Gamefest and The Art of Video Games.

23 March 2012

A couple of months back the American Art Museum (part of the Smithsonian) announced that it was collecting ideas for an art exhibit that would reside in DC until September of 2012 and then go on tour around the country. The exhibit, called The Art of Video Games is a tribute not only to video games as a form of art, but also to the artists and programmers who devote unthinkable amounts of time and energy to perfecting their craft.. and building the games that so many have come to hold near and dear to their hearts. Now, as we all know (and were no doubt told time and again by our parents and teachers as children), video game will rot your brain... however, they've also shown themselves to be an inspiration to programmers and artists since they entered the mass consciousness in the late 1970's. Computer graphics went from the stark simplicity of Asteroids to the hyperreal world of Final Fantasy XIII-2 in just thirty short years, an astounding leap not only in raw processing power but also in artistic technique and execution of design.

Video games have also come a long way in terms of how they're used. At first they were pretty simple: Fly around and try to blast the other player. That was pretty much it for Spacewar, the first video game in history. Spacewar was hacked on a PDP-1 salvaged at MIT in 1960 and used a repurposed oscilloscope as its display and two trackballs built out of spare parts. We all remember the classics, like Pac-Man and Defender, but how many of us remember a chill going down our spines when playing Neuromancer and discovering that someone or something is assassinating cowboys in cyberspace? How many of us were really into the storyline of Final Fantasy VII and got choked up when Aeris died at the hands of Sephiroth? How many of us have said offhand "The cake is a lie," because it was the only bit of (wry) humor in Portal, the game where the artificial intelligence isn't just homicidal but is actually enjoying torturing your character with deathtraps, passive-aggressive insults, and enemies that sound like four year old children. Video games are more than just pixels on a screen, more than just blasting enemies and jumping from platform to platform, they've become a unique type of story that is told as you interact with it, but told in a different way if you happen to be a spectator watching someone else play.

The exhibition opened in fine style, in a way that no self-respecting gamer would be able to pass up... a festival of video games.

Lyssa, Laurelindel, and I couldn't go to any of the festivities on Friday night because we get home too late from work, which meant that we had to miss out on Nolan Bushnell's presentation as well as the obligatory showing of Tron and the hordes of cosplayers. For other reasons we also opted to skip the festivities on Saturday, which included a couple of presentations and a screening of the documentary The King of Kong. We aimed to hit Gamefest on Sunday afternoon come hell or high water. And, after a little wandering aimlessly downtown, we found parking and walked to the Museum. It was a little tricky finding the exhibit because it's on the third floor of the American Museum of Art past a bunch of other exhibits, all of which are impressive in their own right, don't get me wrong. But, when one is visiting with a specific purpose in mind, one tends to seek out the exhibit of attraction. In this case, it was a section of hall that was painted in dark colors, lit indirectly, and had a large number of game systems on display, from the classic Atari 2600 game console to the Nintendo Entertainment System (which so many of us remember from the 80's), and on to the most modern consoles available today, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. For every system they featured a number of video games that fans voted were the most influential or interesting for their times, though few were playable upstairs.

Something none of us had expected to see at Gamefest was a live action video game in four stages done by Spontaneous Art, with a soundtrack by dj MKO. The plot of the live action was pretty simple, given that a lot of people were expected to try their hand at it. Security robots had gone amuck and the player had to dodge traps, get to the end, and neutralize the robots. The mechanics for this were distinctly LARP-like: jumping over spots on the floor, jumping over or ducking under moving foam beams, carefully walking inside of a moving hula hoop on the ground, and bonking the costumed enemies with foam balls to stop them. There was also a fantasy photoshoot where people could pose with video game props for fun. We didn't partake of either because we were having too much fun wandering around looking at everything.

The real draw (for us, anyway) was the festival in the courtyard where they had a large number of video game systems set up for people to play, art tables for people to try their hand at pixel art on graph paper, and lots of room to sit near the stage for the presentations and performances. I was specifically there to see 8-Bit Weapon, the powerhouse duo of Michelle and Seth Sternberger. I fell in love with their work when I first discovered RKO because they'd done remixes of music from M.U.L.E., Sanctuary Score from The Bard's Tale II, and ending theme from Neuromancer, and then with their original songs, some which you can listen to for free on their website. 8-Bit Weapon is known for hacking game consoles to use as instruments and not just sampling sounds from them for later re-use. Much to my shock, I discovered that Michelle's synthesizer is a Commodore SX-64, a fairly rare computer as they go because not many were sold. In hindsight, I'm somewhat bummed that we didn't catch Michelle's solo performance as the chiptune artist ComputeHer but she has a pretty solid discography of her own, and if the free tracks on her website are any indication I'll be picking up her solo stuff as well.

No more obvious invitation to have a good time needed to be made when Seth asked the audience to make use of the copious spare room before the stage to dance and have a good time; many of us immediately got up and began jockeying for position. My sole regret is that I didn't bring any earplugs because the volume of the PA system where I was standing was more than sufficient to cause inner ear pain (which thankfully faded rapidly with no tinnitus). 8-Bit Weapon played all original songs for Gamefest, and Lyssa and I alternated between snapping photographs and cutting a rug in fine style. All too soon, their set was over, though I did get a chance to talk to Seth afterward and thank 8-Bit Weapon for all of their hard work and lovely music over the years. After their stage kit was broken down The Triforce Quartet from Washington, DC took the stage and played their signature medlies of songs from the Legend of Zelda games, some of the Final Fantasy games, and the Super Mario Brothers series. I must confess, I stepped out of the courtyard for a while to test my suddenly compromised sense of hearing and find something to drink, so I missed a lot of their set but I returned just in time to catch their encore, a cover of the theme to A Game of Thrones.

Video game music has been a very specific genre of music since the 1980's that most people seem to either love or hate. I would argue that it all began with the MOS 6581, otherwise known as the Commodore SID chip. Unique for its time, it was a fully programmable microprocessor in its own right, capable of generating three voices simultaneously, and by exploiting a bug in the design it was possible to fake a fourth. Some truly talented hackers pushed the limits of this chip, including Rob Hubbard (best known for One Man and His Droid), Martin Galway (of Comic Bakery fame), and the duo of Ben Daglish and Anthony Lees (famous for the soundtrack to The Last Ninja). From there, video game music took off; many of us still enjoy listening to new versions of catchy tunes from video games, and some even go so far as to cover and remix them. Overclocked Remixes is the site to search for covers of video game music, and if you happen to love Commodore music in particular check out the archive at For a more recent example of video game music, I can't recommend One Winged Angel from the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VII highly enough (followed by the live version featuring composer Uematsu Nobuo on the Korg synthesizer).

While I'm not much of a video gamer anymore (I tend to get bored with games after a few days because I'm more of a code hacker than a player these days) I credit video games with my love of computers and music. My favorite games were always RPGs and puzzle games, and from them I learned to explore everything I could get my hands and everywhere I went to see what might have been forgotten by passers-by or deliberately hidden by designers or engineers. You can even find some things you never thought might exist in the strangest of places (like the gargoyles found in the sub-basement of the P&R Building of Pittsburgh, PA and the version of Also Sprach Zarathustra performed by Andy Summers that was on the soundtrack of 2010: The Year We Make Contact but not actually in the movie). I also first got into programming and reverse engineering software because I kept losing the code wheels for my games. If I didn't crack my games I often couldn't play them. It was poking around in code and exploring game environments I which I found my love of easter eggs, surprises hidden in games by the programmers for fun.

At this point, I feel that I should do what any good bartender would do and cut myself off. I could go on and on about my favorite video games from my childhood, but I won't bore you anymore, certainly not with that. I would like to take this time to thank the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Art for The Art of Video Games exhibit that will be running until September of 2012. I'll definitely be going back to it to explore more thoroughly. I'd also like to leave everyone with the pictures I took at Gamefest, including the performances by 8-Bit Weapon and the Triforce Quartet which I enjoyed thoroughly.