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Turku Castle Wolfenstein: Videogame Museum

July 11, 2012

Y'know, I spent about 5 minutes trying to think of a joke, but nothing's coming. Maybe it's time to lego of the idea.

Finland. Home to famous Conan O’Brien impersonator Tarja Halonen. Home to some of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful women. Home to the worst goddamn peanuts man has ever pressed to his disappointed tongue.

And for twelve days, home to this unimpressive man-thing: me.

Not pictured: an exhibit focusing on games journalism. Sadly lacking a single mention of Amiga Power or Digitiser. FOR SHAME FINLAND YOU ARE DEAD TO ME

So – somewhere in between eating a sausage platter consisting of moose, reindeer, wild pig and bear meat at a harbour market, and watching a Foot & Ball final in an Aussie Bar surrounding by screaming Spaniards, a Dutch dude, a British bloke and astoundingly coincidentally, an Irish girl from maybe twenty minutes down the road, I ended up in the coastal city of Turku.

Ostensibly I was there to check out the ongoing Medieval Festival (a marketplace which mostly consisted of the city’s regular stall vendors selling their regular wares, except wearing silly outfits and glum expressions (even by Finnish standards)), but the more memorable part of the trip was a wander around Turku Castle. Not for the impressive architecture or the giant, glistening Renaissance-era church organ, or even the oddly bewildering sight of off-duty, still-costumed festival workers casually milling about in a proper Middle Ages castle. No, this was memorable because for some uninvestigated reason, the castle was also home to a proper museum exhibit about the history of games.

I like the idea that the little cavalry guys are assaulting giant books, like some sort of demented book burning.

Board games and table-top strategy games (and even LARPing paraphernalia) were given their fair share of floor-space, but what I was more interested in – obv – was the video games exhibits. Because, hey. Vidja games. Y’know?

What I found most surprising about the whole endeavour (besides the astonishingly respectful treatment of vidja games overall) was that it was actually quite deeply PC-focused. Three huge projector screen showed alternating footage of Civilization 5, LA Noire and that most famous poster-child of PC gaming, the identity-shroudingly generic third-person RPG. To one side those three screens, a small embedded screen showing gameplay from Mirror’s Edge. On the other side, this.

So, left to right, top to bottom: Might & Magic VI, Fallout 2, Age of Conan, Ultima IV, V and VI, Baldur's Gate 2,  Heroes of Might and Magic, Lord of the Rings Online, Falcon 4: Allied Force, Empire: Total War, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Civilization 5, Warhammer 40k - Dawn of War Dark Crusade, Silent Service, Starcraft 2, City of Villains, Red Storm Rising, Icewind Dale, HeroQuest and Archon Ultra. Phew.

I mean, I’ve expounded on my adoration of STALKER elsewhere, and the sad fate of its long-awaited proper sequel is still a fairly fresh wound, so seeing it rightly displayed as a significant part of gaming’s grand history alongside games like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Starcraft, Ultima and – um – Empire: Total War was a nice nod to its true legacy. It seemed whoever was arranging this thing really got what makes PC gaming such a vital scene: big, important games, some widely acclaimed, others very niche. A scene where online romps like City of Villains can sit comfortably and proudly astride the same shelf as a submarine sim, just below a set of games that simulate in reasonable-to-scary depth flying an F-16, 18th Century warfare and colonisation, survival in a post-nuclear Russian wasteland, ALL OF HISTORY, and some kobolds and stuff, respectively.

(If I were more familiar with the Warhammer universe, I’d probably go into greater detail about how games like Dawn of War help bridge the gap between table-top and video games, lending the whole gaming exhibit a nice thematic unity, but I’m not, so I won’t. It’d probably also involve going on a tangent about the relationship between the Total War franchise and Risk, and ugh, c’mon, I don’t have to spoonfeed you all this stuff.)

And then this.

Not the best photo, I’ll grant you (no flash was permitted, and my fairly cheap-o camera didn’t cope well with bright screens in a dark room, which – perhaps secretly ironically – is pretty much the opposite of how a gamer’s eyes function), but for anyone who can’t tell, this is Deus Ex, the greatest game ever made by anyone ever, but especially ever made by the dearly departed Ion Storm. The game I bought as a dumbass thirteen year old, and loved despite being completely out of my depth. (I think I got lost before even getting the subway out of Hell’s Kitchen.) This is Deus Ex – the game whose name is scrawled defiantly across the last twelve years of PC gaming as a reminder of what can be achieved if someone would just try – on a screen, in a museum, in a castle, in Finland. And the screen changed, and it started showing gameplay from Thief 2, Looking Glass’ last beautiful opus. What?

As momentous as seeing that screen seemed (and yeah, still does, because I love seeing this stuff being properly archived and curated), it immediately struck me that you could just as easily take this to mean that games like Deus Ex and Thief are museum pieces, artifacts as anachronistic as the swords and goblets and coifs being displayed elsewhere in the castle. History we look back on proudly, but never actually think about outside dusty halls full of ancient relics. Perhaps, within the limited scope of this one room exhibit, Deus Ex and Thief were old men playing at running the world, but beyond those walls, they remain sadly irrelevant.

Important because first-person free running games are hardly Par for the Kourse. Ugh. Sorry.

But there’s another way to look at it, of course. Because – at least in that one tiny corner of the world – these are the games considered worth remembering. The grandly ambitious games: the Deus Exes and the Thiefs and the STALKERs. The games that had scope and vision and ideas. After all, it was hard not to notice the complete lack of any Call of Duty in the room – even the good ones! There’s always another COD around the corner, doing what DOOM (also conspicuous by its absence) did years ago except in a less entertaining and significantly less impressive fashion. But no one’s making any cheap Mirror’s Edge knockoffs, which makes it important that we remember Mirror’s Edge, because we probably won’t be constantly reminded of it.

So, for however many minutes, I was surrounded by video games the way I’d like to think of them, rather than how Bobby Kotick likes to imagine them (ie. made entirely out of dead soldiers and money). And I started thinking that maybe in ten years, some random exhibit will be remembering this decade with footage from games like Crusader Kings 2, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Minecraft. Or, hell, hopefully Dishonoured and Bioshock: Infinite. And maybe present day blights like DRM and on-disc DLC and such will just be hilarious, outdated concepts, like monarchies, and GAME.

And then, with maybe twenty minutes left to explore the rest of the castle before closing time, I went into a tiny little alcove and played a hilariously primitive soccer game on one of two fully functioning Atari consoles they had set up.

History, man.

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