There are no characters in Vignettes. No story, no enemies, nothing to shoot at, nothing to grind for or collect. Instead, what you have is the joy of discovery. It’s a meditative puzzler, a kind of virtual toy that you can pull out and twiddle around with, taking your time in exploring its secrets.
The conceit is simple: you spin objects, playing with perspective and transforming them into other objects. A bowl viewed another way can be the body of a guitar; a television can be the back of a picture frame. There’s a mysterious logic to the progression of objects, an understated magic to their transformations that might bring to mind the benignly surreal alien landscapes of Vectorpark’s old puzzle game Windosill.
Essentially, Vignettes is a series of optical illusions, though thankfully not of the icepick-to-the-brain Magic Eye poster variety. Rather, it’s beautifully slick with bright colors and a pleasing flat design. Its soundtrack is playful, featuring xylophones and harps and cheeky synths, and each new area sports its own musical motif. Summed up, its aesthetic could be described as sherbet mysticism, a kind of candy-coated Zen that invites you to relax and explore at your leisure.
There’s something attractive about being able to go at your own pace, free from any threat of failure or a high score to beat. Though it bears no superficial similarities to David OReilly’s Mountain, you could draw a connection in their calmness, their willingness to let you define your own experience. Most of the objects float in space, free from any earthly attachments, and seem to only exist for you to tap, twirl, and examine. They are transitory, flowing from one form to the other.
“In Vignettes, the meaning doesn’t come from the combination of objects on the screen but from their sequence, as the objects keep shapeshifting,” say Armel Gibson and Pol Clarissou, the creators of the game.
“There are no words or instructions, only the call for experimentation.”
This manner of shape-shifting isn’t just in form but in meaning, as you draw your own path from shape A to shape B. The items in the game are almost like ideograms, symbolic representations of relationships and ideas that can be as big or small as you imagine them to be. Gibson and Clarissou compare it to the way that “exploring one’s grandparents’ attic and finding old possessions gives you glimpses of their past and their characters.”
That’s where Vignettes’ bold colors come in. Its visuals are very heavily inspired by actual toys and very deliberately cheerful. “This toylike appearance is meant to make players curious and incite them to fiddle around with the objects,” say Clarissou and Gibson.
This call for exploration is the most appealing part of the game. Aside from its title, there are no words or instructions, only the call for experimentation. It rewards curiosity, tucking away secrets such as little hidden interactions between certain objects. When you do find one of these secrets, it’s just as satisfying as the first time you solve a Rubik’s Cube.
And like a Rubik’s Cube or one of those old pocket labyrinth games, Vignettes has an interesting physicality to it. Since it’s only available for the iPhone and iPad — for now, at least — your interactions with it are of course limited to the virtual, but because you’re spinning the objects in space, it feels analogous to picking something up and turning it over in your hands to inspect. It’s a somewhat rare experience in games, to be faced with the immediacy and presence of something and to feel as though you’re interacting with it directly. It’s a universal approach to play, to want to poke around and figure out how something ticks.