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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Feature: Artist Larry Achiampong’s Life Of Nintendo, Creativity And Inspiration

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Larry Achiampong by Emile Holba two
Image: Emile Holba

While there are often discussions around the merits of gaming as an artform, we perhaps talk less about examples of games helping to inspire other contemporary art. Yet as years pass it’s an inevitability, as the role of games in the lives of millions has transformed since the mid- to late-’90s. We’re gradually seeing more creative work and art outside of gaming with those tell-tale signs, those nods and echoes that gamers of all ages and types can instinctively understand and appreciate.

Larry Achiampong, a British Ghanaian artist with work in varied areas such as sculpture, collages, music, film and more, is an example of this. A current and also rising star of contemporary art in the UK, in this year alone he’s completed a commission for a permanent work at Westminster Underground Station in London, and currently has the Wayfinder exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate on show. It was the latter that got our attention, as it includes a gaming room as part of the exhibit, with Achiampong talking with The Guardian about how gaming influences his work.

We were fortunate enough to talk at length with Achiampong about this, particularly in relation to Wayfinder (his debut film) but also on the broader impact of games and their importance. His lifelong passion for games shines through, with references and memories emerging throughout the interview; we’ve decided to publish the full conversation with light edits for clarity.

Super Mario Bros 3 NES
Image: Nintendo Life

Can you talk, first of all, about how you were introduced to gaming, and the influence it had on you growing up?

Being a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was introduced to the 8-bit era of gaming. My family, my elder brother started off with the SEGA Master System, and one of the earliest memories I have is playing Safari Hunt and then Shinobi. It was quite interesting because the first stage in Shinobi you walk in a New York City-like street, and you see these posters of Marilyn, playing on Andy Warhol’s work. Now, I’m not aware of Warhol at that time, but I remember being captivated by the imagery that looked realistic for its time.

Later on, I would go to my cousin’s and he had an NES, and that really locked down my love of gaming. He was playing Super Mario Bros. 3, I think it was the sound that locked me in. You know when you’re in the map screen and you move Mario and Luigi, you hear those sounds. It’s so infectious and there’s nothing really like it, you know? There’s something about what Nintendo does with its IPs that is very infectious. All the way through, when you think of renditions of F-Zero classics in Mario Kart 8, it’s sound that’s so beautiful.

I came from a lower working class background, and I didn’t get taken to art galleries in the way that some of my art scene contemporaries did. But I was into gaming, comics, watching cartoons. For me, gaming provided a way of escaping problems in the world, in my life. You get power ups, you come back again if you die, if you know how to cheat a level you can. There’s so many things you can do.

There’s something about what Nintendo does with its IPs that is very infectious. All the way through, when you think of renditions of F-Zero classics in Mario Kart 8, it’s sound that’s so beautiful.

I’ve said this for years, gaming is a complex artform on the level of things like literature, cinema and so on. It’s so interactive, and that’s kept me entertained over the years and maintained my relationship with it. For me, I couldn’t help but reference that through my work, in an Easter Egg format. So in the Glyth ‘Golliwog’ series I did, my reference to that was Pac-Man. If you’re to think about prejudice in that way, you’re one character being chased around by a group of characters. I wouldn’t say the game is violent, but when talking about prejudice that’s a reference.

Gaming has been with me for years. Gaming, virtualised environments, they’re a big thing in the art scene. But when I was studying at art school, 2002-2005, and 2006-2008 for my postgrad, gaming was frowned upon. If you played video games you were juvenile, not serious. That upset me and almost pushed me away from gaming, because I was at a point of trying to elevate my career. Weirdly enough, me and my partner at the time had our first child in 2008, and that reinvigorated my interest. He was a daytime sleeper as a baby, so I’d be up with him at night sometimes playing games, holding him while having a pad in my hand.

That was a beautiful revisiting of the reasons why I love gaming. It captivates you and can be part of wholesome communal conversation. This was before talking about gaming as an online phenomenon.

I read your letter for the exhibition, and you mentioned the sound of Super Mario Bros. 3. It was interesting that you referenced reggae beats in the game, for example. In those 8- and 16-bit years, playing games, were you immersing yourself in a way to connect those games to your background and upbringing (in London)?

Oh definitely. So if you move onto something like Streets of Rage, the club culture in that, it’s unmistakeable. I would have bought GamesMaster or Official Nintendo Magazine at that time, and I don’t remember anyone talking about club culture in games like that. I remember hearing music in that game and thinking “woah, it’s like the sound of a House beat”, or touching into Jungle, what would become Garage etc. And I thought “damn, this is my world!”. A collection of people thousands of miles away in Japan were creating that, how is this possible? Back then there’s no other way or place where I feel quite at home in that way. That was special for me in those years, and maybe for other kids too. We’d trade on concrete playgrounds, it was a conversation. It was like a conversation that programmers and coders had with kids, that maybe parents were too busy to have. With my parents they’d work multiple jobs to keep the lights on.

It’s a beautiful moment where you think “this is built for me, I can exist and hang out here”. Education didn’t really cater to someone like me growing up as a young black kid, the conversations around race and class and so on. They weren’t opening up to kids like me, or even young working class white kids and so on. So with video games, similar to comics, there’s an element of life and satire that’s sewn in, and for me that kept me coming back.

Wayfinder, the film plays a key role in Achiampong's exhibition
Wayfinder, the film plays a key role in Achiampong’s exhibition (Image: Turner Contemporary / Reece Straw)

Looking at the game list from the exhibition, what stands out to me (particularly from late ‘90s as games became more 3D) is a focus on titles that are a journey, or have a great deal of exploration. In your film, Wayfinder, that feeling of a journey is also prevalent. How influential is that idea of travel and exploration in your work?

For me, two cornerstones, in a sense they’re the same game IP and engine but they’re also polar opposites, are Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, with the latter really getting me into that aspect of a journey. Majora’s Mask is the weird step-cousin, almost. Ocarina of Time plays in a way that now feels quite safe. Majora’s Mask, though, is so many things. It’s like a comedy, a horror, there are honest moments of intense sadness and conversations around depression, with the Mask Seller talking of meeting a terrible fate, and that kind of thing.

It’s so animated in that way, and that’s without even thinking about design, and influences of West African communities and mask making. When I think about that moment in time, late ‘90s into early 2000s, playing in a 3D environment, it was completely new. Even seeing day turn to night, and in Majora’s Mask being able to turn time backwards in a strange way, where the end of the world is impending. When you think of it in that game world and then in real life, people were talking a lot about the Millennium. It was just a special, infectious moment full of possibilities. And again the music, Song of Storms, that sound pulls you in, that relationship with folk traditions. It makes me think about old-school British folk music.

That understanding of the journey, it permeates through the work I’ve made in Relic Traveller (a multi-phase project), and Wayfinder as well. The film is divided into six chapters, and I really wanted to think about different environments like you have in a game. Like Metroid Prime, which is in the show’s gaming room – the beautiful thing with the game is the separate zones. Lava, ice and so on, very distinct in terms of sound, music, how you interact with enemies and objects. I wanted to take that opportunity making my first feature film to try and think about the differences of these environments within a British perspective.

Majora’s Mask is so many things. It’s like a comedy, a horror, there are honest moments of intense sadness and conversations around depression, with the Mask Seller talking of meeting a terrible fate.

People like to travel outside of the UK, but we don’t think about how the landmass here is so varied. Like Hadrian’s Wall, where you can literally look towards Scotland at a certain point, or way down South there’s Dungeness, the UK’s ‘only desert’. I researched it for Relic Traveller and thought “what, a desert is a land filled with sand?”, but then I travelled down there and thought “I get it”, it was both beautiful and depressing in the same breath. I could imagine being in a sand-based landscape where there might be similar feelings, where there’s nothing but also everything, you know?

That’s the cool thing with some games. Tales of Symphonia, that relationship of journeying with a team of people, but sometimes others leave or pass away from the team. So you go through these emotions of angst, highs and lows, but there’s still the journey that moves on.

In Wayfinder, the way it’s shot there are different areas and approaches to showing each location, in the sense you couldn’t always pinpoint a ‘real world’ location. Was that a part of the concept of exploration, perhaps into the unknown and unfamiliar?

Definitely. I like to work with performers and actors that are often not formally trained or haven’t been to acting school, where a part could work particularly well for them. So in Wayfinder there’s that feeling, especially with The Wanderer, I enjoy that consideration, like in a game where your character may be quiet but they represent something, an extension of yourself. Without giving too much expression to the character, it lets the viewer sit in that space with them, together, almost controlling their role in a way.

It applies to certain camera views, in first- or third-person, like the third chapter in The National Gallery. You may have picked it out but there’s Resident Evil as a big reference point! For historical portraiture and paintings it’s magnificent, but there’s something unnerving about it. Even for me, to this day, as an artist, I look at certain images and it irks me a bit. I think of my first experience with Resident Evil, you go through the Spencer Mansion and just seeing – amongst the horrors of mutations – you have this backdrop or paintings and sculptures that are quite eerie.

I remember when I experienced that I thought “yeah, that’s why I feel that way about The National Gallery!”. Because you can’t really talk about that, or describe it, but then you have a piece of popular culture like Resident Evil that opens that up. So having the opportunity to film there felt like a big moment to explore. I wasn’t able to talk about those influences so much among the crew, there was one person that plays games but not Resident Evil, so I couldn’t go into that kind of depth with them. But I knew, if we sit here for a moment and capture some of these views, we’ll be able to create that feeling.

A key theme in that section was “who were you painting this for”, in relation to some of those artworks. I looked at the list of games from the show and saw Dandara, and thought about how nowadays we have the Indie scene and games that are so much more varied and representative. What are your thoughts in terms of gaming and how it shows more people, more perspectives, more cultures?

I think it’s incredible, amazing. I feel in some ways that gaming is getting that a bit more ‘right’, or moving in a better direction than, say, filmmaking or even the art scene in some respects. Sure, things have changed over the last 20 years, but not at the rate or way it has with gaming. I think it’s because gaming has always been something that has been accessible for people. As simple as you like in terms of fidelity, or as complex as you like.

If you rise through the echelons and get to the EAs and Ubisofts and so on, it’s not as diverse as one would hope for, but the beauty of the Indie scene is that it’s regular folk coming up with ideas and doing stuff with very little, working within limitations. At the same time, there’s a callback to those 8- and 16-bit eras, there’s that love of a particular time in gaming. Some of these games are the first time you might feel certain things.

Like Street Fighter 2, the combos, the backgrounds and sounds of elephants in India. It’s something that’s almost indescribable. With other creative scenes there can be gatekeepers, the price of entry can feel and seem a bit higher, not just in money but in terms of culture. Whereas in gaming, even as somebody that plays online or in different groups, or Nintendo-based groups, it’s a point of conversation and acceptance where you feel part of a community. You don’t have to explain who you are or where you’re from, you’re just talking about the thing you love. There’s something beautiful in that, where diversity is opening up, and it’s definitely in smaller Indie games where that hope is there.

Examples can be Dandara, but also something like Hollow Knight, which is incredible. It didn’t make the cut for the show because I felt the difficulty curve sharpens up after a while! But that game talks about class, and in some ways race with the different creatures in different areas, and even sexuality if you go deep enough with some characters. It’s just amazing, and it’s a Metroidvania, people might look at it and make assumptions but it’s so much more. Again, that was a really small development team.

Were they easy conversations with the gallery when it came to the Gaming Room? Did you have to explain why you wanted it there as a community space?

It wasn’t that difficult, really. Toby and Lee work on the programming in the education area, they already have a relationship with gaming and have worked on smaller things and processes previously. I came in, and I don’t really like the hierarchies that take place within the art scene when you think about education. Education is always this thing pushed to the periphery, like it’s the low grade or ‘lite’ version looking up to the grandeur or the so-called main gallery show. I wanted to destroy that and the gaming room is art, we’re talking about it as art.

But also, I don’t want to get all pretentious about it and people can’t play the games. We’ve got beanbags and couches in there, you can hear the games, the gold colouring in the room and the space keeps it all inviting. Because that’s what gaming is to me, being on the carpet in the living room for hours on end chatting with people.

The conversation really moved, almost like electricity, the difficulty was narrowing down the games. There were loads of other games I was thinking about, but we were also thinking about accessibility in the sense that there might be some people who don’t play games much. How do you have that range of depth like a Metal Gear Solid and then something more open like Alex Kidd, for example. Because of the gallery’s openness that allowed me to get into the depth of “ok, let’s make sure we’ve got multiplayers, single players, and also the communal experience of what a game is”. Even if a game is single player, if someone is watching is there still value to be taken away from that?

So it was great, but I take your point that you don’t have that conversation often in art galleries. Even though gaming and the virtual are more popular now in the art scene, they just seem to be buzzwords used for fads. So it was great to work with a team of people that have a genuine vested interest in gaming, and were thinking along with me. I didn’t see it as a radical thing personally, but then I step back and people say “gosh, I can’t believe what was done with this space”. I then see that it was quite radical.

But I was saying it as a gamer. It’s pretty simple, throw some games in there, make it comfortable and there you go! The conversation was definitely easier than most art-based environments that I’ve worked in.

You’ve had a varied career with your installations and work, have you ever thought about making a game or working on a gaming project?

That’s what gaming is to me, being on the carpet in the living room for hours on end chatting with people.

Most definitely. I’m working on a little something which will be like an online experience, straddling between the artwork I do with the Relic Traveller series and being a game in itself. Even with that, if I’m honest, there’s more that I want to explore in terms of actually building or making a game. I think it’s coming down to having that chance moment of working with people that want to spend the time in digging deep with the IP we’d build. I think in many ways, with those different projects, there’s enough IP to create and build our own set of conversations and worlds.

I so badly want to do it but I’ll be honest, it’s much like the way I think of music and music production. I taught myself to make music, and even films. Though I went to art school, I didn’t learn to make films in art school, it was from rewatching VHS tapes of Terminator 2 or Return of the Living Dead and pop classics. I have too much respect for the culture of gaming, I don’t want to release something just because this is ‘in’. When I release it it’ll be cool, I want to pour love into it like I do everything else. There are ideas for games, it’s just locking up with the right personnel who can guide that ship forward.

I’d love to do that but it’s about timing, in the same way any other project is. It would be within the realm of an Indie manner, not to say there haven’t been great AAA titles doing that kind of thing, but the moment you move in that bigger direction some things feel less possible.

Larry Achiampong (by Emile Holba)
Image: Emile Holba

If, hypothetically, you make a game that’s everything you want it to be, do you think it would get the same attention and focus from those that admire your other art, or would they perhaps say “it’s a game, I’m not going there”. Or are we beyond that?

To go back a bit in time, when I finished my MA in 2008, a few years later, the first project I brought out was a music-based project, but my postgrad had been in sculpture. It looked at my Ghanaian heritage by remixing sounds from Ghanaian high life music and bringing in references of Ghana’s emancipation from British colonial rule. I didn’t know anyone in the beat making scene, though I got to know some people, but what made it special is there were some saying “this is really good, you could take it somewhere”. What I really appreciated about that was that I’d worked for years learning how to beat make, and I’d even become part of a forum called “weekly beat sessions”. It was made up of Americans who would invite people in, send out a sample, and you had a week to make a record with that beat.

I did it for three years non-stop, like my own personal degree to push myself to learn about instrumentation and its placement, to create a beat and rhythm or use a reference to do that. I would treat creating a game in the much the same way, but a plus point is that I’ve been into games since I was a kid, and that hasn’t stopped.

I would expect there may be some people in the art scene say “it’s a game, it’s not for me”, or maybe other people in the gaming scene thinking it’s maybe a bit too “arty”. You know, I’ve learned in the trajectory of my career that you can’t please everyone, you’ve got to go with your convictions. In that same breath of understanding there are some people that know my work just from the films, or have come across sculptural works, or maybe just the photographic collages. I don’t mind that, I don’t think “oh the people that are into the music, we have to get them into this other thing as well”.

The moment you think too much about the audience you want to pull in, that’s the moment you begin to think like an EA or Activision, you lose sense of the thing and the love that was driving you. Again, that’s part of the beauty of the Indie scene.

Do you have an outlook or message to share for anyone that, perhaps like you, is into games but aspires to work in other creative areas? In terms of how gaming and a passion for games can be a strength and something to embrace?

This is the rest of your life. I want to play games until I’m an old grandad in my rocking chair, I genuinely want to do that. That’s the beauty of video games, it’s our way of life.

For sure! It’s ok to have these interests and if there doesn’t seem to be a thing catered for you, keep working and building that thing you love. Stay connected with people who have similar interests, that’ll help keep things going. Unfortunately there might be times it’s challenged, but that’s ok because that’s part of the point of growth for you. You won’t always enter a space where people immediately get what you’re saying, some people will think it shouldn’t exist.

But deep in your heart you know why. Maybe it’ll take some time to build the language or understanding for that. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming, that’s the thing gaming has taught me more than anything. Without dreams games don’t really exist.

Stay surrounded by people that also love what they’re doing. Don’t pretend to be within a certain crowd that doesn’t really love or accept you. That doesn’t mean you can’t exist in that environment, but you want to find a space where you can genuinely build collectively. Take note of what people say, think about problems they may have with whether something can be done, and think about that and why you know it can be done, and what you’re going to do about it. Also understand, particularly for those who may be younger, look at the long run. Don’t look at a 1, 2 or 3 year plan, if you try to place constraints on your life and what you’re doing you’ll strangle it before it becomes anything.

This is the rest of your life. I want to play games until I’m an old grandad in my rocking chair, I genuinely want to do that. That’s the beauty of video games, it’s our way of life.


We’d like to thank Larry Achiampong for his time, and Caroline Jones of Four Communications for all of their assistance. ‘Wayfinder: Larry Achiampong & JMW Turner curated by Larry Achiampong’ is on show at Turner Contemporary (Margate, England), admittance is free available until 19th June 2022.

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