The debate around whether or not Video Games can be considered art has raged for years now, but recently it seems like the argument for is really gaining some traction. It appears that because of this a variety of museums around the world are opening exhibits dedicated to them, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is just one such location. The Design/Play/Disrupt exhibit is open from now until February 24, 2019, and focuses on the design processes behind some of the most interesting and thought-provoking titles of recent years, including The Last of Us and Journey.
The exhibition shows off a collection of materials detailing the production process, including multiple dev diaries, storyboards and concept art pieces surrounding each project. Starting strong with Journey from Thatgamecompany, there are a series of images and videos showing gameplay and design work that went into the finished product. There is a special mention to Austin Wintory’s award-winning soundtrack that still gets recognition today as one of the best. The display shows a number of the early concept sketches regarding the character as well as the captivating environments as you progress through the game. Footage from the team’s trip to Pismo Beach, exploring movement in sand, light levels and fabric movement in the wind, shows just how much work goes into some of these titles.
There’s an impressive storyboard displayed above the collection that details the color palette shifts as the player progresses and their relevant story element, as well as the intended impact on the player’s emotions as they explore. There’s a section of the table dedicated to “Player Conscious”, revealing what the team hoped to get players thinking about as they explore each area. Journey was expected to be completed within a year but eventually ended up taking 3, however, the results clearly justify the delay. Journey has earned multiple awards since its release in 2011, including Game of the Year and Outstanding Innovation in Gaming, there’s really no better title to open the exhibition with.
The Last of Us is widely heralded as one of the best video game experiences of all time, naturally earning itself a position within this exhibit. Taking a look at the items around the display it’s easy to see why. The pinboard showing the key points of the plot although concise it shows plenty of details and notes relating to each of the set pieces. There’s also a selection of character design sketches displayed, showing the development and inspiration behind Ellie and Joel’s characters as well as the nature of their relationship. Character concept designer Hyong Taek Nam’s designs really help bring the characters to life and even in their sketch form convey a serious depth.
The Last of Us features some absolutely breathtaking environments, with their concept art displayed alongside some of the character sketches. The depth of field, as well as the detail involved in each image, is immaculate, clearly showing why the title is so highly praised. Of course one of the most impressive features of The Last of Us is the narrative structure, really building the relationship between Ellie and Joel as the game progresses, showing you that even when the world has gone to shit there can still be some good to come out of it.
The exhibit changes tone immediately afterward with a display on Bloodborne. The Soulsbourne games exploded into popularity with their brutally difficult boss fights and unforgiving gameplay mechanics, leaving many controllers and players minds in pieces. The items on show here focus primarily on the art and the intricacies of level design, revolving around a singular hub location and inter-locking environments. There are a number of shortcuts and different paths between areas in the Soulsbourne titles, it takes a sharp eye and a keen mind to find them all and a cunning one to exploit them. Speedrunners love them for their challenge, exploring all the different ways to get from certain areas in the fastest times possible and skipping whole portions wherever they can. Whether these designs were intended for such use it’s difficult to tell, but seeing the framework displayed behind them you can’t help but appreciate the ingenuity.
The next feature in the first room comes as quite a surprise when you think of “Defining titles of the last decade” Splatoon is definitely not one of the first names to spring to mind! However looking over the impressive display of items relating to the title, maybe it should. The game started life as a very simple shooter where teams of different shaped blocks attempted to hit each other, from there it passed through a number of stages and designs before becoming the Squid-themed paintball game we know and love. The development team at Nintendo took Splatoon through many forms, from bunny rabbits to humans in hazmat suits and various others before settling on the iconic Inklings we have come to appreciate. The games have since spawned a whole treasure trove of merchandise and have its own competitive league dedicated to the sport. A large number of the items on display here too focused on the level designs, showing some surprising levels of complexity despite the cartoon and child-friendly nature of the games.
From here the titles featured are a far less well known but no less deserving of their place within the exhibit. Titles such as Consume Me, Kentucky Route Zero and The Graveyard line the walls, dedicated to plumbing the depths of the human psyche and our behaviors. These titles are designed to help engage our brains and make us question our motivations and actions, give ourselves a moment to reflect and take stock rather than get immersed in whatever other story or environments we could be in. Consume Me comes from Jenny Jiao Hsia and opens the player to the considerations surrounding body image and diet while utilizing cute imagery and fun mini-games. The mobile game is surprisingly deep considering its platform and serves to help people come to terms with concepts we don’t often actively consider.
Kentucky Route Zero is a simple narrative adventure following Conway, a trucker who is making deliveries for an antique store but focuses on the character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Drawing inspiration from a collection of obscure literary influences the game causes players to conceptualize their inner monologue that so often goes neglected in our daily activities. The last of these lesser known titles is The Graveyard, a hard-hitting and poignant little title where the player controls an elderly woman walking through a graveyard to reach a bench. The focus here is the environment around the character, as her slow pace causes players to shift attention to the surroundings and ponder the deeper meanings behind the game. Tale of Tales are the pair of developers and artists behind the title and have also created the Realtime Art Manifesto which is certainly worth a read for any aspiring game devs.
The final item in the first of the three-room experience is dedicated to No Man’s Sky, arguably the greatest disappointment in video gaming history for the last 10 years. Despite its original flop, No Man’s Sky is definitely an impressive game, featuring an entire universe of individually generated planets. Each one able to be explored and identified by players, with discoveries waiting to be made on each one. From a technical standpoint, No Man’s Sky is unparalleled; Its universe contains over 18 quintillion planets which is an absurdly high number of unique locations to visit and explore. Recent updates to the title have made it into the game that was originally promised before release, but looking at the sheer amount of art and design work that went into creating it, you can’t help but be impressed.
The most interesting part of the display is a series of virtual camera drones that were sent to each world to test the color generation of the planets, each drone was instructed to relay a short gif of the planet’s surface for evaluation by the art team. The wall of drone cam footage shows just how much time and effort went into each creation and it’s certainly impressive to watch the footage cycle through. Just before exiting the room there is a wall dedicated to a range of different images used as references and inspiration for the game’s aesthetic, showing another extensive amount of research. Despite No Man’s Sky’s turbulent past, there are no doubts behind it being a highly impressive and technical display of skill, engineering, and design.
The next part of the exhibition is dedicated to highlighting controversial moments in video games, their receptions amongst the community as well as diversity and inclusion. The first of these titles is Phone Story, a game that was intended to be sold on all mobile game stores, but we removed shortly after release for content violations. The game set out to tell the story of the manufacture of smartphones and consumer electronics, from children mining the minerals needed for manufacture to the disposal of hazardous materials. Apple removed the title from the App Store shortly after release due to the game’s depiction of violence towards children, raising the question as to what subjects are appropriate for video games and how the media can influence decisions around this topic.
The second display shows the creation of a coding language based on the Arabic alphabet but explores how the system is almost entirely incompatible with the systems used by the rest of the world. Virtually all other systems use an alphabet based in the Latin alphabet and currently, it seems that there is no way to reconcile the two, meaning that the Arabic system would struggle to interact with the wider range of modern architectures. Other stations in the room focused on Mafia III’s attempts to confront racism and draw it to the wider audience’s attention, along with a short film created by Feminist Frequency highlighting the issues of sexism and objectification of women in video games. The last two items in the room are How Do You Do It? and Rinse and Repeat. Both titles focus on exploring sexuality and how video games of this nature should be encouraged to help young individuals struggling to come to grips with themselves.
The closing area of the exhibit shows off some of the unique creations that are rising up amongst gamers in what is being called “Punk Arcades”. DIY game cabinets, unique game control systems and other slightly outlandish designs and games that have begun to reach popularity. Amongst these creations are some weird and wonderful designs including a tag game where players must tap the button atop a hard hat worn by their opponent in order to win, a long string of lights that change color in different sequences and half a car that contains a road trip game designed to be played co-operatively.
The rise of these designs show new levels of ingenuity and breath fresh life into the industry thanks to the increased accessibility of the market. As more and more people are gaining access to the tools needed to design and create new games the markets are expanding rapidly to accommodate. IndieJam events are popping up all over the world where teams are tasked with creating a game within a set time frame as well as events where creators are encouraged to show off unique game controllers and mechanics.
Ultimately The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Design/Play/Disrupt exhibit has a brilliant line-up of titles that showcase the good, the bad and the weird when it comes to video game design and the impacts they have on the world. It makes a nice change to get a peek behind the curtain, to understand the creative processes and the sheer amount of work that goes into a game’s creation. The collection draws attention to the fact that just because a title may be smaller than others, just as much time and effort has gone into making the best version of it possible. With gaming quickly becoming a worldwide and “mainstream” hobby, it’s great to show that there is work being done by the industry to help tackle serious world issues and making a big step forward for video games being considered Art.