I’m standing in the Matrix loading screen. Well, not quite The Matrix, because the rows and rows of guns have been replaced by a pretty ordinary looking dresser and door. Am I dead? I might be dead. I think to myself, ‘It’d be nice if there really was something like this after I die in some inevitably embarrassing way (have a heart attack while my fly is down and my penis flops out for the paramedics to see).’
As I walk towards the dresser—Oh shit! There’s a guy! Or a ghost of guy? Is that me? Am I a ghost watching my own ghost? Kind of. Apparently in the fourth dimension, because time exists all at once, I’m able to watch the past unfold. And, because human thoughts travel on specific radio waves, I’m also able to listen to mine—or rather, those of my character Will—as I watch myself drive through a small, quaint neighborhood in the indie narrative game Fragments of Him. Outside the window, a series of faceless specters drift by, their thoughts and actions a mystery to me. Apparently after you’ve crossed over, the human soul is like a cheap FM radio with a very limited range. The narration also seems purposefully timeless. I mean that in the literal sense: it’s unclear from what part of my past (or present) the thoughts are emanating from. And then I watch my own death.
Oy. Coming from someone who’s a massive hypochondriac, where the slightest ache has me convinced I have terminal cancer, Fragments of Him is a difficult game to play. As the story progresses and I hear what various people think of Will both before and after he dies, I can’t help but wonder how I (Jake) will be remembered after I electrocute myself trying to toast a Pillsbury Strudel at four o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday.
Despite muddying the nature of the player’s role in the narrative, the objective, fly-on-the-wall perspective grants an understanding of Will’s situation before he died—a man in love, coming to terms with the idea of proposing to his boyfriend. This is perhaps where the game’s atypical, fragmented structure shines most brightly: it provides a vivid window into Will’s life experiences, stretching far back into childhood. Watching Will listen to his grandmother as she goes on a forty-five-minute rant about the ills of homosexuality and what she believes are more acceptable male archetypes, I find myself filled with admiration for his adult self, a man who has very much accepted his sexuality. This definitely added a level of depth to my understanding of the life-long struggle that is undoubtedly extremely common for non-straight folks.
The more the story progressed (Fragments of Him relies heavily on narrative, so I won’t spoil it for you) the more I arrived to my own conclusions about the game’s version of the afterlife. This despite the fact that the game is designed—intentionally, I believe—to leave much to the player’s interpretation. Are the blank, grey human outlines just people you can’t fully tune into? Are they unimportant? Or are they, just like myself, other casual observers stuck in this weird in-between place? These aesthetic and structural choices struck me as expressions of developer SassyBot’s vision of the afterlife. Or is it limbo?
In the end I allowed myself to interpret the game’s mechanics to fit my own weird pseudo-scientific beliefs about what happens to us after death. And in that sense, for me at least, it felt like the developer and I were often in agreement; this is not an easy feat for a game in which you’re essentially led by the hand, albeit gently, into the great beyond. One thing I think we can all agree on: it’s gonna suck being the person who finds me face-down in a pile of dirty laundry after I slip on a banana peel and poop myself.