Two cloaked figures sliding down a glittering dune, singing to each other. A hunter in Victorian garb, facing down a gigantic hairy creature on a dilapidated bridge. A grizzled middle-aged man and a young woman making their way through a ruined, overgrown city. Grinning figures, half-human, half-squid, swimming salmon-like through splotches of paint. Hundreds of extraterrestrial worlds, the skies above them in hundreds of different hues. An eagle, half visible through the trees, half concealed by the empty gaps between them.
The first striking image that visitors to Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt at the Victoria and Albert Museum (or V&A) in London see is a large screen showing scenes from Thatgamecompany’s Journey, and it is representative of the approach the exhibition takes to the medium. By 2019, videogames have become beautiful. Not all of them, clearly: there are still many drab, generic and even plain ugly games, but the medium has great potential for beauty, from the naturalistic to the abstract. The exhibition doesn’t pander to the stereotypical Michael Bay-style image of games, there are no space marines or big-ass guns, but neither does it shy away from AAA titles like The Last of Us. What it does is give these images space and let them speak for themselves. People can still dive into the details and minutiae of their creation afterwards, checking out sketchbooks, pre-visualisations, prototypes and videos.
I was a bit worried that the exhibition would try too hard to sell the artistic value of videogames. There is a type of gamer – and I’m not entirely excluding myself here – that is still stung by the likes of Roger Ebert proclaiming that “Video games can never be art”. Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt doesn’t have that particular chip on its shoulder: it just treats the medium as it would any other medium worthy of interest, discussion and appreciation. The exhibition doesn’t limit itself to the aesthetic appeal of videogames, though: it also presents thoughtful, intriguing vignettes on critical topics, ranging from violence and sex to race and gender in the medium. In doing so, it never goes for the overheated rhetoric that, say, The Guardian is sometimes prone to, but rather presents the audience with a range of statements of voices – and games that challenge our ideas of what the medium is, what it can do and who it is for. It is not often that you could find the racial tensions of 1960s America in Mafia III right next to Robert Yang’s lather-’em-up Rinse and Repeat and How do you Do It?, a short indie game in which an 11-year-old girl mashes its Barbie and Ken dolls together in order to explore this strange thing called sex.
The flaw of Videogames may be that it may presuppose its audience’s interest in all the different aspects of the medium and art form: some of the more willfully artistic, conceptual expressions of games may simply confound audiences that readily respond to the ethereal beauty of Journey and the cinematic visuals of The Last of Us but react with bewilderment to Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, in which players control an old woman as she walks very slowly around a cemetery, taking in the morbid sights. Some of the ideas explored could be addressed more explicitly. As a gamer of many decades myself, I was also not entirely convinced by the arcade on which the exhibition ends, allowing the audience to try their hands at a series of experimental shorts that I simply didn’t find all that interesting or all that successful at games. “I see what they’re trying to do” may not be the ideal final reaction to an exhibition. Nonetheless, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is a treasure trove of impressions, moments, ideas and memories. It is an impressionistic, thought-provoking expression of what the medium has become since its earliest years – and of what it can still become.