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Space Cruising: The American Museum of Natural History Unveils a Planetarium-Sized Video Game

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File this under things that will make you say, Duuuuude. The American Museum of Natural History will transform the 70 foot-wide domed ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium into a multi-player video game called Space Cruiser this Thursday evening as part of its after-hours party series. Created by artist and game developer Ivan Safrin and the indie game organization Babycastles, Space Cruiser requires a team of six players to navigate a spaceship through asteroid fields. This is the first time the museum has used its 429-seat planetarium for the purpose of a video game.

In the works since last fall, Space Cruiser takes the average video game experience (sitting on a couch, staring into a small screen) and pumps up the scale to astronomical levels -- literally. This is an immersive 360-degree experience that is equal parts Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey -- complete with a chilly voice that says, "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?" Players experience the game in first person (as if staring out the windows of a moving space ship) and at each stage must pilot the ship through an asteroid field to reach a blue wormhole that travels to the next level of play.

Interestingly, different players are in charge of different aspects of the ship's movement. One person handles thrust, another controls lateral left-to-right movement and yet another handles the roll (placing the ship on its side so that it can squeeze between tight clusters of galactic detritus a la Han Solo). Three other players control "repairs" (namely, pressing a button) after the many inevitable collisions. This social experience requires a high degree of coordination between players, which generally consists of plenty of heated shouting along the lines of: "Move to the right. To the right! Get the nose up!! We're headed straight for the....aaaaaargh!"

But most incredible is the dizzying aspect of steering a craft while surrounded on all sides by the great emptiness of space -- of feeling disoriented after the ship crashes and spins, of looking out and seeing an inhospitable sky filled with rocks and darkness, and feeling elated every time you're sucked into the bright blue wormhole and delivered to another moment in space and time. For Safrin, who has been creating independent games for much of his life, this has been unlike any other game design experience. "It's really humbling," he says.

The game is a generative one -- which means that the computer creates a brand new play experience at every level (no two asteroid fields are alike). But it's the dimensions that give it its power. Syed Salahuddin is one of the founders of Babycastles and a long-time indie gamer. He says he never imagined being able to create a game for this type of environment: "I mean, who wouldn't want to play a video game on a giant dome?!" (See the video below for an idea of what this will look like.)

If the museum's intent was to get folks excited about space, this game should do the trick. Let's hope there will be others.

Space Cruisers will be on view and playable as part of the American Museum of Natural History's after-hours party Cosmic Cocktails and Space Arcade this Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 P.M. and is tied to the exhibit Beyond Planet Earth. Admission is $75 and includes live music and open bar.

SPACE CRUISER from Ivan Safrin and Babycastles from Ida C. Benedetto on Vimeo.