The Urbis building in Manchester reminds me of something from a computer game; a giant glass monolith that has been transported from another world. Inside, the multiple staggered platforms that house the many galleries are perfect for a real-life game of Donkey Kong. Luckily, I didn’t have to face a huge disgruntled gorilla as Videogame Nation, a new original exhibition that tracks the history of British gaming resides on the first floor.
Outside the Videogame Nation exhibition in Urbis, Manchester
The first section of the exhibition is a haven for gamers with fond memories of the home-brew bedroom coding scene of the 80s. A grid of shelves showcases classic consoles and home computers surrounded by copies of Crash magazine and original posters for classic games. A bed featuring a Space Invaders duvet cover, a time-lapse video of Introversion lead designer Chris Delay working at home and a telephone that lets you listen to interviews with famous developers are all neat touches. The highlights of the exhibition though are the playable games that let you revisit landmark British titles and this section includes Elite, Jet Set Willy and Lunar Jetman.
An area dedicated to the bedroom coder
The gallery then explores racing games with a playable Amstrad GX4000 that lets you get hands-on with Burnin’ Rubber and a NES loaded up with Micro Machines. The next part of the story covers the UK arcade phenomenon covering the Pickford Brothers, Jeff Minter, US Gold and Ocean’s David Ward. This area also includes original arcade cabs of Ghost ‘n Goblins and Rainbow Islands that are 50p a pop.
Level design map for the Oliver Twins' Fantasy World Dizzy
Leading on from bedroom coding the exhibition then explores the formation of large British studios in the 80s and 90s using Molyneux’s Bullfrog and the Darling brother’s Codemasters as key examples. This was my favourite part of the exhibition due to the large amount of unique sketches and design work on show that gives a real sense of the creativity involved in making games. One wall is plastered with hand-drawn maps by the Oliver Twins showing the level designs for Dizzy and a long glass cabinet is filled with artwork from Ocean and Imagine Software artist Mark Jones. Original pencil drawings by Eoghan Cahill showing the foreground and background elements involved in Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars are another fantastic addition. Many more games are on offer too including Theme Park, Fantastic Dizzy, Cannon Fodder, Populous and Lemmings.
Original drawings from Revolution's Broken Sword
Sports games and the work of Dino Dini and Jon Hare are then recounted with Sensible Soccer and FIFA available to play on the SNES, compete with stadium chairs and astroturf. This area also includes a wonderful collection of original artwork by Bob Wakelin, the signature box art designer for many Ocean games. Visitors then have the chance to find out more about portable gaming with Maclean’s Mercury on the PSP and Worms on the Nintendo DS attached to authentic bus stop surroundings.
Fifa and Sensi united
The convergence of games and films is touched on with playable versions of Tomb Raider, Lego Indy and Lego Star Wars and a darkened viewing room looks at the relationship between television and games with a loop of programmes that includes Five’s Elite expose, Brits Who Made the World and Channel 4’s iconic Games Master.
Towards the end of the exhibition a room emblazoned with ‘Over 18’s Only’ uses games and YouTube clips to explore controversy surrounding titles such as Manhunt 2, GTA, Sony’s apologies to Manchester Cathedral and the infamous Jack Thompson complaining about Bully. The impact of videogames on our health are documented through a wall display of newspaper website screenshots and advertising campaigns such as the Department of Health’s recent Just Do Nothing warnings.
Stickers filled with visitors' thoughts
The exhibition concludes with a nod towards the future of gaming, specifically online distribution, an influx of massively multiplayer titles and the emergence of 3DTV gaming. The gallery also kindly includes a concluding panel promoting the NVA and a wall covered in sticky notes letting the visitor share their earliest memories of gaming.
This was my second visit to the exhibition and I still wasn’t able to spend as much time as I would have liked taking in the encyclopedic offering of detail. There’s enough to read and play to last a whole day and I had to tear myself away from several games. Understandably, not all the games were working and some had just frozen up but at least 80% were fully functional.
Videogame Nation puts into practice lots of elements the NVA has recently been thinking about regarding emulation versus the real thing. Many of the games featured in the exhibition are emulated, particularly the titles originally released for computers such as the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Amiga. Loading times, the need to change cassettes and floppy discs and perhaps sometimes temperamental machines would make using original platforms difficult and costly in a public gallery environment. However, playing Jet Set Willy or Dizzy with a control pad feels inaccurate to the true nature of the original game.
The exhibition also made me think about the best way to present expansive adventure games such as Elite or Broken Sword in a gallery setting. These types of games demand hours of gameplay and a comfy chair, presenting these titles as brief experiences doesn’t do them justice.
In a similar vein to the Barbican’s Game On exhibition, Urbis’ Videogame Nation is a comprehensive, labyrinthine history of the British gaming scene that successfully charts the rise of games from the bedroom to the multi-million pound studio. The exhibition narrative takes confusing diversions at times but this is symptomatic of a story that aims to squeeze in every last detail and not leave any part of the history out. One exhibition that I regret never seeing is Pong.Mythos; a diverse collection of art pieces inspired by Pong. Just as every photography, art or film gallery isn’t focussed on covering the entire history of the medium, I’d like to see more videogame exhibitions explore specific themes such as genre or designer.
Video of the Pong.Mythos exhibition