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Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette
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Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette

February 12, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


In literature, poetry, and film, a vignette is a brief, indefinite, evocative description or account of a person or situation. Vignettes are usually meant to give a sense of a character rather than to advance a narrative.

They are frequently impressionistic and poetic, even if rendered in prose or visual form, a tendency reinforced by the term's secondary meaning in photography: a loss in clarity or brightness at the edge of an image due to the occlusion of a lens's circular optics on square or rectangular emulsion.

In writing, the vignette is a literary sketch. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros's collection of poems and stories about an adolescent Hispanic girl coming of age, offers one example. In film, vignetted style can be found in Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which offers detailed, sordid glimpses into the lives of residents of Los Angeles.

Altman tends to create narrative dependence between vignettes, a feature not found in the Raymond Carver short stories from which Short Cuts was adapted. Other films, like Grand Canyon and Magnolia, also use this style.

The vignette is neither essay nor documentary. It does not make a direct argument, nor does it rationalize. It depicts, roughly, softly, subtly.

As an aesthetic, the vignette is surely underused in video games. One reason might be the relative rarity of small-form representations of human or natural experience in games. Minigames like those of the Wario Ware series are not vignettes; they do not lightly paint a sense of an experience or character; rather, they overtly depict mechanics thinly gauzed in a fictional skin.

The small-scale experiences of casual puzzle games like Zuma are too abstract and unremitting to sketch a particular experience. When larger-scale commercial games attempt similar goals, they typically do it through narrative techniques like cinematics, as in the cutscenes of Final Fantasy VII (pictured below), or artifactual evidence, as in the found recordings and notebooks in BioShock.

One could argue that the visual, aural, and mechanical abstraction encouraged by the technical constraints of early video game platforms like the Atari VCS verge on vignetting their subjects. Warren Robinett's Adventure for VCS renders labyrinths as playfield mazes and the hero as an unembellished dot created with the machine's ball graphics register.

But abstracting is different from sketching; the former tries to get to the essence of an experience or a system, while the latter tries to trace its uniqueness.

Hush offers a glimpse, as it were, of how vignette might be used successfully in games. As an exploration of the potential of the style, the game is a success. And as a vignette of a situation in mid-90s civil war-torn Rwanda, the game is compelling, if perhaps simplistic and overly mawkish.

The anxiety of literal death contradicts the core mechanic's demand for calm, but in a surprising and satisfying way, like chili in chocolate. The increasingly harsh sound of a baby's cry that comes with failure attenuates the player's anxiety, further underscoring the tension at work in this grave scenario.

But as a depiction of patience and child comfort, the more abstract experience actually created in the gameplay, Hush falls down somewhat. Patience as a game mechanic is a promising idea, but Hush's implementation of it is far too regular, too methodical and mechanical to encourage that sensation.

Breaking down the words of a lullaby into individual letters to be input effectively destroys the rhythm of singing a real lullaby, replacing the smoothness and gentleness of that activity with Sesame Street letter concatenation. Furthermore, each letter transitions to full glow in the same amount of time, so one straightforward way to play the game is just to count a rhythm and then execute the keypress at precisely the right time.

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