Review: VGA Gallery’s System Link: Video Game as Memoir Strikes a Poignant Chord

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

How do you tell someone what it feels like when your child dies of cancer? How do you express the pain of knowing they’re fading away? What about the importance of a loved one? How do you put into words how much a simple walk in the woods means to you? There are so many things that words fail to be able to express–not just these big questions or a profound pain felt, but what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, just for a minute and see how what seems like a small step to you is gargantuan for them. 

We’ve been storytelling for ages trying to find ways to accurately communicate some of the things in life that are so very hard to get across, so that we can relate to each other, and confide in each other, and so that we can share the burden, or bring something beautiful to someone. Art comes from deep places inside of us,and creates an intimate bond between the viewer and the creator.

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

This is the bond that the VGA Gallery’s latest exhibit, System Link: Video Game as Memoir, hopes to explore, and have its visitors experience first hand–the stories of their creator, able to be experienced in a medium that brings them closer to it than you can perhaps get any other way. In video games, you are thrust into someone else’s place, given the controls, and led on a journey.

You’ll explore their mind, their world and their story, step by step. In a game like Consume Me, which we first encountered at Bitbash at MSI and loved, it’s a story of fitting in, being healthy, and finding who you are. It’s funny, frantic, sincere and a little heartbreaking. Things like stepping on the scale and working out are mechanically difficult tasks, making players actually feel the struggle in a tangible way.

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

In Lieve Oma, your experience will be more meditative. Simply walk alongside your Grandma, helping her gather penny bun mushrooms for a meal you will cook together later. Quiet piano music will set the serene scene as you wander serpentine paths, and you’ll rely on your grandma’s help to determine if the mushrooms you find are safe to eat. Soon enough though, the mushroom picking fades to the background as the story becomes more about the connection between you and she. “Don’t go too far” she warns. 

You’ll scour the forest for mushrooms at the same time you bare your soul about your parents’ separation,and when the vibrant fall scenery changes to snow and you’re older, alone on the path, you’ll feel the loss–before your phone buzzes in your pocket and you hear your grandma’s voice. The next time you’re back to your childhood self, you won’t want to go far at all, and hang on every word your grandma says, or every moment you spend sitting on the railing watching birds fly over a marsh.

Screenshot: Lieve Oma

Lieve Oma was created as a sort of homage to the experience of  having someone important in your life. For the creator, Florian Veltman, her grandma was her anchor and “the most important person to her, ever” and expert pacing, beautiful artwork and tender dialogue really bring you inside the relationship in a way that simply reading about it or watching it passively cannot express.

The same is true of titles like That Dragon, Cancer, which is the intense and painfully beautiful narrative of a family losing their young son to a brain tumor, and struggling to understand it. Here too, every mechanic of the game serves to underline the struggles. Seeing land but being stranded at sea, an arcade cabinet with his son Joel’s avatar and a simple “continue?” but no way to actually move forward, the frantic way you’ll chase an answer to a final puzzle in a darkened cathedral only to realize that the only thing you can do is stop. Each serves such a poignant purpose, and makes you feel as if you’re there experiencing it with their narrator, and this is the beauty of System Link

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Through a few titles, also including the beautiful pastel sketchbook world of Sacramento and the pixelated dream world of I’ve Been Late, it’s crystal clear the power of video games to bring these stories and experiences to life. Each of the exhibit’s prints, every game that’s available to sit down and interact with, will take you into an intimate space with its creator, and invite you to see the world as they see it, and experience life as they experience it. It’s an opportunity to get new perspective, an opportunity to relate to someone else and a catharsis, even if you haven’t had the same experiences that they did. 

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Brice Puls did a great job curating the exhibit, as each of the games selected for play in the space allow you to connect with a deep and personal narrative in just a few minutes, while the supporting prints represent titles such as That Dragon, Cancer and How Do You Do It?, a game which explores a young girl’s sexual awakening thanks to the movie Titanic and a few of her Barbie dolls, recall powerful, funny or memorable moments from longer pieces. It’s a great sampling of the stories that developers are telling, and the huge topics they’re tackling, from body image, sexuality, loss and love to the power of one person in someone’s life, distilled in the small space at the VGA Gallery beautifully. 

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Whether you’ve shared in some of gaming’s most poignant moments, from the deserts of Journey to the final moments of A Tale of Two Brothers or Limbo, or you’ve simply run a few races in Mario Kart or dabbled in Bejeweled while waiting for your train, there’s something here for you. System Link: Video Game as Memoir allows you to come in from any angle and leave with a new perspective, if you’ll simply engage with the material, and we encourage anyone looking for an impactful artistic experience to head to the VGA Gallery and experience it for yourself. The VGA Gallery is open on Thursdays and Saturdays, and System Link: Video Game as Memoir will be viewable there through April 25, 2020. 




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Marielle Bokor