One of the standout pieces at the V&A’s video game exhibition Design, Play, Disrupt isn’t a game or even an interesting design document. It’s Le Blanc Seing, a painting by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The painting made its way to London to acknowledge a reference in Kentucky Road Zero, the adventure game released by Cardboard Computer in 2013.
As magnificent as it can be to see the real version of a painting you’ve only seen by proxy, I’m not the biggest fan of its inclusion in the exhibition. Maybe it’s due to my own insecurities surfacing whenever I tell the casually interested about the cultural importance of gaming, but referencing art so clearly both in a game and an exhibition can be construed as games still looking for validation in the art space. “This makes it official,” reviews of exhibitions of this kind triumphantly proclaim, “Games are art after all!” The notion that game designers are people who sometimes watch films, read books or enjoy paintings seems to come as a surprise, something that isn’t understood unless it’s explicitly stated.
This reputation is of course one that the gaming industry often perpetuates. Certain games have influenced so many other games that their titles now serve as shorthand for game mechanics and sometimes whole genres – take Metroid, Zelda or Dark Souls. Game design stagnates when it’s influenced my its own microcosm, and you can argue that games are the most fun when they take their cues from surrealism, and not just in a visual way.