The Hayden Planetarium is a white orb, balanced on four pylons that extend into the middle of the American Museum of Natural History. Through a human-sized X-Wing hanger with transparent walls, you enter the sphere, which is lit along its circumference with an intimate peach glow. The rows of seating encircling the space are geared toward a ring of railing in its center, and all of the seats comfortably recline fully. On Thursday, the Hayden will host a gala for Space Cruiser, the incredible new video game by indie collective Babycastles.
The concept? Six projectors beam the game onto the dome of the Hayden, and you stand in the center of the room, guiding a spaceship through robust asteroid fields and into tie-dyed worm-holes. It is the first of its kind: no video game has ever been designed for play in a large-scale dome. And like any digital field trip to the moon, it comes with celebrity narration – Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields plays a conceited on-board computer.
Game designer Ivan Safrin and Babycastles curator Syed Salahuddin arrived at the ANMH promptly at 7 pm on Wednesday night for a two-hour Space Cruiser test. They were carrying boxes that contained the steering mechanisms for the game, which were actually steering wheels ripped from other video games where you drive terrestrial vehicles. Syed’s parents were waiting patiently for him in the lobby. The entire group, including several other game testers, was escorted into the Hayden after-hours by a friendly maintenance man. No one else was in the museum.
After a pause for setup, the dome resolved into a grid, displaying the degrees of the circle upon which it was built, 0°/360° on one side and 180° opposite. Then, one-by-one, the panels of the projectors turned into space. Blink – asteroids! Blink – nebulae! Blink – a glowing quasar!
Syed and Ivan attached steering wheels to a railing directly below the center of the dome. The steering wheel furthest to the left controls the “yaw” of the ship, the one in the middle controls the “roll”, and the wheel farthest to the right controls the “pitch”. In each of the Hayden’s three aisles were laid a cluster of wires with a single red button; it needs to be pressed whenever the spacecraft is heavily damaged from inevitable collision, indicating that the repairs have been made. The goal of Space Cruiser is to steer the ship through a tight and unforgiving thicket of potato-or-chocolate-brownie-esque asteroids toward a glowing quasar, only to be transported through space and time – at a speed you can feel in your chest – to another dimension that offers you the same, frustrating task. To play the game efficiently, six people need to be involved – three at the steering wheels, and three huddled in the aisles, waiting to patch up the ship. Within the first try, every gamer in the dome was sighing with disappointment and cheering to intergalactic success. Then Stephin Merritt began chiming in, using the low tone of Hal from 2001 (which is Merritt’s natural voice) with the judgmental bemusement of a Douglass Adams bot: “You flew right into that, didn’t you?”
About an hour after the group arrived, Greg Fox walked in one of the two entrances, holding a grey suitcase. Fox, the drummer of Guardian Alien and mastermind behind GDFX, set his Korg sampling workstation up in a console in the back, next to a glowing red spirit rock that he brought from home to use as a lamp in the blackness of the dome. The game paused so he could be patched into the PA, and then resumed. Stephin Merritt was now asking “Did you know that you can weld metal in the vacuum of space?” over Fox’s on-the-spot ephemeral tones. “I don’t know if I’m going to get more tense with it as the players get into tight spots,” Greg mused.
You may be wondering at this juncture: “How are all of these taco truck-feeders and computer programming housecats hurtling through time and space on their own accord at one of New York’s most famous and respected museums?” Here’s the story, annotated and condensed: Syed is on his way to give a talk at a conference called Games for Change in June at the Skirball Center at NYU. On the way, he gets in a bike accident; blood dripping down his legs, he gets on the stage and gives what he describes as his most passionate lecture ever, like a good little video game soldier. On the panel with him is Ruth Cohen, the “Director of Education Strategic Initiatives and the Center for Lifelong Learning” at the American Museum of Natural History. She demands immediate collaboration with this crazed bloody man, who, without irony, had insisted that everyone call him “Reverend Syed” at the aforementioned serious academic conference.
Across town, programmer Ivan Safrin developed the code to be capable to project crisply on MNDR’s face for her music video “Cut Me Out”. A face is a series of convex curves, but a dome is a concave curve (the exterior vs. the interior), so naturally, in his ambitious quest for knowledge and ability, programming to project inside a dome was his next logical step.
Initially, the Babycastles collaborative event at AMNH was purely to be an extension of their exhibitions in their former homes of 285 Kent and the 42nd Street Showpaper Gallery, both kindly remembered for their ramshackle, groundbreaking, absurdist exhibitions of video games as art. The Babycastles team would come to ANMH, set up their homemade video game cabinets in various pristine corners of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and that was it – until someone in a meeting mentioned the potential availability of the Hayden’s gigantic screen. Even though there were only eight lines of text to explain the computer program that runs the Planetarium's space shows, the team was determined. Six months and a great deal of technical difficulties later, a seven year-old girl named Lou is piloting her first space vessel, and it’s making her kind of dizzy.
The Hayden was completed (in its first incarnation, in 1935) after receiving a $150,000 donation from banker Charles Hayden of Hayden, Stone & Co. At the time, Charles Hayden affirmed his belief that a planetarium could foster “a more lively and sincere appreciation of the magnitude of the universe… and for the wonderful things which are daily occurring in the universe.” And when you lay on the floor and stare up at Space Cruiser, bumping and spinning helplessly like a pinball, berated by Stephen Merritt (“Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh, and laugh,”) and then slowly floating and staring at Venus, soothed by Greg’s deep synths and thoughtful bleep-bloops, it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of the people standing in the circle around you. It’s now 9 pm in the 143-year-old museum, Syed’s parents are speechless, and the “synesthesia of media” that is the art of video game design is clearly apparent. This is the experience that virtual reality never provided: complete immersion into a world that is not your own.
If you don’t have tickets to the almost sold-out gala tomorrow night, it is unlikely as of right now that you will ever get to play Space Cruiser, unless you are French. The game is likely to move to a Parisian planetarium after this, but it’s not currently scheduled to exhibit again at the Hayden. Almost 50 people were involved in the creation of this piece, and their work will be seen by only 500 New Yorkers. But the reverberations are likely to be enormous – this is a technical feat and now that people know it can be done, it must be done again.