For those who believe in the distinction between high art and low, video games have long been near the bottom of the pile. Fortunately, that has not stopped some of the world’s great art museums from putting on exhibitions. The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, began acquiring games in 2012 and a year later invited visitors to play some of them in a show called “Applied Design”. The most recent video-games exhibition, “Videogames Design/Play/Disrupt”, takes place at an even grander instituion – the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The arriviste status of video games means that exhibitions about them – and especially those that take place in marbled bastions of established culture – risk coming across as cringing and defensive. The V&A, to its credit, mostly manages to avoid that trap. Instead it unapologetically addresses video games on their own terms, as a medium that, more than any other, combines art and storytelling with engineering and technology. The show kicks off with a quote from Frank Lantz, an academic and developer, that neatly summarises the blend of skills required. “Making games combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera. Games are operas made out of bridges.”
Parts of the process look like storyboarding for a film. The concept art and character sketches for the protagonists of “The Last of Us”, a post-apocalyptic survival game, show the attention to detail present in the designers’ creation of Ellie, the teenage girl that is the focus of the story. Other parts have no real parallel with other forms of art. Books and films, for instance, railroad readers and viewers along the plotlines invented by their authors. Games are different. Even those that focus on narrative rather than gameplay must give players enough choice and freedom to maintain the illusion that they are influencing a coherent, believable world – but not so much that anarchy reigns and storytelling becomes impossible. “Journey”, which puts players in the shoes of a pilgrim travelling towards a mysterious mountain, nudges its players towards interesting encounters with subtle tricks of light and shadow.
At the same time, games also have to be games. They must be structured systems with rules that are compelling and fun to play around with, and it is the design of those rules that lies at the heart of game-making and which distinguish games most fundamentally from other forms of art and entertainment. The very best – like chess – manage to be both easy to learn but hard to master. The exhibition has less to say about such considerations, perhaps because they are abstract and therefore harder to build a display around.
A sense of history is similarly absent, with almost all the games having been produced in the last decade or so. “No Man’s Sky” is a beautiful space-exploration game featuring a galaxy full of millions of worlds. Having human designers craft those worlds by hand would be impractical, so they are instead created by algorithms. Alien life-forms, for instance, are stitched together semi-randomly from preset lists of body parts. That means the player is unlikely to see a particular species more than once. But that approach to galactic creation was pioneered by “Elite”, a seminal game released in 1984, and to which “No Man’s Sky” is in many ways a homage. Still, those are nitpicks. Anyone interested in video games, whether as exercises in bridge-building or operatic writing, will find plenty of interest.
“Journey” (2012; thatgamecompany)
More powerful computers have led many video-game developers to chase increasingly realistic-looking graphics. “Journey” is part of a backlash that emphasises style over fidelity. The player controls a pilgrim-like character on a journey through a desert to a distant mountain. The mountain is a dominating presence, visible from virtually everywhere else in the game’s simulated world. Its art style is abstract and laden with religious symbolism. The game subverts genre tropes in other ways, too – although players can play together online, communication is limited to short musical chimes.
“Phone Story” (2011; Molleindustria)
Many games are designed to be unabashedly entertaining. Others focus their energy elsewhere. “Phone Story” is a satirical smartphone game designed to draw players’ attention to how exactly their devices are made. The game consists of four separate mini-games. One sees players guarding miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo who produce the mineral raw materials that go into smartphones; the objective is to stop them from resting. Another has the player controlling a trampoline team at a smartphone factory, trying to prevent workers from killing themselves by jumping off the roof. The game is mechanically fairly uninteresting – and received poor reviews for its gameplay. But its subversive premise was enough to see it banned from Apple’s App Store.
“Minecraft” (2009; Mojang)
Some video games are interactive stories. But another, more hands-off tradition in game design is the “sandbox”: give players a set of tools and then see what they come up with in the absence of direction from the designers. “Minecraft” is the best-known such game. It is often compared to digital Lego, but the ease of manipulating virtual blocks as opposed to real ones can give rise to some truly enormous creations. This image shows a scale recreation of Winterfell, a castle from the fantasy world of Westeros, best-known for its television adaptation “Game of Thrones”. It is just one part of a custom-modified Minecraft server that has recreated around 800 square kilometres of Westeros’s terrain (an area roughly two thirds the size of Los Angeles). Using both the books and the television show as inspirations, the ultimate aim is to build a fan-made online game that anyone can join.
“Bush Bash” (2014; SK Games)
The design possibilities of a video game are intimately tied to the hardware through which the player interacts with it. The pixellated graphics of “Bush Bash” evoke classic arcade racing games such as “Outrun” (1987), which were played in specially-designed cabinets designed to resemble cars. “Bush Bash” takes this idea a step further by putting the game’s controls into the sawn-off front half of a real car. A screen mounted in front of the car shows the action. One player is the driver, and uses the steering wheel to control the game. The other is armed with a light-gun, another piece of 1980s gaming technology, and must shoot the screen clear of enemies.
“The Last of Us” (2013; Naughty Dog)
Modern “triple-A” video games are complicated projects involving hundreds of staff and tens of millions of dollars. “The Last of Us”, one of the last titles released for the Playstation 3, won plaudits for its storytelling and its emotional impact. But the exhibition focuses on the technical artistry necessary to realise that vision. The bridge picture above is a piece of concept art, drawn to help establish a consistent mood, tone and feel for the artificial world that dozens of other artists must collectively create. Other snippets, such as pencil sketches of the principal characters, a short test film made by the developers, and even the motion-capture suit worn by the actress who provided the animations for Ellie, one of the game’s protagonists, give insight into the “bridge-building” side of electronic creativity.
“Kentucky Route Zero” (2013; Cardboard Computer) and “No Man’s Sky” (2016; Hello Games)
The video game industry is one of the biggest employers of artists in the world, and those artists draw inspiration from every end of the artistic tradition. “Kentucky Route Zero” (above) is a magical-realist adventure game in which the player takes the role of Conway, a lorry driver with a mysterious delivery to make. The game is atmospheric and stylised; the picture above is a conscious nod to René Magritte’s painting “Le Blanc Seing”, which depicts a rider and horse which, on closer inspection, are interlaced impossibly with the surrounding forest. “No Man’s Sky” (below) is inspired by cover art from the golden age of pulp science ficiton, including artists such as Frank R. Paul and Christopher Foss.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt V&A until February 24th 2019