Perhaps it was inevitable. Video games are now part of the Toronto International Film Festival. But does that mean we'll be seeing Super Mario walking down the red carpet?
"Video games are seen by many filmmakers, and a lot of cinema critics, as the advance guard of what interactive cinema can look like," says Noah Cowan, the co-director of TIFF and the force behind Future Projections. "It's the first true interactive form, and if you look at the imagination behind games you'll see that much of it gets translated into cinema years later."
We're talking about Into The Pixel, a free exhibition of video game art being held in the Great Hall of the Ontario College of Art and Design, September 6 to 9 and September 11 to 15. The show, on throughout the fest, is part of a new initiative called Future Projections, which takes the TIFF experience out of the cinemas and into galleries, museums and other cultural institutions.
Into The Pixel began as an exhibition in L.A. in 2004, a collaboration between the gaming industry and art world experts. Each year its curators have added 16 new selections. The OCAD show presents 32 pieces from the 2006 and 07 collections. While video game art has hung in galleries before, Into The Pixel is a juried exhibit, making it especially significant to the Toronto fest.
"Every single film we show has somebody behind it who is an expert in their field," says Cowan, "so in order for us to get into another endeavour that involves the visual arts world, interactive cinema and the gaming world, the same amount of curatorial rigour is required."
One of the pleasures for gamers and gallery-goers alike comes from seeing the art blown up to full-size prints, allowing you to really soak in the detail.
"Each of the pieces is roughly 4 feet wide," says Nicholas Pagee, coordinator, youth education, Toronto International Film Festival Group, "I'm told there's a pretty high impact factor when they're viewed in person at this size."
Pieces like Defeated Dragon, from Guild Wars, and City 17, from Half-Life 2, show epic landscapes in muted hues resonating with faded glory. Others, like Illustrated Scroll, from Dewy's Adventure, and Piñata Cascade, from Viva Piñata, explode with kaleidoscopic bursts of colour and sensation.
The images' powerful emotions, weighted toward melancholy in both figure and landscape, can be lost on players caught up in the games' rush.
Most of the pieces are the original concept art used in the early stages of game development, as opposed to actual "frames" from gameplay. As early design guideposts, they are little different from those done by Hollywood art directors for films - just one more sign that the gap between these visual medis is closing.
"Both movies and games can pretty much be described as uniquely immersive experiences consisting of moving images structurerd by complex narrative," says Pagee. "Game artists deserve recognition for helping to produce these visions. Even one sketch can have a huge effect on how something will be realized."
But it's one thing to say concept sketches or computer graphic paintings are art. It's quite another to accept the whole interactive end project.
As an interactive medium, video games are more than just a series of pretty pictures; they're a negotiation between the player and the played, with the nebulous concept of "fun" always at their core, resisting critical analysis. This may be a matter that will have to be decided by the viewer.
"There's been a lot of debate about whether video games are art, and in my opinion this exhibit proves they are," says Pagee. "It's not even up for debate in my mind. I don't know how long a life that question will have."
So now that the door is open, how long will it be before we have a major video game making its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival? Maybe not next year - but I wouldn't bet against it.