On the third floor of the Museum of the Moving Image, from now until March 2, visitors can play 25 of the most critically-acclaimed indie games from the past 10 years. I set out for Astoria, Queens to spend an afternoon doing just that, and, as I suspected, I learned a thing or two about what games have to say about the museum experience.
The exhibit is titled “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Videogames,” and it’s presented by both the museum and IndieCade, an international festival of independent games that has been called the Sundance of the videogame industry. Since 2009, game developers have gathered at IndieCade in Culver City, CA to showcase new indie titles and vie for awards in categories like design, story, sound, and impact. All 11 winners from IndieCade 2013 are on display in the Museum of the Moving Image, along with over a dozen other indie stand-outs, both old and new.
The Indie Essentials selection is superb. Many of the titles on exhibit are well-known among game fans—Braid, Diner Dash, Gone Home. Others, like Quadrilateral Cowboy and NIDHOGG, have yet to be released commercially, but have made waves throughout the indie community as “must-play” games nonetheless. And that’s exactly what museum patrons are encouraged to do: play.
As visitors exit the elevator on the top floor, they’re presented with a wide, spacious room dotted with colorful television screens. It’s dark and hushed, like a pre-show cinema. In the far back, projected on an enormous white canvas, glows the unmistakable block world of Minecraft. Museum patrons move unhurriedly about the room, and a few sit or stand in front of game monitors.
Moving further along into the room, you notice that each screen, or station, is equipped with gaming peripherals—some, a controller; others, a mouse and keyboard; all of them, a stool to sit on. Additional game-ready setups are placed along a mazelike corridor behind the main room, many of them offering multiple controllers for multiple players. These stations, with their TV screens and input devices, represent the crux of the exhibit. From museum open to museum close they rest, powered on, inviting passing souls to sit down and play—with a friend, with a grandparent, or by yourself.
The choice is entirely up to the patron. During my rainy Sunday afternoon visit, the exhibit was chiefly occupied by casual onlookers interested most in ogling bright computer graphics. On a different day, it could be packed with game fanatics crowded around TowerFall Ascension. Therein lies the real magic of Indie Essentials. Taken as a purely visual spectacle, it’s a concise exhibition of the last ten years of indie gaming. From pixelated platformers to existential poetry games, merely navigating the diverse milestones of the indie timeline provides a solid half-hour of delight. If you’re like me, however, you could easily spend two hours digging beneath the surface, trying each of the 25 games one by one. As far as content goes, Indie Essentials—just like a videogame—is in the eye of the beholder.
Multiplayer stations lend the exhibit an engaging human element, as well. I watched a teenager and his dad, seated on two stools, stumble through randomly-generated levels in Spelunky. I quietly chatted with a middle-aged man as we witnessed his headphone-clad wife become entranced by Dear Esther for the first time. As I openly observed complete strangers interact with game worlds and characters, I realized that it was different than doing so at a Major League Gaming event or E3. I was watching them learn a game, perhaps even learn what it means to play a game. It was intimate, peaceful, and a first for me.
My undisputed highlight of the afternoon was a four-player session of Killer Queen Arcade. Advertised by its NYC-based developers as “Starcraft meets Joust,” the game’s most current iteration takes the form of two pristine, opposite-facing arcade cabinets. Knowing it’s only playable at special events like this one, I was ecstatic when three middle-schoolers invited me to join their session. They were a few games ahead of me in experience, but I was confident in my general competence as a long-time gamer. Unfortunately, that confidence was unfounded. Somewhere between forming an emergency strategy with my 12 year-old partner and eventually losing to his two sisters across from us, it dawned on me that I was having this experience in a museum. I was playing a never-before-released, multiplayer arcade game with a group of kids in an institution traditionally dedicated to art and preservation. It was a unique experience, to be sure, but it was also an enlightening one. Videogames are being recognized by museums, our bastions of culture.
My only caveat concerning Indie Essentials is that some games, like Kentucky Route Zero, are drastically better served in a private setting. With people watching and sometimes waiting over my shoulder, it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to afford the meaningful engagement a game like that deserves. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a full playthrough would go well beyond the unspoken notion of “taking my turn.” During moments like these, the exhibit felt more like an “exhibit” than an arcade, but that’s not to say one is inherently better than the other.
From a player’s perspective, Indie Essentials is a glaring success. Both content and presentation are top-notch, and the space ultimately feels more like a playground than a conventional artistic showcase. Instead of posting signs that read “No touching,” or “Do not cross this line,” the exhibit begs the opposite. “Cross this line.” “Meet someone new.” “Discover a medium.” It’s an exhibit that invites visitors to experiment along with it, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
“Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Videogames” will run through March 2 at the Museum of the Moving Image in partnership with IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. Standard admission is $12 for adults, $9 for students and senior citizens, and $6 for children aged 3-12. Admission is free every Friday from 4-8 PM. A full lineup of titles can be found on the Moving Image website, along with hours and other museum information. Hand sanitizer recommended.
Matt Akers is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes about geek culture and works for a youth literacy project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @ScholarlyLad.