The simple old house my grandparents lived in isn’t what it used to be. An accidental flood saw to that, but in their final days, it was impossible not to notice notice how many of their lives’ memories they had cultivated around them A full set of encyclopaedias, classic Dutch toy cars lined up in a row, and a shelf full of little journal entries my grandfather had written for each day of the year (my own birth included) were just some of the items on display.
Even now, my memories of the two of them are fuzzy, and may only grow more so, but those inanimate objects still feel like clear, honest representations of our short time together.
This is the same gentle, yet somber nostalgia flowing through Fragments of Him. Will, a young gay man, excitedly muses about proposing to his boyfriend. His joy fuels a fascination with the little oddities around his apartment building, the cafe they stop by every week, and the ducks they’d feed at the park. After Will perishes in a tragic accident, Fragments of Him’s main narrative picks up with the fallout felt by three of the most important people in his life: His grandmother, his ex-girlfriend, and his boyfriend.
While video game narratives are no stranger to tragedy—some might say they embrace it—there’s often an incoherent approach to what comes after. Many games treat death as a bombastic, yet ultimately paltry matter; a call to action for our hero, the final retribution against a villain, or simply a means of moving forward in a story. Fallout 4 for example begins with the tragic murder of your spouse, spurring a desperate chase across a wasteland to rescue your son. But the memory of your beloved, the partner who helped raise the object of your every waking thought, is quickly forgotten, save for one collectable voice tape meant to inject some sorrow. How quickly we as players toss aside that tragedy in favor of slaughtering cartoonish bandits and mutant warriors.
Death’s effect is one of a thousand small cuts, and this is Fragments of Him’s crowning achievement. As Will’s grandmother, we reminisce about his old toys, his warm night lights, and the bedtime stories above his dresser, all while grappling with Will’s sexuality. Ultimately, it’s all these small moments and things that remind her that he’s still her kind, responsible grandson, and she’s still his grandmother. As Will’s ex-girlfriend, we see the incessant rearranging of a dorm room to better suit the mood of their first date; candles, stuffed animals, trippy Portishead CDs, the same songs that remind her of him years after their amiable parting.
We’re introduced to Will’s boyfriend Harry in a similar, but altogether broken state. Huddled on the floor of their shared apartment, surrounded by a thousand jabbing reminders of their life together, Harry is a man with nothing to ground him to reality, and yet numerous anchors pull him back into misery. The pictures framed so perfectly on the wall, the message board in the kitchen, even the toothpaste in the bathroom drawer, Harry feels compelled to extinguish it all from his memory for fear of the pain. Even the cafe Will used to wait for him at is a dangerous place, where an empty seat across the table implies more to passersby than he can possibly bear.
This is one of the smartest depictions of death in video games simply because it acknowledges that death reaches beyond a final gasp. It also acknowledges an important aspect of what our loved ones choose to do after a death that games often forget. Gameplay in Fragments of Him is a simple matter of exploring the environments shared by Will and his loved ones, interacting with each of these seemingly meaningless objects as a character reflects on its meaning in their relationship. Harry, shaken by the death of the man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, is ready to throw it all away. The apartment slowly turns into an empty husk of itself, furniture and minutia fading from existence.
If this were where Harry actually resolved his grief, isolated from any memory too visceral to bear, Fragments of Him would essentially be treating Will’s death like any other video game: a thing worth only briefly remembering before leaping into the next leg of our journey. But Harry is decidedly more real than that. As Fragments of Him nears the end of its tale, Harry realizes that erasing Will from his life—even his future—would be letting him die all over again, and the apartment flourishes back to its old, decorated self in but a moment. The memories of a loved one are inescapable, and in fact make us stronger, if only for knowing the love and affection we were capable of with them to help us along the way. Will may never come back to life, but he’s just as alive in the memories his loved ones choose to carry with them, rather than treating them as a burden.
Video games are so often about the big, epic moments of adventuring. There’s so little time for introspective, aimless thought that doesn’t push towards an objective. But death isn’t just an explosion of grief, it’s also a thousand little cuts over an interminably long time, each of which remind us of our scrapes with adventure together. It’s not a declaration of vengeance, it’s a crippling uncertainty that slowly morphs into resolve. It’s the little things. Fragments, even when scattered, still make up a whole.
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.