Light / Dark mode

To Game or Not to Game?: reviewing the video games from Singapore Art Museum’s Open Systems 1: Open Worlds

The opening screen of The Green Crab video game.

When a press release from the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) mentioning an upcoming exhibition featuring video games landed in my inbox, I knew I had to learn more about it. 

The showcase in question is Open Systems 1: Open Worlds (OS1), which features a variety of contemporary artworks that either incorporate video game mechanics, or take the form of video games themselves to “suggest that game spaces may function as sites to rehearse novel modes of social, political, and spatial organisation.” The exhibition is currently ongoing till 10 August 2023, with works on rotation every few weeks. 

Once perceived as forms of mere escapist entertainment (or in dire cases, reasons behind acts of violence), video games are no longer the niche industry that they used to be. As of 2022, there are an estimated three billion gamers worldwide and PwC’s Global Entertainment and Media Outlook predicts that the global gaming industry will be worth $321 billion by 2026

In light of this remarkable statistic, I was curious as to how video games would be presented in the context of a contemporary art museum. Has the museum merely incorporated video games into its shows because they are trendy? Is this a knee-jerk response to the development of metaverses by corporations and the increased gamification that is being seen across all industries? 

I was more than happy to sink my teeth into the two games that viewers can play in OS1. I got to play a beta version of the brand-new video game commission based on artist duo Zheng Mahler’s existing artwork The Green Crab and Xafiér Yap’s (they/them) 2nd Puberty.

I was told that both games run the best on Microsoft systems so if you’re an Apple user like me, you’ll have to usurp a friend’s laptop for an hour or so. Both were made with the game engine Unity, which the curator Duncan Bass told me is one of the programmes, alongside the Unreal engine, that has made it more accessible for artists to work with and create video games without having to be professional programmers. “If you’re [an artist who’s] familiar with 3D design tools, it’s pretty easy to move into this space,” he noted. 

Additionally, an important distinction has to be made: anyone playing the artworks expecting them to be mammoth games with hundreds of hours of gameplay is going to be sorely mistaken. These art games lean more towards being smaller creations with fewer obstacles and objectives, coming from the fact that they are more so works of contemporary art taking the form of video games, rather than video games being made for entertainment. With this understanding, I attempted to consider if these art games effectively used the video game format to express the artists’ ideas and extend their practices. 

Read on for my impressions of the two games, how they fit into the exhibition, and how video games have been slowly incorporated into the world of contemporary art. 

Enter The Green Crab

The Green Crab video game is based on a pre-existing work of the same name by Zheng Mahler, which initially took the form of the hoarding surrounding SAM’s Bras Basah premises in 2022. This physical form was a “speculative feng shui map of Singapore,” depicting locations and topographic landmarks that were thought to be auspicious from the perspective of Chinese metaphysics. 

The game opens with a prologue cutscene featuring a monk in an orange outfit speaking to a suit-donning man in a Chinese temple, surrounded by numerous cats and floating dragons. If you already think this is a zany start, then you’re in for quite the ride. 

Before you start playing, there’s another prologue available, which depicts paragraphs of Zheng Mahler’s undoubtedly dense research into themes of “state-led urbanism in East Asia.” You can read all about this while the prologue plays cutscenes of a mech suit-donning individual traversing through a Cyberpunk 2077-style city.

As he explores the urban landscape, dotted with bright neon signs with Mandarin characters and English words, the individual enters a monologue about techno-orientalism—the trend of speculative fiction media imagining the future using East Asian aesthetics. It’s a heady introduction that contextualises Zheng Mahler’s research, but I found myself itching to get started on the game. 

Starting the game, I found myself thrust into a vibrantly coloured, dizzying version of Singapore with a massive crimson hairy crab in the middle of it. It’s similar to the one that was plastered on SAM’s hoarding last year, with the crustacean’s form referencing Singapore’s diamond-shaped landmass and the red evoking Singapore’s ‘dragon vein’, a stretch of land that is considered to bring prosperity. 

On first impression, the visuals reminded me of those from older gaming systems from decades past. There were blocky renders of buildings and creatures (real and mythological alike), while pixelated graphics of clouds, tropical foliage and water bodies, studded the map—making the world feel like a surreal vaporwave fever dream. 

As I took control of the player character who was floating in mid-air, I found that it was easy to figure out the controls. Like in traditional games, I used the arrow keys to move around and figured out that the space bar allowed my character to descend to the ground and interact with the strange landmarks on the map. True to the traditions of open-world games with non-linear objectives, I wandered around the map, looking for a way to progress. 

Approaching landmarks, which took the form of behemoth tigers, dancing dragons, and giant floating heads, revealed a mix of feng shui knowledge that speculates on Singapore’s urban planning as well as quotes from scholars’ writings about the country’s developments.

For example, the large white tiger on the map represented Fort Canning Hill. Approaching it caused the following tidbit to pop up:

“Fort Canning Hill is a mountain climbing tiger that is not concerned with worldly affairs and indulges only in food and sleep. Hence, this place has seen little development.”  

On the other hand, interacting with a massive floating human head revealed an excerpt from the writer William Gibson’s Disneyland with the Death Penalty.

These excerpts seemed strange to include alongside the numerous feng shui tidbits, but they both effectively relate back to the first 2D version of The Green Crab, which intended to “refute the critique of Singapore as an inauthentic and artificial built environment.”

Still not convinced? Hear me out. 

The feng shui tidbits speculate on how Chinese metaphysics might have guided Singapore’s urban development and its choices behind developing some areas of the country over others. At the same time, criticisms of the Lion City reveal perceptions of Singapore’s urban development as being something austere and artificial; especially in relation to stereotypical perceptions of ‘Asian-ness’ and what makes an ‘authentic’ city. In the view of Rem Koolhaas for example, who is also quoted in-game, Singapore’s “build-from scratch approach” resulted in its lack of what he called “historical presence.”

In this light, the video game’s emphasis on bringing feng shui knowledge—an ancient traditional Chinese practice that has been historically used in architectural planning—to life in an engaging, immersive way could be seen as a method of resisting external critics’ perceptions of Singapore as a soulless city.

I spent a full thirty minutes unearthing every landmark on the map, trying to find an endpoint. What was I meant to do with all the information that I acquired? Was I even meant to do anything with the information, or was the main point of the game its experiential, open-world nature?

“There’s no end, necessarily,” Bass told me in a call a few days later. While he pointed out that I had played a beta version of the game that’s still in development, he also added that “it’s the type of game you can’t win. This is pretty frequent in artist games, where there are fewer objectives.” 

This affirmed my hunch that the ‘main point’ of The Green Crab video game was for visitors to immerse themselves in this surreal landscape and learn about Zheng Mahler’s research into “urbanism in East Asia” in an open-ended, interactive format. I enjoyed how it compelled me to seek out information independently and to draw my own conclusions about Singapore’s development based on whatever I came across. 

But to further understand what an ‘unwinnable’ game might look like, or why someone would even want to make one, I turned to 2nd Puberty.

Growing up again

For most of us, hitting puberty was not a simple process. Many of us grew up to become self-conscious about our bodies and appearances, but Yap took this sentiment to poignant new heights in their game 2nd Puberty. 

Booting up the game, I felt happy to have carved out a Saturday afternoon to spend time with the game. But if I had to describe 2nd puberty in one word, it would be punishing. 2nd Puberty calls itself a “2D pixel game about gender dysphoria” and as the player, you take control of an “FTM (female-to-male) character residing in a society that reinforces traditional gender roles.”

In the first few minutes, you’ll see pixelated houses and cutesy flowers swaying in the fields outside, reminding me of the joy of starting up a Pokémon game. And much like the Nintendo franchise, the game boasts a battle mechanic, initiating combat every time you enter a patch of grass outside.

However, instead of encountering adorable pixellated creatures in battle, you’re confronted with isolated body parts that trigger your gender dysphoria, such as your breasts and your hips.

Most of my attempts in battling these body parts ended in vain, with them being several levels higher (and therefore much stronger) than I was. It was infuriating; even if I survived a strong attack from the enemy, my attacks barely made a notch in their health bars. In most cases, I was knocked out in a single hit. 

This saw me rebooting the game over and over again, making me enter a cycle where I struggled to make my way across the map because I kept getting knocked out.

And these maddening battles seemed to be the very point of the game: to reflect on how crippling gender dysphoria can be, and how this internal strife can prevent those experiencing gender dysphoria from completing even the simplest tasks—which in the case of the game, was to simply walk down the street.

Are the games worth playing?

TD;LR: yes. Overall, The Green Crab and 2nd Puberty impressed me in different ways, and I’d recommend anyone who’s even mildly curious about video games to give them a go. 

I liked that The Green Crab’s video game version brought to life abstract ideas. But this made me ask, why did The Green Crab need to take on a video game format when it already existed as a static 2D hoarding? 

Well, Zheng Mahler had initially planned to create the work in 3D animation or develop it as a video game, but when time and space didn’t permit, the work took the form of a static 2D hoarding. When Open Systems was being conceptualised, SAM returned to the artist duo to ask if they wanted to create the original video game version of the work. 

And so The Green Crab video game was born, with Zheng Mahler working together with Hong Kong-based One Bite Design Studio. Zheng Mahler was in charge of character designs, mapping, and introductory animations while the studio worked on the technical aspects of game development such as character rigging and interactive elements. 

While The Green Crab video game represented the fruition of the artists’ original ideas, 2nd Puberty’s video game form allowed players to, for even a brief moment, imagine the struggles faced by those suffering from gender dysphoria. The harrowing gameplay and forced repetition of difficult battle encounters certainly made me more aware of how immobilising gender dysphoria could feel. It also made me more empathetic towards those experiencing such conditions in real life.

A new dawn?

Even though I had a good time with the games, my basic concerns remained unaddressed: why include video games in contemporary art in the first place? And why did SAM even choose to spotlight this medium in OS1?

To answer my question, Bass first explained how video games can be seen as metaphors for the real world. In video games, people play as main characters to advance the plot, within the confines of a predetermined plot and set of controls; paralleling how each of us, in real life, is born into a series of circumstances that we grow to understand and choose to challenge. He expounded,

“[The exhibition] argues that experiencing agency within a video game might allow you to express that agency in the real world, but within both those systems, there are predetermined or predefined limitations that you have to navigate and acknowledge.”

In this vein, he shared how some other artworks in OS1 use the video game mechanics of modding (where players can alter aspects of a game, such as its aesthetics, interactions or music, through third-party means) to envision and create new, inclusive realities that may be difficult to find and experience in real life. For example, players can use modding to add more diverse skin tones to a game with limited skin tones, in order for players to represent their avatars and their lived experiences more accurately. 

A work that relies heavily on the creative freedoms that modding offers is Sara Sadik’s Khtobtogone, which will be presented towards the tail end of the exhibition. Animated entirely within the Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) video game, it presents a love story set in Marseille’s Maghrebi community, with the ambition to “coax a refreshing vulnerability from a game designed to highlight idealised, heteronormative masculinity”—a fascinating contrast with the rampant violence typically associated with the GTA series.

All in all, I’m sold.

Even though it will probably be a while before video games become a popular medium with the art crowd, I’m all for OS1 presenting them as artistic formats that can bring us closer to one another. Whether in the museum or outside it, these games create realms where we can see ourselves; learn to challenge social norms, and be inspired to — as cheesy as it sounds– be the change we want to see in the world.  


Open Systems 1 Open Worlds runs online at 4 May to 10 August 2023.

The Green Crab video game can be accessed from 1 to 15 June 2023. Those who are interested in playing the game can access and download the game here

2nd Puberty will be available on Open Systems 1 Open Worlds and playable from 13 to 27 July 2023.

Click here to learn more about the exhibition and click here to follow Singapore Art Museum on Twitch.

Support our work on Patreon