Chun Li and the Long March
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and I’m desperately trying to fend off a squirming space octopus armed with a ray gun. My ammunition stores are low. I can’t get enough elevation to leap over him. The long reach of his tentacles puts me in mortal danger any time I approach. A second’s hesitation costs me dearly. The monster gets me in his clutches. And before I know what’s happened, I’m prostrate, marinating in a pool of my own blood.
Okay, so I’m not really getting my guts ripped out by a colossal alien cephalopod. I’m inside a first-floor gallery at MoMA PS1 in New York City, playing Long March: Restart (2008), a video game designed by Chinese artist Feng Mengbo. Visually it is a paean to classic games of the 1980s such as Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter, but its narrative is largely focused on 20th-century Chinese history, specifically the Long March, the Communist Army’s grueling 6,000-mile retreat from the more powerful Nationalist Army in the mid-1930s. In Mengbo’s game, the player guides an avatar, a blue-suited member of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard, through the various stages of the Long March—all while pelting an array of intergalactic enemy villains with cans of Coca-Cola.
Clever culture jamming aside, what sets Long March: Restart apart from the average video game is its scale. On view at PS1 through April 4, the game is projected on two screens facing each other, each of which is 53 feet wide and 10 feet tall. As I proceed from one level of the game to the next (there are a total of 14), I have to spin 180 degrees to continue on the wall behind me. This forces me to dance around a gathering crowd of museum visitors while shaking off a determined five-year-old demanding the controller. (Sorry kid, not until I destroy a battalion of scaly extraterrestrials with my arsenal of soft drinks.) A few levels into the game, I’m feeling as frenetic as my bouncing avatar on screen. “You go inside this video game,” says Mengbo. “You don’t sit passively and play it.”
Long March: Restart, Feng Mengbo, 2008