Thryn Henderson

Thryn Henderson

Vignette games: exploring the modes and methods of creating believable emotion in brevity

The goal of this research is to employ critical analysis and exemplar game development to investigate an influential area of game design that remains almost entirely unexplored by academic writings, the vignette game. Best defined as short, single experiences (often autobiographical), vignette games are brief interactions with player input limited to their most meaningful, usually with the intent to portray an emotional landscape rather than a narrative arc. Despite the growing popularity of vignette games among players and creators, as a genre its storytelling, formative works and pioneering techniques are largely undocumented. It’s potential is also greatly untapped, as Ian Bogost writes in his article “Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette”, “as an aesthetic, the vignette is surely underused in video games.” This research will offer vital insights into an expansive, creative and increasingly important subculture in video games, as well as critical understanding of generating empathy in creating games as agents of representation. It also offers tremendous potential for analysing emotional narrative in larger works, and better understanding of the convergences between narrative, emotion and form.

With increasing tools, resources, and budget available in the world of studio-produced games, the creation and study of complex, expansive narrative experiences rivalling the storytelling of books and screen has come under focus. Accorded less attention, though equally as integral to the development of the medium, is the ability to create a strong emotional narrative within a short time-frame, particularly with the challenge of using limited resources: a feat most exemplified by the work of fringe creators, specifically in the burgeoning genre of “vignette” games.

Like their equivalents in areas such as theatre, art, and poetry (or their modern kin such as micro films and twitter novels), the short experiences of vignette games encapsulate a strong, abstract feeling of character and emotion rather than explicit unfolding narratives. The unique nature of these video games thus allows for interactive, generative, and emotional experiences with even the most limited components of play.

My proposed research aims to investigate in detail the nature of vignette games and their storytelling and design in the context of their challenging yet fascinating brevity. It will provide a comprehensive and much needed overview of the genre (how the vignette game can be accurately defined, its value as a mode of narrative) with a central investigative goal of uncovering the core workings that epitomize storytelling in short form: what are the integral technical and artistic methods that make a vignette powerful, and how is it that they provoke such acute emotional responses?

My project will make intermedial comparisons by breaking down individual components of storytelling in the traditional vignettes extant in other media forms to discover what elements translate into gameplay and lead to engaging and emotional experiences. Through close reading, it will analyse a range of vignette games and, supplemented by interviews with games designers, producers and players, document new methods of storytelling in games (sculpted from necessity and available resources alongside new ideas about gameplay and meaning) and the techniques and tools developed to implement them.

I will also develop a suite of explorative games to make use of the tools and techniques explored in my research. I will develop these games along a single creative theme, with each vignette encompassing a translation of a different traditional vignette storytelling technique in order to explore the differing emotional impacts offered. Using questionnaires and interviews, I will also collect and analyse user experience data on the effectiveness of these games’ storytelling techniques.

This study will also touch on areas of the Grand Challenge problem theme of “Intelligent Games/ Believable Characters” (such as the areas of “adapting game story to achieve player emotional responses” and “interactive narrative”). Creative processes, the technical development of the genre, and the emotional impact on the creator/consumer community will be considered.

Particular attention will be paid to the strength of the vignette game in regards to representation and empathy for marginalised communities: vignette games hold a unique position for sharing experiences that are intensely emotional in a time period fleeting enough as to not become overwhelming, thereby creating interactions therapeutic for creator and player alike. Using encapsulated but evocative situations to allow players meaningful, empathetic interactions with topics often difficult to identify with if lacking lived experiences. As vignette creator Nina Freeman states, “Games are uniquely able to give players a sense of embodiment [...] with mechanics that help players embody a lived experience different from their own."

After graduating with a BSc in Multimedia Technology and Design from the University of Kent, Thryn has been creating short form games and working as a small studio producer - most recently with Dublin based Dreamfeel and the international team of Crows Crows Crows. With an interest in personal and alternative games, Thryn’s passion lies in exploring unconventional narrative, interaction and art techniques that create unique and meaningful experiences for both creators and players. These investigations are focused closely on self-representation linked to mental health, gender expression and sexuality, and link closely to her research in vignette games and their communities. Outside of research and games development, Thryn also volunteers as a producer for the monthly VideoBrains talks in London, and at various events focused on encouraging women into interactive technologies.

Home institution: York

Supervisors: Dr Jenna Ng, Dr Daniel Kudenko

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