Electron Dance
16Feb/2014

Phase Two

At Rezzed in 2016, I dabbled with a game called Vignettes, which I described as “a Vectorpark game not made by Vectorpark.” It was simple but genius: rotate object in 3D space until its silhouette matches the silhouette of another object – into which it then transforms. And repeat to find more objects. It was a little rough around the edges, being an early build, but intriguing.

Not intriguing enough for me to snap it up when it came out on mobile in 2017. Nor desktop last year. My imagination couldn’t fill in a particularly daunting blank: what else could there be except rotating objects into objects ad infinitum?

Unable to answer this question, I waited two years before trying Vignettes (Skeleton Business, 2017). And that’s a shame.

Perhaps it is also true to say the Vignettes team didn’t know what Vignettes was when they took it to Rezzed? Their original plan was to make Vignettes a narrative game which told a story without words. Here’s a screenshot, not in the final release, of a bored hand, drumming its fingers against a computer keyboard. According to Skeleton Business, this made for “a very boring game”.

Not everything was lost from the narrative build. Objects in Vignettes are often connected through common themes, such as a toy box, a countryside hike or a walk in the night.

However, Vignettes was never a linear game. While some shapes only had a single alter-ego silhouette, others had multiple options which lent the game a form of branching structure. You can see how a story might be told in this way. While clever, it exhibited one problem: it was never clear where an alternate path might lie. You might be fiddling with the same shapes for a long time, unable to find a new silhouette exit. I remember a frustrating loop like this during Rezzed.

Skeleton Business recognised that Vignettes needed cartography and added a map that shows the roads travelled and those not travelled. It isn’t a perfect map, though. It only reveals the neighbourhood of possibilities, so recall is needed to assemble the whole. Finishing the game is achieved by exhausting the map and players will need a good memory to figure out where they haven’t been. You can always bring pen and paper on your journey, but that isn’t an option if you’re playing mobile on an actual journey. Like I did.

Perhaps the average player won’t notice, but getting David Kanaga on board to do the music was a masterstroke. Kanaga gives Vignettes a quirky, eccentric mood, always on the mark but never quite what you expect. And it still pains me to think about how I didn’t follow up on Vignettes for over two years. I didn’t follow up because I could not see phase two.

Yes, it’s underpants gnomes time again. In series two, episode seventeen of the, er, mature animated series South Park, a bunch of little gnomes are stealing underpants to make money. Except their fantastic business plan has a fatal flaw. Phase one is to collect underpants. Phase three is profit. There’s no phase two. The gnomes hadn’t worked out how to get from underpants to profit.

With “gimmick” games, this can be a serious difficulty. Phase one is cool gimmick. Phase three is interesting game. Developers launch into making a game, hoping phase two will eventually sort itself out. But sometimes it doesn’t, forcing the developers to pad out the gimmick with tedious tropes borrowed from other games, such as collectibles or memory games. The first example that comes to mind is Tengami (Nyamyam, 2014), a beautiful game resembling a Japanese pop-up book that becomes tedious to explore, although there are plenty of others.

This can be a problem for player’s imaginations as much as the developer’s creative process. Whereas I thought the Vignettes prototype was clever, there was no hook. I couldn’t even imagine one. It ended up on my phone because of a random top-amazing-you-must-play Android games list – I was searching for titles I’d heard of but forgotten about. I wanted to install something, anything, that didn’t look like the clone of a hundred million other games. Vignettes was there but it was with some reluctance I finally tapped “Buy” on Google Play.

While the commercial release was similar to the game I had dabbled with in 2016 there were distinct differences which proved crucial. Many objects now offered interactions which had consequences – and it was in these consequences that secrets were buried. We’re not really talking about Vignettes as a “logical” puzzle game, but more as a secret box – like trying to interpret what an achievement icon meant, looking for patterns that others might not see. You can dial what you like on the phone, but is there a particular number you should be dialling?

Vignettes also received a “Spooky Update” in December 2017 which really goes all out in terms of secret achievements and was an excellent, spellbinding addition to the main game. Trying to solve that during the train commute, without the ability to make notes, was tricky but wicked fun. The more recent “Underwater” addition was fairly linear in comparison and unable to reach the same high bar set by the Spooky Update.

It is by no means perfect. Some of the transitions require a frustrating level of silhouette precision to align correctly and I think travelling from the mushroom to the eyeball jar is the worst offender. Also Vignettes only saves achievements but none of the actions leading to them. More than once I was confused thinking I’d set up an achievement in a previous commute but it wouldn’t trigger. You have to do all of the actions required in the same game session. But I loved the game nontheless.

I think back to the numerous times I shrugged off purchasing the game because my extrapolation from a ten-minute experience at Rezzed lacked imagination. How was I to know that Vignettes would be an engaging exploration? How was I to know that objects would work together to hide secrets? How was I to know that Vignettes would have tricky achievements that would absorb me for days?

I wonder about all the developers selling clever ideas and gimmicks, their sales patter falling on deaf ears. The gimmick might get eyeballs but if hordes of players doubt the developer can figure out phase two, they’re also doubting whether they can put cash down. Sometimes they’re right to doubt. But sometimes they’re wrong.

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Comments (14) Trackbacks (1)
  1. This was a fantastic read Joel, particularly the ‘phase 2’ thing. It’s so true, and it also folds into not wanting to spoil stuff… but some folk need that to become interested. I suppose that’s where you need fans to come from the other end, in phase 3, with ‘this game is great, you should really check it out!’ and hopefully potential players can meet us in the middle after phase 1 to discover why. (I’ve looked at the phases from a buyer point of view rather than a developer finding the hook, because they’re similar quandaries.)

    I’m currently, well, still writing a games of the year(s) list for Tap which includes Vignettes so I’ll probably link to this! I’m so glad you loved it as much as I did. I was absolutely delighted and so surprised by it. I also share your gripes as well. The mushroom into eye. Holy shit. And the torch into welly, or something in that hiking section, caused me big problems. You know, I don’t think I’ve seen the underwater stuff. At the time I’m pretty sure I found everything so I wonder if the updates added a few things. Either way, one of my favourite mobile games. Very sweet end game rewards.

    Also, getting David Kanaga on board for anything is a masterstroke :-) I don’t even need to see his name in the credits to recognise his work now, it’s that distinctive. He’s worked with Loju a couple of times on Ordia and Transmissions and they sound amazing. (One of the Loju devs Hai and I went to uni with. He was a funny guy. Their second game, Causality, came out the same week as Induction and both were time manipulation puzzlers. Such a weird coincidence.)

  2. Thanks Gregg! I was surprised how much I eventually got into Vignettes and knew I had to write about that journey. And I’m mulling over all the cool games I’ve had a go at but not returned to because of the same reservations. Reservations I didn’t even notice! A shrug is barely a reservation. How can you stop a shrug with “wait, now”?

    I didn’t realise David Kanaga had done the music until the game finished, but I goggle at the work required to make all those perfect accompaniments. That’s not to poo-poo the work that went into polishing every scene. The original prototype was strongly Sega 32X Virtua Fighter, so a huge amount of refinement has come in since. Oh and now that you mention it – yes, the boot was another one that got me all the time!

    The underwater section is not available on the Android version. I asked Skeleton Business if I could get a key for the PC version as I would render better screenshots (vertical screenshots are not great) – they sent one along and it included the extra underwater section. I 95%’d the game again on PC version before I wrote this. There’s also something called Vignettes OS on the PC version which I still haven’t tried.

  3. Ah that explains it! I may have to pick this up on PC then because, well, it was lovely on my phone, but on a big screen with some nice speakers? Yes please. The Vignettes OS looks cute and I remember seeing that on the itch page!

    I’m a real stickler with sound and music. I know it’s not something that a lot of people put a big conscious value on but I think it’s so important. I used to do a bit of sound recording and manipulation at uni for my interactive projects and loved it (Thief and System Shock 2’s sound libraries got a lot of attention when sampling!). I think in another life I would have pursued something like that!

  4. I don’t imagine there’ll be any more content updates after this, but can’t see how they’d top the Spooky Content with its rather rich reward for completing the super secret achievement.

  5. The last time I was actually playing most of the Weird Indie Things that came out was probably 2007, but after the revolution I at least felt generally aware of the landscape thanks to coverage on various sites. Nowadays, though, I’ve been completely overtaken. Where does one even go to find out about them now? Twitter? Please don’t say it’s Twitter.

  6. CA – you can try John Walker’s new site Buried Treasure and for the more esoteric, you can sign up for the weird games newsletter which I can’t find the link for just now. There’s always Warpdoor as well.

  7. Vignettes sounds a bit like Gorogoa in the “gameplay as visual pun” aspect. (In Gorogoa, As You May Know, you slide pictures around to recombine them.) And Gorogoa also had the Phase Two problem, where the demo was lovely but it wasn’t clear how it would be turned into a full game–in fact the demo had what would’ve been at least half of the final game content, if it had gone into the game unaltered. And the solution seems similar too: Add more adventure game logic, where instead of just combining the pictures and seeing what it does you have to calculate the consequences of your actions. Both games (at least sound like) they remove everything from the point-and-click adventure and then put a bit back in.

    With Gorogoa it helps that it’s just so damn visually attractive that it’s engaging when not that much other stuff is going on, and that even though its playtime is short you can replay it to try and glean some more story and also just to bask in the drawings, and also that it has the hook of This One Man Spent So Long Just Making This Game which helped it sustain attention during the several years when he was reworking the gameplay from the demo, and which also parallels the story in the game. I know that my thing is saying that games’ stories are about the game itself but the parallel seems really obvious to me here!

  8. Here is the link to “Weird Fucking Games”. Don’t go searching for it like I did at work today, because you are going to get back search results that will get you fired.

    Agh thank you for the regular reminder that I should play Gorogoa! I think it’s out on mobile right now as well… but perhaps desktop is its home? I don’t think I was struck with Phase Two with Gorogoa as much – more that it looked like an incredible effort to keep creating those delightful scenarios. So that it took years to come out was no surprise, but it wasn’t phase two that held me back :)

  9. Gorogoa certainly seems mobile-suitable to me! The controls could literally not be more mobile-friendly (I figure, I don’t do mobile) and the only issue is that maybe you’d like to have the pictures bigger, but I assume you can hold your phone up to your face if that’s an issue.

  10. Artwork and animation that lovely need to be on a big screen!

  11. I now have to use varifocals, so I’ve no idea what’s an issue any more. I’m sure my hearing will be gone soon as well as my typing skllzce434

  12. John Walker’s #1 buried treasure for 2019 was Supraland. It would have been my GOTY if I hadn’t also played Subnautica last year.

    Since you mentioned John Walker.

  13. Uh-oh, getting another prompt for Supraland. I didn’t forget about it, honest.

    (Narrator: He had forgot about it.)

  14. Supraland may not be a great choice for streaming or playing with family watching. So much of what makes it great is how the movement and physics feels. There are puzzles and obstacles you solve almost kinesthetically — you know what to do because you can feel what is possible and what will happen if you do x. I don’t know how much people can get from just watching that.


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