Saturday, June 20, 2015

Arkham Knight and the AAA Vignette Problem

Saturday, June 20, 2015 2

What I am calling the vignette problem is when so much skill and attention is paid to portray or evoke an uncommon scenario, it overshadows the actual experience of the game.
Watch from 1:40 in this video. We are treated to a extraordinarily lavish evocation of a Gotham at night and in the rain, bustling with humanity. The camera goes into the head of a police officer, and we experience sitting at the bar as him.
Needless to say, things do not go well for everyone not-Batman in this clip. We realize that the entire scene is merely to set up another moment of chaos unleashed on the city by a villain, a wrong that Batman will right.

Is this scene successful? Absolutely. In a very short period we are drawn into the nighttime diner. It becomes the vignette problem when this little moment is a breath of fresh air compared to the entire series of the game. It is so successful, it is an immediate disappointment to return to "business as usual."
 Particularly in the milieu of violent video games, where high action and high stakes are quotidian ("yeah ok, I'm Batman swooping through the sky, stopping the Scarecrow from making the city rip itself apart from some crazy nerve gas"), a moment or seen not commonly encountered in the series or in that style of games draws perhaps a little too much attention.
 It is precisely because it is so believable a scene. Most players know this scene is "fake", in the sense that there is no continuing life in the diner, no gameplay to be had; this entire set-up exists to get knocked down, so we can get back to being Batman saving the city, now our purpose clear, the stakes raised, but that doesn't stop you from being excited from the possibility space of a novel interaction in a game not about the usual stuff of action games.

This might be very telling of a personal exposure to a lot of action games, but I don't dislike action games, or want them to not be action games. I am not advocating a Gotham city diner simulator--but to me the vignette problem is that the game itself seems to hint at a much more interesting game than it actually is.

But this is unfair to an unreleased game. We should talk a bit about the ultimate offender in this regard: Bioshock Infinite. We are treated to an extended introduction into an extraordinarily richly drawn and detailed world, and we are intrigued. We know our character is an interloper here. How will this play out? The answer is "with a ludicrous display of ultra violence". A reciprocating hook weapon goes right into the face of a policeman, and now you know the drill, soldier. This bit is like everything else you've played in this space.

That to me is the heart of the vignette problem, which in some ways seem to happen more and more as bigger games wish to show more of "cinematic" slice of life environments (Ubisoft games increasingly). They suggest a dynamism, an application of their staggering budget to realize something other than clearly what the game is. I wish they wouldn't tease me.

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