For most of the history of video games, the men and women behind your favorite games have been more or less anonymous. Unsung visionaries who, aside from their names in the credits, received little in the way of public recognition for their artistry and hard work. Most games would be credited to the developer or publisher who released the game, but few people knew the names of the individuals who were behind them. In more recent years, creators like Amy Hennig, Cory Barlog, and Neil Druckmann have become celebrities in the gaming community, but an exhibit now showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota wants to go a step further and introduce the rest of the world to the creators behind the games you play.
Showcasing the works of over 30 game designers and their teams, Game Changers is created and curated by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and has been traveling the world since 2014. It features 10,000 square feet of gaming goodness, including over 100 playable games, concept art, props, and stations where you can watch video interviews with the creators. The goal of the exhibit is to give people a sneak peek at how their favorite games are made, and highlight the individuals responsible for making them.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Adam and I both loaded up our families and made our way to St.Paul to take in this monument to geeky goodness. As you enter the exhibit, you’ll first come across the section titled Arcade Heroes. As you might expect, the walls in this room were adorned with the arcade titles that so many of us grew up with, including Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Tempest, and Defender. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t momentarily transported back to the early 80’s, sitting in my local arcade pumping quarters into these same machines.
My daughter Sam and I tried our hand at Robotron 2084 while my wife checked out Xevious. While it was great to reminisce about the origins of arcade gaming and show my children where it all began, it was also a stark reminder of just how far game design has come in the past 30 years. It’s amazing to compare these games of my youth to what my children are growing up with today.
The next section titled Game Changers is where the exhibit really shined for me, it highlighted an impressive collection of game designers that have shaped the entire medium. The hall features stations dedicated to pioneers such as Will Wright, Yuji Naka, Warren Spector, and Peter Molyneux, names that are well known to those who are passionate about gaming, but that the average person has probably never heard of. It was so nice to not only be able to read and hear about the works of these people, but to then be able to play the games themselves. They also do a nice job of offering something for gamers of all ages, while I was watching a video on Yu Suzuki (Outrun, Shenmue), my girls were at the TT Games area trying out some of their many LEGO games. And while you might expect kids to flock to those types of games, I was pleasantly surprised to see my girls also check out titles like Black & White and The Sims.
While most all of the exhibits were fantastic, a few of them stood out as being extra impressive with the amount of space dedicated to them and the interesting items on display. The station for Tim Schafer (Double Fine) for example featured not only several stations for playing games such as Broken Age and Day of the Tentacle, but they had an entire wall wallpapered with concept art from his games and a large prop of the Duece, the vehicle that Jack Black’s character drove in the game Brutal Legend. The station devoted to Fumito Ueda (Team Ico) was also a pleasant surprise, with more beautiful concept art from titles like Ico and The Last Guardian. Adam’s son Elliott was less impressed with this look back at history though, complaining that the original PlayStation 2 version of Shadow of the Colossus had “too many squares”. He’s apparently too young to remember pixels.
As we made out way towards the end of this section of the exhibit we were treated to an open area with a large dance floor where visitors could try their hand at Dance Central on a massive screen. Adam of course couldn’t help himself and just had to get out there to shake his money maker to ‘Disco Inferno’, I don’t know if I was more impressed by his dance moves or the fact that the Kinect used to play the game was actually working. They also had a booth set up for folks to play some Rock Band but we decided against playing, I don’t think the crowd would’ve been prepared to handle that level of awesomeness and there would have been substantial danger of people having their faces melted.
The Game Changers area of the exhibit was by far my favorite, seeing items on display like a reproduction of Will Wright’s notebook where he sketched out his first designs for The Sims or an original prototype for a Rock Band guitar was such a treat. It’s really the first time that I’ve seen the gaming industry treated with the same historical and cultural importance that other entertainment industries enjoy.
Finally, we made our way to the area simply titled Indies. It was a look at developers who may not be household names yet, but are nonetheless making big splashes in the industry. Here you’ll find names like Eric Chahi (Heart of Darkness), Erik Svedang (Blueberry Garden), and Jonathon Blow (Braid). It was fantastic to see them recognizing not only the biggest names in gaming, but also those still making a name for themselves. Our kids seemed to especially gravitate towards these games, with Elliott finding a co-op partner to play some Castle Crashers and Samantha playing some (what else) Minecraft. They even had a section in the middle dedicated entirely to mobile games like QWOP.
The world of video games is so massive that obviously not everybody could be included in the exhibit and there were definitely some omissions. There was no Todd Howard or Ken Levine, there was no Hideo Kojima or Hironobu Sakaguchi either, but like I said it would be impossible to include everybody so it’s hard to fault them for missing a few folks. It was also a bummer to not see any female developers up on the wall (that I noticed at least) but that probably says more about the games industry itself then about this exhibit specifically. Hopefully future iterations of the exhibit will include the likes of Amy Hennig or Rieko Kodama.
The one absence that definitely stood out though was a major lack of Nintendo creators or games on display. Aside from a plaque dedicated to Shigeru Miyamoto next to the Donkey Kong cabinet there was no sign of Mario, Link, or Pokemon anywhere. Perhaps they couldn’t get Nintendo’s cooperation on the exhibit but it was surely a disappointment considering their major role in the history of the gaming industry.
Minor gripes aside, the Game Changers exhibit is a beautifully curated monument to the creators who have made some of the most beloved games of all time. It’s a fantastic look at the ingenuity and artistry that goes into creating the worlds that we play in. Bringing our kids to learn about the history of the art form that we love so much was a wonderful opportunity and if you live in the Twin Cities area or are fortunate to have the exhibit travel to a city near you in the future, I highly recommend you make a point to see it.
Game Changers runs now through May 5th at the Science Museum of Minnesota. For hours and ticket information visit www.smm.org