Notes on the Dizzy Room
James Newman shares some development notes on the NVA’s new Dizzy exhibition.
When the opportunity arose to create a new exhibit based around one of Europe's most popular videogames characters, we jumped at the chance. We're all videogames fans here at the NVA. When we found out that we would have full access to the developers' archive of documentation, we could hardly believe our luck. Opportunities like this don't come around every day. In the case of Dizzy and The Oliver Twins, it took thirty years.
It's worth pausing for a moment to consider what we mean by full access to The Oliver Twins' archives. This wasn't just access to every Dizzy game (though it was that). It wasn't about every item of packaging, boxart, every promotional poster, collectible card, piece of fan art, or every article in every conceivable publication reviewing, previewing or discussing Dizzy (though it was that, too). All of these things were crucial to our ability to stage the most comprehensive exhibition. The sheer quantity of objects, from cassettes through to The Olivers' own hand-made Yolkfolk characters made from clay covered Kinder Eggs, immediately suggested ways of staging what became The Dizzy Room and serves as an important reminder that videogames are physical objects as much as they are bits and bytes of data.
But what really helped shape the room was the sheer wealth of design and development documentation that The Olivers had amassed and carefully collated for every iteration of the Dizzy series. Each puzzle, character design, and screen layout had all been meticulously planned, revised and refined. By hand. On squared paper. In pencil.
In the context of game design, this is the equivalent of having access to Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for Yesterday or Davinci's original sketches for the Mona Lisa (you know, the ones with the beaming smile or the grumpy frown).
What struck us as players was just how much of the planning and design of these games was undertaken on paper which was then translated into machine-readable data. What struck us as curators was how fantastic an opportunity this provided us to showcase design process - especially when combined with the technical tools like Easy Art and Panda Sprites that The Olivers created to translate their paper plans into code. What struck us as engineers and exhibition designers was that these design processes allowed us to continue our mission to develop exciting, novel and engaging ways of approaching game interpretation. So, we got thinking...
Obviously, we wanted visitors to The Dizzy Room to be able to play the games and we took a pretty dogmatic approach to how they would be played. That meant original hardware - period computers, consoles and controllers all connected to CRTs. We know CRTs have fuzzy images with visible scanlines and leave ghost afterimages when objects move, but these were the displays that the games were played on - and designed for. So playing on The Olivers' original Amstrad CPC on the Commodore monitor that they won in the 1980s satisfied our desire for period authenticity. And alongside the playable games, we have the original scripts that were used in the 1980s to offer stuck players guidance ringing the Codemasters' Helpline.
Authenticity in playing the games is one thing, but why not extend this to the development? And this is where working with The Olivers proved to be so fruitful. In amongst the folders of photos of the twins was one in particular image that caught our eye. Showing them sitting at a desk in their bedroom studio surrounded by development documents this photo captured the extraordinary nature of the work (pushing the boundaries of this still emerging form of interactive entertainment) in the most ordinary of context (the converted bedroom of a house in leafy suburbia). We immediately knew that we wanted to recreate this environment to get a sense of not only how these games were made but where. Half-jokingly, we said, it's a shame you don't still have the curtains. Utterly seriously, "We do", came the answer. "They're in the loft. The desk is up there, too. And the chairs."
From that moment on, our approach to context became a tale of two bedrooms. The was the type of bedroom in which the Dizzy games were played and the one specific bedroom in which The Olivers created those games. And so that's why The Dizzy Room contains a desk, two office chairs, and folders upon folders of design documentation for visitors to explore and discover - and to help frame the playing of the games. We toyed with putting a bed in there but, although we want visitors to stay a while, we weren't looking to set up a B&B.
To explore even further this process of translation from design to game and to link the hand drawn paper designs to the shimmering pixels on screen, we decided to build a new exhibit. The Dizzy Map Explorer is based around a large scale reproduction of the hand drawn map for Dizzy III. Each scene experienced in the game is literally mapped out with detail of the environment and puzzles clearly visible and a really clear sense of how these screens fit together to create the world. This is not a view one ever normally gets unless one mapped out the gameworld on squared paper - and in the process reverse engineering The Olivers' original design process.
Just seeing the maps in their original hand-drawn form and blown up so the intricate detail can be examined already makes for a wonderful display. But to really explore that process of translation, we fashioned an exhibit that uses NFC technology to allow visitors to 'remove' sections of the large map, scan them on our bespoke reader, and reveal the exact point in the game. In one sense, this is a continuation of our Game Inspector model of interpretation which, crucially, allows the exploration of games without the need to play them. This is an important point for us. Playing is important but it can't tell us everything. Seeing the game being played allows you to look at it differently. Freed from the panic of trying to complete the puzzle in time or make that tricky jump, aspects of design that might not be noticeable become possible to see. Similarly, because you don't need to be able to play as an expert, parts of the game you might not get to or techniques you can't pull off are revealed. We think it's a neat idea and it's something we've been experimenting without since the NVA opened.
By capturing footage of the final game at play and triggering it with an NFC-tagged facsimile of the Olivers’ squared paper, visitors can see exactly how those meticulously planned out stages and puzzles appear as pixels. And how they can be tackled in the final game. For the really adventurous visitor, the map exhibit also makes it possible to identify the places where the final game deviates from the plan - sometimes this is about tweaking in playtesting, and sometimes it's about revealing the magic of game design. Falling down two screens' worth of well shaft doesn't need two separate screens. One well shaft fallen down twice does the same job and saves precious memory and storage space.
We are really pleased with the way the Dizzy Room has turned out. This deep dive into a particular game series and development team is a new type of exhibit for the NVA but it is definitely the first of many more. Working with The Oliver Twins gave us an embarrassment of riches to play with and we're looking forward to revealing who we’re working with next as we continue our journey.