Q&A: Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games at William Morris Gallery
Kyle Hoekstra speaks to Ceri Williams of Small Island Games about translating indie title ‘Haiku Adventure’ into an exhibition at William Morris Gallery
Haiku delicately describe fleeting impressions of the natural world, while ukiyo-e woodblock prints such as those produced by Hokusai tend to present snapshots of familiar scenes for popular audiences. Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games at William Morris Gallery (from 26 February) reveals what happens when these traditional Japanese crafts intersect with video games.
The exhibition will showcase original Japanese prints alongside artefacts from the development of the game Haiku Adventure, a “poetic point-and-click puzzler” which sees the player assemble lines of poetry on their path through a beautifully illustrated landscape to stop a volcano erupting.
Haiku Adventure is developed by Small Island Games, an independent studio named after the small islands of Anglesey and Jersey where its two-person team Ceri Williams and James Morgan grew up. Before setting up the studio in 2018, Ceri and James worked respectively in architecture and humanitarian relief, having studied together at the Welsh School of Architecture.
Ceri spoke to London Student about how they were inspired by different traditions of Japanese art as well as an earlier exhibition at the gallery in 2017.
How has traditional Japanese art informed the aesthetics and experience of Haiku Adventure?
One of the intentions at the start of the process was to make a game that explored the relationships between humankind and nature, a theme that interests both of us and one we think is particularly relevant in the less environmentally stable world of today. The early conceptual ideas took lots of different directions but quickly our research into how nature is viewed and represented in Japan became our main focus.
For the game we wanted to explore a magical realistic narrative and loved the way that ukiyo-e landscape prints frame nature in a way that attempts to capture the experience of the moment. The way that sunlight passes over a huge mountain casting shadows or clouds sitting in a valley are depicted in really beautiful ways, for example. Looking at these prints in books and galleries always made us want to know more about what they were depicting.
There’s often a dynamic quality of something that has just happened, or is just about to, which leads you to imagine stories of what is going on. Most prints have a border around them which further makes you want to know what’s happening beyond the frame. Some prints even playfully break the border in places by overlapping imagery which is one of the beautiful features we love.
Our research also led us to haiku poetry which, like ukiyo-e can be seen as a device to frame and interpret nature. The theory goes that these poems should be discovered rather than written. These poems can turn the mundane into the magical with a simple observation and juxtaposition which is a quality we love.
In Haiku Adventure this form of poetry has become the main gameplay system whereby players will discover and collect ‘inspiration’ from the scenes which can then be composed to formulate solutions to problems faced on your journey.
Has it been difficult to avoid a superficial approach when using artistic traditions which have cultural and historical significance?
It’s been important for us to question decisions that we make at every stage to avoid the possibility of misinterpreting the materials we’re researching and referencing. Our intention has always been for the Japanese references to be the substance rather than purely the style of the game.
An example we discussed in the studio is cherry blossom – the beautiful white / light pink flowering of cherry trees, which heralds the arrival of Spring and is well known throughout the world. This was imagery that popped into our minds as soon as we started working on the game but we were hesitant to include it unless the game developed to a place that it would prove integral.
Eventually, as the narrative has developed around themes of human interference with nature, one of the levels has become themed around ideas of self-consciousness and ideals of beauty. As we started to look at how this human emotion would translate into the natural world it become clear that the ‘Instagrammable’ but fleeting moment of the cherry blossoming is a great way to explore how ideas of capturing superficial beauty can be transposed onto nature. We learned that in Japan there is an association of the blossom with transience and acceptance of mortality and destiny. In contrast to a human trait of desiring the preservation of beauty, the tree is ready to drop the petals as a necessary part of its fruit making cycle.
Without giving too much away, we’ll be looking at the consequences of human traits ‘infecting’ elements of nature and how this might change the ecosystems in which they belong. The game poses the question, “what would happen to the larger ecosystem if the cherry trees wanted to hold onto their beauty?”
At the start of the process we established the need for us to consult with friends from Japan and this has developed into starting work with a partner who can offer regular feedback on game content. Having a consultant who can offer advice on cultural considerations gives us confidence that we can develop the game in a sensitive way that honours the disciplines we’re drawing inspiration from.
An exhibition at the William Morris Gallery will feature your work beside traditional Japanese art. How did this come about?
Early in the development process we visited the gallery to see an exhibition containing ukiyo-e prints from the William Morris Gallery’s collection. This was the first opportunity for the two of us to take time standing in front of original prints and imagine how our game ideas would play out within them. The visit really galvanised our belief in the project and we sat in the cafe afterwards to draw out a plan for producing the game. After showing our first early demo of the game in April 2018 we got in touch with the gallery to let them know how their exhibition had inspired us. We discovered that they were looking at ways at connecting more closely with the medium of videogames. Their suggestion to show the game-making process and demo of Haiku Adventure alongside some of the original prints that inspired it is an amazing opportunity that we jumped at.
Will it be unusual to see your game in a gallery?
It’s going to be great to see our game in a gallery setting as we feel the medium of games does belong alongside more traditional art and design practices. As a small indie team it’s invaluable to get any feedback we can on the game as it continues to develop and so we’ll be heading to the gallery as much as possible to see how people engage with the game and hear what they have to say.
In some ways I think our backgrounds outside of the game industry, in architecture and design, give us an advantage in that we don’t have hang-ups about whether or not games belong in a gallery. For us, perhaps we see a videogame as no different to any other design project.
I’m fortunate also that this isn’t the first game project I’ve had in a gallery setting. The first game I worked on was Morphopolis, a hand illustrated hidden object puzzles game which was displayed at Somerset House as part of the Association of Illustrators 2013 awards exhibition.
How will the different mediums interact with each other?
In the display we’re keen to highlight similarities we see between the mediums of ukiyo-e and videogames. The first part of the display will show three original Japanese woodblock prints by artists including Hiroshige and Hokusai. Alongside these prints we’ll be illustrating the processes by which they were made and comparing these to the production of videogames.
Ukiyo-e prints are the collaboration between skilled and specialised teams of publishers, artists and craftspeople with everyone working together to conceive, paint, carve and print the final image. We see a direct correlation with game development which is also the collaborative effort of a team of people working skilfully towards a single vision. As designers interested in process and craft we’re excited about showing the similarities and potential crossovers between all types of disciplines.
Another correlation we’re interested in is that ukiyo-e and indie games have both benefited from the technical revolutions of their time. New printing processes that allowed the vibrantly coloured, detailed and mass-produced ukiyo-e prints of Edo era Japan opened up art to a mass audience who could now more simply and cheaply pick up prints. In a similar way the explosion of digital distribution platforms and increased ownership of smartphones mean that most people now have a device capable of playing games and the ability to easily download games from a huge catalogue of accessibly priced titles. Without these technical advances, both the craftspeople making ukiyo-e prints and indie game developers today wouldn’t have the market and audience to expose their creative works to.
The second part of the display will show the game making process through captioned photos, video and a collection of objects used to make the game. We hope that by splitting the exhibition into two parts we can draw people into the display wherever their interests may lie. Whether they’re initially attracted by the woodblock prints, or the videogame content, we want hope to engage them to explore a medium they might not have looked at before.
With so few exhibitions exploring video games around, what sort of challenges do you face when translating your work and process into an exhibition?
There are some great examples of games being displayed in more traditional institutions but it still remains unusual to see games in galleries unfortunately. We hope that with events like the excellent recent exhibition on videogames at the V&A and the annual London Games Festival the medium will get the mainstream recognition it deserves.
The exhibition is designed to open up the minds of people who may not have been exposed to videogames in this way before. There’s a lot of preconceptions about games by those who don’t play them (I used to be one!) and we want to show people that a whole world of lovingly crafted and original indie games lie beneath a surface dominated by the big budget and usually more mainstream titles.
The display design deliberately aims to present itself in a way that feels familiar to a museum audience. We won’t have too many large screens and glossy graphics. Objects will be displayed with the same care and labelling whether they’re original woodblock carving tools or more modern digital equipment in order to blur the boundaries between the two mediums on show.
We’ve enlisted the help of five other excellent indie titles to be included within a panel showcasing contemporary UK indie games. Shown at the end of the display we hope to encourage visitors to investigate the wealth of indie games waiting to be discovered. These include Before I Forget by 3-Fold Games, which explores dementia by abstracting the spaces left by the obfuscation of memory, and In Other Waters, by Jump Over the Age, which stokes the imagination through minimalistic storytelling and a slick user interface while you explore a mysterious, sub-aquatic world. The other games included are Over the Alps, Strawberry Thief and Astrologaster.
We would absolutely love it if this display inspired a visitor who had never played an indie game before to seek one out and learn more about this great medium!
Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games is at the William Morris Gallery from 26 February. For more information visit the gallery’s website here. Small Island Games share their research process on their blog and Instagram gallery.