Pax East Preview – FRACT

The initial question FRACT brings up is basic: What is this game even about? The one-sentence answer is, “it’s a music-exploration game”, but what does that mean? Canadian developer Phosfiend Systems brings the player a new world, with gusto, pampering the senses – in particular, hearing.

FRACT is a first-person exploration game that sets the protagonist in an unnamed, mysterious, forgotten world, devoid of much narrative or explanation. The dark, polygonal landscape seemingly has the player trapped in a machine, with a few neon colors blinking in the distance. The game begins without any directions, prompting a search of the surroundings. Quickly though, the player stumbles across the first panel, which requires entering the “interactive” mode by right clicking; this triggers a few lights and shapes to pop up on the panel, and an easy mechanical puzzle – move one of the floating objects and press it, as though it was a futuristic computer panel – that once completed, lights up more of the area. But more importantly, it’s the music that comes alive.

This being my first time playing FRACT – the full-version was demoed at PAX East – I was intimidated, as my music capabilities leave a lot to be desired. Exploration is easy enough, and the developers have done a good job of keeping the player interested in solitary, almost directionless discovery, without quests, tutorials or other instructions spamming on the screen. The very first level being simple enough, the second one involved a larger area with three small puzzle sections. Once all three are solved, an elevator helps players along to the next level. The best thing is seeing the world come alive: Music starts up, beats wake up, tones sound off, and so on, each puzzle restoring the dimension.

FRACT_bassseq1It wasn’t until level three, however, that the music part of my brain started to wake up. The intriguing puzzles started combining logic and music, each segment reflecting (loosely) on actual music creation with a synthesizer. Puzzles with the pink color are the “lead synthesizer”, so solving the related logical elements will wake up that sound. The “sequence” puzzles in particular resonated with me. Throughout the experience I went through several stages in my head: From “I have no idea what the heck this is,” to “OK, I kinda get that I have to fill in sounds here”, and “All right, this puzzle is about sequencing sound with appropriate pauses” until I solved it. But coming at it without any instruction or explanation and successfully figuring out not only the puzzle mechanics but also the idea behind it is simply testimony for great game design.

As I reached clarity, I got shivers on my back, because I felt immensely satisfied to be rewarded with a depth of sound, the soundtrack waking up to my actions. I followed it up with two different kinds of puzzles: Blue ones that relate to base synth, and the green ones that relate to the pads (electronic drums). Without typical narrative, text, and audio diaries scattered around, the gameplay in FRACT is intrinsically motivational and natural. Self-motivated to explore and learn, the game kept me intrigued, even though I myself have very little experience creating or playing music.

FRACT_pad3“We wanted to bring the fun of music-making to a new audience, in a new context,” said Quynh Nguyen, producer and designer at Phosfiend Systems.

The “story” is just one aspect of gameplay in FRACT. As you complete the puzzles and clear stages, more and more elements can be unlocked in the “Studio” mode. The Studio is a fully-fledged in-game music creator, using the in-game interface players will become accustomed to. I sat down with designer Richard Flanagan to help me through it (with all elements unlocked). I put up tones in the lead synthesizer, worked up the beat, gave the sound more depth, and a few other modifications (“just do whatever!” he told me), and within minutes I crafted an electronica track that I could get around with. Best thing? You can export the sound you create as a sound file, or upload it directly to YouTube. Here’s an example of a track made in-game.

Winner of multiple game awards, FRACT is shaping/sounding up to be a unique experience – a meditative, zen-like walk through the insides of a synthesizer. The game is coming out very soon – April 22nd – on Steam. You can also buy it from their website, GoG.com, or the Humble Bundle store.