The exhibit begins with a room displaying still images, videos from games and a large number of game designer concept sketches.
The intricacy of the sketches rival what one would find for more traditional paintings. One, Adam Adamowicz’s 2005 “Fallout 3 Concept Sketches” presents a painfully detailed scene of urban warfare. Another coupling shows a 1935 drawing of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and contrasts it with a 1993 image of Sega’s classic characters Sonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles.
But really, it’s all about the games.
Many people visiting the exhibit will no doubt be drawn to the room with the five playable games — and for good reason.
While “Myst,” a free-ranging game with almost no instruction that Melissinos said was heavily lobbied for by the public, might present an overly open-ended gameplay for many people, the inclusion of the original 1985 “Super Mario Brothers” for the Nintendo Entertainment System is a more satisfying experience. Ditto for the arcade-style version of “Pac-Man.” It’s enough to make even the most avid gamer long for the days when controllers had no more than two buttons.
Then there are the 80 games included for viewing. They’re presented chronologically and divided by gaming system, ranging from a 1977 Atari VCS to the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, both from 2006, with each system displaying one game from each of four categories — action, target, adventure and tactics. (Many of the systems, particularly the older ones, were loaned to the museum by Melissinos himself.)
It’s interesting to note the wide differences in appearance between games from different eras that take their inspiration from the same source.
For example, 1982’s “Pitfall!” and 2009’s “Uncharted 2” look so different that it seems almost wrong to call them both video games, yet they’re both takeoffs on Indiana Jones. Another thing that strikes the viewer is the move away from more out-there concepts (“Attack of the Mutant Camels,” anyone?) toward increasingly realistic scenarios such as those in “Heavy Rain,” a game from 2010 that tells the story of a serial killer in visuals so refined they don’t appear to be much different than a movie.
“While technology has created a broader canvas on which to paint these experiences, there is a truism in the mechanics of the game that does not change over time. We designed the exhibit to draw that out,” Melissinos said.
“The Art of Video Games” runs through Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets Northwest.