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5 Contemporary Developers Shaking Up What Video Games Do, Say + Mean

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt at the V&A has unearthed a whole load of exciting + weird new virtual worlds

If we get past the constant flogging of the word “disruption,” the V&A—that most hallowed and apparently traditional London institution—has really shown its chops when it comes to contemporary gaming. Rather than offering a chiptune soundtracked nostalgia trip, the exhibition Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt starts in the mid-00s, tracing a very recent history of what’s exciting, bold, different and—ok—disruptive when it comes to the expansive world of gaming. What it proves, more than anything, is that this discipline is the true Gesamtkunstwerk for our times: sound design, art, scenography, writing—all that makes up human life is there. What’s great about this show is that it makes those connections. Video games are, as they should be, placed in the context of their roots; everything from classic fiction to classic draftsmanship to Hollywood’s golden age to Gudetama the sad egg.

The striking show graphics and texts by Julia are applied to huge cubes that shimmer like screens dotted around the space; while the exhibition design by Pernilla Ohrstedt Studio works with, rather than against, the content, holding back where appropriate and going gorgeously bananas when the games’ aesthetic urges it to. Crucially, Design/Play/Disrupt doesn’t shy away from the less celebratory aspects of contemporary gaming: the corners of sexism, the lack of diversity (except when it comes to “orks and elves and dwarves,” as games writer Meg Jayant puts it.)

But according to the V&A, “disruption has begun” in the shape of writers, designers, players and commentators challenging and bringing nuance to how we talk about video games and how and why we play them, too. While there’s a lot on offer here from bigger studios—shoutout to the delightful Nintendo romp Splatoon (namely its superb choice of virtual brothel creeper shoes for players)—we’ve picked five smaller games from lesser known developers to highlight, each of which is pushing gaming into new or strange territories, the likes of which we’ve certainly never seen before.

1
Consume Me, Jenny Jiao Hsia

We’ve become slightly obsessed with New York-based game designer, developer, and coder Jenny Jiao Hsia’s work, which mixes a gorgeously DIY aesthetic with unabashed cuteness and heartwarming intimacy that’s rarely found in gaming. Her game Consume Me, which is on show at the V&A, is based on her own experiences of disordered eating. It comes from a serious place–not to mention a very personal one—but her aesthetic interrogates what it means to interact with such issues by making them saccharine and fun.

Hsia is completely self taught. She works by herself on everything from the initial concept to coding to the final piece.

“Maybe it doesn’t result in something that is nearly as polished, but there is a little bit of me every part of the art, code and design of the game,” she says in the catalog accompanying the V&A exhibition. “It’s definitely lonely at times. working on my own has made me realize that I’m ultimately the person who cares most about my projects, and that I’m the one who decides whether the game gets made.” She works to a playful, analog process that begins very much in the physical world with paper, Post-Its, and a ton of cute characters (the V&A has her Gudetama bag and Disney plush toys on display in a vitrine). Hsia’s also an open book online, sharing sketches, illustrations, comics, and animations that may or may not make their way into her final pieces. She is demystifying gaming in a way that feels like a departure from the usual mystique and sharp pixels of big developers. Hsia describers herself as “not technically oriented… I just want to get my point across.” Her process of creating games starts visually. She works by creating a scene in Photoshop with each asset taking up its own layer, before importing these assets into the game engine Unity. Hsia codes in C# (C Sharp) to program the assets’ movement and interaction.

“Most of my games share a playful and silly aesthetic,” says Hsia. “Some of them attempt to approach serious subjects with a sense of humour.” In Consume Me, the goal is to throw the player into calorie counting obsession as they’re forced to view food as Tetris pieces: strange, mechanical, and ultimately difficult. Hsia wants to put players into the mind of the dieter, opening up a new problematic relationship through the “three-way dynamic between the player, the character in the game, and the fact this attractor is based on me, the author. What does it mean to push and prod the character into certain eating behaviors when the player doesn’t get full control of the character’s thoughts and internal state?…Is it ok to ‘play’ or have fun with someone else’s pain? Am I giving you permission to poke fun at my own suffering?”

2
Hit Me!, Kaho Abe

Ah, Hit Me! It’s kind of exactly what you think it is: a two-player game in which players have to hit a button on the top of each others’ builder-like hardhats before they hit yours. The V&A describes it as an “energetic game of spectacle and performance.” We say it’s nuts, in a very very fun way. The original was created by game designer and media artist Kaho Abe in 2005, and revised in 2011. The concept is inspired by Batsu ‘punishment game’ segments from Japanese gameshows, and it firmly yanks gamers away from the screen and into each other’s personal space.

Without doubt the most bonkers part of the show—where Hit Me! sits–comes right at the end in the form of a massive arcade that leans retro but dives very much into the future. The DIY arcade cabinets are tributes to those by collectives like New York’s Babycastles and Edinburgh’s We Throw Stitches, and were hand decorated by UK illustrators Ursula Cheng, Angus Dick, Charlotte Mei, and Helena Covell.

According to curator Marie Foulston, around 2005 a number of experimental game collectives began to emerge, spearheaded by Montreal-based Kokoromi and their GAMMA series of parties. The next beacon of live action bonkers-mongers in the sphere is New York’s Babycastles, a collective that runs its own DIY gallery space and creates a number of cracked arcade machine games that (literally) turn what we think of in contemporary gaming on its head.

“The rise of the DIY arcade scene went hand in hand with a wave of physical video games, and each supported the other,” says Foulston. “Not only did the events provide the public platforms and audience needed to showcase such work, but their existence and influence inspired other designers to embrace physical and experimental game design. Collectives such as Babycastles place games like Hit Me! into a community and relevant cultural context.”

3
Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer

Drawing on influences as disparate as Brutalist architecture, computing history, ’80s computer graphics pioneer Jane Veeder’s Montana, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and William Faulkener’s The Sound and the Fury, Kentucky Route Zero is a very different take on realist adventure gaming. Each member of the independent studio Cardboard Computer specializes in music, text, or graphics, but every creation is very much a shared endeavor.

The game carefully weaves in distinct influences from that broad and expansive list: the chiaroscuro and “twisted scenery” draw on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; and the team credits The Sound and the Fury as “a major point of reference for us—as a Southern writer, as an experimental writer, as a storyteller focused on history, community and family.”

The game is built using the coding script Twine, which uses visual structures to make interactive fiction through hypertext links. “Twine has ignited an explosion in creativity, as it is adaptable enough for many designers to use it to create experimental games,” says the V&A. The game’s dialogue is then programmed in Twee, a system built on Twine’s graphical interface. The typography used in the game is no accident. Cardboard Computer chose Letter Gothic, which was created for IBM Selectric typewriters and used in documenting the early video synthesizer, the Dan Sandin Image Processor. “The designers treated the text as both a material and realtime component, borrowing from Japanese role playing games that used punctuation as a score for dialogue,” says the V&A. Each punctuation element pauses the dialogue for different durations, approximating the rhythms of speech.

The designers of Cardboard Computer are based in—you guessed it, Kentucky—as well as L.A and Chicago. They took an innovative approach to sealing the collaboration: creating a “band name”, The Guardians of Tradition.

4
How Do You Do It?, Nina Freeman

Much like Hsia’s work, U.S. designer Nina Freeman’s 2014 How Do You Do It? draws on her own personal experience with a thoroughly DIY aesthetic, albeit in a different way. Freeman refers to her small, intimate works as “vignettes,” and this one centers on learning about sexuality–something that for Freeman was “ignited by watching the film Titanic”. How Do You Do It? shows a child experimenting with dolls, while we the players move the child’s arm to manipulate the strange little nude figures. The gameplay is designed to balance the player’s power over her characters through limiting the precision of movement that you can perform with the character’s hands, “emphasizing the situation’s awkwardness.” Where many video games have been criticized for being insensitive or basally titillating; Freeman’s games look to emphasize that sexuality underpins all of our lives, both on a personal and cultural level.

“I’m definitely investing in making games about things that are hard to talk about,” Freeman said in an interview with fellow designer Robert Yang in the show catalog. “I am interested in thinking about how we work through complex emotional acts like sex, especially when it feels like a forbidden topic. I think I tend to focus on, like… more talk than body because of this—the girl is thinking about sex in [the game] and projecting these thoughts onto her dolls, but there’s not any physical sex or flirtation happening.”

The game deliberately plays on the tension between private and public sexuality: The character is experiencing very personal discoveries, while the player “voyeuristically” controls them and and as such, watches such discoveries unfold. “American culture is very intense about ensuring that children learn as little as possible about sexuality,” says Freeman. “…Sex is a private topic, not to be spoken of. Navigating sexuality is a fraught path for young people because of this. I think it’s interesting and important to think about how culture shapes private/public sexuality from such a young age.”

5
Rinse and Repeat, Robert Yang

Here’s an unusual one: U.S. artist and indie video game developer Robert Yang’s Rinse and Repeat is a first person “shower simulator” that lets players “scrub down a hunk in a gym shower.” In a sort of X-rated Tamagotchi proxy, over the course of five days players must “attend to” shower man in specific classes at different times in order to fulfill your fantasy. Yang often uses video games to explore gay culture through unexpected mechanics; subverting and toying with established tropes around sex in gaming. Despite many games’ over sexualization of female bodies and its acceptance of hyperbolically physiqued heterosexuality, Yang has faced a lot of censorship in his work. Twitch, for instance, frequently bans him with no explanation.

“Games are supposed to be art, and no-one cares that Twitch’s secret police bans my games…” Yang told Freeman in their interview. “I feel like conservative consumerist gamer culture has permanently poisoned this artistic discourse.” Yang is known for putting out lengthy artists’ statements with his work (a rarity in the gaming world); it’s almost as though he has to validate his works, which include an art game adaptation of Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths; and The Tearoom, a cottaging game.

“Commercial games can depict as much sex, nudity, and violence as they want, without worrying about upsetting industry censors,” he adds. “Grand Theft Auto don’t even care about exploring the meaning and politics of these subjects, they just use the imagery for titillation and marketing. Meanwhile my games actually try to earn their sex! The art can’t function without it! And I’m the one getting punished for my attitude and treatment of sex? Like so many people working in games, sometimes I just want to leave. Fuck these entitled nerds!”

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