A unique walking simulator game is combatting quarantine fatigue by providing its players with a virtual museum experience.
Lining the gallery walls are drawings of birds from around the world, specially crowdsourced for the project by illustrator and musician Louie Zong. This is The Bird Museum.
“It seems to have a wider reach than I ever anticipated,” Zong told Input. “People were like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll draw a bird for this!’” In September of last year, long before virtual entertainment and socially distant cultural experiences became necessary to our collective sanity, he took to Twitter to announce the idea and was immediately overwhelmed with submissions from his following of over 250,000 fellow digital artists and animation enthusiasts.
“Louie’s post specifically mentioned that submissions can be something simple and that was part of the appeal for me,” recalls contributor Rachel Zhu, who submitted a digital painting entitled Saturn Devouring his Sonny-side Up to the project. “There wasn’t any pressure to make a full illustration and the focus was just on having fun.”
Built on the game engine Unity, the digital space itself only holds about 50 pieces of art at a time. But Zong programmed the museum to randomly feature a different selection of art on its gallery walls every time it loads, meaning that no two visits will be exactly alike. Individual visitors can load the museum again and again, with a different selection of artwork appearing each time from a catalog of nearly 1,100 crowdsourced pieces.
“Hell yeah, I’ll draw a bird for this!”
Walking around the museum has a calming, zenlike effect on players. Dreamy piano music plays throughout the five bright galleries that branch off the main atrium. Their walls feature bird art of every variety, from detailed illustrations to dim photographs of sketches on lined notebook paper. 3D digital “sculptures” can also be found throughout the space’s interior, as well as in a small sculpture garden outside the rear gallery. While Zong didn’t request these, some creators took it upon themselves to offer up 3D pieces.
“I made some funny little penguins and a 3D model specifically for the museum,” says artist Meiya Lim, whose piece “pengo” appears in the sculpture garden. “It was fun hopping in to see my artwork in the game. I’m glad that he made this so that everyone else can enjoy and appreciate birds with us.”
Zong, a background illustrator for Netflix with credits on popular animated shows like Centaurworld and We Bare Bears, based the project loosely on the Eyewitness museum videos he watched as a kid. His lifelong love of birds inspired him to create a similar experience in an explorable digital space.
“I just love birds, I will look at random kinds of birds on Wikipedia and learn about them,” he says. “When I was a kid my parents got the Audubon guide and I was just fascinated by it.” At the prompting of another Twitter user, he included a link to the National Audubon Society’s donation page on the homepage of the game. [Author's Note: I used to work for the National Audubon Society but The Bird Museum was not released until after my job there ended.]
This isn’t Zong’s first foray into game making — his itch.io site includes a variety of mellow virtual wanderings like Beach Walker, a game that purely involves walking on a small strip of beach, and Lizard Beats, in which the player uses the spacebar to power a turntable with the footsteps of a tiny lizard. The Bird Museum is a larger undertaking with far more community involvement than these earlier offerings, but the effect is the same: the weird, pretty space exudes a calm aura that’s increasingly difficult to encounter in real life. With real museums closed and living environments often crowded and stressful, places like The Bird Museum offer a welcome respite from reality.
Bird-lovers will be pleased to find a few Easter eggs hidden around the museum as well. For one thing, there’s a humongous goose towering over the rear gallery. While the goose is inaccessible to players directly, it’s possible to see it peering through a few galleries’ skylight windows at the proper angle, and you can also spot it from outside the museum. Several smaller bird statues also perch above skylights to greet visitors who know where to look. And while there are currently no secret rooms or hidden passageways in the museum, Zong hints that these elements may appear in future versions of the game.
Places like The Bird Museum offer a welcome respite from reality.
“It would not be hard to make a wall that has a texture but doesn’t have collision, so you can just walk through it,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll do that.” A future version might also include larger gallery spaces to accommodate new submissions of bird art. But for now, Zong is pleased with the museum and says that visitors are happy to visit the space to take a break from the real world.
“It’s nice to think about it being an escape for people who want to go to a museum,” he says. “I’ve gotten emails just being like, thank you for appreciating birds and for making this pleasant space.” The game was officially launched on March 13th, a date nearly synonymous with the shutdown of schools, businesses, and institutions around the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic. While he never could have anticipated it in advance, Zong created a digital alternative to closed museums and galleries exactly when the public needed it most.
“I just want people to, as with most of my stuff, just enter a different kind of head space for a second and just vibe,” he says. “And then you can go back to the real, awful world out there for the rest of your time. But it’s nice for me to create a little space of peace.”