Pity the security guards and museum attendants who have had to endure the non-stop beeps, blips, whooshes and whirring laser sound effects within the walls of Game Story, a major Paris exhibition entirely devoted to the history of video games.
With 80 games spanning 40 years, the exhibition attempts to position the arcade in a high-art context. An infrequent museumgoer can say he’s met his cultural quota despite the fact he’s there to play Pong and Grand Theft Auto. It’s also possible to come away with a deeper understanding of how video games fit into larger changes to both technology and the zeitgeist. Or, as the prevalence of men at the show who clearly spent their puberty playing Pac-Man suggests, it’s a dandy trip down a pixelated memory lane.
Herewith some highlights.
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros., first introduced in 1985, was loosely inspired by Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, made 60 years earlier. On a small screen beside the console is an adrenaline-filled action sequence that sets the stage for Mario and Luigi’s adventures. Incidentally, Keaton plays a partner in a brokerage firm facing financial collapse, not a plumber.
The Magnavox Odyssey
The Odyssey by Magnavox, considered the first commercial home console, was released in 1972, but looks something like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey (like most of the other vintage equipment, it was provided by MO5, a French association dedicated to the preservation of our digital heritage). Unlike some items culled from the history of video games, this console’s attempt to look hypermodern makes it museum-worthy – instead of, say, garage-sale detritus.
Resident Evil Chainsaw Controller
The shoot ’em up ( tire-leur dessus) has existed since the early days of video games. Now, however, the violence is much more realistic: Whereas a sword attack in ur-Zelda resulted in pixilated red droplets, today’s victims die with blood splattering on the screen. Resident Evil Chainsaw Controller and a few other displays come with warnings that visitors must be 18 to play.
Most of us can hum the main tune to Super Mario Bros. But as this exhibit claims, it wasn’t until the 1990s that “simple electronic beats gave way to the reproduction of realistic, situational sound.” Space Invaders was the first game to be accompanied by a continuously looped soundtrack (sampled later by Japanese band, Yellow Magic Orchestra) and CD-ROM PlayStation consoles advanced music selection and quality even further. Today, pop music frequently takes cue from the electro bursts of early video games. Just give a close listen to Ke$ha’s Tik Tok.
Game Story runs at the Grand Palais in Paris until Jan. 9 ( rmn.fr ).