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Road to the IGF: Skeleton Business' Vignettes

February 20, 2018 | By Joel Couture

February 20, 2018 | By Joel Couture
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More: Indie, Video, IGF

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Vignettes encourages exploration and curiosity through manipulatable objects, hiding whole new items and stories through touch, rotation, and orientation of colorful things. Each of the bright, toy-like items that Vignettes displays hides a narrative within it, and should the player figure out how to shift these objects around, they'll awaken snake spirits, save stray cats, and more as they move through the motions.

Gamasutra had a chat with Pol Clarissou of Skeleton Business, developers of Vignettes, and David Kanaga, its music designer, to talk about creating a curiosity and need to explore with a single object that seems simple at a glance, yet hides a story within its changing shapes.

What's your background in making games?

Clarissou: Armel (Gibson) and I have both been doing shortform experimental games for a few years during our free time. Armel also worked on commercial games during the day, and I was still a student. We're both members of the Klondike games/art collective, and took part in a lot of game jams and other small time projects, until we eventually decided to work together on Vignettes from a small prototype I made in 2014.
We worked on it on & off for a while, until eventually Armel went freelance and I graduated, and we started working on it fulltime.

Sometime in early 2016, we reached out to David (Kanaga) for the audio of the game because we loved his previous work, both in games like Proteus or Panoramical and in his standalone album releases.

How did you come up with the concept?

Clarissou: The concept draws its inspiration from the feeling of eerie surprise that I felt when looking at Tale of Tales' Vanitas, a mobile game where you open a box to discover objects with heavy symbolism, in the vibe of divination or fortune telling. Vanitas itself got its inspiration from vanitas paintings of the Renaissance, and that same inspiration can be found in Vignette's picture frames. The core idea here is the focus on objects as narrative elements with multiple layers of explicit and symbolic meanings, and the way the association of these objects can communicate a bigger picture and almost tell a story.

I can't really say what inspired the core mechanic itself, besides maybe my affinity for flat-shaded 3D art and the possibilities it allows for stylization and visual tricks.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Clarissou: The technical implementation of the game is actually pretty straightforward, so there's no big secret here - we used Unity to build the game and didn't need much else besides recurrent help from our programmer friends to help us figure out 𝖖𝖚𝖆𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖓𝖎𝖔𝖓𝖘.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Clarissou: The very first prototype of Vignettes is from the summer of 2014, but we've only worked on the game fulltime between summer 2016 (which we spent in Stugan, an ideal context to kick our development workflow into high gear) and April 2017, when we released on iOS. Since then, Armel's taken on other freelance work and personal projects while I started a day job, but we're still working on the game on the side. We added content to it when we released on Android in December, and we'll add more finishing touches before we release on computers later on.

How do you allow for exploration by rotating an object? What thoughts went into creating new things to see just through turning something? How do you hide unique discoveries just on the other side of an object?

Clarissou: The process to come up with ideas for the game was a lot of drawing, observing objects around us in our everyday life, and coming up with ideas for thematics that fit our game - thematics also helped us define what kind of interactions each area of the game should have. Antique shops, still life paintings, and museums were also good places to find ideas.

Figuring out objects that would transition smoothly was kind of a hassle though, and there is no trick here: it was all about drawing the objects we'd like to see in each area and making a million drafts to see what shape we could make them into, and how to connect them.

We had more freedom for which interactions each object should have, but we also tried to keep it consistent and simple here. Vignettes was always meant to be a minimalistic game, and we tried to stick to simple design paradigms and gestures throughout.

How does appealing to curiosity affect how you design a game? How did you create player curiosity with Vignettes?

Clarissou: We tried, earlier in development, to make a version of Vignettes that would tell a story through the objects in a down-to-earth, straightforward fashion; but I think we realized upon making that prototype that this actually trivialized the game and made the experience much less interesting and surprising, turning it into a mechanical puzzle game. Instead, we ended up making the narrative aspect of the game much looser, while making the transitions themselves simpler. That helps make the experience less frustrating and, instead of focusing about the mechanical puzzle aspect of the game, it emphasizes surprise and curiosity - "What will the next object be?" becomes the driving question, and "How do I get to the next object?" becomes a secondary one.

This same idea of mechanical simplicity was central to the interactions with individual objects. Our main concern was to make the interactions simple and natural (a tap, a swipe, etc), but to leave them open-ended, so players feel a curiosity of not knowing exactly what will happen, and discover how the objects react to their touch.

Color and smooth visuals create a certain tone and playful mood in Vignettes. How did you decide on the game's look & colors?

Clarissou: The flat colours and simple silhouettes of the game were obviously a requisite for the concept, but they also fit with our minimalistic design, and our focus on manipulation. We wanted each object to feel compelling to spin around, like an object you'd want to hold in your palm in real life - we basically went for a children's toy vibe with them, each object made chunky and cute.

The objects in Vignettes are also not meant to be specific objects, but rather generic 'concepts' of a general class of objects, like the 3D equivalent of pictograms - again, children toys were a good inspiration for this.

Sam Boucher, the artist behind GNOG, was a big inspiration behind the way we treated colours in the game (and is a good friend! Hi!!). We went for a colorful and playful palette, but kept a lot of deep warm purples and pinks in some areas of the game to keep that underlying vibe of mystery and symbolism.

Vignettes creates an inquisitive mood through its music. How do you encourage curiosity and relaxation through song?

Kanaga: The curiosity is there to begin with in the balance of repetition and variation Armel and Pol designed into the visual-topological form. With the music, I tried to give voice to what I was feeling in the non-sonic game which is already calming in its stillness, but also has a kind of propulsive sense of motion once it's played, sitting on this fine line between discrete transition and continuity, the former which is scored with single events, the latter with loops built of musically ‘adjacent’ content. Ironically, I was mostly thinking about amping-up emotional intensity rather than encouraging relaxation!

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Clarissou: I honestly haven't played any of them save for 5-10 minutes sessions of Rain World and Heat Signature on friends' computers. Lots of them are on my list though, with Butterfly Soup at the top, as well as Night in the Woods and 10 Mississippi. That last one in particular is one I'm very curious about, because the question of gesture in games and the use of photography/non-gamey art in interactive media are things I'm very interested in.

I am also deeply outraged that the Norwood Suite only got a honorable mention!??!! Definitely my top game of the year. But hey.

Kanaga: Uurnog is delightful, and its music system is on a totally new level of algorithmic/interactive flux. Inspiration from Nifflas’ early work is a big reason I got into indie games in the first place - it’s always had a sensitive feeling for the musicality of environment and game feel, and Uurnog runs beautifully with all of this. Everything Is Going to Be OK is fire! a brilliant swirl of light and dark energies, like this fierce wind made from hot and cold air tumbling about, it has an incredible singular mood to it which celebrates positive energy as a temperature necessarily intermixed with its contrasting Hell.

And, seconding Pol, Norwood Suite is terrific - musical-associative surrealism, with a great dialogue system which is something of a new take on the recitative form of speechy-singing in opera.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

Clarissou: Honestly, the list is long, but here's my pet peeves:

Lack of funding both in games and arts in general, due to general economic collapse and austerity (that one's a biggie).

Lack of proper history of the medium. Other people will be better informed than I about this, but essentially, between platforms dropping support for old games (both due to hardware and commercial reasons) and the lack of support for outlets that aren't commercially focused, we're really killing games as an artform. There's an incredibly rich history of games that are all but unplayable at this point, without any place to even properly read about them, and that's very dear to me as we're currently seeing the slow death of the flash games scenes (which, for all the toxic shit that wallowed in there, is where I first found my interest for experimental games and an accessible platform for my beginnings as a games person). And, with games writing being out of funding, outlets regularly disappear into the ether. The question of how we archive digital works is its own can of worms.

Most indie scenes are still completely dominated and operated by white people - white men in particular - and for all the lip service that the industry does to the few visible women and people of colour and queers in independent games, its actual track record on the inclusion of minorities is still nothing to be proud of. This is a problem we're part of ourselves, as an all-white-male team.

The working conditions of the people of this industry aren't good, and that doesn't only apply to AAA workers in crunch hell. Between the increasing attacks on public welfare (in countries where there is one to begin with) and the lack of unions, the majority of indie devs are in an incredibly tight situation. Vignettes wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Armel and I benefiting from the French welfare state (which is itself being eroded as i'm talking), and it's disheartening to think of how rare a luck it is.

On that note, i think it's very dangerous that 'Big Indies' are often falling for the entrepreneur mindset, and tend to promote dangerous and essentially damaging attitudes - negative towards unions, naive towards the economic power dynamics of the industry, especially when it comes to producers and distribution platforms.

There are no opportunities. 2k18 going straight to hell baby 🤘🤘🤘.

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