That I'm not giving Fragments of Him a straight up F is a testament to the power of a great third act.
Okay, "great" is probably stretching things. "Strong" might be more appropriate, or, better still, "Emotional". Whatever words you choose to use, however, there's no denying that up until you reach Fragments of Him's closing third, it's kind of a bland experience. But once you reach the game's emotional climax…man, you'd better have some tissues ready.
There's little in the first two-thirds of the game to suggest it's going to be this way. Fragments of Him is a narrative experience — which is to say, a walking simulator — in which you're introduced to a character, Will, who dies within moments of the game's beginning. You then get a look at his life through the eyes of three people: his university girlfriend, his grandmother, and his boyfriend.
The first two perspectives don't do a whole lot for me. From the girlfriend, Sarah, you hear that the two had an intense, passionate relationship, but nothing else she says or describes supports that description. The grandmother's tale is equally shallow. talks about disapproving of her grandson's lifestyle and how she shut him out after he came out of the closet, only to eventually realize the error of her ways, but all of it comes off as stereotypical.
In both cases, the game has two major issues. First, neither Sarah nor the grandmother, Mary, are particularly interesting storytellers. Obviously, this is kind of realistic — not too many people are capable of making their interpersonal relationships sound compelling to outsiders, after all — but excusing boring storytelling because it seems true to life kind of misses the point of putting it in a story. Secondly, and more importantly, both Sarah and Mary come across more as plot devices than as people. In a game that clocks in around two hours, I guess it makes sense to keep your story focussed entirely on the main character, but the trade-off in that is that it's hard to buy or feel empathy for grief from barely-sketched characters. This is particularly true of Sarah, whose character arc — she starts dating Will, they allegedly fall deeply and passionately in love, and she encourages him to ask Harry out when she realizes they have feelings for each other — feels more than a little Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ish, right down to the complete lack of an inner life.
As I said up front, however, as iffy as the first two-thirds of the game may be, Fragments of Him nearly redeems itself with its third act, when the viewpoint changes to that of Harry, Will's boyfriend. It's the one portion of the game where it feels as though you're hearing from an actual human being, rather than from a convenient plot device. Harry's story feels shot through with emotion, as he tries to talk about the sadness he's feeling as a key part of his life has been cruelly ripped away just as it felt like it was turning into something long term. It's pretty powerful stuff, particularly since his story is the one where Will's absence is given the most weight, and the emptiness Harry describes is given a visual representation.
Admittedly, you could make the argument that Harry's character is no less shallowly developed than that of Mary or Sarah, since all he's really doing is talking about how sad he is rather than making a genuine attempt to develop Will's character. Not only that, when he does talk about Will, it's in terms that make that relationship sound incredibly dull for a pair of guys who, near as I can tell, aren't that much older than their mid-20s — after all, if they got together early on in university, and then Will traveled around for a couple of years after that, and the game picks up just as he's on his way to propose to Harry, that makes him, what, 25? 26, maybe? Hardly an age at which you'd expect anyone to have a weekly ritual of walking down to the park to feed the ducks, or to have an immaculately neat flat in the heart of London.
Even with those flaws, however, Harry's section of the story still gets a pass. Maybe it's simply because the voice acting is better, but his character seems much more real than either Sarah or Mary. He may only seem like he exists in relation to Will, but the depth of his grief and the way he describes feeling it elevates the character to a more interesting place.
Not surprisingly, Harry's chapter is also the only portion of the game where the actual gameplay serves much of a purpose. The game's primary — some may say only — mechanic is that you move the camera around, clicking on anything glowing yellow. That, in turn, reveals the object and more voiceover narration. As you can tell, it's not particularly deep. In contrast to, say, Gone Home, or Firewatch, or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture — in my mind, the three best examples of the genre — there's no joy or thrill of discovery here, since everything you need to click on is laid out for you in a pretty straightforward manner. The only place the gameplay feels fully integrated into the narrative is, as I said, during Harry's story: there's something quite powerful about seeing furniture disappear piece by piece as he describes how empty his life has become, not to mention how the mechanic plays out as his chapter comes to a close.
That only accounts for a very small portion of Fragments of Him, though — just as Harry's story only accounts for maybe one-third of the game. And a much as the chapter ends the game on a high note (in terms of quality, if not emotionally), there's no getting around the fact that the first two-thirds are been pretty middling, at best. Basically, that closing chapter is compelling enough to raise the final evaluation of Fragments of Him a letter grade, if not two…but it's still probably not enough to make it a game worth checking out.