Scant Traces of Life and Lingering Emotion
– Ishaan Sahdev
Fragile Dreams isn’t a game for those with little patience. Unfortunately and ironically, that happens to include the majority of the current gaming population that would actually be interested in it. To someone that isn’t used to slow-paced, methodical games, Fragile Dreams is probably going to result in a giant “?” over their heads.
For those that are into experiences out of the ordinary, and are willing to make sacrifices to have those experiences, however, Tri-Crescendo’s “exploration RPG” is an interesting mix of different schools of design that might seem familiar, depending on your taste in games. While far from perfect, the underlying design philosophy behind Fragile Dreams is the same as that of two of my favourite games — Metroid Prime and Resident Evil 4. Well, it is and it isn’t.
On one hand, Fragile Dreams follows the same concept of exploration and telling a story through the environment, just the same way the Metroid Prime games do. Items that you can pick up, the posters and shop advertisements on the walls, the hastily-scribbled drawings on the floor…each of them go toward giving you an inkling of what the world you’re exploring was like before everyone and everything died. It’s eerie and lonely, and rather depressing; but at the same time, it’s also incredibly “human” and believable. Somehow, coming across scant traces of life as opposed to life itself allows the game to achieve what so many others attempt and fail at — the ability to make the game world feel like a real place.
On the other hand, Fragile Dreams is much slower-paced than any Metroid Prime game, although, this has nothing to do with the combat. The combat system, which has been criticized time and time again, actually isn’t so bad. In my experience, all it took was patience and timing, and the fact that Seto’s makeshift weapons can break over time with no prior warning only made me more attentive and involved in the overall experience. Seto isn’t a bounty-hunter with a missile launcher for an arm; he’s just some kid trying to fend off loneliness and scrape by any way he can. He’s scared and confused, but like any other human being, he’s relying on his will to live to give him strength.
In light of this, the combat fits right into the game. There’s no lock-on, no Z-targeting, and no missiles. You’ll often find yourself armed with a frail stick or bamboo sword, and you’ll have to rely solely on your sense of depth to approximate whether or not you’re within striking range of an enemy. “Sense of depth,” of course, is another design element Fragile excels at. I won’t go in-depth, since Laura covers this in her own write-up below, but suffice it to say that the sound design is easily some of the best work I’ve heard in games, period. It’s easy to assume the only reason Fragile is on the Wii is because of the flashlight / pointer mechanic, but the actual reason goes far beyond that. This is a game that was created to take full advantage of the system it was built for, in every way possible, and just for that alone, it’s a sight to behold.
But no, the reason it’s slower-paced than Metroid Prime is that, while you explore smaller environments, they seem larger because of the pace Seto walks at, and the small touches added to your surroundings that grab your attention. Objects of interest that you can pick up are subtly indicated by the dim glow of fireflies. Signs you can read aren’t pointed out by the subtitles unless you walk up close and examine them. Fragile is about careful, thorough exploration without the use of tools to assist you. The less you explore, the less you learn about the world you live in. This slow, deliberate pacing is another part of what makes the world come alive.
On the other hand, for all of its slow exploration and sense of discovery, Fragile is also like Resident Evil 4. The most obvious element that stands out is the appearance of the chap with the rooster mask, who serves as this game’s “merchant.” You’ll bump into him occasionally, sometimes during the course of the story and sometimes at campfire save points, upon which he’ll greet you with one of his familiar lines and attempt to interest you in a little trade.
The other is a more subtle touch. It’s how the game presents going through a door. The screen fades to black as you hear the sound of the door closing. It’s an immensely satisfying sound, the way it clicks into place perfectly, and for just a brief moment, it makes you feel almost at peace. Like the closing of a bedroom door after a long day’s work. Just like Resident Evil 4, there are very deliberate peaks and valleys throughout the journey. Foreshadowing and revelation, time and again.
Where Fragile differs from RE4, however, is that it makes no active attempt to scare you. I found myself marveling at the level of restraint displayed by Tri-Crescendo in this regard. Fragile is perfectly set up to scare the pants off you with its long, empty corridors, ghostly apparitions and hands that come out through walls. And yet, it’s never frightening. Eerie maybe. But never frightening. It would’ve been all too easy to turn the game into a survival horror experience and call it a day, but the folks at T-C stuck to their convictions and put out something truly unique. The level-design and presentation are masterfully woven together to deliver the intent of the game’s creators.
All said and done, while it’s far from perfect and certainly not for everyone, Fragile is a game about subtle emotions. It may or may not provoke some sort of physical reaction from you. Laura teared up on a few occasions, while I didn’t. However, the game isn’t about inducing violent reactions; more about a lingering feeling that takes a while to fade away. It’s about humanity and the highs and lows of one’s experiences. About the brief, fleeting meetings with those we care about, before they leave us, having served their purpose and made the difference they were meant to.
It’s also the first time I’ve felt any sort of emotional attachment to a computerized assistant. The voicework in the game is fantastic, and I would wholly recommend listening to it in Japanese, rather than English. In fact, those that are able to read Hiragana and Katakana will derive just a little extra enjoyment out of the exploration, since nearly all of the signs and advertisements are legible, regardless of texture size, and being able to pick them right out of the surroundings — as opposed to looking at the subtitles — made a little bit of a difference to me.
A Work of Art
– Laura Hou
I have to admit, after I had written the Amazon Curve for Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, I was extremely hesitant about my preorder for it. After all, perhaps I could wait for a price drop and pick it off Amazon or somewhere else for less.
However, in the end I went ahead with the preorder, and it was one of my best decisions yet.
The game was definitely not perfect, as indicated in almost all the reviews out on the net. However, I felt that it was extremely well-crafted, like a work of art or perhaps even an intricate machine in which everything works towards a whole. Almost everything that existed in the game served some purpose towards creating an atmosphere – one of isolation, loneliness, and a sense of the despair and horror that took place before the game’s main timeline. After playing the game and exploring as much of it as I could, I felt that the game wasn’t actually about the traveling. Sure, as you walked around as Seto, you couldn’t help but stare at some of the breathtaking or downright unsettling sights you saw, but sightseeing was just a means to the end – the beauty of a world … with no one on it other than you.
No one other than enemies, that is. The game generally alerted the player to the presence of enemies through sound. First came the ominous music, and, when you turn to face just right direction, you heard sounds coming from the Wiimote, whether they were the snarling of wild dogs or the flap of wings, or a crazy, deranged, high-pitched laughter, or a sing-song voice of “Here I cooome~!” This mechanism was used outside of battle as well, minus the foreboding music. I almost dropped the remote the first time I turned and heard a loud “mrreeooow” come from my Wiimote.
Something I noticed as I was playing the game was that, in general, music only appeared when you were with others. The wonderfully composed tracks always played during cutscenes and conversations with the others you met. The sudden onset of portentous music always appeared with enemies. Sound effects of cicadas, frogs, and cats appeared when they were in your vicinity. This contrast served to emphasize the presence of another being nearby, even if that being was hostile. Well, at least you’re not alone, right?
Other reminders lay in the background as well. Approximately halfway through the game, you get an item called the Odd Flashlight, which serves to replace your regular flashlight. This little item tinted the screen a dull green, allowing you to see what you normally couldn’t – messages on the walls. It was possible to return to previous areas should you choose to and scout for more messages, which quickly revealed themselves to be last messages from the majority of the human race. There were the desperate messages (“Someone, help me!” If anyone is here, please let me know!”), the thoughts of those more detached from life (“I’m so glad everyone’s gone now.” “Everything beautiful will die. Nothing can last forever.”), and even the helpful hints that alerted you to an upcoming boss that radiated urgency, horror and sometimes wryness (“Stay away! Stay away!” “What was that monster?” “Something’s here =>”). All of these messages were like the last messages of mankind, and serve to show the different mentalities before the race vanished, as well as to emphasize that once, once, this world was populated.
It was a good thing that when the other characters showed up, they were always personable and very likeable despite the fact that they may not have been human. One of the very first “people” you met up with was a small AI machine called a “Personal Frame” or PF for short, with a very human personality who would probably be continuously fidgeting had she been human. Crow was a boy who first appeared as a trickster, and he definitely threw Seto, who hadn’t seemed to have ever interacted properly with someone his age, for a loop with his antics. Sai was an older sister figure, always giving (sometimes useless) advice as she swam through the air behind you. And let’s not forget Chicken Man (not his official name) with his giant rooster helmet that was missing an eye and his impeccable manners as he tried to sell you his wares. Each of these meetings were like a bright spot in the whole of a game that made you travel alone for good periods of time, and their unique character only served to create more of a contrast.
Seto himself, though he had a fairly mellow personality as the one constant through the story, had quite a few idiosyncrasies himself, the greatest of which could be seen through the maps. Any RPG needs maps to help you navigate, especially through ruins, and in Fragile, since there were none to be found, Seto drew his own. Complete with sketches, random scenery that you pass by, and little scribbled notes.
In the map of the mall area, for example, which was filled with jellyfish-type enemies, Seto filled the margins with little sketches of blue jellyfish and (bad) drawings of the various signs of the stores you pass by. He had even taken to labeling the stores with small letters, even though it was of no significance gameplay-wise whatsoever. To represent the weak floors that would crumble if you ran over them, it looked like he had taken a thick crayon or marker and shaded in (messily) a large section of the map, and under that, in red, he wrote “Dangerous!” and “Very weak floor!” and, for an area of especially weak flooring that couldn’t be crossed without creeping slowly across, “Very very very weak floor!!” Even though Seto’s not much of a talker, his personality still showed through in the maps, allowing you to relate to him (or at least, amuse you).
The last, and one of the most definitive, ways Fragile crafted the atmosphere was through random items you find throughout the game called Memory Items. Due to a special item Seto found early in the game, he could tap into the last memories of the various objects he found, all of which resulted in beautifully voiced and elegantly written narrations that revealed the feelings of the people of the past in a despairing situation. Some were by children who don’t understand what’s going on, some were by people with a few regrets left, some were by people who wanted to live the most in the short amount of time they have left… The sheer range of emotions and reactions revealed was amazing and certainly one of the highlights, as well as my favorite part, of the game. I especially liked the stories that were told through a series of items, such as various pieces of a single torn photo or a collection of seven small bells. (And for those using the Japanese voicing, I find some of the Memory Item voices to have the best “reading aloud” voice I’ve heard in a long time.)
The main goal of Fragile was to create a world and make you feel utterly alone, with your only company being the enemies, the cats, the remaining emotions left behind by people far in the past, and the few people you meet along the way. Almost everything in the game worked towards this purpose, and as you discover one thing after another, you’re only encouraged to find and explore more, to learn more about this no-longer-inhabited planet.
Mini Chat-log Playtest
Ishaan: man, this feels like an amazon curve
Ishaan: i almost feel like we should throw in “4 stars”
Ishaan: and a “tohoho”
Laura: maybe i should add a fan moment
Laura: “I LOOOOVE THIIS GAMMMMMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”
Ishaan: with the whacked out emoticon