Photographs can’t lie, can they? I mean of course they could, but they look like they wouldn’t. We do associate them with proof, after all. Why is that? I bet it’s the mechanical aspect of it. We see a machine, eating light through a lens then excreting an image. Where could a lie hide there? Light wouldn’t lie and neither would a machine, much less excrement of any kind. Only people lie, and they weren’t a part of the process.
Except they were, of course. People built the machine. They chose what light to feed it. They… did things to the excrement. We know this too well. Nobody really thinks photos look like they can’t lie, not in the 21st century. But they do look like they really want us to think they can’t.
Vernacular (Daniil “Da Neel” Ermakov, 2014) consists of twenty polaroids arranged in a grid over a table. It’s either a table or a board of some sort or a featureless black void of human incomprehension, but the main thing is the photos. Some of them haven’t developed yet so whatever they show us must have happened recently.
And what do they show? There is a broken car (yours, presumably) stopped by a house in the middle of the night near a dead tree. There is the door of the house, and the photo says “You asked for it” in permanent marker. There is a body soaked in blood next to a knife soaked in blood. There is a stone on the ground, and the picture says “The air is cold and tasty.” There is a dead woman’s face, and the picture says “It started here.”
You click on the photos and things happen. You pick up the stone, you paint on a canvas, you knock on the door, you turn on a light, you… pull some kind of green, coral-shaped talisman out of a wound on the neck of a giraffe? Or is it a horse? A demon? The game is very short so it doesn’t spend a lot of time building up to the weird.
The pieces of the story are intentionally surreal and unsettling. They won’t make much sense initially, or even eventually. The featureless black void of human incomprehension is to Vernacular what the gutter is to a comic: the empty space between panels, what the author doesn’t show you, and the place where you’re meant to build connections between the frames so a story can happen.
Now, despite not saying anything explicitly, gutters are often very clear about the story they want you to reconstruct. This is not really the case here. You know the player character stopped by a creepy house one night but you don’t know what the things that happened that night meant for them. You literally don’t know where they came from or where they were going. You know they were taking pictures but you don’t know what for. You know what they wrote on those pictures but the meaning of those words still eludes you.
To add to the confusion, there are two timeframes for the story. The character is watching the pictures develop and living the situations depicted in them at the same time (and also perhaps playing a game about it much later, because framing in games is complicated). The photos change when you click on them. When are the changes happening? What is it that’s being changed?
Unsurprisingly, not knowing what the character is doing makes their motives pretty fuzzy too. Maybe the photographs are showing things that didn’t happen (they can’t help themselves) and you’re changing them so they do. Maybe you’re changing the past, or just your memories. Maybe you’re tampering with evidence. Who knows? But among the thousand confusions Vernacular contains, there is one constant central to every interpretation of the game I’ve been able to come up with: someone is being lied to.
While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten trying to figure out the structure of Vernacular. There is a subject and an object (a player character and twenty polaroids), there is a dialog between them, and there is a lie.
Interestingly enough, the player can’t be deceived by it. Most games’ lies exist to allow for a twist ending to happen. You or your characters are supposed to believe something and it turns out to be false. You know, like when cultural expectations made players think Samus was a dude for nearly all of the original Metroid. Or when players were told they were fighting the good fight but then it turned out they were committing war crimes in Every Action Game Ever: The Line.
But Vernacular never claims anything specific to begin with (Da Neel is with me on this one if you care about author confirmation), so you couldn’t naively fall for it even if you wanted to. There is physical violence, both shown and suggested, that you would reasonably want to lie to the police about. There is a loss of universal sense that you would reasonably want to lie to yourself about. There is Eva, whom you maybe lied to.
If they exist, these lies are all being told inside the story, and are never stated in a way that they’d reach you. Vernacular is not trying to fool the player. You see, if the game wanted to teach us photographs can lie, that’d be a piece of cake (which is also a lie). It’d just have to show us pictures of something so we think it’s true and then find a way to tell us it isn’t.
But Vernacular is not just about deception, it’s also about uncovering truth. Remember the polaroids that still hadn’t developed? Well, over the course of the game their contents are revealed, and this is presented pretty much as an expansion of our access to facts. That is actually the goal of the game, in the mechanical sense: getting to see all the photos.
Which doesn’t mean we’ll understand any of them. The truth we uncover is just more of that surreal night we spent in a creepy house and more of those eerie events the game ostensibly wants us to assign meaning to.
Looking at my games, you might say that they are weird and broken beyond belief, but I think that they are still pretty solid in what they are trying to convey. You might not find any storyline or logic but if you got an odd feeling and experience — the game has done its job.
Vernacular certainly has the general shape of a game with challenges that lead to some kind of closure, yet it only gives us a chance at solving its macaronic puzzles so as to get at something that only leaves the vague impression of being exposed as it truly is.
But that’s essentially what interacting with everything around us is, right? To me, Vernacular understands that providing us with clear answers would imply we frequently find them in the real world. And the game simply refuses to tell us that lie.