Where Art Meets Gaming — Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed

Roger Erbert’s infamous declaration that “video games can never be art” continues to be discussed within the entertainment world, but the late critic might have been left bemused had he been able to see the latest concoction from ArtScience Museum — Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed is a showcase of the creativity seen from video games and features six installations that have been conceived by some of the industry’s leading developers, each offering a unique immersive experience for visitors. 

The exhibition is co-curated by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, a respected name in the games industry who has been involved in titles like Rez, Lumines and the very popular Tetris Effect, which was recently released in 2018. Collaborating alongside him is the Barbican in London, an organisation that has celebrated all major art forms including dance, film, music, theatre and visual arts since its inception in 1982.

“When the Barbican first approached me about Virtual Realms, I took immediate interest and knew I wanted to be involved. From my own experience, I’ve seen and continue to learn how the pairing of game developers and media designers open up so much potential for new ways to play, connect, experience, and more. This exhibition is only the beginning of something much bigger – it paves the way for a future where the world of games spills out beyond the screen,” said Mizuguchi.

Like video games, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed can be experienced solo, but taking it all in with a group can bring about a unique sense of immersion. In fact, two of the installations are all about interacting with one another. Of course, social distancing rules apply here, and you can get time tags for them to ensure you are experiencing them safely.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed Time Tag
Plan out when to visit the SYNESTHESIA or PLAY installations with these time tags

One of those is from Mizuguchi-san’s own company, Enhance. Under the SYNESTHESIA theme, the studio has worked alongside media designer Rhizomatiks to bring their installation, ‘Rezonance’, to life as they aim to blur the line on how your senses can be felt.

‘Rezonance’ is a visual and aural encounter, made possible with the use of light, sound and technology. Visitors are handed an orb at the start, and upon entering the designated space, they will be able to feel the orb pulsate rhythmically and see it generate vibrant lights to set the mood. But that’s not all it can do.

The space is a visual spectacle, showcasing a myriad of fantastical lighting effects, but it also reacts to the location of the orb within it. As a result, you can switch up the speed of the pulsating beat when you either lower or elevate the orb’s height, or influence the light effects as it reacts to wherever you bring it around the space.

Of course, being a shared experience, how you interact with the other orbs will also bring about different outcomes, such as producing a magical burst of sound and light as you and your group bring all the orbs together. 

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed ‘Rezonance’
These pulsating orbs are a key aspect of ‘Rezonance’

Next up, Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed explores the theme of UNITY. Award-winning developer thatgamecompany, who are behind experiential titles like Flower and Journey, has worked together with creative studio FIELD.IO to create their installation ‘Together: the distance between (us)’ to illustrate this.

A circular light sculpture hangs above the room for the installation, and it invites visitors to move around the space to light up the sculpture and produce sounds as it responds to their presence underneath. Standing on different areas of the sculpture’s rings also emits different types of tunes while adding more people to the space brings more sounds and creates a melody as a result.

Being themed after unity, collaboration with others in the installation also brings a different effect. For example, by standing together over the innermost ring, you’ll be able to light it up completely, which then plays a wonderful composition of music.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed Unity Installation
thatgamecompany’s UNITY installation creates a sense of wonder when you unite together with others

Next to the UNITY installation is another by KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS, the studio headed by iconic game developer Hideo Kojima, who recently released their maiden game, Death Stranding, in 2019.

Death Stranding was a game about connecting with others around the world, and their installation at Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed has similarly followed that theme, aptly titled CONNECTION. ‘WALL’ results from their partnership with creative production company The Mill, which attempts to examine the human connection.

‘WALL’ is an installation made of two gallery spaces, separated by a wall in the middle. Visitors won’t be able to see the other side, but they’ll still be able to know what is going on. On one side, the wall features a world under a microscope, with cellular shapes that you can move and manipulate by interacting with them. But there are also smaller cells formed when someone from the other side is near the wall.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed 'WALL'
Build a unique connection with someone on the other side in ‘WALL’ by KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS

The other side has its own unique visual feature, with galactic energy particles represented here instead of cells. Thus, they too will be able to ‘see’ your presence, and together, you and the person on the other side can attempt to communicate and interact with each other through the wall.

Once you’ve experienced CONNECTION, you can cross over to the PLAY installation, which lays opposite from it. The playful minds of Media Molecule (Little Big Planet, Dreams) have conceived this with London-based creative studio Marshmallow Laser Feast to form their ‘Dream Shaping’ installation.

‘Dream Shaping’ aims to celebrate the joyful and performative sensibilities inspired by video games. It arms visitors with tracking helmets and brings them into a room with shapes that they can carry around, also projected on the large screen. 

Together with friends, you play through different scenarios, with one being a ball pit, and you can use your chosen shape to bounce those balls around the screen. The helmet that you wear also paints the balls a specific colour, and you can take the opportunity to compete with your pals by trying to colour in the most balls. The experience is sure to garner a few laughs as you move around the room with your shape!

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed 'Dream Shaping'
‘Dream Shaping’ brings the feeling of joy as you play around with space with your shaped object

Story is a massive aspect of video games, and many game titles have been able to move a person emotionally with their tales. As such, the NARRATIVE installation is here to illustrate that power from storytelling.

The story of RIME is an emotional journey of discovery and loss, and developers behind the game, Tequila Works, have brought back that world with the help of UK creative technologists The Workers. Their installation, ‘Book of Sand’, is housed in a 360° projection and explores the concept of a story without any beginning or end.

Within ‘Book of Sand’, you’ll solve puzzles and experience the narrative that unfolds. Its narrative can play out different outcomes depending on your choices and how you have collaborated with the people alongside you.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed 'Book of Sand'
Relive RIME in the ‘Book of Sand ’installation by Tequila Works

Finally, video games have created a massive number of game universes and the immeasurable potential of our imaginations paves the way for boundless more. The EVERYTHING realm celebrates that vast capacity to shape them.

David OReilly is a developer who has made some truly unique games, like the ‘non-playable Mountain and also Everything. With London-based design consultancy and studio onedotzero, he has created the installation ‘Eye’ for Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed, which visually provides the same sense of endless possibilities.

Controllers taking the form of wheels are located around the environment, and visitors can play with what appears on the screen. Each controller controls different aspects, such as the ‘flow’, ‘scale’ and ‘warp’ of the kaleidoscopic formations.

The screen also continuously generates different sets of living and non-living forms on display, meaning that no one pattern is the same and the ones previously created will not appear again — making this a truly unique experience for any visitor.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed 'Eye'
The unending changing kaleidoscopic formations seen in ‘Eye’

That wraps up what you can experience at Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed! The exhibition will run from 12 June 2021 to 9 January 2022 at ArtScience Museum before making its way overseas for a global tour for worldwide visitors.

There’s even a workshop available for children called ‘Draw Your Own Game’, which brings them in on the creative process of making a game. It will be held on 7 and 8 September and costs S$5 per participant.

For those interested in checking out the exhibition, individuals can purchase tickets at all Marina Bay Sands Box Offices or their website. The prices for adult Singaporean residents are S$16 per person. Families with two children can also grab the package set for S$45.

Photos by Darren Chiong of the DANAMIC Team.

Russell Matthew Loh

Watcher of films and player of games. Dabble with writing in between.

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