gallery-goers and challenges of game development
Deputy Culture Editor -Film
Gallery spaces can be alien and confusing: full of the disposed contents of the minds of many, they are filled with paintings, photographs, sculptures and screens. Sometimes, in the midst of these alien objects, there are things that appear innately intriguing, or exude the siren call of familiarity. For someone who has been playing games for the best part of two decades, a TV with a prompt to begin and a controller waiting for interaction are simultaneously inviting and strange - I understand games, but they’re rare in a gallery space.
Interestingly, studying games academia eventually leads to questions of performance, of games as a kind of digital theatre. Even mainstream criticism, such as Jake Mancy’s Vice article on Hitman, is beginning to wrestle with the concept. However, games are usually cordoned off as their own thing: they get their own exhibitions and events. Eventually they are afforded real-estate next to more traditional arts, Robin Baumgarten’s Line Wobbler being a recent example. Reasons for games to be denied acceptance within the gallery space seem baffling, given that they frequently wrestle with ideas and forms explored in other mediums.
The Tramway appear to feel the same way then, as during their recent Unlimited Festival they featured Glasgow-based Maki Yamizaki’s latest prototype game Pioneer against dance, theatre, and gallery pieces. Comprising of two pods with monitors, headphones, and SNES controllers hooked up to a hidden PC, guests could explore the prototype of Maki’s narrative game, loosely based on the famous Taketori Monogatari, the Japanese Bamboo Cutter Story recently adapted by Studio Ghibli as Princess Kaguya. On this influence Maki explained: “One of the biggest joys for me on this project is how flexible folk-tales can be. Taketori Monogatari has been around for about a millennia and it’s based on much older tales… there’s definitely a lot in future updates that tie in closer to the original themes of Taketori Monogatari. However, if I told you, it’d probably ruin the surprise…”
Maki wrote, coded, illustrated, performed, and composed everything for Pioneer. There’s a definite sense of a DIY aesthetic of the Amiga age, which hits something of a resurgence in the burgeoning indie and zine-game scene of the past few years. “I started writing games over two decades ago, back when I was more familiar with how to program computers than with many of the games available at the time… My earliest memories of playing games in both physical and digital form are of myself thinking, hmm, how can I make my own?” Maki foregrounds the game with an explanation that it has become more personal and introspective than she anticipated, and given the wheelchair bound protagonist, the similarities are more than evident. This may not be self-portraiture, but it is keen self-observation.
On the subject of the game as an installation Maki found that she was “getting a lot of feedback from people saying that they found the piece immersive and engaging, which is really great to hear as it was always my intention to create something that people can engage with directly, rather than a passive experience.” With games, there is something essentially homely about them that might contrast with the gallery. Yamizaki adds: “I’m a fan of people playing games in their own personal environment, but I don’t see enough games in gallery settings, especially not ones designed to predominantly exist in such spaces.”
Pioneer  sidesteps a lot of the problems associated with transferring games to gallery spaces by currently existing as an easily digestible prototype. Games in gallery spaces often tend to be binary - either short experimental experiences or digital ‘playgrounds’ that offer the chance for expression that lacks typical gamified structures such as fail states. Maki believes that other games can excel in this environment: “I think there are some really amazing games that would work well in a gallery space. TIS-100, for example is a game that teaches coding whilst secretly harbouring a narrative. It’s really hands-off when it comes to tutorials, offering only a PDF manual for the ‘computer’ that you’ll be programming.” Whilst probably better suited for the home space, it doesn’t sound too different to interactive exhibitions that appear in museums. Part of the problem with games in a gallery space is their length, which Maki addressed when asked how she saw the prototype expanding into a full game:
“Much of my focus will be on making the game not only longer but more dynamic… but inevitably, there’s going to be an increase in the time people spend playing it. As this happens, I’m hoping to offer more cabinets for people to use, and possibly a save/load function, so people can take a break and resume play later.”
The isolated nature of Pioneer and familiar input make one wonder if there was room to expand past the software into a more unique and tactile experience - although not a ‘gallery game’ per se - for instance, Johan Sebastian Joust by studio Die Gute Fabric is designed around a very specific piece of hardware, the motion sensing Playstation Move Peripheral, and uses no screens, only music and the motion of players to produce its bizarre interpretive dance rounds.
On this subject Maki is clearly interested in expanding the perception of game interaction: “I’m definitely hoping to bring more of my video games to art galleries. If I had more time in the future, it’d be great to create some unique hardware for them too. The sort of unique things that really only can exist in specific physical spaces.” This is at the core of the problem with transplanting games to galleries, Pioneer is a great experience novel within the gallery space, but it felt like it was pushing the limits of comfort in the setting. Maki acknowledges this, saying “Eventually, as well, there’ll almost certainly be a much longer version designed for people to experience at home.”
Regardless of this dilemma, it’s heartening to see personal, hand-crafted games within gallery spaces. Ardent supporters of the expressive qualities of the medium alongside traditional art forms are bound to be pleased when seeing young and entirely self sufficient developers rejecting traditional methods to pursue a more experimental territory. Next time you’re at an exhibition and feel taken aback by the peculiarity of some contemporary pieces, it may be worth looking out for a screen and a pad. As inscrutable as art can be, tacit approval of your interaction can break down many formal barriers. This is where games excel.