Walking Through Parallel Worlds

This is a report from a day at the V&A, for the event Parallel Worlds, a conference about games held inside the museum.

Marie Foulston, who is the game curator at the V&A, has done a great job. This has been by far the best game event I’ve attended this year. The main value point is that the whole thing approached games from a cultural, broader point of view, instead the usual “games are cool, now let’s talk technology” way I’m seeing too much these days. That led to a lot of insight and takeaways that I’m trying to sum up in this report, along with the names of cool people I met (mostly in the writing area, which seems to be crowded and thriving with talent). But let me start with some thoughts about the venue and the conference in itself.

Games, Museums, Art.

V&A has been really open towards the game world for a long time. It’s been the first museum employing a game designer in residence and the appointment of a game curator, invested in finding ways to showcase games in museum spaces. And it’s working well, apparently. Both the conference and the late night were crowded and the context of the museum works really well for experimenting with games in non obvious way and to show the more artistic and deep side of the medium. Games are here to stay, they are this malleable and multiform medium and of course they are going to have their place in museums. They already do (MoMA). What this conference has told, in my opinion, is that we need to look at them with an open mind, because they often defy labels and definitions. They are by far the most complex medium in our history and they can’t be reduced to a single idea.

I really liked the format of the talks: a chair person (usually a journalist) introduced the topic of the session. Then two speakers took turns into explaining their point of view of the topic. With the exception of the last session, the interesting thing has been that the speakers often came from very different areas of gaming (namely AAA development versus independent/art) and they tended to have very contrasting opinions. That has created a really nice environment for discussion and a lot of food for thought.

Session 1 — Brave New Worlds

First session in the morning has been the most art-oriented. The introduction has been held by Simon Parkin, who talked about how game spaces are self-contained worlds offering possibilities and emotions (THANK GOD FOR THAT! FINALLY!).

Kareem Ettourney, art director for Media Molecule (a AAA Guildford-based studio, creators of the Little Big Planet franchise) shared his creative process, which mixes in an interesting way his architectural background (I find it essential in order to create virtual places that actually make sense — I’m studying a lot in that direction) with painting and colour exploration.

Pol Clarissou and Heloïse Lozano, from the French collective Klondike, have shown their loose, very artistic creative process, based on the creation of spaces that respect the player, don’t bother hiding the fact that they are actually game spaces (good guys, you’ve learnt from the masters and it shows) and are all in all honest with the medium. Klondike weird and somewhat cryptic games really show their explorative approach (let’s see what happens if we do this) which I believe is fundamental to find new things and different perspectives when creating meaningful experiences.

Session 2 — Playing With History

The second session, introduced by Holly Nielsen, has been by far the most interesting one of the day. It dealt with the relationship between games and history and it showed a really contrasting set of point of views.

The first speaker has been Simon Hann from Creative Assembly, the studio responsible for the Total War franchise, which is something big in the niche of people who love strategy games based on history. Simon basically shown how using real history (supported by actual research) and trying to represent in a non-judging way the various factions has given the game depth. He argued that often history (which is familiar and acts as a nice entry point for people) can be strange and interesting as fantasy, if not more. Unfortunately, the example he brought to corroborate his thesis (Caligula planning to make his horse Incitatus a consul) is debated and possibly not true. I also question his idea that history is always defined and “real”, but I’ll probably get too much into philosophy, so I’ll stop here.

On the other hand Meg Jayanth, writer of 80 Days and BAFTA winner, has shown how she used history as the foundation point to tell an alternate reality. 80 Days is a game based on Jules Verne novel, but it manages to represent different cultures and views of the world through the use of a steampunk tone (which enables interesting questions like: how people in another country used steam? Which vehicles they could have built based on their culture and traditions?). History here trickles down the alternate reality, and enables the writer to tell a more interesting story which picks ideas and questions from different eras. 80 Days does an incredible job talking to people, through a fantastic but plausible historical representation, about themes like racial contrasts, feminism and cultural appropriation. It’s probably worth to mention that this approach requires to be really convincing with the client, because the advantages are less evident, but it’s in my opinion far more entertaining and has a bigger learning value.

Session 3 — The Realities of Virtual Reality

Onto the third session, about VR, introduced by game journo Kristian Volsing. Again, two completely different approaches here and a contrasting landscape in the end.

Laura Dilloway from Guerrilla Games talked about RIGS, which is considered one of the most interesting Playstation VR games. In Rigs you control this giant exoskeleton in a basket like sport simulator. It’s a very dynamic game and Laura showed the research process the team undertook in order to fight motion sickness. Which pretty much boils down to: a lot of different control/screen/movement options, because it turns out that people have very different reactions and tolerance to motion sickness. Also, they used a lot of cuts in all the non interactive scenes to avoid too much stress on the player. The fact that a cockpit is always visible helps in tricking the brain and the vestibular system and reduces sickness as well. They also play with the field of view in order to reduce the amount of eye stimulation when moving fast, jumping and falling. Still, the game is really super dynamic and rollercoaster like, and when I tested it a year ago, I couldn’t complete a match before the sickness kicked in, forcing me to stop. And I’m a big fan of rollercoasters.

The point of view of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the Belgian studio Tale of Tales, is strictly artistic. From a bold statement such as computers let you escape the negative influence of photography they depict a VR which is more connected to emotions: you create a synthetic space that hasn’t to be figurative, but which can use symbolism and abstraction in order to make you feel something you already know in a different way. Tale of Tales are working on Cathedral in the Clouds, a VR exploration of sacred art based on the concept of symbolism and contemplation. One interesting and unexpected point they raised is how you show VR content in public spaces. There are two aspects of this to consider: the first one is that people feel awkward wearing headsets in public and having to wave hands and move while others are watching; the second one is that other people want to enjoy the space even if they’re not taking part in the VR experience (not everyone wants/is ready to). For that reason the design of the space where the VR experience is installed is almost as important as the VR content itself.

Session 4 — Augmenting Reality

The last session was about AR. Introduced by Marie Foulston, it tried to explore the world of Augmented Reality.

The first talk has been held by Holly Gramazio from the small studio Matheson Marcault, which develops games for exhibitions and public spaces. Holly argued that AR applications right now are lazy and dull, and that the whole concept should be enhanced by borrowing ideas and mechanics from urban games (which, in some ways, can be defined as well as augmented reality). She showed some really crappy AR implementations (like a ski helmet that make virtual hoops appear on the track, thus effectively “making you believe you’re not really skiing but just playing a game” — ironically the opposite of what sports game try to do) and then some interesting urban games ideas, like a super lovely nano game that goes like this: You walk around London. If you see the Shard, you die. Let me digress a little bit: from a game design point of view this is what we call elegant design. It’s an incredible simple mechanic that reveals a complex meaning: if the Shard can kill you, then it’s evil; that fits perfectly in the discussion about gentrification, privilege and the ever changing London landscape that sometimes doesn’t take into account the history of the surrounding and it’s completely money-driven (for what it counts, I like the Shard, but I can understand the critical remark here). The very fact that the most evident landmark of the city can kill you if you see it makes you walk around in a different way. You may want to avoid the London Bridge area, and all the elevated points, and maybe you start even watching your surrounding in different ways. So many interesting things hidden in a sentence-long game. That aside, it has been a mindblowing talk about how we often just choose the laziest, easiest solution, which sometimes doesn’t even make sense, instead trying to get a little deeper and find something more interesting and valuable.

The other talk, by Keiichi Matsuda of Critical Design has been a showcase and a comment of his short movie Hyper-Reality which to me is the best commentary about gamification and pervasive technology since the first three seasons of Black Mirror. Nothing more to add, though.

Interstitial, Late Night and Cool People

During the evening the conference has had its follow-up in the form of a late night event at the museum, full of installations, showcases and game related things. It has been the true moment of fusion between the museum space and the game space, in a way. People were playing games on boards which are actual tiles from the V&A Building, experiencing massive collaborative game projected on the ceiling, trying a VR swing (or queuing for it) and so on.

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen was by far the Code Liberation showcase: they basically hold free events in which they teach girls and LGBT people to code and to make their own expressive games. I played only one game, made by Kate Gray, a young game journalist. It’s called Awkward Dating Simulator and it’s a computer-aided role play that puts two players in a kinda difficult date. It brilliantly uses time, instructions on what to talk about and physical nudges (like: nervously smile, play with jewellery, hold hands) to enable awkward moments of embarrassed silence. It’s another example of brilliantly simple game design that leads to meaningful content (like: thinking about human behaviour and social rules). Should you be interested in an awkward date, you can download the game here. Then you have to find a date to play with, but you’ll be fine (for the record, I added some more awkwardness by playing the game with a French guy).

Silly anecdotes aside, I think playing these kind of games should teach us how to try to design meaningful experiences with a more open mind, not necessarily obeying to all the tropes and clichées we are used to. I also wonder at the incredible talent you can so easily find in those events.

Defying gravity. Curiouser and curiouser. Lecturer, Game designer and creative coder. He/him. Currently leading the independent games MA at Goldsmiths.

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