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.