Monday, November 5, 2012

The World's Best Museum is in St. Louis: What the City Museum teaches us about game design

Last weekend my girlfriend had to make the four-hour drive from Kansas City to St. Louis for a graduate class. I'd never been to St. Louis, so I tagged along. I had a whole day to wander this foreign city alone and I'd heard friends mention St. Louis' City Museum, so I stumbled in on a whim. I didn't really know what it was.

Suffice to say, it was the greatest museum experience of my life--and I'm from Washington, DC, the Mecca of American museums. In St. Louis of all places! It boggles my mind why the City Museum isn't famous worldwide, let alone outside St. Louis.

When you walk into the museum, there's a sensory overload of crazy sculptures and curvy stairwells. There's no predetermined entry or exit points to the exhibits. They give you no map or explanations. You just explore.

Then you see a hole in the ground emanating a faint orange glow. It looks big enough for a child or small adult to barely fit in. Are we supposed to go down there? As if in answer to the question, a kid emerges from the hole. Then it hits you how epic this place is.

The City Museum is a 60,000-square-foot abandoned shoe factory turned into a post-industrial McDonald's PlayPlace of metal and concrete, as if it was designed with the melancholy darkness of Edward Gorey. It's composed largely of "found" artifacts, like a schoolbus hanging off the roof and the skeleton of an old airplane. There's a ten-story indoor slide, a ball pit of basketball-sized balls, an aquarium, a functioning shoelace factory, a gymnastics classroom giving trapeze lessons, and multiple bars selling a variety of drinks. There's even a traditional museum exhibit on the importance of beetles.

And it's all hidden away in small caves and tunnels you're unsure if you're allowed to go through. It's beautiful. The museum blurs the line between what's art and what's under construction. You're encouraged to look everywhere to see every nook and cranny. Why? Because you can.

I can't believe this place exists in real life. Between the dark caverns for kids to get stuck in and the metal grating for kids to injure themselves on, it's a wonder the museum hasn't been sued by angry parents. It's almost too good to be true. I felt like I was in the classic Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple--when was a temple guard going to jump out and make me poop my pants?

And it's all thought out. The City Museum was opened in 1997 by industrial artist Bob Cassilly. In every rock formation, you can see subtle animal shapes and naked woman forms. The bent metal structures all resemble dragons and insects. It's not just a playplace--it's a gigantic sculpture.

Throughout my experience in the museum, I couldn't shake this thought "I feel like I'm in a video game." That's depressing, isn't it? Doing something in real life and feeling like I'm sitting on my couch in front of a TV? I tried to figure out why the City Museum made me feel this way.

It's because the City Museum taps into our intrinsic need to explore for the sake of exploring, much like the best open-world video games do. If there's a place that looks like I can get to it, I can go there. Even if I'm not really supposed to. This is Skyrim and Dear Esther and Myst in real life. And in many ways, it works better than those games. Why?

Like Minecraft, the City Museum is an open world with universal appeal. Kids love it, and adults appreciate it on a deeper (yet more childlike?) level. The fact that there's no map or "fast traveling" at the City Museum. And many entire sections of the building are only accessible to those who look in every corner. It's a giant maze to nowhere. But that's the joy of it--relishing the journey. Scraping your knees to get into a room of broken-down arcade cabinets. Stumbling upon a polished-marble room of men in tuxedos. The City Museum understands our quest for discovery and savoring of the search.

Do I sound like I enjoyed this museum?


  1. I can't believe this place exists either -- outside of a dodgy "enter at your own risk" post-Soviet attraction. Thanks for the review. I am sold! You're a great writer. Keep on posting. Can't wait for the NHL strike to end, hoping you'll return to Caps related topics.

  2. Glad you're still reading after all this time! While the focus of the blog has shifted more to "video games as art," I'll definitely still write about hockey... whenever we have hockey again.