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Geek Road Trip: Play all day at the UK National Videogame Museum
After you've paid for your admission ticket to the UK National Videogame Museum, all that's left for you to do is play games. The museum, a very large room currently located in Sheffield, is filled with video games that you can play without needing to pop in a token. All you have to do is be awake. There's no set route, no tours, no order. You go in, and you play what you want as long as you want.
Amazingly, it's actually even better than it sounds.
Video games are, aside from podcasting, probably the only entertainment medium whose beginning is just about in living memory. Perhaps because of that, the NVM sensibly makes no attempt to break games down into date order. Early machines like the green cathode-ray-monitored BBC Acorn sit happily near Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s. In fact, the Acorn is located in the Lab, a side room of the NVM that also includes coding tools for kids, a motion sensor rig you can play with, and other various games.
Some of them are demos or in beta testing, such as Lightmatter, in which you're visiting a science facility built into a mountain when the science becomes Science. Guided out by the grumpy Cave Johnson-alike whose project it is, you have to manipulate your surroundings to stay in the light — because every shadow will kill you. Think of Lightmatter as combining Portal's gleefully feral science with a clean, monochrome aesthetic to create a very weird and very cool game. The most recent version is available here.
It's also worth noting that this is a new game, one that isn't finished yet that you can play for free in a museum that is as deeply weird as it is very cool. It also speaks to the NVM's willingness to embrace the variety of the field. That variety runs through everything in the building, including how it's laid out. One of the first things you see is the massive, NORAD-style wall of Donkey Kong at the top of this piece. Along the far wall, an actual Space Invaders machine sits happily between various Street Fighters, Dance Dance Revolution, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other classics. It's like the DC Comics Source Wall only with unlimited credits.
If you want nostalgia, then that is absolutely where you're going to spend time.
Sandwiched between them are the rest of the displays, which is where things get really interesting. And by interesting, I mean weird.
There's a smattering of the Marios and Sonics you'd expect, but those are side by side with some really odd and very cool choices. Modern classic Spelunky sits in an arcade cabinet like an indie kid wearing her dad's retro jacket and making it look awesome. A pinball machine nearby is actually a dressed-up iPad running Inks, the single most beautiful pinball game I've ever played. Eccentric Japanese imports rub shoulders with ancient and venerable NES games and art installations that change the way you think about what a game is.
One of the best and most popular games the NVM has is a one-dimensional 8-foot-tall loop of LEDs. Perhaps my absolute favorite is a small, polite TV tucked away in the back of the Lab called THERE IS NO GAME. You could click here to find out more about it, but trust me, why bother? After all, there is no game, right?
The NVM fizzes with creativity and fun and quietly makes some very smart choices. With the exception of the original Duck Hunt, there are no gun games, and the most popular fighting game by far is Gang Beasts, a local company's four-person comedy beat-'em-up. Again, it's a work in progress. But given the massive queue for it all day, I think they're on the right lines. Especially as the visitors were an even gender split with a massive amount of kids. The overall effect was like those arcades you were never old enough to get into, except now you can, they cost less, and there's a surprisingly great coffee shop on one side.
The NVM is everything good about video games, constantly evolving and changing like the medium it celebrates; creativity, respect for the past rather than the fetishization of it, total interest in the future, and, above all else, an open-armed embrace of the escapism and joy this deeply weird field can bring. The past and the future, open to anyone who walks through the doors.
It's an extraordinary place to spend some time and, I suspect, an even more extraordinary one to come back to. If you're in the UK, you should absolutely check it out.