This week the William Morris Gallery in London officially opened its new exhibition exploring the intersection between traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and the craft of video games.
Curated by Small Island Games co-founders Ceri Williams and James Morgan, the exhibition explores these parallels through the lens of their game, Haiku Adventure. The in-development title was directly inspired by the Sheer Pleasure: Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan exhibition on Ukiyo-e prints held at the gallery in 2017.
As the exhibition proved formative to the duo's game, they decided to get in touch with the William Morris Gallery. The gallery in-turn expressed an interest in using Haiku Adventure as a means of demonstrating the process of working on a game, and displaying it alongside the woodblock prints which inspired it. This led to collaboration on this this new exhibition, Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games.
But as Williams and Morgan explain, the exhibition aims to achieve much more. By juxtaposing the traditional craftsmanship seen in woodblock prints, and the process of making games, they hope to highlight the similarities of the two media from a creative, artistic, and production standpoint.
"It's an entry way of engaging audiences that are familiar with games but perhaps don't traditionally go to galleries," Williams tells GamesIndustry.biz.. "But also the other way around, in showing audiences that games have merit, that they are these rich design projects which deserve to be considered in the same light as things you might more traditionally find in these spaces."
As former architects, Williams and Morgan say they are approaching the development of games with a perspective that is atypical to the industry, which has also informed their intent behind the exhibition.
"We're telling it from the viewpoint of indie creators, and people who come from other industries, and so something that would be really good to get into the exhibition, is this idea of demystifying the process of creation," says Morgan.
"An awful lot of people who walk into the exhibition will have this very old-fashioned idea that game creators are nerdy programmers who sit at their computer looking at code all day long. We want to highlight the illustration, the artistic aspect of it, and the design so that people see that it's much broader than just the programming and technology side.
"I think we'll be able to do that by juxtaposing it against Ukiyo-e as a craft, but then also we want to weave in the story of this new wave of indie games, and highlight some contemporary indie titles... It's a very interesting time and there's a lot of artistic merit and creative imagination behind these things."
There are other parallels however, as Morgan notes. Much in the same way that mass production allowed Ukiyo-e woodblock prints to flourish as both an artistic medium and consumer product, digital distribution has facilitated an indie renaissance.
"We've been able to create our indie studio and make this game because of the availability of digital distribution platforms like Steam, GOG, and Itch-io," he says. "And those things have only become so accessible in recent years which is really directly related to this wave of new indies on the scene right now. And we're going to try and highlight that in our exhibition -- the parallels of distribution and technology and how that's important to the medium."
While the gallery has provided space and access to its expansive Ukiyo-e archives, it's Williams and Morgan who have curated and designed the exhibition. Although the thought of pulling together an exhibition while also making a game sounds like a strain on production most developers would be unwilling to bear, the duo say it's been a well-timed opportunity to reflect on the game following a demo period.
"We're committed to making this game a success and it being used as a launch pad for our studio," says Williams. "But also we totally acknowledge that we can make the best game we can make... but people might not play our game. And so what we've said from the start, the whole process has to be about us getting other bits of value out of this as well. Like learning whatever we can, so if we have to switch paths in our careers, then at least there is some value from that."
Alongside Haiku Adventure, Williams and Morgan wanted to draw attention to other UK indie developers, and have teamed up with a number of British studios as part of the exhibition. The aim is to encourage visitors without a wider knowledge of games to delve into the indie world.
The exhibition will include a short trailer and some information for Before I Forget from 3-Fold Games, In Other Waters by Jump Over the Age, Over the Alps by Stave Studios, Strawberry Thief by Sophie George, Astrologaster from Nyamyam, and Morphopolis by Micro Macro Games.
"When we first started to talk about this it was more to do with just our game," says Morris. "But then as we started to develop the exhibition, we decided it was kind of crazy not to talk about the indie scene we existed in and the larger context.
"So we really made this push to not just talk about our game, but to start opening the exhibition to be about the broader context. Because that's so important to why the medium is accessible these days... A lot of people will come to the exhibition just because our game reproduces in some elements this art form they are already familiar with. It's important to take that as a launching pad to broaden their scope and understanding of what game creation can entail, and what kind of experiential themes it can touch on beyond just pure entertainment."
Sponsored by the London Games Festival, Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games will run until September 15, 2019 at the William Morris Gallery.