There’s no doubt that Game Masters is about as good as an exhibition of videogames could presently hope to be. It is among the best—if not the best—of its kind. If anything, Game Masters proves that videogames belong in cultural spaces: not just as part of the conversation, as a box to tick to prove institutions are engaging with modern life, but to set the agenda, and push the boundaries of what it means to be a gallery in 2012. In its curation, Game Masters engages with difficult questions—who authors videogames, and how do you put their work on show in a gallery?—and while it may not always come out on top, the fact that it asks these questions at all and comes up with deep and engaging answers is often enough.
In fact, Game Masters is a perfect example of why institutions like ACMI are important to culture and to our society: such an exhibition could be curated and put on in few other locations around the world. Here we have a large-scale exhibition of contemporary, digital culture, staged in one of the most attended cultural institutions in the world. Whatever Game Masters’ flaws (and it has them), this is a vital, important exhibition that should be a cornerstone for Australian exhibition culture.
MASTERS OF THEIR ART
The question of authorship is absolutely central to Game Masters. The exhibition’s core thesis is that videogames from a single designer are meaningful if placed together. “We still know little about the people who make games,” writer ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions Conrad Bodman in the Game Masters catalogue. “We discovered that most people are familiar with the games and the names of their publishers but that few of the developers themselves had any name recognition at all, despite their games having had an enormous impact on the field.”
While this idea might work well with designers like Hideo Kojima, whose Metal Gear Solid games in the gallery form an explicit narrative, it is less clear in other cases.
What does it really mean to see Warren Spector’s games all laid out in a row? What is the connecting thread—besides the Spector name—that unites games like System Shock (1994), Deus Ex (2000) and Epic Mickey (2010)? These are games separated by wide gulfs, in terms of time, context, and creative personnel. Multiple teams of hundreds of people went into creating a contemporary videogame like Epic Mickey—there is only so much that the context of Spector’s other games can reveal.
Then there are games whose authors are listed as studios. How are we to take a comparison between Warren Spector-as-author and Nintendo-as-author? Where are the people behind the Traveller’s Tales series of Lego videogames? These are questions left unresolved by the exhibition.
At the launch of the exhibition, the three developers present—Spector, Tim Schafer, and Rob Murray—displayed a certain amount of uncomfortableness at being held up as sole authors of their exhibited videogames. “It can feel wrong to take credit for a whole bunch of people,” Schafer said. “[Videogames] are collaborative, group works, and with a different group you’d have a whole different game.”
“Making games is the most intensely collaborative thing I’ve ever done,” added Spector. “I’m constantly appalled at how much credit I get.”
Yet laying out Spector’s games like this does tell a certain story of creative development in the videogames industry over time, and the reactions and guidance of one person throughout. We may not get to know Spector personally through Epic Mickey in the same way as we get to know Dickens in David Copperfield, but to see it in context with Deus Ex is to see the product of a creative culture that Spector has shaped. He is, as he put it at the exhibition’s launch, the man controlling the box. “I tell my teams that I’m going to create this box for you,” said Spector. “And as long as you stay within it, do what you want. But if you ever go outside of that creative framework, I’m going to push you back in.”
Ultimately, Game Masters is less about authors as it is authorship. It doesn’t matter whether it was Warren Spector or the 600 people working at Junction Point Studios that had creative authorship over Epic Mickey. It matters that it was created by real people with real creative concerns.
This is the key point of Game Masters, as seemingly minor as it might at first appear: videogames are made by people. In an environment where individuals are frequently obliterated behind creative brands (“Rockstar”, “Nintendo”), or worse, hidden by an unspoken assumption that creatives are an amorphous ‘other’ (“you know what they should do in the sequel…”), this is an important point to make. Here is Warren Spector, says Game Masters. This is what he looks like.
GAMING THE GALLERY
I said earlier that Game Masters is about as good an exhibition of videogames as is possible. This might seem like a double-edged compliment: Game Masters is good, but only in a race where everyone loses. This isn’t quite what I intended. Game Masters is good—even excellent—and the end goal of putting games in a gallery is a good one. But there are always problems with these kinds of things, and these problems persist.
First off, let me say that the layout of Game Masters is excellent. The exhibition has been cleverly designed by architect Clare Cousins so that each of the three significant sections—’Arcade Heroes’, ‘Game Changers’ and ‘Indies’—has its own voice.
Visitors congregate in the bottlenecked arcades area to begin with, reflecting the public bars, clubs, and dedicated arcades where these games were first played. Wood panelling imparts a kitsch ‘70s and ‘80s aesthetic to the area, and well-placed mirrors allow complete viewing of the cabinet artwork. Though we’ve seen similar collections of working arcade cabinets in exhibitions like ACMI’s Game On in 2008, it’s still a rare pleasure to be able to experience these formative games first hand. The physical presence of these machines is enormous: you won’t experience the haptic feel of Tempest’s spinning controller, or the brilliantly bright vector display of Asteroids at home.
After an extraordinary wall of home consoles arranged behind a glass cabinet, the arcades dissolve into the wide and open space of the ‘Game Changers’. This large space is the exhibition’s strongest attempt to lay out a kind of narrative of authorship in videogames: it is here that we see select games by designers like Yu Suzuki, Will Wright, and Tim Schafer laid out in patterns. Each area is nicely designed, reflective not just of the designer but of the games themselves—fire engine red for Nintendo, for example, or a slightly uncool blue chrome for Hideo Kojima and his Metal Gears.
It’s here that the ephemera of the exhibition really starts to come to the fore, too. Blizzard have provided ACMI with a significant amount of concept art and character models, while Tim Schafer’s section comes replete with a Brütal Legend box racer and Schafer’s original job application for a job at LucasArts. An exhibition of videogames could so easily be a dull collection of discrete screens—here, videogame creative culture is collected, and not just the games themselves. “It’s pronounced ‘Day-us eX’,” reads Warren Spector’s on-display design document for Deus Ex, “so don’t ask me again!”
Yet it is also here that problems surface most clearly. Videogames are activities as well as objects, and this is something of a problem when trying to present more than 125 games in a large gallery space. As one of Game Masters’ curators, Helen Stuckey, notes in the exhibition catalogue, “videogames may have entered the art museum on the coat-tails of cinema and the story of screen culture, but they bring with them all the complexity of the new digital culture.”
How can you possibly present a game like Deus Ex, a game that will usually take over twenty hours to complete, in a gallery and expect some sort of appreciation of its achievements to pass off on casual visitors? This is quite a different proposition to other time-based gallery works, like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, where visitors can dip in and out, taking as much or as little with them to appreciate. Understanding something like Deus Ex means starting from the beginning and probably playing it for several hours, if not for its entire length.
I watched as a visitor was immobilized with confusion in front of Fumito Ueda’s Ico. They—or the player before them—had lost the central thread of the game and was instead fruitlessly rambling around one of the game’s many labyrinthine areas, locked out of the game’s art through incomprehension. What did Ico mean to this person? Eventually, he figured out how to call Yorda, but she did not come. He put the controller down and moved on.
ACMI has done its best to provide written instructions and a brief synopsis with each game, (though—and this is a minor quibble—Ico was actually mislabeled as a 2011 game, when it was released in 2001) but this cannot possibly overcome the fact that some of these games simply require much more than a gallery visitor can give. It is, to some extent, an insurmountable problem.
Partly, this issue is mitigated through the placement of video interview banks throughout ‘Game Changers’. These interviews, created specifically for Game Masters and watchable with provided headphones, are illuminating insights into the development of the featured games and give some perspective into the games, the people behind them, and their legacies. Not only does this further the goals of the exhibition, but it documents the oral history of videogame culture, which is actually slipping away faster than many people realise. However, it seems a difficult prospect to entice visitors away from the games to such non-interactive exhibits; though rewarding, these devices are certainly not the most popular of objects at Game Masters.
The impermanence of videogames is another recurring issue that Game Masters is forced to deal with. These things are technologically dependent, and so bring with them a host of problems. When I was there, Space Invaders had broken down (or had “taken a hit” as the apologetic ACMI sign noted) and was not playable. Early Mario and Zelda games are emulated through the Wii’s Virtual Console, and therefore use the Wii Classic Controller rather than the original NES, SNES or N64 hardware. This is a real pity—if we are here to celebrate the role of the game designer, we do it at a distance through emulation and non-original equipment. However, I suspect that this may be a limitation placed on the curators by copyright and technology issues out of their control, as elsewhere every attempt seems to have been made to present the games in their original context.
The real highlight of Game Masters, however, is saved until its final section. The ‘Indies’ area exudes an effortlessness and fluency both in its design and curation. There is no intrusive awkwardness here at all: of course videogames belong in galleries, and of course these games are authored, this area says.
Perhaps it has the benefit of the most appropriate material to work with (as indie games are often as much statements of creative authorship as they are commercial activities, unlike many of the ‘Game Changers’ games) but it is the ‘Indies’ section that simply makes the most sense at Game Masters.
Here we have a casual space: cozy and brightly lit, with Minecraft-like blocks acting as stools and iconographic clouds floating overhead. You can really sit down in this space and feel comfortable in taking your time with the selected games, despite the fact that some of them will be the most familiar to contemporary players. Popular games like Journey, Braid, Angry Birds and Minecraft have a new kind of life alongside the more idiosyncratic videogames of Eric Chahi (Another World), Jakub Dvorsky (Samorost) and Introversion (Defcon).
Just as each game speaks to others in this space, it feels like the area where you’re likely to have the most interaction with your fellow gallery goers, such is the shift in environment. When I interviewed curator Conrad Bodman, he went so far as to say it felt a bit like a Melbourne coffee shop, and he’s not wrong. It is cultured without being effete, social without being overpowering. With ACMI extending opening hours to a series of late night events on Thursdays in an overt effort to get visitors to come in and socialise at the exhibition, it feels like this is the space to be. The ‘Indies’ area also has the distinction of being the only part of the exhibition to introduce me to a brilliant new game: PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura’s WINtA, an iOS rhythm game that has been set up uniquely for the exhibition to play along with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Though it is quite literally the final videogame at Game Masters, on four iPads near the exit, it’s a wonderful game worth spending some time with.
Ultimately, the success of Game Masters is not so much in putting videogames in a gallery setting, despite its obvious accomplishments in this area. The technical and curatorial achievements on display at ACMI are only part of the story, not its defining element. Instead, the success of Game Masters is the placing of videogames in context: in temporal context, in creative context, and in a context where their creators are almost the most visible thing about them.
This is a project which sees videogames not just as technological progression, or as something trendy, new, and (that most elusive factor for cultural institutions) popular. This is a project which sees videogames as fundamentally, crucially, cultural.
With Game Masters, videogames are self-evidently at home in a cultural arena, sitting safely alongside not just ACMI’s other screen based exhibits, but Melbourne’s gallery life more broadly. It’s worth noting that Game Masters is part of Arts Victoria’s ‘Winter Masterpieces’ series, which this year also serves as a banner for the NGV’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, and has previously seen the likes of the Dutch Masters, Dali: Liquid Desire and Vienna: Art & Design pass through Melbourne.
Far from feeling out of place with these more traditional institutional attractions, Game Masters is the natural progression for a city interested in culture as a living and changing entity. Game Masters is vital work. It should serve as a cornerstone both for videogames culture and for Australian cultural institutions for some time to come.