The Ontario Science Centre has always been an important part of my life: My earliest field trip memories involve walking the (seemingly infinite) concrete entrance walkway always seemed like the start of an adventure. Like I was heading into a secret lair of a mad scientist or Bond villain.
I remember thinking I could run forever down that hallway, which now feels about two metres long. It was also the location of my first date with the fiancé, when we realized we’d been dating for a month and never actually been ON a date. It was charming and strangely romantic, though I lost some points for picking an unfortunately boring IMAX film about the Hubble Telescope.
Amidst this sea of warm, nostalgic feelings, the last thing I ever expected I’d do at the Ontario Science Centre is beat the Satellite level on GoldenEye 64.
Game On 2.0 is a strange beast of an exhibit, characteristic of the new age of mainstream nerd-dom, the likes of which would have been impossible to imagine even 10 years ago. The exhibit is essentially a curated arcade of gaming consoles throughout the ages, from Plinko through Pong, through Japan’s MSX and the great NES vs Sega Master System war, from the Dreamcast to the WiiU. There are even some concept pieces, from the incredible motion based Joust (more on that in a minute) to the Virtusphere, which allows you to operate as a mouse in virtual space. (and it kinda looked like the Death Star. Which is awesome.) Here’s a video of my buddy Dustin Freeman exploring it.
Throughout, there are plaques with information about the various games, genres, systems, and trends; and its here where the flaws of this unique experience become apparent. The info is rather haphazardly set, following no real flow or system and thus being generally inaccessible. They also spelled PlayStation wrong throughout (‘Playstation.’ Woof.) which is just plain sloppy; but also speaks to the greater strangeness of the exhibit itself.
Video game scholarship is still in its infancy and here we see the beginnings of how museum exhibits of the future will treat games. Sure, the info (and the flow of the exhibit itself) are a bit of a mess, but the fact that these games are on display in the first place is a marvel. These things, once viewed merely as distractions and wastes of time, are being treated instead as a cultural force and in many cases legitimate works of art (which is still a hotly contested view, as evidenced by this great clash of the late, great Roger Ebert and the entire body of the Internet)
What the exhibit gets right (and oh so right) is creating a massive arcade feeling, with hundreds of people playing a variety of games in full view of passerbys. The atmosphere of public gaming has shifted considerably over the years, going from the public showmanship of proper arcade games, to trading controllers back and forth and watching each other play single player games in a living room, to Dance Dance Revolution, to the private gaming of the early console era, to the now greatly public web videos of Twitch.tv, Let’s Play, and even Killcam replays in Call of Duty (showing you the viewpoint of the player who just killed you. Often fascinating, always frustrating), and finally the televised eSports of Korea, where StarCraft is the second national sport after baseball.
I was shocked by how stressful and exhilarating it was playing Super Mario World in full view of random passerbys, who commented, “Oh, I remember that enemy. I hated that guy.” (In reference to those damn helmeted Koopas who throw baseballs). I was aware of the scrutiny of my audience and it made the stakes much higher on the game. I think this was generally true throughout the exhibit, where the players became part of the installation during their playthroughs. It was a fascinating shift of the private sphere into the public and was generally awesome.
I also got the rare joy of an adult generation of gamers, now parents, expressing supreme frustration at their kids’ lack of ability at Sonic 3 on Genesis. The same way my Dad could school me proper at Pong or Space Invaders, the new generation of parents are watching in horror as the games they mastered as kids straight up own their kids.
There were constant utterances (many of them mine) of “I remember that game!” I realized that I spent a bunch of time playing Monkeyball on GameCube at university that I completely forgot about until I saw it in action. I introduced the fiancé to Bubble Bobble (or Bust-A-Move) which I had spent many, many fond hours playing with my friend Sarah in high school when our 3 Hour Unlimited cards at Playdium continued to work only on that machine.
Recognizing and playing games from all corners of my past was a rare joy; I learned a lot about my history as a gamer that we often miss, now that all games are available in some form on something. By curating the game list, I was confronted with these games, rather than having to seek them out and that was both pleasant and surprising. It was the perfect blend of nostalgia and history (in particular, a series of five Street Fighter games, from the first on up to the most recent was a fascinating look at how a franchise evolved.)
I also got to try something I’ve been hankering for since I saw it demoed at PAX last year: a game called Joust, where players each hold a PlayStation Move and try to keep it as steady as possible while attempting to shake other players’.
It’s a full contact game of tag and is a tonne of fun (particularly with greater numbers; PAX had something ridiculous like 50 players in each game. We had five). The Fiancé reigned triumpant for the most part, owning both me and fellow blogger Alex Kerr, though the intrepid random kid who joined us took the final game.
In addition to being the best use of the PlayStation Move to date, it was a fascinating application of gaming technology to the greater idea of play. There is a lot of great indie work like this happening with the Move and the Microsoft Kinect (some of which is being done by the talented and endlessly interesting Dustin Freeman. Check out his site for more info!) I was very pleasantly surprised to see this at the exhibit as it spoke specifically to the indie gap that was fairly prominent throughout. Where was Minecraft?
Speaking of gaps, notably missing were such genre changers as Wolfenstein 3D, StarCraft, Halo, ICO/Shadow of the Colossus, and Call of Duty. Granted, these are very mature games (though there was one Halo station, speaking to multiplayer, but it lacked the kind of critical analysis that such a game warrants.) but even a visual display of the games would have been useful. It was a noticeable gap, particularly given the outrageous popularity of online shooters.
There was also a strange lack of mobile games (aside from an awesome handheld console display); which is particularly odd given that mobile gaming has completely infiltrated modern Western life (many top paid CEOs take gaming breaks to help re-energize them when they hit a mid-day slump. Awesome.)
Which leads me to my favorite moment of the exhibit. While walking past a seated racing game, I noticed that the girl at the console wasn’t playing the racing game. Instead, she was playing Candy Crush.
This pretty much sums up what’s so great about gaming: at the end of the day, no matter how many magical and historically important games there are, ultimately, we want to play what we enjoy. It was a pretty trippy moment and I was glad to capture it.
So. A mixed bag, work in progress, but certainly an interesting and worthwhile one. While the exhibit has closed, you can soon read an alternate account over at Socially Scientific, by professional exhibit designer and science-y guy extrodinare, Alex Kerr (not sure when, he’s a busy guy. But in the meantime, check out some of the other awesome stuff on his site!)
And so I find myself playing GoldenEye at the Ontario Science Centre: adding the experience of playing a game that has meant so much to me to a place that has meant so much throughout my life.
The level is oddly reminicent of the Science Centre itself; long hallways, lots of stairs, mostly grey concrete, though there were admittedly fewer Soviet soldiers, which is probably for the best.
I’m grabbing the familiar body armour, detonating the C4 for fun, and as the elevator doors close as fire consumes the non-chalant, blocky Bond I realize something that would have delighted the bowl-cut sporting, chubby blonde kid that used to think he could run forever through that mysterious concrete entrance hallway: I found my secret Bond villain lair after all.
*With special thanks to The Fiance, Alex Kerr, Dustin Freeman, and that Random Kid for being a part of the adventure.