Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future According to 1989: Photon

I had a great weekend, and it brought with it a flashback some twenty years to a tantalizing glimpse into the future. 

Saturday afternoon, I joined Steph and the family to celebrate her youngest brother's 13th birthday party.  The party took place at Laser Quest, a laser tag arena in Mesa that has survived economic slowdowns to remain solvent for about 14 years now.  This is good by comparison to any entertainment retailer, but fantastic by the metrics of the laser tag industry, where earnest startups are often crushed under the weight of square footage rent and the debt from their own elaborate, expensive buildouts.  Back in the mid-1990s, I was a frequent customer of Laser Quest.  In 1997, I was banned from the premises when my group of friends was drawn into a huge melee with several other groups.  Alas, we were all young hotheads, and nobody had the presence of mind to sort things out with management and explain that we hadn't come looking for trouble.  Saturday was the first time I visited Laser Quest since.  (Management saw no reason to enforce my ban at this late date, apparently.)

I was happy to see that Laser Quest was mostly just as I remembered it.  Players wore a simple shoulder harness and holster with targets on the front, back, and sides.  Upon the marshal's signal, we dispersed into a blacklit maze to the techno-pop strains of Genesis' Abacab and the swishes of whirling spotlights.  After a 30-second countdown, the game began, and it was shoot-or-be-shot.  The arena's lower level is generally just a killing ground -- the open areas are target practice from above, while the labryinth features too many blind corners. The arena sports a faux second story made up of three "upstairs islands" that are not connected.  Two of them are death traps full of dead ends and exposed bypasses.  The middle island, though, I remembered to have plenty of cover and an actual continuous circle of corridors.  One could keep moving throughout the entire game without backtracking, and would have plenty of shot opportunities and little exposure.  That is where I stayed.

The game lasts only ten minutes, but I felt like I was gasping in exhaustion for at least thirty -- the combination of constant dashing and ducking was an aerobic punch to my out-of-shape guts.  My strategic location saved my hide, because I had plenty of safe spots to stop and recuperate, however briefly.  It was all I could do to remind myself to keep moving when opposing players were caught in the exposed walkways around the other two islands, cattle to the slaughter of my shots.  A few other players lurked in my habitat, but we each seemed to decide on our own that hunting one another was a waste of time when our position afforded us such a target-rich external environment.  In the end, I scored third place out of 25 players.  Not bad for an old fogey of 35 against a bunch of mostly speedy, sugar-fueled 12- and 13-year olds.  The top scorer was Steph's stepfather, no less, a triathlon runner of 50+ years of age!  Youthful exuberance loses out to veteran strategy this time around!

My enjoyment of that Laser Quest game immediately hearkened memories of the granddaddy of them all, the most fun I think I have ever had in a commercial establishment that allows minors on the premises: Photon.

The Photon arena, circa 1989

That photo is accurate.  Photon opened a franchise location in Tempe just north of the river bottom back when I was in high school, and without experiencing it firsthand it may be hard for a reader to understand just how incredible it really was.  In fact, while researching Photon for this blog post, I expected it to have been beautified by nostalgic memory, but every photo I have found looks just as great as I remembered it, and not at all campy or cheesy.  Oh, sure, the "look" of science fiction at the time was very Star Trek: the Next Generation, very clean and metallic with lots of open space.  But that is no better or worse than the "gritty alley" Cyberpunk future or the bipolar westernized frontier/Alliance Firefly future or any of the other archetypes that have emerged since then.  It is simply different.  In a way, it defines the age, like the Art Deco science fiction of the Golden Age or the newer examples I just cited.

The critical thing is that it worked.  Suspension of disbelief for a teenager walking into Photon was nearly total.  The entire experience was immersive, from the helmet-vest bodysuits to the "Space Cafe"-styled food court to the arcade full of the very latest video games.  The arena itself featured two full stories (in Tempe, anyway; other locations reportedly had more) and each team had a genuine "base" to defend.  Hits against one's own base counted against that player's score, and the base sensors would be lit at intervals and be vulnerable during those windows of time.  The buildout must have been staggeringly expensive -- one could probably build five Laser Quests for the same price -- but boy, did it deliver.

Photon (the company) closed without debt and sold off its component parts -- perhaps they thought they had already struck the fad while the iron was hot, and that there would be no lasting demand.  The Tempe location went away with it, though other Photon locations remained open for years since, presumably independently.  (Apparently one of the last few was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.)  There wasn't much in the initial years that followed; one local startup, Tracer, opened in Mesa with a small arena, low square footage, a cheap buildout, and bargain-basement equipment -- can you say "flashlight sensors?" -- but those small-time operators kept the concept alive and the playing public interested long enough for companies like Laser Quest to refine the business model and make it viable.

Tellingly, though the modern laser tag companies have begun to build larger arenas with more stories and increasingly elaborate bases, none of them has ever been able to generate the amazing futuristic aesthetic of Photon.  Today's arenas are absolutely now, a dark, intense, "realistic" future that we live in every day.  Photon, by contrast, was a window to a more vast and grandiose future, an ambitious look at a brighter and more distant tomorrow brought palpably close.  Perhaps Photon's immersive future experience really is just too expensive to fabricate for buildout these days.  It was, nevertheless, awesome.


  1. Photon. I had completely forgotten the name of that place. I only went once (being a north Phoenix adolescent) for my 12th birthday with a group of friends. I cherished my little membership card long after it closed and always wished it was open when I did become old enough to get myself down there.

    Now I've got something to add to Legend City in my pantheon of the-Phoenix-that-was memories.

  2. I remember playing way back when. I believe it was in '84-'85 or so, and I used to spend all day there, even if I was just watching others play. I was so saddened when the Photon location in Tempe closed (when?), but it was only a matter of time as all good things find their end one way or another. I've never been to Stratum but have seen/heard about it aplenty.

    Thanks for the memories from my childhood.

    Take care, Photon Warrior.