Science Museum Gets Gaming: Futurecade

Arcade games don't tend to stay still very well.

Preloaded, the indie team behind The End and zOMT have teamed up with the Science Museum to create a series of games aimed at school-goers, to ask questions about the role of science in our future. Called Futurecade, it’s a collection of four arcade games, each loosely themed to a direction in which technology is taking us. And one of them is properly great. Think about that a moment – an educational game aimed at teenagers that’s good.

You’ve got Bacto-Lab, using E.coli to splice together various proteins, Robo-Lobster in which, well, robot lobsters diffuse bombs, Cloud Control where you make the clouds all shiny to reflect light, and Space Junker, in which you are tasked with clearing junk from the paths of satellites.

Of these, I implore you to give Bacto-Lab a go. It’s a really splendid spin on a number of arcade beginnings, in which you must successfully swoop around a screen of careering blocks of DNA, collecting the correct ones in a specific order. With a splendidly rapid difficulty curve, the cunning twist here is moving – done by holding the left mouse down and dragging the cursor – causes DNA to be drawn magnetically toward you. If you can collect all the shapes in a sequence in order without letting go of the mouse button you get a bonus. But of course this means you’ll be pursued by all the blocks you don’t want to gather. Trying to balance aiming for a bonus, with the need to successfully complete chains to add to your remaining time, makes it tactically interesting, and incredibly moreish. (Yes, I’ve decided it’s okay to say “moreish” again.)

Robo-lobster had less appeal for me. You’re surviving for as long as you can as an increasingly dense volley of bombs comes your way, with your lobsters being taken out as you fail to keep up. This has the effect of making the game less fun to play the longer you last, since it’s clearly never going to be possible to remove seven bombs with two lobsters, so you end up futilely picking off what you can to little sense of success, until eventually your harbour is destroyed. Respawning lobsters would have made all the difference here.

Cloud Control takes its cues from the likes of Flight Control, but here you’re controlling boats, instructing them to circle moving clouds (the whole thing about boats being on the sea, clouds in the sky, never seems to get covered), while avoiding the larger ships that sail through. It’s a pretty tricky challenge, although oddly here the respawning nature of your boats ends up making it feel a peculiar exercise. Peculiarly enough, I think this game would have benefited from not having your units respawn, as being down to one vessel wouldn’t take away the fun of playing, and would give you a shorter, sharper high score chase.

Finally, Space Junker takes the familiar arcade thrust mechanic, and makes it all the trickier by working in reverse. Grabbing junk in the path of satellites is pretty tricky, and succeeding is very rewarding. It’s a tough game, and definitely the second best of the bunch.

On finishing a game, each will then offer some questions to ponder upon. So those robo-lobsters are designed to get us thinking about the role robots may play in our future. We’re asked, “Should we design our robots to fight for us and give them weapons? Will this keep us safe, or is it more likely to start wars? Will robots improve our live, and challenge us to discover what it is that makes us human? What tasks would you be happy for robots to do?”

This is, I would suggest, part of a wider movement in the scientific community to better communicate with the public, and seek communication in a “bottom up” rather than “top down” manner, such that the public feels aware of the process – in no small part as a reaction to the needless and destructive loss of genetic modification as an option for science, thanks to terrible communication and an uneducated press. I know all this because my wife’s doing an MSc in science communication, and I listen. Of course, the Science Museum has always been about this, and it’s great to see them not only exploring the possibilities of using gaming to communicate, but also going to a top group like Preloaded to make sure it’s done properly.

And Bacto-Lab is definitely this done properly. It’s not intended to compete with Geometry Wars – it’s a short, awesome little arcade game that keeps making me have another go.


  1. John Walker says:

    If people don’t play Bacto-Lab, then come back here and tell me how right I am, I’m closing down the site.

    • AmateurScience says:

      I found it next to impossible to play on a trackpad (I was wearing latex gloves at the time: this did not help). I shall have another go when I get home from the lab and fire up the ‘ol desktop.

      Also, moreish always makes me think of traybake. I am hungry now. I blame you.

      Edit: Played with the mouse, it is good. Stopped playing, made traybake, it is good.

    • jonfitt says:

      You are right, it is good. Quite hard though; I keep making as many good chains as errors.

    • westyfield says:

      The controls for Bacto-Lab are utter crap. Shame, as it’s an otherwise fun game.
      Edit: Oh goodness, the controls for all of them are varying degrees of terrible. I tolerated about fifteen seconds of Space Junker before quitting in frustration.

    • caddyB says:

      Fun! For all the family!

    • MondSemmel says:

      I’m a physics student and a fan of popular science books done properly (e.g. books by Richard Dawkins), so I’m very aware that science communication is important. In that sense, I appreciate that these games exist (although I only tested the E.coli game myself)
      I also like it that there’s an option to learn facts about the science behind the game, and that it gives the player food for thought. I do think, however, that the science is too detached from the gameplay.
      The ultimate goal might be to create games that really teach science, maybe in the way Space Chem teaches some elementary rules about chemical bonding or, more importantly, how it teaches programming concepts. But that’s obviously orders of magnitude more difficult to design, and probably requires scientists/science-minded individuals throughout the design process…

    • Tams80 says:

      Very difficult on a trackpad.

    • Harlander says:

      What on earth is ‘traybake’ (aside from a really ghastly portmanteau (and this coming from someone generally rather fond of portmanteaus))?

  2. Ross Angus says:

    I don’t get it: it gave me a moral choice at the end of the game, but then didn’t let me choose one way or the other. How can I max out my Paragon points?

  3. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    The Science Museum always had pretty fun games up on the top floor of the annex thing. Anyone else loved those tables with the dial controls?

  4. Skabooga says:

    Like any good educational game, this collection is heavy on the game and light on the education. My favorite thing about it, though, would have to be selection screen music. I want a copy of that, but I cannot seem to find who is responsible for designing the game.

  5. Muzman says:

    Chip tunes. Why did it have to be chip tunes…

  6. Dhatz says:

    I love the concept that your achievements and mistakes make sense and would have meaning if any of those situations were real, and the games demonstrates it by the human impact rating. I am sick and tired of games that make you someone that matter and build themself around it.

  7. nootpingu86 says:

    I find it strange and slightly unsettling that games like these are now considered a learning tool. The only thing these games teach anyone is how to misinterpret the cornerstone of a vastly under-appreciated genre. It’s like one day all indie devs woke up and decided Centipede was profitable because people thought the graphics and sounds were cute. That was an aspect of it I’d imagine, but it did not, in fact, become a success in this medium simply because it had a charismatic gimmick propping up a dull, tedious game. This whole retro-chic design ethos is a cargo cult that has somehow appeared in an era where people can still strike up a conversation with the originators of these ideas, or hell, fire off an e-mail to Kenta Cho or something if you want to be hip about it.

    I’m so tired of abstract indie “arcade” games that inevitably get dumped into an indie bundle to pad it out. EDIT: people may like them, but people out there like Jersey Shore and TruckNutz, too.

    I wish I could carefully allocate my money away from this pretentious trash and into the pockets of the devs who make games I want, while still paying what I feel is a fair price for the remainder. A good chunk of the games I want are unevenly designed and more than a bit precious to begin with.

    I think the whole affected retro thing should be embargoed by a trade organization or something. Yes, O great internet, I am mad.

    As it stands now, the 1/5th of a cent they get from me (deal with it) usually is too much for a game I will boot up, click around in for a few minutes, sigh at, and uninstall. For as much as capitalism wants to assure us of this being a surefire way to turn a buck, it is still untrue that merely taking a cursory glance at whatever it is was kickin’ rad 30 years ago can be a way earn any sort of kudos or artistic credibility, let alone those much coveted pieces of currency we all hope we get when we do something we love. What I’m describing here is one of those uniquely awful things we ought to sit back and lament about gaming here in the year of our Lord two-thousand and twelve. That mere kitsch passes for something edgy, daring, and something that a big publisher would totally not take a risk on at all, ever.

    • RobF says:

      “I’m so tired of abstract indie “arcade” games that inevitably get dumped into an indie bundle to pad it out. ”

      You caught us! Damn, totally bang to rights too.

      It’s true, they’re only there to pad bundles out. No-one really likes them because that’d be stupid.

      Ah well, we had a good run!

    • nootpingu86 says:

      Sorry RobF I can’t hear you over the axe I have to grind itt. Could you speak a bit louder and clearer?

      I have a PAY WHAT YOU WANT offer of my own, by the by. You can sell me your bundle at a price from anywhere between negative $5 to negative $0.01 to have me play the games in your bundle and produce upsetting words about them that you can then meet with a snarky reply about how PC gamers are loathesome and you’re totally going to Android now.

    • RobF says:

      Do these things happen a lot outside your head?

    • nootpingu86 says:

      What, thoughts? Criticism? I sure hope not. Communicating an opinion to someone else on the internet is the last thing I’d ever want to do.

      Real talk, Mr. Big Bad Bundle Dev Guy: I’d explain why I think this to you in even more detail if you were willing to indulge me a little and acknowledge the parts of my post that aren’t merely tangential. Maybe even object to them in a way that isn’t passive aggressive and betraying a sense of entitlement to the dollars of your potential customers.

      You DID feel the need to reply anyway, so a part of you knew I was saying something you, personally, needed to refute, but maybe couldn’t or weren’t willing to in a good-faith fashion. I hope it isn’t because you think you have any sort of star power or largesse with an internet commenter or anything like that. I’d put it my criticism as flatly to anyone else, and the fact that I care enough to devote this many words to your genre of games should tip you off that I am in for the long haul when it comes to making a well-argued critical judgement. I might even entertain your ideas if you would share them and not simply snipe at me out of insecurity.

      In conclusion, I’m almost certainly smarter than you and I am demonstrating more credibility when it comes to actually discussing these things by reasoning them out at length, and entertaining even the most succinct reply you make. I don’t know what’s difficult to ascertain about this other than my aggressive tone in these comments. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re reaping what you sow by being a little bitch.

      RobF you can continue make your little digital toys and cash in on them all you like, more power to you. But don’t think for a second that you’re creating art or something culturally significant. Intelligent people with a critical conscience like me get to decide that. You’d do well to listen to us when we bother to say anything.

      ALSO – making posts like these is no different from taking a piss or drinking a glass of water for me. I don’t really care what you think until you start participating in the discussion in good faith, and you have no business trying to make substance-free replies to me as if you’re pointing out some idiocy or foible I’m unaware of.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      I wish I could carefully allocate my money away from this pretentious trash and into the pockets of the devs who make games I want, while still paying what I feel is a fair price.


      You are aware you can just buy those games direct from the devs to support them? Though perhaps because your idea of a fair price is 1 cent, you may find that many developers don’t want your ‘support’.

    • Llewyn says:

      In conclusion, I’m smarter than you and I have more credibility when it comes to actually discussing these things.

      You’ll have to provide us with some evidence of the former claim if you expect us to believe it. And the latter part is something that we get to decide, not you. Sorry.

    • nootpingu86 says:

      You’re welcome to think what you please about my assertion, Llewyn. I know who I am, and I’m barely even scratching the surface of what I want to say about the shoddy state games and the brains of the people who make them. They seem to only conceal assertions like mine around a carefully crafted persona of humility, while only showing a vast lack of perspective on the video game medium and our cultural context as a whole. Your flaccid attempt at an ICE BURN is noted, though.

      What do you think FILM CRIT HULK was getting at when he smashed up Arkham City — hint: it wasn’t just that game he was enraged about. He had to back down from how much smashing(ly good commentary) was going on in his blog posts because he got literal death threats from gamers who thought AC’s awkward sexism was acceptable. These gamers the very people who game devs listen to so closely, so cloistered in their bubble world of toys and escapism, seemed completely unaware of the irony that they were making death threats toward a blogger who uses the gimmick of a gigantic green muscle man from a comic book.

      All that aside, if the bundles and the people who create them were truly humble then people like RobF wouldn’t even feel moved comment on what I said in the first place! I’d just be another member of the peanut gallery. RobF could console himself with the fact that haters are gonna hate. Yet he did not.

      Okay then, let’s go into painstaking detail about common sense when it comes to humble bundles, since the mental gymnastics required to make me the bad guy in the equation is somehow par for the course among creative types and their apologists: The 1 cent I pay in the bundles is something the devs allow me to do. They are open to the pay what you want model. They are begging, basically. I’m the only one who gets to set the price for what I think their bundle is worth. And, gasp, I’m willing to meet indie royale/indie gala halfway and put in the $5 or $10 minimum they ask for, which I then yank the slider all the way to the right to charity because they’re video games, a product they made to make for a profit, and I want maybe 2 games in it tops. I will not pay more than I have to for a game in an indie bundle I want, that’s just being irrational as a consumer. I also won’t buy most SP games on Steam simply because the kudos anyone media outlet (including RPS) or gamer puts forward resonates with me. I want know what I’m getting. I am not going to be sold a concept and a blurb asserting this game has a kickin’ rad set of chiptunes from some dude with a soft synth and a few gameboy tracking programs.

      SO, with these indie galas and meet the minimum things. I go about them like this: Charity, in my estimation, is more important than anything a full time game maker could ever do, so that’s where the money goes when it’s $5 or $10. They allow that to go on, and I take that as a tacit acknowledgement of the validity of my personal choice here. Am I now somehow the bad guy for legitimately acquiring games for a price they allow me to pay for them? Or is the whole pay what you want thing a ruse for the typical DIY martyrdom that goes on amongst “indie” creators? They even turn a profit from this bullshit and then they can call me a big meanie for paying what I wanted! Yeah, and I’m the true arrogant jackass here, dude. Spare me.

      If you let me pay a cent, and I pay a cent, then no one is really allowed to judge me since I paid what I felt the games were worth! That’s the bed they sleep in by offering the humble bundles under that model in the first place. Isn’t capitalism grand?

      What else, then, can I do as a consumer but tell them their games suck, as I did with RobF? I’m actually uppity enough to write a lengthy post putting the screws to a genre of games he happened to make and wanted to defend. He then decided my paragraphs presenting a rough sketch of my ideas on the matter was worth nothing more than vapid snark. You’re doing the same, so, hello RobF, I guess? Yes, I am the dumb, arrogant, and entitled one here. Game makers epitomize this cognitively dissonant way of going about creating something — they cry foul when people are unequivocal about their dislike for their games, and the attitude implicit in them, but at the same time, they decry rampant piracy, as if these people would buy the game if they just had the right incentive. Ok, enter the humble bundles and here we are discussing this bullshit for the umpteenth time in a 2-day old news post on the last website about PC gaming even worth its salt.

      So, what is really bugging you about anything in my posts? Are you or anyone else really just going to keep trolling to see how many words I’ll devote to criticizing dumb people? Ah yes, only the fool has an axe to grind with the way the world is. I don’t even have to put much thought or effort into posts like this, friends, and that’s of almost no salience to the discussion to begin with. You’re the ones acting silly here.

      Silliness is good shit, but not a replacement for the type of discussion I’m trying to have here. Let’s get silly here while I’m thinking about it. Maybe if I find something worthy of a chuckle for you, then we can clear the air and you can stop being a snarky jackass. Youtube links ahoy!

      link to – the humble bundle fanboy anthem

      link to – nootpingu86’s rants in a nutshell

      link to – reality coming back to bite us in the ass, but with muppets and a gimmicky political candidate’s theme song

      Ok, are you willing to reply now?

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  9. DodgyG33za says:

    I had a quick go at the lobster game. A pointless game with a future use of robotics message tacked onto the end. Pathetic really.

    Anyone else have a brief chuckle at the word “pre-loaded” coming up immediately before “Loading”.