MUSEUM MELTDOWN – Outside the museum you will see a burning dumpster. There is ammo just behind– collect it, then head in through the security doors and shoot the troopers waiting on the other side. To your left there is a medpack. To your right, a pornographic cinema containing multiple Pig Cops and a shotgun. Directly ahead of you is a big white corridor filled with Art. Proceed directly towards the Art.
Museum Meltdown is a 1996 Game Art piece that reproduces the real-life Arken Museum of Modern Art through the magic of the Duke Nukem 3D map editor. Now, Game Art is not the same as Art Game – it’s an older and more gallery-centric thing, taking “videogames” as a form of masscult found imagery to play with, in the vein of appropriated advertisements or panels from old romance comics. At best the result is a kind of creative misreading - an alternate read of what videogames are that generates a new idea of what else they could be, as in Suzanne Triester’s Fictional Videogame Stills. At worst it turns the format into schmaltzy gesture, like Cory Arcangel’s “Super Mario Clouds”. But note that both pieces are or derive from physical originals – Treister’s exist as photographs of her Amiga screen, Arcangel’s “Clouds” piece is (or for a long time was represented as) a physical Super Mario Bros cartridge that he happened to modify. In this sense both works are suited to the requirements of the art world, the museum world, with its premium on individually significant artifacts.
If we take a museum to be a container for unique objects then any museum situated in a videogame will tend towards being a parody, or inversion, of the parent concept. Videogames are built around lossless digital reproduction – of sprites, of models, things with no “original” except maybe code that can itself be painlessly copied and moved around. I think of the dinky little top-down museum areas in games like Pokemon and Earthbound, populated with generic repeating “exhibit” sprites that just function as block obstacles; I think of the “Dwemer Museum” in Skyrim, reverently containing the same bits of recurring dungeon junk and lore books you come across everywhere else in the game but on plinths this time (look at them and the UI will automatically inform you: Weight 5, Gold 15). If you look up “museum” on gamejolt or itchio you’ll see, firstly, more Five Nights At Freddy’s fangames than you may have thought possible; secondly, a bunch of Unity games built around the availability of public-domain photogrammetry scans of famous sculptures (as well as paintings sourced from google image search). Rather than containers for unique objects, museums in videogames tend to resemble big tuna nets catching whatever bits and bobs of imagery are already circulating most widely – paintings so ubiquitous that they’ve long since stopped being identifiable as works in themselves and now merely point towards an idea of “painting” more generally.
Well, let’s get back to Arken for a while. While I’ve been talking at you my body has been perforated by Pig Cops and Flying Drones – it’s a surprisingly brutal level map, and after a while I had to turn on God Mode just so I could see all the rooms. Is this what Kant meant by disinterested contemplation..!? Wandering through the galleries I see blurred copies of famous Art Masterpieces: Nighthawks, Warhol prints, a screaming pope stuck in a cube, a Jeff Koons metal bunny (which I was unfortunately unable to blow apart with my minigun - a serious game flaw). Each exhibit turns out to contain another batch of enemies and after a while the feeling of cleaning them out resembles the fatigue of trying to see everything at a real-life museum. Ah, another room of masterpieces to check off my list, huh… Of course, you can also go and explore the weird secondary spaces of the building instead: the gift shop and canteen, bathrooms and event spaces. But the Build Engine abhors a vacuum – in the absence of art, all kind of weird default assets from the main game come to fill up these spaces instead. You can find a little moon landing diorama, an arcade game, tables piled high with Duke merch, a karaoke machine, and of course the obligatory interactable pole dancer. Outside the windows, Flying Drones skitter aimlessly around a flat and empty landscape.
Museum Meltdown can be found floating around online. As a custom map, there’s not really an original - maybe this helps to explain how strangely gamey and difficult it is, feeling closer to hobbyist map networks than to the institution it portrays. Apparently the mod was once showcased in the same museum, and I wonder how that worked exactly - were cheat codes provided or did the assembled gallerygoers have to get good and learn to circle strafe? Well, even the isolated map is quite compelling. As you keep playing the various garbled, low-resolution artworks meld into one - what you’re left with is an image of the museum itself, as a container that contains nothing in particular, an organizing principle lost in its own dream logic, extending interminably into corridor after corridor… Well, maybe it’s not so different from the videogame form after all.
IB – Case in point: how useful museums are as a setting! Visual interest – modular, themed rooms – environmental storytelling, informational signs – cavernous marble halls – interminable backrooms and storage areas, begging to be filled with crates (the level designer’s friend). And of course if you make videogames yourself it can be nice to have a setting which invites some showing off. All the little touches of background filler, vases, paintings, etc, can now come to the fore as art objects in their own right, placed flatteringly on plinths for the admiration of the viewer.
Of course if your museological ambitions are higher than providing set dressing for a Sierra game you will probably run into trouble. Haruhiko Shono’s “Alice: An Interactive Museum” is great, surprising, weird - but does tend to come to a complete stop whenever you’re asked to actually sit down and look at one of the Kuniyoshi Kaneko paintings placed around the environment. Desperately you click around, and sometimes something happens, but… it’s as though videogames prompt a very different kind of looking than the kind we might want to apply to an art object, something quicker and more scattershot, jumping from point to point, unseeing. You can put paintings in a game - our eyes brush past them on their way to somewhere else.
RPG Maker horror game Ib, set at a haunted art retrospective, sits somewhere between the two poles. On the one hand it enjoys, and makes use of, the abstracted idea of “museum” as occasion for set dressing. Big empty rooms, tiny scrambled background paintings, storage closets, mannequins. On the other hand: for a game about haunted art it’s important the works themselves should have SOME presence, maybe greater than the little 32x32 tiles can provide..
What populates the museum? The answer Ib gives is: Special Effects. Sprites change, sounds play, things move, handprints, footsteps, moving eyes, dolls come to life. The lights go off, and on, and you’re in a new place. Doors change where they lead.. I’m making it sound very rote, very horror. But a certain disconnected toybox quality is part of the effect - the museum, or the gallery, is a box full of sensory toys. Some are surprising, some are amusing, some are horrible, some will take you new places - you don’t know which are which. The sense of equivalency in both the museum shape and the RPG Maker engine - containers that can seem blandly indifferent to whatever they contain - heightens the sense of these effects as mysteriously ungrounded and capricious, as weirdly similar to the aesthetic experience of a museum itself.
I’ve been writing here about museums, digital art, the singular object - maybe it’s time to address an elephant in the room. One of the many excitements of 2022 is having your choice of Amway-brained speculation cults, each of which is promising to return uniqueness and presence and incidentally profit returns back to digital art. (Remember ‘aura’? It’s back - in pog form.) But the various critiques that already exist to one side - there seems to me something so alienated and forlorn about the idea that our perceptions themselves would simply abide by whatever vague, legalistic fictions of scarcity and ownership that we choose to apply to digital forms. As if we could simply will away the unsettling aspects of these things, their intangibility and coldness, their indifference to our own instincts of quantity. Instead, Ib follows this emptiness, and multiplies it - puts one alien container inside another….And in doing so, rediscovers the realm of the senses.
MUSEUM MELTDOWN 2 - That’s right!!! It’s a series. Part 2 takes place in a reconstructed version of the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania and feels like something of a concession - there are much fewer enemies around, so even inexperienced Dukeheads can appreciate some art (although tougher boss monsters hang out on the maintenance floors). The architecture is more straightforward this time although I appreciate that’s not strictly their fault, and most of the art pieces are the same. But overall I have to recommend this over the original for two reasons:
You can blow up the Jeff Koons bunny with a rocket launcher this time (a Flying Drone comes out and attacks.)
Certain areas will prompt Duke to engage in art criticism. For example the room with Jasper Johns art will prompt him to enthusiastically intone “COOL.” And the Edward Hopper zone will cause him to reflect, “THIS SUCKS.” He has no reaction to Piss Christ - maybe it didn’t register given Duke’s own longstanding relationship to pissing on things.
There is a third one of these games, made in the Half-Life engine, which I haven’t played because I refuse to install Half-Life - from videos online it seems to feature environmental storytelling in the form of bodies lying around, and you can smash up the exhibits with a crowbar. But can this truly be the end of Duke’s travels? The readme file included with the maps offers words of wisdom.
Copyright / Permissions Please use this map as a base for your own levels. Make your own exhibitions. Examine it, rip it apart and learn from it and do copy it. Don´t forget that stealing is Everything.
— Kissy Jr