Why the influence of video games is so important to today’s artists and designers
Part of Larry Achiampong’s show at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes is called The Gaming Room. Here you can play some of the best video games from the last 30 years, from Donkey Kong to The Legend of Zelda.
The British-Ghanaian artist, who works in film, sculpture, installation, sound, collage, music and performance, is delighted to have his first major solo show, which features his debut feature film Wayfinder, as well as a major presentation of Pan-African flags.
Achiampong was one of those teenage boys who spent a lot of time playing video games, which had a profound effect on him and proved to be the bedrock of his career later in life.
“The very first video game that inspired me was from 1988, a ninja game called Shinobi,” says the artist. This hack-and-slash action video game was created by Sega and was seen as a game changer. The bold and brash logo had Shinobi written in large gold letters, while the Chinese script for it was written on the back in a vibrant red.
More than a shooter
The game became memorable for the high quality of graphics, gameplay and music. This was in the heyday of video games, and the Shinobi series sold more than 4.6 million copies.
“I really remember the quirky pastel colors of the city streets of New York in the game,” he says.
One of the things Achiampong noticed in particular that caught his attention was a movie poster with a famous face in the background. “It was of Marilyn Monroe. The designers were able to make a poster of Marilyn—it was kind of a reference to Andy Warhol—I didn’t know all these things at the time, but I remember seeing this iconic image and thinking, this is so cool. The music was amazing too. Amazing jazzy hip sounds.”
Other elements of the game would influence Achiampong later in life. “The game is a side scroller, so you move across the screen – you have the idea of traveling – the background changes as you move, so it was the first game that made any impression on me.”
Design, technology and storytelling have advanced immeasurably in video games. There are gesture control, facial recognition, voice recognition, cutting-edge graphics, high-resolution screens, augmented reality and virtual reality.
As someone who still loves video games, Achiampong says, “There are different levels of immersion, from the scripting of the stories to the connection. Now you have online play. There’s a game I play very regularly called Splatoon, made by Hisashi Nogami. You can play together with people online. You can wear different fashions and become a different persona – based on an octopus or squid.”
The game will appeal to artists and designers as you can use different weapons that produce and shoot colored ink or use a huge brush. It is not violent, as the goal is to cover as much territory as possible in a turf war. You don’t kill the players, you spray them.
From isolation to interactivity
With superfast broadband and 5G, the solitary nature of video games is disappearing. “I play with people I know all over the planet. It now has a new stage of interactivity.”
Video games have in some ways overtaken film as the biggest entertainment medium, where a game can cost more to make than a feature film. The most expensive video game to make was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which cost $80 million. This number is likely to rise as the latest technology is implemented into games.
Still a big fan of games, one of Achiampong’s favorites today is Super Metroid. It received acclaim for its graphics, gameplay and music. It is often cited as one of the best games of all time. As of December 2021, the Metroid series has sold more than 20.19 million copies globally.
With all the fancy technology, such as an intricate inventory screen showing a holographic moving or still image, there still needs to be the emotional impact of the story. Having a female intergalactic bounty hunter as a protagonist was important to Achiampong. “I was raised by black women, and seeing a woman as a central character in a video game is a big thing for me. Exploring identity and what it means to be ‘other.’
One of the most extensive investigations into racial representation in games was a 2009 report that analyzed 150 of the most played titles. The study found that 10.7% were black characters.
Achiampong picks up this thread. “There are black characters in video games, but there is a lack of representation.”
But times are changing. There is news of a new video game in development, centering on Marvel’s Black Panther character. The demand is there, confirmed by the fact that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever grossed $733 million at the box office.
Working under the code name Project Rainier, it will be published by EA Games. There are reports that it will be an “open-world single-player game” where the player becomes the new Black Panther. There are no further details on the release date, but it is said to be in development.
Achiampong also talks about Deathloop, a first-person shooter developed by Arkane Lyon and published by Bethesda Softworks. The game features two black protagonists – Colt and Juliana. It was praised by critics for its art design and won Best Art Direction at The Game Awards 2021.
But these are the exceptions, says Achiampong. “It tends to be a rarity. Because people of color statistically buy more video games than white people collectively. That lack of representation, the obvious aspect of racism, is one thing. Making a video game is something I’d love to do.”
Finally, Achiampong has achieved her first major solo exhibition, which includes the feature film Wayfinder, which follows a young girl’s journey through England.
The show was first shown at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate earlier this year. Senior Curator Fiona Parry approached Achiampong and asked him if there was anything he wanted to make. “I had made a few short films and dreamed of making an even longer film that could stretch towards feature length.”
The result is the 83-minute long film, Wayfinder, commissioned by Turner Contemporary with MK Gallery and BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art. “I played with the story of a young black girl traveling across England and coming across different characters and moments.”
This island nation
Elements of the film touched on the future, such as a pandemic. There are some funny elements, but also serious conversations about depression, as well as conversations about migration. The latter is a subject close to Achiampong’s heart. “This island nation is built on migration, like many others. Without migration, I wouldn’t be here.
The artist says the project was the most difficult of his career, as it was shot, developed and recorded during the pandemic. There were points when I questioned myself that I wondered if I would be able to pull this off – it’s very tough. I’m glad I was able to and had a great team to work with.”
Larry Achiampong: Wayfinder is now at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. The film is a highlight of the exhibition. It is an extremely personal project for the artist. “The central character in the film is called The Wanderer; she’s based on my sister. She’s about a year and a half younger than me.
“We have different personalities; she’s more outgoing than I am. It serves as an ode to her — looking up to her — appreciating that fearlessness and that bravery. It also centers around experiences of black womanhood. I think of my mother and the aunts who raised me. It’s an opportunity to open up that space to show respect.”