I had the opportunity to briefly sit down and check out FRACT OSC, a music-exploration game by Phosfiend Systems, at PAX East. I was quite impressed; the meditative-musical journey is an intense experience for both the eyes and the ears. But having played the game for longer, did the puzzles make my instruments stutter? Did I get lost in its complex, synthesized world? Read on to find out.
FRACT is intentionally vague on its premise and subsequent instructions. Don’t expect to find an intro or scattered diaries that explain your existence or the world’s – but what’s apparent is that the majority of said universe is dead. Quietly dead. Being the musician you are, you can’t stand that, and so you must learn the language of the world, fix up the machines, and hear the game’s righteous electronic soundtrack.
Headphones are recommended for many games for greater immersion, especially horror games. In FRACT though, it’s not just about good headphones, but a good ear. The primary action in the game is walking and looking; it’s from the first-person-perspective, after all. Players are given a run button, and that’s about it. However, the real key is the right mouse button, responsible for entering “interact mode.” In this mode, all the previously-invisible panels light up. Simple click and drag controls allow adjusting knobs, entering notes, and solving the mechanical puzzles.
In the main part of the game, FRACT drops you in a giant map with a hub and three divergent lands: pink (which represent the lead instrument), blue (bass), and green (pad). Finding your way to the puzzles is relatively easy. The dark, polygonal landscape is scattered with color-coded objects, and each puzzle has a teleporter station nearby. Pink puzzles, for instance, are spatial. They require standing in front of panels that let you move a cube in a 3D space, and using that to progress or climb to the next panel. Finishing a puzzle unlocks an elevator to the top, which takes you to a synthesizer. The synthesizer is another type of puzzle, but more closely related to the music themes in the game. It requires you to place notes in proper places in order to create a short music track, while looking at feedback columns. The closer you are to the solution, the more the columns fill. Success equals unlocking parts of the Studio (more on that later), as well as releasing the contained music track. The location now has a groovy electronica track playing, and you can move on to the next puzzle.
At the beginning, I really enjoyed solving the puzzles. As I mentioned, they don’t come with any instructions or hints, but figuring them out felt intrinsic and satisfying. Not knowing the exact mechanics, not only did I grasp the ideas, but I also understood how they connected with the musical themes Phosfiend was trying to convey; putting them together and hearing the end result feels rewarding enough. FRACT naturally encourages you to move about and explore and find puzzles; by not putting up quests, goals, or arrows, the motivation comes from within. The world is mysterious and full of even more mystifying objects, not all of which are interactive.
It takes time to learn FRACT‘s language, and even then, it’s difficult to figure out all of the distinct kinks. Other than what’s contained in the puzzles, each area is marked by symbols, which help moving abut when using the teleporter pad. But as the puzzles got harder, frustrations arose. One of the synthesizer puzzles, where I needed to put in specific tones to figure out a tune, seemed just that – too specific. I had the right tune, and the bars that signal how close you are were basically at 99% – but it turned out that there was a space needed in the track. After many headaches and some help, I was able to get it, but it just seemed counter-intuitive. I might as well have been trying to figure out a password. The music puzzles can also be solved by very-determined guessing. One of the ideas behind the game is to “make your own soundtrack”, but some of the tasks don’t reflect that.
What’s more, it’s too bad that the music you wake up is limited to just the location where you solved the puzzle. There’s little reason to backtrack to the solved puzzles, so the awesome, unlocked tunes stay confined there, while most of the traveling spent in the dark, polygonal ledges and paths is in silence. And when you do have to backtrack or travel more on foot, searching for clues scattered around the map became one of the most painful, flaw-revealing parts of the game. It became glaring how much the game needs a jump button – not because FRACT needs platforming – but because there are tons of tiny ledges, angles, and uneven terrains that you can’t walk over or require a long walkaround to pass. In fact, I frequently resorted myself to suicidal jumping into pits of death to reset my character on a different path. It’s easy to get lost and lose track of which puzzles are which way, especially in the green section – the pads. These puzzles involve rotating platforms, and backtracking on them to reach a different door ,or even a portal, was very troublesome. On a few occasions, I wasn’t nearby any portal or chasm, so I just had to exit the game to reset my position, or make great use of the “Return to Last Station” button.
Another issue that is that FRACT seems to be poorly optimized. For the graphics displayed (which aren’t impressive in the technical aspect, as in they don’t seem like they should consume a lot of resources), the game requires a disparaging 8 GB of RAM memory (recommended). My 6 GB setup with a NVIDIA GeForce GT540 M had trouble keeping the game on for long, slowing down the framerate to stutters. With the affected framerate, green puzzles that require rotating platforms are a huge pain. Obviously, one answer is to get an upgraded machine, but on the other hand, FRACT doesn’t have a lot of options to tone down its power needs, just V-sync and draw distance. The sad part about this is that the music suffers as well, sputtering, crackling, and becoming nonsensical. Again, this will depend on your machine, but if you, dear reader, mainly play retro indie games, do read the minimum requirements before purchasing.
In spite of difficult puzzles, which may or may not be frustrating, FRACT successfully takes you on a musical journey that exercises your brain. The Studio, which is progressively unlocked by playing the game, is like another side of the coin that makes it all worth it. Free from exploration and mind-boggling tasks, you have all the games’ tools at hand to unleash your own electronica tunes. The fascinating thing? It uses the game’s interface exclusively; no keyboard shortcuts, menus, etc. Still using first-person-perspective FRACT controls, you use the lead, bass, and pad to lay down notes, and then modify them with panels around you. Add some beats, layer out the track parts to your desire, and record it – and voilà, your own track is ready, and can either be downloaded to your computer or uploaded directly to YouTube. Unfortunately, I was not able to connect my YouTube account with the game’s interface, in spite of it telling me I did it correctly, but I’m a firm believer that if other people can’t do it now, it will be fixed. Other big pluses for the already great Studio are a handful of tutorial videos and an “Unlock All” button that saves you from the puzzles, if those happen to stem your creative output.
FRACT is a flawed gem, like an underground indie musician who’s not widely known or well-understood. It’s tough to predict reactions to it, because puzzles can often go either way – from frustrating and unclear, to easy and workable. The Studio will definitely get more life out of it from certain people. There will be those who find it a novelty, an interesting tool, but they might not make much out of it. Others can get into a new world of electronic music, an easily-workable studio at their fingertips, with YouTube as their publishing platform. Hopefully, after knowing these things, it will be fairly easy to make a decision whether the $15 is worth it. Simultaneously, FRACT shouldn’t be judged by the “price to hour of play ratio”, but rather as a meditative, music-studio experience. It’s not about how long the puzzles will take, instead it’s about what you get out of an adventurous music-simulator/maker.
Ultimately, FRACT is an idea – a unique, interactive music experience that is, if not worth buying, certainly worth hearing out.