Games Lounge Opens at the National Media Museum

tom on Feb 25th, 2010 | File under: announcements, exhibitions

The National Media Museum’s Games Lounge is a brand new attraction giving visitors the chance to plug into the history of videogaming, play classic, groundbreaking games in their original arcade or console formats and discover the story behind a global phenomenon.

The Games Lounge is also the first public gallery that draws on the collection and knowledge of the National Videogame Archive (NVA). Many of the playable consoles and objects on display form part of the NVA and have been donated by generous members of the public or bought from collectors such as Console Passion.

Anyone visiting the Museum will be able to play their way through the titles that helped videogaming become one of the most successful entertainment industries in the world; from the sensational Pong (1972) to releases from the 1990s such as Super Mario Kart and Golden Eye.

The Lounge features a selection of seminal games that are easy to pick up and play, either for a quick 5 minute blast or a few hours. Games have been chosen to ignite feelings of nostalgia in visitors who remember them when they were first released, and give young people the chance to play them for first time.

Visitors will be able to track the history of videogames through a giant timeline as well as view the early computers and games consoles that turned a nation on to gaming. A dedicated Museum website provides further information and interactive content exploring the tradition, culture and design of videogames.

Featuring 15 individual games, several of the Games Lounge consoles are free to play, and others are coin-operated for the closest recreation of the original arcade experience possible. The lounge also hosts a unique arcade-style cabinet designed to give wheelchair users access to many of the titles through a free-of-charge simulator.

Robert Holdstock, 1948-2009

james on Nov 29th, 2009 | File under: announcements

It was with great sadness that we learned of Robert Holdstock’s passing on the morning of 29 November.

Rob made a valuable, generous and genuinely unique contribution to National Videogame Archive’s events at GameCity this year, where he joined Ian Bell, David Braben, Mark Bolitho and others to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Elite. Reading excerpts from The Dark Wheel novella he wrote to accompany the game, Rob captivated the audience and it was truly a privilege to witness his performance.

Everybody at the NVA sends their deepest sympathies to his partner Sarah and his family. He will be greatly missed.

Mr Matsuura's Marvellous Keynote speech

james on Nov 9th, 2009 | File under: donations, events

The NVA very much enjoyed its time at GameCity this year and we’ve come back with some wonderful new donations for the collection. Masaya Matsuura, creator of Parappa the Rapper, Vib Ribbon and Major Minor’s Majestic Marching Band among others, delivered two fantastic presentations. In his ‘Unforgettable’ BAFTA keynote speech, Matsuura-san discussed his thoughts on poly-personal production and showed some sneak-previews of his upcoming mobile games and treated the audience to three wonderful songs with live motion graphics. In his ‘Mr Matsuura’s Marvellous Marching Band’ session, ably assisted by Dewi Tanner, the maestro talked about his work, inspiration and influences and led the crowd in a mass kazoo rendition of ‘Hey Jude’. Na na na nana on sha!

If mass kazooing, previews of unreleased games and an insight into development methodology wasn’t enough, Matsuura-san notched up another couple of GameCity firsts: A standing ovation. And an encore. I wouldn’t want to be doing next year’s keynote, the stakes are pretty high.

Demonstrating his support for the NVA, Matsuura-san kindly donated a very rare copy of Tunin’Glue. Wondering what it is? Let Matsuura-san describe, ‘There’s no need for instruments to make a band! Just connect sound parts from all sorts of genres and put guitars and vocals to it. Now, you’re the composer!’

This game/music sequencer was created for the Apple Pippin was never released in Europe (like the Pippin) so we’re very honoured to have a copy in the collection. Like everybody who saw the keynote, the NVA is obviously very excited and inspired and we’re all busy experimenting with Logic and making plans to deliver the next NVA presentation as a series of vocoder songs.

In equal measures, fun, informative, enlightening, and inspiring, perhaps Matsuura-san said, or rather sang, it best. Unforgettable.

Above the fold

james on Nov 8th, 2009 | File under: events

Many thanks to all of the contributors that made our celebration of 25 years of Elite such a success. After some scene setting to transport the room back to 1984, joining Iain and James on stage were Ian Bell, David Braben, Mark Bolitho, Dominic Prior and Robert Holdstock each of whom talked through their specific contribution to the game and its continued meaning to them a quarter of a century on. We were very keen not to simply tell the same story about the game’s development. Francis Spufford’s excellent book The Backroom Boys makes essential reading and Iain and James’ own 100 Videogames tells some of this background. Instead of focusing on the couple of years leading up to Elite’s release, we wanted instead to focus on the 25 years since. This session was all about emotion impact and the place of the game in people’s lives. As such, and in keeping with the NVA’s interest in telling the stories of players as well as those of games, technologies and development, we were as excited to hear Ian and David’s thoughts on the game’s impact on their subsequent careers as we were hearing how GameCity tech genius Matt had somehow managed to get a day off school to play the game for charity.

One thing that struck us all was the sheer amount of joy that the game still inspires. We played a lengthy clip of the C64 game (which Ian and David converted themselves) from the initial flickering colour bars of its bootup via some space travel, a bit of stargazing taking advantage of the various viewpoints right through to the inevitable (and rather sudden) ‘Game Over’, the crowd sat mesmerised. This was not mere nostalgia, however, and many of the audience members were clearly not old enough to have unwrapped their own copies of Elite in 1984. Rather, there was in these vector graphics and chip tune waltzing, an object lesson in game design. In an age of high definition and photorealism, the simplicity of this representational world comes as a sobering reminder of the power and importance of the player’s imagination and the way in which, through its apparent complexity, a gameworld can provide scaffolding and potential for adventure and excitement without having to beat the player about the head with bells and whistles. Of course, in the case of Elite, that gameworld did not only extend into the screen but spilled over into the paratextual materials that literally filled the game’s box. The importance of these ‘additional’ pieces of the Elite gameworld and their function as prefigurative materials that not only round out but mediate and frame the playing and replaying of the game is difficult to underestimate and it is surprising and not a little saddening that the decision to include them has not been a more widely adopted. In an era of digital downloads, these absence of these kinds of materials seems likely to be even more keenly felt. As a reminder, we had produced a limited edition A3 print of Mark Bolitho’s original ‘lost’ origami designs that had been designed for inclusion in the 1984 pack but were cut due to budgetary constraints. The NVA is proud to have been able to redress this even if we were 25 years late.

Once the queue of eager fans had managed to get their commemorative prints signed by the stellar crew of developers, artists and programmers, we all adjourned outside to to the GameCity tent which had been transformed into a paper universe of origami models each lovingly created by Bolitho and the many visitors to GameCity. Dramatically lit by twinkling starlight, it was to this ethereal and otherworldy backdrop that Robert Holdstock read from his Dark Wheel novella. Punctuated by the Nottingham Trent University choir performing a specially commissioned arrangement of Strauss’ Blue Danube, the event transported the audience into space, back in time to 1984 and signalled the future of the NVA and GameCity. Performance and theatricality are two words rarely associated with videogames – even less so with exhibitions of videogames – but these are, without doubt, watchwords for the NVA as we move forward.

Happy birthday Commander Jameson.

25 Years of (Mostly) Harmless Fun

james on Sep 24th, 2009 | File under: events

For those of us old enough to remember, it is exciting and not a little bit sobering, to think that the space-opera, shoot-em-up, asteroid-mining, bounty-hunting, piratical, trading game Elite is now over a quarter of a century old.

If you’re now overcome by the warmth of a hazy, nostalgic glow, you will need no reminding that Ian Bell and David Braben’s masterpiece changed the lives – and ruined a good deal of the homework and exam revision – of countless schoolchildren when it was released on 20 September 1984. Perhaps less well-documented but equally importantly, it also provided many, many hours of ‘elicit’ entertainment for parents who switched the BBC B back on once the kids had gone to bed and the coast was clear. For many, Elite was the first taste of gaming. For others, already versed in the pleasures of interactivity, it was the first taste of gaming on a hitherto unimaginably epic scale.

With its revolutionary real-time 3D graphics and emergent gameplay, Elite seemed way ahead of its time when it was released. It turned out that the reason for this was, quite simply, that it was way ahead of its time. The extraordinary ambition and scope of the gameworld, the sense of place and being-in-the-world, the clearly-felt and subtly articulated consequences of one’s action and inaction remain high watermarks in videogaming history. Equally, telling the backstory and locating the gameplay within a complex moral and ethical framework via a wholly different medium in the form of Robert Holdstock’s The Dark Wheel novella is as bold and forward-looking an example of transmedial storytelling as any vogueish contemporary media project.

Obviously, The National Videogame Archive couldn’t let this momentous event in British game development and popular culture go unmmarked and so, in collaboration with GameCity, we are delighted to announce a series of events that not only celebrate the game but also celebrate and recognise the achivements of all the people that made Eilte what it is.

All the people? That’s right. ALL the people. Live. On stage. Surrounded by thousands of origami models of the spacecraft (using the original designs that had been intended for inclusion in the 1980s BBC package and discussed and demonstrated by their creator Mark Bolitho), to the strains of a choir singing an new arrangement of Strauss’ The Blue Danube, Ian Bell, David Braben and a host of others come together to toast the Silver Jubilee of this most cherished of all British videogames.

We will, of course, be documenting proceedings so if you can’t make it along on the day, we have things covered for generations to come. But really, what are you doing that could be more important than this? Be a Fugitive just for once…

You can read more about the event – and download the first origami model – at the GameCity Squared site.

The NVA at DiGRA 2009

james on Sep 9th, 2009 | File under: events, resources

Hello to everybody who saw us at the DiGRA 2009 conference last week (and apologies for not making it through all of our slides in the time!). Tom and James presented some thoughts on the importance of game preservation and some of the issues we’ve faced at the NVA. Also on the panel were Andrew Armstrong who discussed the excellent and important IGDA Game Preservation SIG‘s Before It’s Too Late White Paper, Jo Barwick who spoke on the cultural significance of games in the context of digital preservation, Andreas Lange of the Computer Spiele Museum and Dan Pinchbeck of KEEP.

There was/is so much to discuss and so much work to do – not only to do the work of preserving games and the ephemera of gaming cultures but also to work out what the strategies should be, what we should preserve, who should decide, how we go about preserving and perhaps even whether we can preserve the materials at all. As both Dan and Jo rightly pointed out in their talks, it is both encouraging and amazing that 2009 sees the first formal panel convened at DiGRA on game preservation. The first of many, we all hope…and the beginning of what we hope will be some very fruitful partnerships and collaborations.

You can find copies of the papers at the IGDA Preservation SIG’s wiki.

NVA in the news…

james on Aug 18th, 2009 | File under: press

Revered videogames news channel GamesIndustry.biz has just published an interview with Iain and James about the work of the NVA. As well as running through some of the backstory of the Archive and how and why it came to be, we talk a little about some of the forthcoming projects that we have planned – in particular, the ‘Director Commentaries’. Those of you at last year’s GameCity Three festival will have an idea what these are all about – brilliant and interesting people talking about their brilliant and interesting games while playing them and showing you all the brilliant and interesting things that you might have missed or could never have known. Want to hear how Goldeneye 007’s built environment wouldn’t pass current disability legislation for accessibility, or in which level you can find Martin and Dave’s virtual offices, or perhaps just sit back and enjoy the multiplayer gaming masterclass and find out whether Martin Hollis can beat Dave Doak…? All this and more, will be revealed soon. We’re busy editing and filming more Director Commentaries right now (in fact, we’ll be at a secret location in the North West next week…). Watch this space.

But for now, head over to GI.biz and read all about it.

State of the Videogame Nation

tom on Jul 21st, 2009 | File under: exhibitions, notes

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

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

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 Twin's Fantasy World Dizzy

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

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

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

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

Emulation – more than just the games…

james on May 20th, 2009 | File under: notes

Ian Bogost has an interesting piece on emulating the Atari VCS that highlights another of the issues surrounding emulators as archival tools. However, here the concern is not about the integrity of the emulation or the hacks, tricks and tweaks that potential undermine the authenticity of the running of the original code. Rather, Bogost draws attention to the impact of the fundamental differences in the way games look (and I would argue also, sound) on modern displays versus the kinds of monitors/TVs of yesteryear. As Ian notes,

In today’s world of huge, sharp LCD monitors, it’s hard to remember what a videogame image looked like on an ordinary television of the late 1970s. Emulators like Stella make it possible to play Atari games on modern computers, serving the function of archival tool, development platform, and player for these original games. But unfortunately, they also give an inaccurate impression of what Atari games looked like on a television.

Given that it was designed to live in a world of smudgy, smeary CRTs rather than pin-sharp LCDs, we could well agree that the VCS should be seen through the gauze of noise, colour-bleeding, and ghostly afterimages. Certainly, that’s how things would have looked in the 1970s and 1980s where there was little or no alternative. But, we could similarly argue that these technical limitations were not ones of the VCS game-designer’s making and that ‘their game’ – the game that they conceieved and that is capable of being displayed if the self-same code is run on a device connected to a different display – looked pinsharp and was devoid of such ‘characteristics’.

This debate puts one in mind of the thorny issue of remastering audio. Should we take advantage of contemporary studio tools and techniques to create the much-rumoured new versions of The Beatles catalogue that are ‘more respectful’ to the original recordings – or, perhaps more pertinently, that conform to our contemporary sense of audio integrity and archival standards (e.g. no over-limited ‘loudness war’ processing, mono versus stereo etc.)?

Just as with the emulation of videogames, there are technical, aesthetic, political and ethical questions to be addressed here. The NVA’s focus on the contexts of games and gameplay means that we have to consider these issues seriously as the decisions we take profoundly affect the experience of our audiences and the ability of the game to communicate.

Of course, we are fortunate that the National Media Museum already has a peerless collection of TV sets and display technologies, though if we are going to go all the way with emulating the domestic contexts of gameplay, we’re going to need to collect some brown corduroy sofas and hire the set designer for Abigail’s Party.

The World Is Not Enough

james on Apr 28th, 2009 | File under: events

This 9-10 May, GameCity and the NVA will be quite literally driving two junctions down the M1 to do some ‘things’ at the National Space Centre as part of their awesome ‘Space Invaders’ weekend. James and Iain will be saving some videogames, playing some LEGO Star Wars, giving out some prizes and repeatedly staring up into the stars thinking surely there must be some greater reason for all of this…

For those of you who have been to Save the Videogame events before, here’s a chance to see one tailored for the family audience. Also happening that weekend is the brilliant EA Hub, gaming on a HUGE scale, characters from Star Wars (that’s the actual characters, not people in costume you understand) and all set against the backdrop of the UK’s best-loved National Space Centre.

You really should come along. It’s going to be a blast (off). etc. Ahem. Sorry.

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