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An overhead shot of the space/Mars landing exhibit at the Oscorp Science Center in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, with different space vehicles floating above a floor exhibit

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In-game museums are great because all video games are museums

Hear me out

Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Most video games are built as museums to themselves — inside the menus and beyond the stories are collections of items and lore. Instead of housing a world of information in grand, historic buildings, these museums are based in code. Each is an abstract retelling of the player’s journey thus far. This “museum” looks different in any given game; for Red Dead Redemption 2, the game’s memories and history are stored in a notebook to be flipped through. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft stored its lore in menu screens that unlock new information each time the protagonist meets a new character. Even a game’s achievements or trophies can be considered elements in these museums — notes on the journey through these digital spaces.

Sometimes, a video game’s museum is more literal, like in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which has an actual museum to house the things players collect. Information on discovery and life on any particular island is housed in these individual museums; it’s both goal setting and memory keeping. There are many other recent examples, as others have noticed — the small museum of items in Hades, a collection of ancient artifacts in a classic museum in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the museum of PlayStation history in Astro’s Playroom. Each of these video games includes a “museum” in the literal sense, but also serves as a museum on a more abstract, macro level.

An animal crossing character standing under a dinosaur bones statue Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

“There’s something interesting that so many games — and this is true for The Last of Us as well — have a museum within the UI,” Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann told Polygon. “You get to inspect those artifacts and items and character models. And that’s the museum of sorts. I think there’s something just innate, of us hoarding and collecting items and being nostalgic about them — our own history and memories.”

Video games themselves are goal-oriented. There’s always something to do or unlock, and players expect not only a reward, but a record — a reflection of that virtual achievement and the time spent on it. Museums do this, but record something much larger: life on Earth, experienced from a narrow human perspective. Walk into a museum of any kind, and you’ll be presented with a collection of art or artifacts that tell a story — about the evolution of life, about the history of human civilization, about our collective intellectual and artistic achievements.

[Ed. note: This article includes spoilers for both The Last of Us Part 2 and Spider-Man: Miles Morales.]

The idea of a video game being designed as a museum to itself feels like a major shower thought, but it also feels very fitting. For example, The Last of Us Part 2 is a museum of the player’s achievements, but also a game that has both a museum and an aquarium inside it that the lead characters visit and explore. Video game designers keep coming back to the museum as an interesting space to place integral moments of a game’s story, because these spaces reflect the core concept of video games.

“We tap into our experiences going to museums, and often there’s a sense of wonder — imagination and learning — but there’s also sometimes a sense of creepiness where you see all these stuffed animals and cavemen,” Druckmann said. “Then there’s just basic level design stuff, like how do we play with lighting and shapes, obscuring what’s around every corner.”

The museum’s design can inspire how a player progresses through it, and it can also set the mood the developer is after.

Ellie from The Last Of Us Part 2 in a tank top in a museum looking at planets Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

“When you’re first entering the museum [in The Last of Us Part 2], it’s very open — you almost see all the displays,” Druckmann said. “And then as you get to the other area where you want to ratchet up the creepiness, we started using all the light and the ways the displays are situated. It creates a different feeling, because you can’t quite see.”

Inside the museum, beyond the overgrown world, Ellie and Joel are able to embrace wonder and awe as they explore the space without a single threat — until the moment that, maybe, there is one. Ellie and Joel interact with the museum in a way that’s almost aspirational, despite the ruin outside: They get into a spaceship and pretend to actually fly away.

The science museum in Spider-Man: Miles Morales is similarly an echo of the game’s story and themes — both the past and future are represented by the different states the museum is in, both pristine and ruined. The player encounters the museum at two different points: one, in a flashback during which Miles and his best friend Phin (who later becomes the Tinkerer) celebrate their award-winning science fair project, and another, when Miles and Phin (as Spider-Man and the Tinkerer, respectively) face off in their last battle.

“The museum tells us what could’ve been: two brilliant kids admiring displays and daydreaming about their future, before it falls apart,” Insomniac Games advanced writer Mary Kenney told Polygon.

miles and phil looking at a science exhibit in a museum Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s representative of Miles’ and Phin’s science expertise, of course, but the name also implies the corporate influence that Oscorp (and others!) have over this version of New York City. During the flashback sequence, Miles and Phin try to visit their science fair exhibit at the museum, but they get turned away because they don’t have tickets. It’s a moment that, in its simplicity, says so much about where these two middle school students fit into this Roxxon- and Oscorp-owned world. It says a lot that the museum as an institution will “accept” the students into its world and gain from their talents, but failed to include them in the most literal sense — they shouldn’t need tickets to see their own work.

As Miles, I can interact with most of the exhibits, each of which plays a voice-over that explains the science and technology behind the glass. The scientific achievements of the world are presented as innovation — but as the players, we also know a little more about Oscorp, and know its research isn’t always as innocent as it seems. That colored my perception of the museum in an ominous way, as different scenes played out across the space.

That first museum flashback was a quiet moment before that action ratcheted up again, similar to The Last of Us Part 2’s museum scene. Neither of these sequences really reflect the nature of collection, but they touch on the past in a way that mimics the setting itself, as well as the story’s overall themes. In The Last of Us Part 2 and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the museum scenes touch on childhood and loss — often to a violent, catastrophic world. Again, that all works because video games are museums, and the museums in these games are reflections of the games they’re in.

Ellie in a space helmet Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

This whole idea isn’t new, of course. In-game museums have been a large part of the Uncharted series, and they’re in many other huge franchises, from The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim to BioShock 2. But the sheer amount of museums in games last year still stood out. Perhaps that was because museums across the world were closing their doors to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s when museum executives flipped the script, so to speak. Video game developers were using museums to invoke and display meaning, but museums have been using video games to create new experiences in a digital space. And so video games and museums became further intertwined, as museums entered virtual worlds themselves, whether that was in creating and cataloging a collection of historic smocks, building art installations, or uploading an entire dang art collection for players to easily add to the game.

We see video games reflected in museums and museums reflected in video games because the format just fits, tapping into the satisfaction of collection, information, and nostalgia. It makes sense for a game to leverage that feeling, and it’s why museum levels feel so good to play. Video games have long pulled from museums for inspiration and design, and it’s fascinating to see museums now learning from games.