Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Art of Video Game’s curator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum explores his favorite images
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently running the Art of Video Games exhibit in Washington DC. We contacted Chris Melissinos, the curator of the exhibit, to pick some of his favorite images from the show and explain their importance. If you have the opportunity, seeing the exhibit in person is worth your time and money, and these concepts are also explored in the wonderful book that goes along with the show; we’ll be reviewing that book very soon. Until then, enjoy!
Pitfall!, created by developer David Crane, was the first time that home video game players experienced a sprawling jungle adventure, complete with a realistically animated running man: Pitfall Harry. What is most interesting about the development of the game was the reverse order in which the game was constructed. Pitfall! did not start out as an adventure game but, rather, as a technology experiment by Crane in which he wanted to get a technique for a realistic human character to animate fluidly. Once this was achieved, he started to ask questions about the world in which this character would exist.
Around this time, the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had been released and this sealed the fate for Harry. Soon, he would appropriate the jungle trappings that Indiana Jones traversed and the jungle adventure game was born. The mechanics, or action vocabulary, that the game established has persisted to this day. When observing the actions of Nathan Drake traversing a jungle in Uncharted 2, the roots of the mechanics can be seen rooted in Pitfall! One can observe the permanence of this mechanical vocabulary while recognizing that technology provides an ever increasing digital canvas in which artists and storytellers craft an experience.
Marble Madness was originally created as an arcade game by the then 18-year-old wunderkind Mark Cerny. Marble Madness was designed as a mash-up of a variety of games, but it was the M.C. Escher influence to the art style that was most interesting. During an era in which 3D technologies were not in the the arcades, let alone the home, Mark employed this isometric, or 2.5D, perspective to give the illusion of depth and placement in a 3D space, when there was no 3D. There were several games in this era that attempted this technique, but Marble Madness made the most effective use of the art technique.
Marble Madness is included in this list, not only because of the popularity of the game during its era, but because of the faithful adaption to the home, complete with rudimentary physics and retained its 2.5D perspective. Most people had never brought this kind of game into their homes before and it set the tone for forced perspective, as well as 3D in a 2D plane, games moving forward.
Panzer Dragoon II: Zwei
Panzer Dragoon II: Zwei was included on the list by me, not just because it is a teriffic and fluid game with a wonderful art style and great story background, but because of the artist struggle that can be observed in the game itself. Set firmly in the era I call “Transition” it stands as an excellent example of the compromises that are needed when new art techniques are demanded of artists and technology that can not match the ambition of the artist. This game sits at the intersection of these.
Because the Sega Saturn was not initially designed as a 3D system, but public and market pressures forced development in that direction, developers and artists were left with a system that was straddling both the old and the new, without ever committing fully to either. In PD2, you can observe how the designers focused their design to mask the deficiencies in the hardware: narrow field of views, cameras that swung 90 degrees instead of free form, 2D and 3D composites to add environmental detail to the lower resolution polygons. You can see seams in the skybox as the viewfield tilted, giving the illusion of rotating the payfield.
The beauty of PD2 is that, even when the artist struggle is apparent and at the surface, the game comes together and stands as its sum being greater than its parts. It is in this era that we see the shift from 2D to 3D start to become prevalent and the artists were required to bring their talents to a whole new mode of expression. Much like asking an artist who has only painted oil on canvas to now start sculpting in clay, video games in this era would reflect the struggle of the artists, sometimes resulting in sublime beauty as in PD2.
Shadow of the Colossus
Beautiful, stark, and haunting, Shadow of the Colossus is an extremely interesting game in that it engages the player in the story through a well understood form; avatar under control of the player. As well, SotC is an incredibly beautiful game which features beautiful characters, wondrous landscapes, architectural scale that leaves the player breathless, and a moving storyline. However, it made this list for something that I felt was even more important than all of these: SotC puts an increasing strain on the relationship of the avatar and the player.
While the motivation of the avatar, Wander, is to revive his lost love, at any cost, it was a story plot device that was constantly placing me at odds with my own moral code. While bringing down the first few colossi were interesting tasks, the deeper into the game I went, the worse I felt about my actions. Watching the colossi fall dramatically, staring into their now cold, lifeless eyes, and extracting their life essence made me feel worse as a player. It is in this that SotC transcends many similar games of epic quest to become something greater. While the game may not overtly address this struggle, it is readily apparent. It is this struggle that saw me choose SotC over Ico for inclusion in the voting process for the exhibition.
Flower is a game that, while a Pac Man-esq mechanic at the core (collect all the flowers, move on), the open ended nature of the narrative allowed for the player to build the story they wanted behind the action. This makes the game both beautiful and very personal for each player who approaches it. The idea of designer Jenova Chen’s wanting to bring pristine nature into the home of those who play Flower is ultimately achieved, how people receive that nature into their homes is different for each player. I will share my story.
I grew up in Queens, New York during the 1970’s. A city environment such as this tends to feel muted; color gives way to greys and browns. Snow does not stay very clean in the city. As a kid growing up in a city environment, you are always seeking color and magic in the world. While playing through the city level in Flower, I had gathered all of the flowers around a building and, as life was restored to the world, the building I was next to stood upright and was vibrant. It was at this moment that I was instantly transported back to memories of my childhood. The power of video games lies in this example. The ability to understand the author’s intent while finding personal resonance of that intent is when art, for each person, is achieved. Flower manages to live up to Jenova’s idea of Flower as poetry in motion through its ability to speak to each player with a single voice, but strike many different resonate chords.