I had a CRT tv for far too long. There were reasons I held onto the chunky television well into my college years (read: money), but when I inevitably cast it away during a move, I found myself missing it. Not the tv literally, but all the things I watched and played on it. From Kingdom Hearts to Final Fantasy XIII, that tv was always there for me. That was, until I decided I didn’t need it anymore, and swapped it for an updated flat screen to usher me into the future.
In Vignettes, I’m taken back to an old school tv. There’s tall antennas poking out the top of it. It's box-shaped. A distorted, glitched out screen emits noise. When I spoke to the game’s designers Armel Gibson and Pol Clarrisou at the Game Developer’s Conference earlier this year, I was told this was intentional. “We don’t want the objects to be too specific,” Clarrisou said, watching carefully as I stumble-swiped through some of the game in front of them. “We want the objects to have cultural ideas. So when you go to the tv, it’s not gonna be like a flat screen tv like we have today. Every object is this discarded cliche of what it used to be.”
In Vignettes, a newly released iOS game, mundane objects are a gateway. A pot turns into a toaster, or alternatively, a telephone. Tapping a lightbulb might change the colors all around it, ushering you into a foreign hue with entirely new objects to explore. Vignettes is simple and accessible on the surface, but peaking underneath shows more in store: a stray cat trapped in a trash can; travelling across a literal, unravelling map directed by a compass.
Vignettes is the first commercial title from French game designers Gibson and Clarrisou, who are also members of the northern France game collective Klondike. The game’s mission is simple: swipe across a smartphone’s screen to turn an object until it carefully lines up to morph into another object. There are different ways to spin everything you come across, and new items to explore with nearly every swipe. With dynamic music and sounds by David Kanaga (of Proteus, Dyad, Oikospiel fame), the game pops to life.
“We both come from a background of non-traditional games,” Gibson said. “So we wanted to make something that was playful.” As we all talked, I swiped my way through the game’s seemingly invisible pathways. The word “toy” came up more than a few times. And it’s essential to categorize Vignettes as an interactive series of objects, or a "toy-like" plaything rather than a devilish puzzle game. It's the type of intuitive experience that people of any age can enjoy; no barriers in game knowledge needed. Its core mechanic of swiping and discovery simple enough for even a toddler, while its mysterious depth begs to be gobbled up by playful adults.
“We have practice with experimental and freeware games that stretch the boundary of games,” Clarrisou said. Clarissou has also developed the game Orchids to Dusk, a haunting online experience, and recently contributed to the mobile art exhibit Triennale Game Collection. “This is our first commercial game, but we still want it to implement all of this practice that we have with experimentation and not play with the norms of game design into it, and because of that it’s more like a toy than a game.”
There’s a surprising amount to uncover within Vignettes, and not just in terms of its objects. One zone showed me mirrored realities: one in the desolate future (a wilted rose, a spider-dwelling microscope), one in the past (a blooming rose, a clean microscope). Another area moved me across a forested land, directed only by a compass and a map marking my progress. There are eight buried secrets to uncover over the nine brightly colored worlds (most, after playing nightly for an hour or so every night for the past week, I still have yet to find).
And Vignettes continously surprises me, with its hidden areas (found sometimes via an inquisitive tap) and miscellaneous interactive objects (beyond spinning with a swipe). These range wildly, from an interactive trumpet, to projecting socks into a suitcase, to a fan gently blowing cherry blossom pedals in the air. And who knows, when in search of another secret, maybe all I need to do is turn a lampshade on its head to get there.
Vignettes is available now on iOS for $2.99, and is coming to Android devices soon. In the coming months, additional updates and new areas will hit the game. By fall, Gibson and Clarissou plan for a more “consistent” version will make its way to PC and Mac as well.