From Saturday the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is hosting an exhibition dedicated to video games. Called ‘Design, Play, Disrupt’ and curated by Marie Foulston, this promises an insight into the design process of contemporary video games and tickets cost £18 (it’s free for V&A members). Kotaku UK’s own Laura Kate Dale and Richard Stanton attended the press preview day, and here’s what we thought.
Rich: I think the first thing to do is set expectations. This exhibition takes place over four large rooms, but in a relatively small part of the overall V&A. I would say it takes between an hour or two to see everything, depending on how long you play some of the exhibits for. I wanted to flag the show’s scale because it has a slightly cramped feel in places. The subject of video game development is simply so enormous, and the space here so limited, that it really has to whizz through or omit a lot of stuff. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and it really suits certain exhibits, but the second room in particular I felt suffered from this — we’ll come to that later.
Laura: Yeah, I’m someone pretty big into my video games, who wanted to ensure I’d taken my time not to miss anything and to take notes on what I saw, and I think around 90 minutes was plenty for me to experience everything on show. Granted, I was at the press day, so the number of people and pacing of their trip may have impacted the pace of my visit.
Also important to note, that ninety minutes would have been a little longer, but as someone very gaming literate, I ultimately skipped over most of the third section of the exhibit. We should probably explain what the sections are?
Rich: So the exhibition has four rooms with different stuff. The first features development assets from the creation of eight contemporary video games: Bloodborne, Splatoon 2, Kentucky Route Zero, Journey, No Man’s Sky, and a couple of playable but less-known titles like The Graveyard.
The second section contains half-a-dozen tables, each covering a different problem topic in the modern industry (shooting games, protagonists being overwhelmingly white males, discrimination against women and minorities being a few), arranged around a large central screen with various industry talking heads discussing what video games mean to them in a personal context.
The third room has a video playing on a ginormous screen that introduces some of the things players get up to online, whether that’s building amazing Minecraft palaces or serious competitive play.
And the final room, which is lovely, basically contains a lot of unusual games.
What are your feelings on the first section Laura?
Laura: In terms of my general thoughts, I really liked some of the visual design aspects, and how it was placing smaller indie projects side by side with big name games. For someone who is very into video games, the most interesting things to see for me were the detailed looks at how some of these games were made. From the full game timeline for Journey where events were placed next to emotional tones, to the insight into Splatoon’s early prototype designs, I found it most interesting when it was really showing off the nitty gritty of how a fantastic game ends up going through revisions to end up where it is.
I kind of wish some of the games from section two had more space to breath like they did in section one.
One of the things I wanted to praise the exhibit for was how well it in places managed to show games off as more than what the general public might expect them to be. The Bloodborne exhibit for example, while featuring some content that has appeared in art books before, had a video playing that did a really good job of explaining to non-gamers that Bloodborne is a game about staying calm and not panicking when a game is trying its hardest to make you panic.
The curator Marie Foulston gave some opening remarks where she said “this is the first exhibition of its kind to contemplate contemporary video game design, not from a historical perspective, but from the mid 2000’s until today.” So the idea is to view games through the lens of what they have become in the aftermath of broadband, smartphones, and digital distribution and easy entry-level game dev and distribution tools.
One of the first things you see upon entry, highlighted during Marie’s talk, is a quote from Frank Lantz up on the wall saying video games are “like an opera made of bridges”. The idea is considered important by the curator, because she wanted to capture that video games are both hugely impressive technical achievements made of interlocked structural parts, but also works of art made by people with creative visions and a desire to say something real.
Rich: First thought: where was Grand Theft Auto. It’s an incredible omission: GTA’s the biggest game in the world. It is endlessly fascinating, ever-evolving, and made in the UK. It’s baffling that it’s not a part of this show, and you feel the absence.
I think in the first section, what really works is where the developer has delivered and given the team great stuff to work with. One of the definite highlights of the whole thing for me was the Splatoon 2 material Nintendo had shared, which ranged from sketches showing ideas for Inkling fashion to an incredible video of the earliest prototype. I believe this has been shown at GDC before, but nevertheless it encapsulates the sheer scale of development: you see the colour-packed and thrilling final game nearby, then you see these little grey rectangles slowly bumbling around scooshing out grey ink: any viewer has to realise how far Nintendo went from a prototype of a neat idea to a slick final product that won the hearts of millions.
Laura: Yeah, couldn’t agree more, Nintendo are usually such a closed-off company, to see them open up so much for a public facing exhibit was really valuable. They’re a company the public knows, and i’m glad they opened their doors that way.
Rich: Journey also benefited from this, as did Kentucky Route Zero, and generally the developers that shared the most came out best. There were some that didn’t hit it for me though. I found the Bloodborne exhibit quite disappointing, but I’m going to preface this by saying I’m a complete Bloodborne nut: so my perspective is obviously going to be quite demanding.
But with Bloodborne, Fromsoft hadn’t shared an enormous amount (as is typical for that company). There are new sketches, sure, and I adored those. But generally it focuses on showing character and weapon art, alongside a video showing the Cleric Beast boss fight accompanied by a voiceover about the combat. So with Bloodborne it’s going more for the ‘Play’ side of the exhibition’s title, and that's fair enough.
I guess what bugged me is it basically presents Bloodborne as this game all about brutal combat and players addicted to the challenge. And I’m not really sure that’s why Bloodborne is a great game. It’s so good because it can be played as a straight ‘action horror’ experience, but it uses that (like Dark Souls did) as a Trojan horse to explore profound human questions about our nature and, in particular, the emotions bound-up in childbirth and parenthood. For me it represents the pinnacle of AAA narrative and world design in that respect, so to see it presented as some kind of horror-fest that’s all about slaying beasts… to me that fails the game to the extent I’d almost call it misrepresentation.
I guess it does give people a general idea about the game. It’s just a pity to see it done at such a surface level. The one comparison I would make is with something like Robocop. Yes the concept and the action and the gunfights are cool. But Verhoeven’s film isn’t a masterpiece because it’s a great 80s action movie, it’s special because it can be viewed as that but also uses this as a delivery mechanism for more potent brooding on deeper human and social themes. If I went to an exhibition on Robocop and it was just about the character / environment / weapon sketches and action parts, I’d be disappointed.
Laura: I personally disagree a bit on the Bloodborne exhibit, I think that this is clearly an exhibit trying to use a handful of games to evangelise our medium to those outside it in an accessible way, by making each game emblematic of one thing games can be, and I think it did a decent job at that with Bloodborne, even if it wasn't comprehensive.
I recognise the Bloodborne assets have been printed in art books before, but for me seeing that game made accessible for a non gamer audience was really interesting, and the novelty of knowing these were the original sketches not reproductions really elevated the awe I felt as i took some time to soak them in.
I dunno, I’m not as excessive of a Bloodborne fan as you, but I loved and completed it, and for me the appeal mechanically really is that it’s a game that punishes you for panicking, but also incentivises rushing with the health recovery mechanic. It entices you not to back down, but punishes you for being sloppy, and I think that it did really capture why it’s mechanically not just any other action game. Sure, this wasn’t a book-length analysis of every interesting aspect of Bloodborne, but it was an accessible introduction to folks who want to understand the medium more in a ten minute look.
Rich: I’d like to slightly tease out something in what you’re saying, this idea that the exhibition is about evangelising the medium to the uninitiated. A line I imagine will feature heavily in press will be ‘introducing games to the public’ or something like that. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, because the public is light years ahead of the V&A in terms of understanding video games. Yes obviously there are people who don’t know a single thing about the medium, but this isn’t some niche activity — an enormous amount of the population play games and know about them.
So to return to Bloodborne for one second, I’m not saying the team involved didn’t realise how much else there was to say about it… but I almost wonder whether they felt there was too little space, or the audience wouldn’t ‘get’ some of the more interesting perspectives on that game. Anyway. I don’t think stuff should get a free pass just because it’s in a glass case and for me this did a great game a bit of a disservice.
Laura: We’ll have to agree to disagree, I think for what this is, an exhibit I could take my mum to and get her to understand a bit more of the maturity of the industry I work in, I think this was an appropriate level of depth to go into, and I think your view they needed more is because this game is undeniably the game you go deeper on than perhaps any other.
In my eyes the far bigger culprit of not telling the whole story of a game was No Man’s Sky, which skipped over a lot of the story of what made that game notable at its launch. By skipping totally over the controversy that surrounded its launch, and how long after development it took for many early promised features to materialise, did do some disservice to telling the story of that game.
Rich: So the fascinating thing with No Man’s Sky is that, yes, that controversy at launch is inextricable from the game’s history. But that’s also what would have made it the most perfect exhibit here, if done — because No Man’s Sky is a living example of the intersection between developers and players, and post-launch development of a game leaving it almost unrecognisable.
So for an exhibition called Design, Play, Disrupt, this title should have been some sort of poster boy. It shows this in action! It’s ongoing!
The exhibit gave no sense of this. It almost presented No Man’s Sky as a ‘fixed’ thing I think. There were some references to the stuff that had been added later, but this story went largely untold — it’s both a great story and would have fit the theme so well. I worked in museums on major exhibitions for years in my twenties, so I understand that the leadtimes can be intense, but regardless you can’t let the world pass you by — there are all sorts of ways it could have been handled to stay contemporary.
OK so… I’ve grumbled a bit too much. I liked the Kentucky Route Zero exhibit a lot, which showed how a trio of developers with different skillsets combined (though I do wonder why it exhibited books that inspired them, seemed like a waste of space). Jenny Jiao’s games were cute, and a nice one minute break from reading labels and looking at things.
Laura: I maintain I really liked that first room as a primer my mum could explore and better understand the reasons I like games, I think it was really good when viewed through that lens, and for me as an enthusiast that Journey section in particular was pretty fascinating.
There were areas where I felt it was things I already knew, but I have to remember that I write about games 40 hours or more per week, if I set the bar at things which are new to me, it’s not necessarily going to be accessible to the average museum audience.
Rich: To be honest it doesn’t matter to me whether my mother would enjoy it or get much from it (love u mum!). To me it’s more about what do I get from it as someone interested in games. I mean, this is targeted at gamers as well as the general public.
Laura: It’s a video games exhibit, but one in a classical design museum. I think it has to walk a line, and I think it manages that.
Rich: OK so on to the second room. My problem with this, basically, was that it felt a little ill-conceived. It flags up these big issues in games, like their love affair with guns, but the space dedicated to each topic is so small that it feels too compressed. I did think some of the stuff they chose to feature was fascinating — such as the Arabic programming language, which I’ll leave for you to explain, and the shower game. But none of it had room to breathe, and some bits I found over-simplified to a misleading degree. It offers up Super Columbine Massacre RPG first, which is a really interesting subject, but for me didn’t explain the game or the furore around it, or the creator well enough. There’s way too much text in this room in general and unfortunately I found a lot of it to be these isolated ‘inspirational’ quotes or ‘serious’ questions without much drilling-down on the topic.
I also found it annoying that each table was primarily composed of quotes on glass, there were about a dozen on each table as well as all the other labels, then in the same room you’ve got these loud voices coming from a huge screen. That seemed badly thought-through, and in the end I just tuned out the voices from the screen completely.
Laura: Yeah, one section that even as a dedicated games critic I found was new and fascinating was the section about the role of the Arabic language, particularly the sections about developer Ramsey Nasser, the creator of the قلب programming language.
The section basically showcased video footage of a 2015 build of Pong developed entirely in an Arabic programming language, with the code running it visible by the side. This small table explained an issue I had never personally thought about, that ascii character based programming languages encode in Latin characters, which makes them unapproachable for those learning programming in different alphabets.
The section highlighted the sheer infancy of Arabic programming languages, which Nasser himself was quoted as saying would never interface well enough with the rest of ascii-focused technology to be viable for complex development, and showcased a real issue with how most of the development scene to this date has evolved.
That was by far one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit, a look at an issue I’ve never stopped to think about in all the years I've been working in this industry.
The section about sexuality in games, with playable builds of Rinse and Repeat, as well as How Do You Do It, was an example of a section which really showed the value of games in a digestible way. Rinse and Repeat is about a gay man in a shower cubicle finding other men attractive and washing another man’s back for him, and How Do You Do It is about a child mashing naked dolls together to work out what sex is before mum gets home. They’re both really interesting and mechanically developed examples of the medium’s power to tackle a sensitive or personal topic, and were great example of how games can present difficult themes in unique and interesting ways.
That’s honestly what I would have liked to see more of in that room, playable builds of lesser known indie games that tackle themes in unique ways. A showcase of the games pushing our medium forwards, alongside topics that even I as a full time critic have not considered.
Oh, lastly, bit of a shame that on the press preview day, one of the speakers in that room seemed to be on a nearly 1 second delay, causing a pretty distracting echo when speakers were talking.
Do you have any other thoughts before we move onto the third room?
Rich: Adored adored adored Rinse and Repeat. That game is hilarious, and I even garnered a couple of IRL admirers while soaping up my bro. I think it works superbly in this setting and also with topics like representation of physical homosexuality there’s always the risk of being over-serious to the extent you sound like a Sex Ed teacher and kind of miss the fun and humour, which this has in buckets. I think that game encapsulates something that a lot of the other stuff on that table was earnest about but didn’t execute quite as well.
Laura: Getting to see a game about homosexuality and nudity, which wasn’t about sex and showcased homosexuality as lighthearted and fun rather than some huge grand act, was really heartwarming at such a high profile event.
Rich: Oh one thing. I know this is super nitpicky. But those little fixed metal ball things they use to replace a mouse across exhibits are horrible to use. I appreciate they don’t want things that people could nick or break easily, but there has to be a better solution than that.
OK so the video in Room 3… there’s not a huge amount I can come up with about this. It’s nice! Gives a general overview of ‘things gamers do’, which probably won’t be news to you if you read Kotaku, but is well-done. You watched more of it than me Laura, anything more to say?
Laura: I watched the full 10-15 minutes, and yeah it’s basically there for parents to get an insight into online gaming and why it’s kind of cool. Minecraft lets kids build together, esports tournaments are a big deal, EVE Online ship battles are intense, video games online are of value. It was a lot of clips of YouTubers and nothing much I didn’t know. I recommended Rich skip it entirely.
Rich: Don’t tell the cops! The exhibit’s big finish is the fourth room, which contains a lot of unique games, and for me was the most outright fun part. It’s the perfect ending and gives the exhibition overall a nice structure, because after an hour or so of looking and cogitating (and a little playing) this room is just all about creativity and wacky ideas, and is set up for you to try them.
It contains a few things that our readers may have come across before, such as the wonderful Line Wobbler, which is arranged here with the long LED trail snaking up the wall. You tilt a joystick to send your dot up, and wobble furiously to overcome any dastardly red dots in your path, and after each completion the line gets a little tougher (and introduces new elements like lava). This game is a miniature masterpiece, it’s so much fun, it’s so simple, and playing it can take seconds or minutes.
Laura: For me, the clear highlight of that final room was Queers in Love at The End of The World, a text adventure where you play one of two women, both attracted to each other, with a ten second timer before the world ends in some kind of huge explosion. You can see the end is coming, you have to be fast, you have to be quick, how to do you fumble through those last moments?
It was a really simple but effective concept, making me weigh the value of taking my time and making one last gesture that mattered, or just leaping in and following my gut, and told a really effective story of love blossoming under extreme constraints.
Rich: That was a lot of fun, I liked how we had different tactics. I was blazing through as fast as possible trying to get laid, just doing word association really, while you used multiple runs to read the pages properly and plan decisions for later runs. I think I got laid once.
Laura: The fact you say you THINK you got laid says a lot about how panicked you were in those ten seconds haha
Rich: Call me Mr Ten Seconds ;)
I was very disappointed by Bush Bash not being playable. This is a giant god damn car sawn in half, with a game custom-made for it, the V&A has paid to ship it over from Australia… and you have to just watch it. You can’t play. I mean, what’s the point. This is why insurance companies exist.
I loved the idea and look of Bush Bash but I almost feel, if they couldn’t have it playable in that last room, the space should have been used for something else. It takes up like a quarter of the space.
Laura: It was a bit of a shame, but I totally get why things like that, or the game where you get into rainbow sacks and wiggle around on the floor like caterpillars, were not playable, they are bespoke one of a kind controllers that after months of daily cramped museum footfall will likely get damaged in ways the curators may not be equipped to fix or repair. It really was a shame though, I wanted to try some of those beautiful weird experiences.
Rich: Yeah… my personal inclination would’ve been to have everything playable. But there we are. Oh, special mention for the arcade cabinet rucksack, that thing is hilarious. You said the idea was that the folks behind it used to cart this thing around to parties? Brilliant.
Laura: Yeah, some of the text on the wall talks about them showing up and letting drunk people play games on their back, which is just brilliant.
Rich: So to sum up my thoughts, there’s a lot to like here, and some extremely interesting stuff that you probably haven’t seen before. I was talking to Kotaku UK’s former editor Keza MacDonald, whose own (very positive) thoughts are here, and she said a good portion of it was entirely new to her, I’d go along with that for sure.
The issues I have, some of them come down to my own quirks probably: I’m sure most folk will think the Bloodborne bit is fine. The No Man’s Sky stuff isn’t bad, it’s just a missed opportunity. And to someone who knows little about video games and still imagines them as Pac-Man or something, I can imagine a lot of this will be eye-opening regardless.
One thing I will say is that £18 entry fee seems pretty steep for a medium-sized exhibition. But I’m a tight Scotsman. There’s also a catalogue available featuring essays from various industry luminaries, which goes for £20 in the shop, but I haven’t read it.
Laura: Pretty sure overall I agree with you, I really enjoyed the small parts of this which were totally new to me, and I would legitimately love to visit this with my parents, use it as an excuse to introduce them to the hobby I love in a way they might understand, but it’s not 100% sure who it wants to be for, which does weaken it in places.
I’m glad this exists though, it presents games as more than they’re often seen as, it shows them as creative intricate works of art, with challenges to overcome but also with real value beyond how they're so often pigeonholed.
Rich: I suppose it should not go unremarked that this is also something of watershed. It’s not the first video game-based exhibition I’m aware of, but it’s the first at one of the UK’s major museums. So it’s nice to see the board of the V&A joining the 21st century and, if this show is a success, the floodgates will open. And who knows, maybe we’ll get Fromsoft at the Tate somewhere down the line.