Review: ‘London in Video Games’ at the Museum of London
As the Museum of London moves from 150 London Wall to West Smithfield on June 16th, Tom Buxton delivers his verdict on one of the final displays to grace the venue’s Show Space…
If dedicating an entire display to William Shakespeare’s London-based influences seemed ambitious, then dedicating another to London’s history with the video gaming industry might initially seem like pure lunacy.
Yet that was precisely the strategy that the Museum of London employed during the spring, with the then London Wall-based venue – which is now set to relocate to the west Smithfield area on 16 June – encouraging visitors to take a stroll down to its recesses to take a gander at the London in Video Games display down in their ever-changing Show Space area.
Not unlike the aforementioned Shakespeare collection, ‘What’s in a Name’ – our review of which can be found here – what awaited onlookers here was not so much a sprawling, multi-million costing showcase of the city’s virtual representation as an understated but no less impressive snapshot take on the subject, one spread across only a couple of glass cases and a separate interactive area housing playable titles from the industry’s distant past.
For many gamers, however, the first question they might ask of this exhibition would be “which games actually featured London in any capacity?” Despite its booming levels of tourism as well as its political significance, the city hasn’t featured as the main setting for nearly as many digital narratives as New York, Los Angeles or the like, with some of the only recent exceptions being the 2012 Nintendo WiiU survival horror ZombiU and 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (pictured above), which enabled players to dive into a violent – albeit scaled-down – Victorian version of England’s capital.
Nevertheless, the minds behind this somewhat niche collection clearly didn’t let this fact hamper their creative vision, instead plucking from some of the more obscure entries in the industry’s back-catalogue to find lesser-known titles like Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (pictured left) as well as even more dated text-based experiences like Sherlock and Hampstead which only allowed Spectrum ZX owners to type in words to guide a simplistic storyline’s course when they launched way back in the 1980’s to a considerably more limited market than the one which developers vie to dominate today.
Yet those searching for a few recognisable franchises among those listed in the display – each of which received a brief accompanying passage of text alongside its cover art to describe how it represented London and its main mechanics – weren’t likely disappointed either: hit series such as Tomb Raider and SimCity were both shown to have set levels within the city’s streets, with 1996’s Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft tasking its protagonist with scaling St Paul’s Cathedral and SimCity 3000 allowing players to take on Boris’s role as the Mayor of London him- or herself.
Unfortunately, as we mentioned above, the two cabinets displaying this eclectic array of classic and modern London-based console experiences wouldn’t have taken up more than a few minutes of visitors’ time during their presentation between 23 March and 28 April this year, which would have resulted in the exhibits leaving a rather fleeting impression were it not for the interactive elements of the showcase based opposite the cafe on the same floor.
Taking the form of several walled-off seating areas featuring a console, a display monitor, the corresponding joystick and a brief instruction manual outlining the game’s controls and premise, these booths were all but guaranteed to keep avid and aspiring gamers alike entertained for a good stint of 10-20 minutes at least, especially given that the selection involved many of the aforementioned text-based adventure titles and gloriously ‘retro’ experiences like the survival horror-orientated – and brilliantly named – Werewolves of London.
If there was a single drawback to be found with this interactive expansion of the display, it would be the lack of substantial instructions to help guide players through their initial attempts at each title’s early levels. Sure, there were instruction manuals on display which would doubtless have offered assistance to those who had a substantial helping of time to spare, but having members of informed staff on hand to offer assistance where necessary would certainly have made for a somewhat more accessible and entertaining approach to presenting these potentially captivating storylines for free.
All the same, most gamers tend to love working these things out for themselves and indeed, more-so than any of the other exhibitions the Museum hosted in the spring months, London in Video Games felt like a labor of love to its source material’s devotees. In an ideal world, there’d have been a little more meat and substance in terms of the core display itself as well as in terms of the instructions situated in the interactive area, but even so, if this latest collection was in any way indicative of the type of content we should expect when the MoL re-opens in Smithfield soon, then the venue looks set to have just as bright a future ahead of it as ever in the coming months.
For more information on the London in Video Games display, be sure to check out the Museum’s dedicated blog post here, then let us know your thoughts on how the city’s historically been represented on consoles via the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter!