A mysterious note, a stranger in a car park, and an insidious disk with dark secrets. Oh yeah, right, and everyone is some kind of bird.
Fragmentation exists at the fascinating intersection of adventure games and immersive sims. So get those gears turning and ready up for some intuitive sleuthing, you’re going to need to keep your head straight if you want a clean way out of this tangled web of conspiratorial intrigue.
After getting dropped off in an alleyway, your partner hands off a note from your contact telling you where to meet them inside, only to be immediately faced with solving a quick jumping puzzle to find a keycard to gain entry to the offices. After finding the card you make your way through corridors and stairwells until you find yourself in a car park, quickly you identify your contact and approach them. They don’t recognize you at first, and this is where Fragmentation does something particularly clever with its inventory system by skipping a dialogue answer/reply system and opting instead for direct item interactions: select the note then click to engage the next part of the conversation. Once they see the note, it’s time to hear your mission: Break into the apartment next door, get a data disk from Unit 21, then bring it back with no questions asked.
Now that you know your objectives, you wander back into the labyrinthine office complex to case the joint and figure out what weak spots you can exploit in the building, or staff that will assist you in your quest in a very clandestine social engineering pastiche. It’s a relatively short demo that takes about 20-30 minutes to solve, but there’s a persistent feeling that you’re in a living, breathing world from the way that every character interacts within it. The desk clerk comments on a leak in the ceiling, the office workers type or analyze lines of code on their PCs in real time, you find old password notes in the trash. One of the workers you help with an item offers to meet you in the empty courtyard on his smoke break later, moments after this as you’re passing through said courtyard, voila.. there he is thanking you for doing him a favor. These isolated small moments of pacing give a sense of real progress and movement without any use of in-game time mechanics.
In premise and structure, Fragmentation works like an adventure game but has the implied depth and flow of an immersive sim without a single shot fired. You’re crawling through ducts, you have an inventory bar, you do platforming, and you’re faced with a list of objectives you need to make mental note of. This overlap of genres posits a question to the audience, how exactly do we distinguish the two genres and at what point do they begin to blur together? Is it the first person perspective, movement mechanics, the way problems are solved, or is there a necessity for finite simulated elements like characters interacting with each other?
Fragmentation works around this fuzzy distinction by specifically building a world with an authentic feeling of temporal cadence. People take breaks, they talk to you about having a meeting only to disappear moments later. Pribelszky has made it a point to give even the smallest interactions some sense of flow and cosmic accountability.
There’s a comfort in the idea of a combat-free immersive sim, to take all the qualities of a “thinking man’s shooter” and place it firmly within the territory of pastel riddles. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a sense of danger that rides in on the coattails of a looming conspiracy, and the game is far from free of conflict, but the fact that you aren’t the ones committing these violent verbs or fleeing some kind of Chekov’s Monster makes a tremendously refreshing change. The worst act you can commit on anyone in this game is stealing their sandwich while they aren’t looking, resulting in them being extremely pissed off in disbelief at your egregious transgression when you finally talk to them- because really, what else did you expect? Gratitude? You just ate someone’s lunch!
It’s not like the game offers any particularly startling feats of difficulty or imaginative puzzle work, but the attention to detail goes a long way. Fragmentation is a delightful study in how to make even a straightforward world feel real enough to touch, and a further analysis of the ways in which Pribelszky has manifested these optional and multi-path interactions would likely yield meaningful lessons on good design. From the tasteful music to the level design itself, every minute of gameplay carries with it a sense of significance that hooks you in the first moments and drives you towards the finish line.
It will be wonderful to see how the full release turns out because if the demo’s ending sequence is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride, and I don’t just mean the bird people.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice