ‘game’ too much, but there really isn’t another good word for it. So many of the games we play at the moment are based on challenge, and they’re based on that something has to be fun to be good, or to be a game. I use this example quite often, but you wouldn’t even go into the cinema to watch Schindler’s List and come out saying ‘that was fun’, but you might say ‘that was worthwhile’, or that you enjoyed it. I’m hoping that these ‘PINEs’ are something that people react to in that kind of way.” As a title that focuses on narrative as the backbone to the experience, Fragments of Him shifts away from traditional gaming tropes like challenge, difficulty and a sense of ‘fun’. By doing this, Fragments of Him focuses more on the narrative journey, allowing the player to be more immersed in the story. It’s interesting that mechanically the game may offer little in the way of obstacles, but I feel the challenge lies in the immersion of the narrative. I believe there is a significant and understandable reason why many people don’t play these sort of experiences, and it’s much more than them not being considered “fun”. There is a real challenge in letting these sort of experiences affect you emotionally and mentally and many times have I heard or read people say “I don’t want to play games that make me sad”. To really understand and to really be empathetic requires you to open yourself up to the feelings of another, or to associate the scenario to your own life and that means that sometimes you’re going to feel sad. Empathy isn’t an emotion that is associated with good feelings, but a person can feel enriched, by accepting feeling which they would otherwise be unwilling to feel. The challenge lies in whether you are willing to open yourself up to something new, unknown and often at times leaving you vulnerable.

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A broader issue is brought about however, regarding the place these PINEs have in the current spectrum of game genres available out there. Fragments of Him doesn’t typically fit into a current genre, and the rather crude classification of calling it just “an indie title” does little justice for what the game actually offers. There’s space out there for new experiences in gaming , and Mata believes that there are games for everyone out there including those with a heavy narrative. These different titles can co-exist, as is the same with other mediums, like books or movies. “There will always be Call of Duty, there will always be Grand Theft Auto and there is no reason that games like Fragments of Him, games like That Dragon, Cancer or the Novelist, Gone Home and Dear Esther can’t sit alongside each other and just have different audiences. In cinema, we know not everything is for everyone, but in games we still have this mindset that games have to be made for this hardcore set of people, or at least, there are some very vocal people who believe that. We’re hoping that we’re going to find other people. There are other people out there that want stories”.

The democratisation of the toolset has allowed this surge of indie titles which offers new and exciting experiences. Now there are tools like Unity which allow developers to develop within a small team and ensure their creative vision is not jeopardised by large publisher studios. Simply put, it’s generally just easier to create new experiences than ever before. “If you look at the indie community, you have things like Thomas Was Alone, which is done with very few art assets, some nice audio work and some nice ideas, story and characters.” What Mata leads onto however, is particularly interesting. Indies can’t compete with major franchise titles in terms of production, scale, art assets, animation and code, simply because of financial resources, but one thing they can beat the bigger studios on is story. “Good writing doesn’t necessarily need a big budget. You just need a good idea and a bit of inspiration and a way with words….Or lots of patience, and friends to give you advice. It’s a level pegging really. Words on a page are one of the most democratic mediums of creative expression that you can get. I think it’s a way for indie developers to compete in an area where the big boys of games development haven’t quite necessarily done so well in.  If you look at some of the major criticism of video games in the last 30 years really is that the stories are pretty rubbish. I think that the way people have started to make things themselves is by its nature going to mean you’re going to get a more diverse range of gameplay experiences. Stories have always been these things that have always inspired creators as long as humans have existed and we never get tired of a good, well told story. They are things that last with you.”

“You should write as if you are burning, as if you are being chased. If you don’t keep on writing, the world will end, your life is forfeit.” 

Story immersion is comprised of many components and one I believe is vital is rich character development. Mata offered some valuable insights into how he created the story of Fragments of Him and how he hopes the player can connect to the characters found within. “I’ve got a narrative structure that I’ve developed over nearly ten years now and was working on. While I’m not going ‘this is the time to make the player cry’, I am thinking for my character ‘this is the time when they are going to feel bad. This is the time when the situation has got so unbearable for them’. Then by using a structure which tells that emotional experience well, hopefully the players can relate to it, hopefully the players go along with that journey themselves. It’s not that Fragments of Him is doing what Triple As aren’t also trying to do – it’s just a lot harder with those bigger games. There is a lot of pressure on those games, a lot of committees, a lot of press and marketing people talking about target demographics and I think that a lot of the things that Indie developers can do is ‘nope, this is our story, this is what we want to make’. That’s where the main difference lies. That’s why you can find these much more personal and perhaps much more powerful stories happening in the indie world, because they’re not written by a committee. They’re not written and iterated again and again and again. There’s this brilliant author called Ray Bradbury who wrote Fahrenheit 451 and he’s written lots of essay on writing and how you should write stories. He said that ‘you should write as if you are burning, as if you are being chased. If you don’t keep on writing, the world will end, your life is forfeit.'”

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Many of the titles I write about in this blog like That Dragon, Cancer and Neverending Nightmares were the creations that stemmed from real life tragedies and as a result, create powerful and emotional experiences. Having gone through difficult times myself, I’ve come to appreciate the strength of character and willpower needed to put your heart into something that constantly reminds you of a tragic event. Fragments of Him is about coping with the death of a loved one and also takes insfluence from actual events. “Fortunately, the exact circumstances of the story didn’t happen to me, but yeah, I have lost a number of friends far younger than they should have gone. So yeah, those real emotions, real events and the way they’ve made me feel is something that I’ve directly put into the game. What’s interesting is that you talk about the real world inspirations for things, because it is something we have seen in movies and the horror genre in particular. I come from a literary background, and studied a lot of literature at university and one of the themes from back then was ‘the death of the author’. The idea was that the person who writes or creates is only one voice among many who create meaning for a piece of work and so their voice is no greater strength or no greater value in interpreting the piece than anyone else who reads it. The idea that something has to be true to have value is something which theory was questioning. It’s interesting like you say that there are many of us who are making games which are inspired by real events or certainly inspired by emotions that we or other people have gone through. There does seems to be a trend towards real world settings in games at the moment.”

One thing I was especially keen on asking Mata about was regarding the particular Hollywood-esque ideal on how loss is dealt with, not only in video games, but also within the film industry. Mata believes it comes from the insistence that every aspect of life is turned into “high drama”, the belief that loss is to be dealt with a rush of overwhelming emotions. “There is this sense that Hollywood tells you that everything is a big drama. Every relationship you get into could be ‘The One’ and everything is epic in this kind of Romeo and Juliet story. Shakespeare was an absolute unquestionable genius in my mind. The way he told emotional stories that people could relate to hundreds and hundreds of years later. You can still read his books, and it’s comforting to see that hundreds of years later that people are still just people and those people have those same feelings and those same emotions but equally, he was such a damn good story teller. This kind of Romeo and Juliet epic myth of what love is, actually is working against us a little bit. We were showing Fragments of Him at Gamescom, in Cologne and we had a person who had finished the demo and said “That was good, but I wanted the option to throw myself out the window at the end ‘…Er that’s not really the kind of story I am trying to tell'”.

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With an overabundance of high drama in video games, Fragments of Him focuses on the small and everyday drama. During our interview, Mata points out how loss is seen to be coped with in a lot of modern video games and points out one element in particular: Revenge. Avenging the loss of a loved one by going on what ends up as a murderous rampage becomes the standard coping method, as opposed to simply dealing with that loss emotionally and being ok with feelings of vulnerability. “It’s fine to feel those emotions, but so much of culture tells us not to, that feeling sad is somehow ‘weak’ or for men it’s considered effeminate to feel lost and to be sad. The classic nordic stories often resonated something like ‘It is better for a man to avenge his friend than mourn over much’. I was just like ‘wow, that’s a message to give to people isn’t it?’ Sure, don’t mourn too much, but revenge? Revenge is the best way with dealing with loss? That’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for a long time, isn’t it? But we see this in computer games all the time. I think one of the things we see a lot and has been noted a lot recently is the death of a loved one, usually a wife or a child, particularly a daughter. We see that the main response to that is never ‘I should call the police’, no, it’s ‘I’m going to kill everyone in my way’. I try not to be too dismissive of these responses, because we don’t know how anyone would react, but it does breed this idea of coping with emotions is not something that’s not dealt with. In fact coping with emotions isn’t even on the spectrum, it’s just revenge. I wanted to tell a story about something that wasn’t revenge or had nothing to do with it. I could have written Fragments of Him as ‘Another driver has killed the person I love, I will track them down and destroy their life’. I could have written it like that, but you know what? I don’t think that’s really how people react. I am sure there is anger, resentment and even hatred at some points, but in the end I think people realise that those emotions destroy you just as much as they destroy the people around you or the people that have caused that pain. Actually the majority of pain that you cause with those emotions is to yourself, so I wanted to make a story that was about handling those things a bit better.”

 “I’m hoping that by situating the story in someone else’s life, people might begin to see a reflection of themselves.”

Regardless of your beliefs on whether narrative-heavy games are “games” at all, almost everyone can see these experiences as avenues to teach a person to be more empathetic. Fragments of Him focuses on loss from the inside out and dealing with loss on an emotional, mental and spiritual level within yourself, without really expressing negativity to an outside person. “I try not to use words like ‘teaching the player’, as I hope that players already have this capacity in them, but I think  it’s about helping them have empathy for situations of others and a little bit more compassion. Both for themselves and for other people. I think a lot of us are very hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up over aspects of our lives. I’m hoping that by situating the story in someone else’s life, people might begin to see a reflection of themselves. We had a lot of people play Fragments of Him and in the comments they said ‘Oh yeah, i’m about halfway through that story at the moment. I haven’t come out the other side yet, but it’s good to know that it’s there’. So it’s helping people to have sympathy with themselves, having empathy for themselves, rather than beating themselves up all the time about what they feel is an inability to move forwards, that they can’t cope with the emotions, or that they shouldn’t be feeling emotions that strongly.”

Loss can often be a relentless and malicious burden to bear, but it does get more manageable as time passes on. Fragments of Him, whilst it’s not about the hero’s journey, but about remembering what once was and the significance that comes with connection. By letting go of the pain and misery that comes with loss, you can truly appreciate and cherish the uniqueness of those experiences.“For me, I think, you mentioned earlier this epic Hollywood narrative of loss and how terribly destructive it is that your true love has gone. I think really what I want to say to people with the story is that love, no matter how brief it is, is meaningful. That grief ends or gets more bearable. You will always feel sad for the loss of people in your life, whether that’s through them dying, or through circumstances driving you apart. You always feel sad about that and you always carry that little part around with you, but there is life after that. You can find satisfaction knowing that you had love with that person for a while, that you shared a life with that person for a while. That’s a meaningful thing and that can make you a better person. So I think really the game is about the power of remembering love and how important that can be.”

Fragments of Him is still in development, but you can play the initial game jam right here. Leave your thoughts on the game and the article in the comments!

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