Are video games art or aren’t they? Regardless of my stance in the debate, the Art of Video Games exhibition made its way to an art museum in the same city that I live in, so I had to go.
Upon entering the exhibit fans are greeted with huge murals featuring art depicting characters from various well known franchises such as Pac-Man and Mega Man. Just past them is an essential history lesson for any fan of video games. Classics like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. are projected onto the walls in huge depictions for all to see. The exhibit is segmented, aiming to provide a thorough glance at the progression of games and the gaming industry over the last few decades.
The first console on display I came across was the ancient Commodore 64, a machine that was older than every visitor in my party. The captions under the games in this section of the exhibit emphasized that developers from that time period were exceptionally creative and resourceful as they toiled to create dreamscapes and fantastic environments for players to explore with technology that is extremely limited by today’s standards.
For each console on display, there were also a select few exclusives that one could learn about and view game-play of via a convenient little booth with a telephone like device attached to it. Classics on display for the original PlayStation included the celebrated Final Fantasy VII, while the Nintendo 64 display showed off Super Mario 64 and Star Fox 64. In this regard the exhibit was relatively thorough. I didn’t notice a console as new as the PS4, but there was a Dreamcast, a Sega Genesis and several more legacy consoles. It came together to provide an excellent learning opportunity for anyone who wasn’t old enough to play Adventure for the Atari when it first released. For each title on display, you could watch a brief informational video, telling you a bit about the development and providing game-play simultaneously.
I can’t provide pictures of much of the content I am describing due to a strictly enforced no photography policy that was in place during the majority of the exhibit, with exceptions for the entrance and exit areas. Especially fascinating where the large frames displaying concept artwork and sketches from the early stages of development of some titles such as World of Warcraft and Fallout 3.
Just past the exhibit including consoles and game-play footage was a small sitting area and more game “stations” at which one could play titles like Minecraft and adjacent to this room another including stylized arcade cabinets and more fascinating murals including characters and scenes from more titles than our powers combined could identify, including franchises like Angry Birds and Kirby.
In the former was a wall comprised of artwork that visitors had created. There were blank colored sheets of paper and cups filled with color pencils and we were encouraged to draw our favorite gaming icons. I, like many other visitors, highlighted the absence of Pokemon from the exhibit by drawing one of my favorites: Jigglypuff. The gift shop at the end of the exhibit housed a variety of gaming goodies, such as sour candy trapped in small Sonic the Hedgehog themed tins, The Legend of Zelda themed Gacha Boxes and a Pac-Man ghost lamp.
Prominently displayed was the hardbound edition of The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect from Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke. The tome makes for an excellent recap for anyone who visited the exhibit or a great synopsis for anyone who is unable to visit, coveringg basically all of the games that were represented and including even more details about their development and decisions. It stretches all the way back to the video game industry crash of 1983 and details the gradual evolutions in graphics, interactivity and narratives of blockbusters like Portal as the industry progressed.
While I am obviously very thankful for and happy with the exhibit, I feel that it could improve greatly with just a few more additions. There were very few or no figures or statues of any kind on display, which seemed like a strange omission given the wide variety of titles they could draw from. The selection of games playable was extremely scarce. I didn’t go in expecting an arcade-ish experience – which would have been welcomed given the dearth of such venues in Memphis – but it still seemed to be surprisingly lacking in this area. I didn’t notice any handheld gaming consoles of any kind.
There was some concept artwork on display but very little. It didn’t take advantage of what I’m sure must be troves of concept artwork and early sketches from the numerous franchises represented. There was also no sort of themed food or drink. I’d have loved to buy and consume a Bayonetta themed pastry or a Street Fighter cocktail but there was nothing like that. Someone deeply into games and the industry is unlikely to really learn anything new or see much that they haven’t in some form already seen or experienced. The scope is quite wide; the niche gamer is overlooked completely. It doesn’t seem like they went into the secret vaults and pulled out anything exceptionally special.
There was a guestbook for you to leave suggestions to improve the exhibit. Most of the messages I noticed lamented the absence of Pokemon. Although you are unlikely to see all of your favorites, you’re bound to see a few that you like and learn something about them in the process. I make these complaints in hope that the relatively young exhibit will improve in the years to come.
Complaints aside, I was happy with the Art of Video Games exhibit. It was extremely interesting to see the evolution of our beloved medium over so many years. I’m old enough to have enjoyed the glory days of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation One, so seeing their exhibits provided a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Yet I’m not old enough to intimately know the NES and I also never had a Dreamcast of my own. Therefore the experience also felt like an essential history lesson, bringing several generations of gaming into a few rooms.
As I studied the obscure controller of the ColecoVision, it became clearer than ever just how far video games have come. It’s simply fascinating and enlightening to see the game-play, mechanics and story scenes from 30+ years ago; the heavily pixelated 8-bit sprites and chiptunes that would become the visually and aurally stunning titles that we get to enjoy today. It’s almost just as fascinating to ponder that these productions were indeed cutting edge at one point.
A great deal of games were shown. Whether you only play games for this or that console, or you only play retro games or especially if you’re an enthusiast of any and everything gaming related, you should see the exhibit if you get the opportunity. I can also see it making a great learning experience for anyone who didn’t know too much about video games and a really cool field trip destination. I’d definitely go again in a year, especially if they added Platinum Games and Atlus.