Before Asteroids, there was Lunar Lander, a simple arcade game released by Atari in 1979 in which players were charged with piloting a landing module on a jagged lunar landscape. Seb Lee-Delisle isn’t sure if he encountered the original as a youngster—he was only 7 when it came out—but after discovering an emulated version of the game a few years back, he quickly fell in love—and set out to faithfully re-create the game for the web, first in Flash and then in HTML5. But his latest project might be an even more impressive ode to the original. For a video-game-centric exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Lee-Delisle set up a machine that draws players’ progress through Lunar Lander on a wall-size canvas in real time, transforming the accumulated runs into a dense, swooping thing of beauty.
It seems obvious, in retrospect, that mapping this particular game’s action might yield some nice aesthetic payoff. Lunar Lander was unique for its time in allowing players to move freely through the in-game landscape, guaranteeing a nice visual variety, though the two competing components of the game’s physics—the lander’s thrusters and the moon’s gravity—result in that path being a bobbing, swooping one every time. But Lee-Delisle, a coder who has worked on a variety of large-scale installations, says he realized the potential entirely by accident.
"I was experimenting with multiplayer technology," he remembers, "and created a viewer that could watch all the players in real time. Inspired by Jer Thorp’s Smart Rockets, I thought it’d be fun if the ships left a trail as they flew." He left the program running overnight, and in the morning, the aggregate results were instantly compelling—a fusillade of white lines on a black backdrop, emanating from a single point, curving variously to craggy surface below.
For the installation, dubbed Lunar Trails, Lee-Delisle relied on an emulated version of the original—his own, in fact—running on a Mac Mini inside a custom-built cabinet. With the help of engineer Paul Strotten, Lee-Delisle rigged the game to a hanging plotter that draws players’ progress in real time on a massive black canvas. After rigorous testing, he decided on metallic silver Sharpies as the data-tracking instrument of choice.
The result is something that works on a few different layers. On one hand, the whole project is a crowd-gathering interactive experience—a work about "the process of the creation of the image," Lee-Delisle explains. But it’s also about that image itself, and while anyone who walks up will be able to recognize the unexpected, abstract beauty that the installation is deriving from the game, fewer might consider that what they’re seeing is actually data viz in its purest form. "You can see where multiple players have circled around the trickier landing zones," Lee-Delisle points out. In essence, what his drawing contraption is making is a real-time infographic of video game sessions transpiring mere feet away.
Initially, that proximity was something of a concern for Lee-Delisle. "My initial feeling was that the game should be in a different place than the drawing machine," he says, "because I was worried that people may worry more about drawing a picture than playing the game." But in practice, the setup seemed to work out fine—for both players and spectators. "I’ve only found one or two people trying to write their name," he says.
[Hat tip: Roomthily]