Noctis IV (Alessandro Ghignola, 2000) image via MobyGames

Videogames as Texture

July 14 2023

Text (on until 17 September 2023) is the inaugural event of the Design Platform of Triennale Milano, the space set aside for temporary exhibitions in the recently renovated Museo del Design Italiano, directed by Marco Sammicheli and featuring a new layout created by the Paolo Giacomazzi Design Studio. The exhibition delves into interrelations between text, fabric and texture, as well as fashion, decoration and modern and contemporary art. And videogames too, thanks to consulting from the Italian gaming developer Pietro Righi Riva, co-founder of the Santa Ragione studio and curator of Triennale Game Collection Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (available free of charge from Steam ↗, App Store ↗ and Google Play Store ↗).

As the scholar Laura Tripaldi observes in her Menti parallele. Scoprire l'intelligenza dei materiali (Parallel Minds. Discovering the Intelligence of Materials, effequ, 2020): “Underlying the weave of a fabric, as well as the modern science of materials, is the idea, as simple as it is revolutionary, that the repetition of a large number of small, identical elements – the ‘threads’ of the weave – can produce a new product possessing specific properties that the original component elements, on their own, lack.” The same is true for a text (from the Latin term textus, for weaving or fabric), as well as for software and videogames, as shown by the works selected by Sammicheli and Righi Riva.

In an interview, Righi Riva tells of how, when he studied design at Politecnico di Milano, he viewed it as: “a discipline that takes its bearings from the end user, from the function of the design.” With videogames, however, the function is not so clear-cut, not even for those who create them. Plus there are other elements which come into play, such as entertainment, storytelling and emotions. And so the traditional concept of design is not generally understood to include videogames, nor are they normally found in exhibitions of this type. But, as Righi Riva explains: “I think Sammicheli realised that videogames fully deserve to be viewed as a part of industrial design.”

Engare (Mahdi Bahrami, 2017) image via Steam 2

As a result, the Text exhibition includes Noctis by Alessandro Ghignola (2000), a masterpiece of Italian gaming which, despite its noteworthy influence on exploratory, experiential and experimental videogames, had yet to be included in an exhibition. Righi Riva found himself having to track down the game’s creator, who had never again worked in the field, failing to even keep abreast of the fame his work had achieved. Noctis sends us out, without any precise objectives, to explore a galaxy, its stars, its planets and its moons, all of which are celestial bodies generated procedurally, so from algorithms, in semi-random fashion. Noctis is proof, in the words of Righi Riva: “that you can write an algorithm whose form is extremely compact, and yet, starting from that magic formula, a galaxy can be generated which contains things that astonish even you, the author of the magic formula”.  Indeed, MirrorMoon EP by Santa Ragione was meant by Righi Riva to be an explicit tribute to Ghignola’s work.

Engare (Mahdi Bahrami, 2017) image via Steam 2

Engare (Mahdi Bahrami, 2017) is a videogame based on the mathematics behind patterns, recurring motifs, Iranian geometric art and the decorations of Persian carpets and mosques. It is a puzzle game with different levels. At each one, we find moving figures, as well as a curve that we must reproduce by selecting a point on the objects proposed (circles, pendulums…) and then following its trajectory through space, as if we were drawing with a Spirograph. In fact, Engare is also a design software, seeing that, as we proceed to play it, we unlock the tools used to create the patterns, allowing us to come up with our own motifs, which can then be exported as images or 3D models. Engare, observes Righi Riva, shows: “how much of an impact a minimal action can have on complex systems.”

Device 6 (Simon Flesser, Magnus “Gordon” Gardebéck, 2013) image via Simogo

In contrast, continues Righi Riva, Device 6 (Simon Flesser and Magnus “Gordon” Gardebéck, 2013): “depicts a space through the contents of a text”. The story along which we travel, using a smartphone, consists of a text that branches out in various directions, presenting us with a series of crossroads and changes in our bearings, all while using the potential for interfacing to achieve multidimensional effects by means of keys that allow us to interact with images, videos and audio tracks. We explore this textual space in search of the clues needed to resolve the puzzling situations encountered by Anna, a woman who has lost her memory on a mysterious island. “There aren’t many games that deal with the substance of books in such an interesting fashion,” adds Righi Riva.

Baba Is You (Arvi Teikari, 2019)

In playing Baba Is You (Arvi Teikari, 2019), as Righi Riva explains it: “we manipulate the position of the text, changing its meaning, as a result of which the space in which the manipulation takes place also changes.” We play the part of a diminutive creature named Baba, who, at each level, must reach and touch a certain object. But the laws that govern the behaviour of the various entities found on the different levels (what we can push, whether a door can be opened with a key, whom we can control, what object has to be reached to win …) are not hard and fast: they too are elements and objects pertaining to a specific level. If, for example, we find the words ‘ROCK’, ‘IS’ and ‘PUSH’ on a certain level, then we can push these words together to form the expression ROCK IS PUSH. At that point, and only then, can we push the rocks found on that level.

We manipulate the position of the text, changing its meaning, as a result of which the space in which the manipulation takes place also changes.

Finally, there is Song of Bloom (Philipp Stollenmayer, 2019), a work that, as Righi Riva puts it:  “possesses an intimate understanding of how we process information, of how we see the signs present in things.” Song of Bloom, available for use on smartphones, is also a puzzle game, though in this case we are searching for the corresponding features of various scenes which we call up by tracing signs on the touchscreen and manipulating our device. At a certain point, the lead character, a woman, pronounces a phrase that is more than apt for the subject matter of Text, the exhibition: “The signs, they make me see the bigger picture.” Song of Bloom, concludes Righi Riva, shows us: “the beauty of comprehending why a sunset is magnificent, so that we can use that poetic observation to interpret other things as well.”

Song of Bloom (Philipp Stollenmayer, 2019) image via Google Play

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