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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.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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