I love music. I love the way it makes me feel, how a few simple notes strung together in a pattern can fill me with joy. Move the notes in just the right way and that joy becomes sadness. It's a kind of magic, one that should be fertile ground to explore in a game. That's what Fract OSC attempts to do, and I really wanted it to succeed. But after spending some time in the game's world, I don't find myself feeling much of anything at all.
The goal of Fract is to save an abstract, Tron-like world through the power of music. You play as the savior of this futuristic world, or, more likely, the tiniest synthesizer repairman in the world. I begin the game dropped into a largely colorless world, with no indication of how to bring the land back to life. Fract's developer calls it a “first-personal musical exploration game,” and the emphasis there should be on “exploration.” With no quest markers, no breadcrumbs to follow, and no real navigational points to walk toward, I wander around the landscape and look for elements to interact with. Clicking the right mouse button changes my view into an interaction mode instead of a standard mouselook view, highlighting points of interest and anything I might be able to flip, switch, or move. That's my only way of discovering Fract's puzzles, which makes discovering the puzzles a puzzle itself.
The world is divided into three sections, based both on color and on specific roles of a synthesizer--lead, bass, and pad. These paths contain their own types of puzzles, though the puzzles always come in pairs: a mechanic-driven puzzle that's unique to the area, followed by a sequencer-driven brain teaser. Complete the first part, by raising platforms or completing musical circuits, and you'll get access to the sequencer part. Solve the sequencer and the music swells, filling the area with a completed soundtrack of house music that feels pretty damn satisfying.
Your progress is indicated by beams of light you're sending through each spoke of the world. You're never constrained to just one path at a time, and can use waypoints to float to any of the game's areas that you've discovered. I like that freedom: in other games, I'll hit a puzzle that I just can't solve, and that feels like a brick wall. Fract's design says, “Okay, come back to to this later. Go find something else.”
Unfortunately, finding the puzzles is the most boring part of the game. It's never readily apparent which way you should go to progress further, and wandering around the often drab, mostly colorless world wears thin pretty early into the game's playtime. Fract is meant to look futuristic, using lots of digital gray with occasional splashes of neon red, blue, or green. A filter makes the game look like you're staring at it through an analog monitor, scanlines that constantly remind you how futuristic this land is. It's too on-the-nose to actually look futuristic, and winds up feeling more cheesy than cool. I get it: I'm inside a synthesizer.
I could live with that if the music in Fract weren't so sparse. For a game about music, Fract is surprisingly quiet, with mostly small touches of ambiance as you wander your way from puzzle to puzzle. The entire point of the game is to help the soundtrack evolve over your playthrough, and yet I never felt much of a connection to that soundtrack, or that the soundtrack was as much a part of the experience as it should be.
Combined, the audio and the visuals give Fract a distinctly cold feeling, which I think is the exact opposite of what developer Phosfiend Systems was after. I don't feel a personal connection to the game. I just feel bored and lost. Finding a puzzle to solve, even one as basic as turning platforms to guide a beam of light from one end to the other, is an all-too-brief distraction from the emotionless world I'm wandering through. It's also a supremely lonely experience: even Jeff Bridges had friends in Tron. Here, it's just you and the digital wasteland, punctuated by neon seas of green.
Fract's real hook is that you can use the game as an instrument, using built-in sequencing tools to build electronic songs. The tools themselves are interesting, and use common enough principles—step sequencing, modulating a tone, etc.—that they're both approachable and useful. You'll always begin the game in the Studio area, where the various tools and modulations are locked away until you complete puzzles in the game. But if you want to skip straight to making the next classic house track, you can click a button and unlock the studio's content. Which means you don't have to play the game. I wish I had known that at the beginning.
I love music, and so I wanted to love Fract, but nothing in it moved me. I didn't love or hate the experience—I simply didn't care about being lonely and lost in its world, which is cold and often devoid of the music its designed to produce. Music always makes me feel something, and Fract left me feeling numb.