Millions of Americans happily while away hours in front of their PlayStations, Xbox consoles and computers, delving into the fantasy realms of their choice. But is video gaming a form of art?
The Napa Valley Museum is embracing the “yes” argument in the form of “Down the Rabbit Hole: Innovative Independent Video Games,” an exhibition the Yountville gallery debuted Friday morning. The show, which will be open from Wednesdays through Sundays until Jan. 8, includes playable versions of 10 games, plus videos, developmental artwork and interviews with the game developers.
“Down the Rabbit Hole” explores the conception, storytelling and production of titles created by independent video game makers – authors working alone or in small teams, rather than the dozens or hundreds needed to turn famous-name games into reality.
“The point is to explore the current innovation happening in the genre of indie video games – visually, mechanically and thematically,” said Meagan Doud, the museum curator.
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Gaming stations at the museum will introduce viewers to titles including “Lumino City,” “Gravity Ghost,” “Braid,” "Passage” and others. Visitors can learn about the approaches indie game developers take to put new spins on storytelling, in-game mechanics and even the conception of a game.
Though the Yountville exhibit showcases the work of video game creators, Doud hopes to display their artistry to a wider audience of non-gamers – a mission inspired by a friend’s introduction to the game “Antichamber” a year ago.
“It was something I’d never seen before: an incredibly mind-blowing experience because of the way the game is played,” she said of the game, a first-person experience filled with impossible three-dimensional spaces. “It started me into a deep dive into other video games. "I felt like I was falling down a rabbit hole into a world I never knew existed.
"I think I’m fairly technologically savvy as a young person, but this was a whole new realm, and I thought it would be fun to give others the opportunity to see a genre pushing the limits of traditional mechanics, the traditional themes of video games.”
To turn this germ of an idea into a full flesh-and-silicon exhibit, the museum turned to a group of local teenagers – 45 students of Lisa Gottfried, teacher of the Game Design and Visual Effects class at Napa’s New Technology High School.
During the spring semester, Gottfried and her students formed teams to develop the show’s learning stations, where visitors learn the importance of game mechanics, writing, three-dimensional modeling and music.
“What I want to do is script writing for video games,” said Grant Hall, an incoming New Tech junior who prepared two videos for the exhibit illustrating the 3-D modeling of game characters. “Having this is an amazing background, because I can see how games are made, so I can tailor my writing to that.”
“Being able to analyze how these 10 games operate was a real-life opportunity to understand the (process) of video-game creation,” said Gottfried of her students’ role in planning and building the museum’s exhibition.
“What makes a video game good? How can you use games in alternative ways to influence people’s behavior, change a person’s mind? Why is music important? What purpose does it serve? They had to synthesize all that information into usable information, to teach those who don’t know about independent gaming.”
Doud, the curator, held out hope that visitors of all ages would find their own bonds with games on display – whether for their art or music or sheer ingenuity.
“I would like each person to get excited about at least one game – find a game at this exhibition they can connect with in some way, whether (because) they think it’s an artistic game or they connect with the narrative, or if they like it on a mechanical level and say ‘Wow, I didn’t think you could subvert the rules of traditional play into something completely different,’” she said Monday. “There are lots of ways to access the world of indie gaming, and I hope each person finds a game that they fall in love with.”