Upstairs in the University of Nevada, Reno art building, on the floor above the main art galleries, in a part of the building usually just seen by students and faculty, is a makeshift student art gallery. Upon entering, a viewer encounters a darkened room, with a computer and a projector. Projected onto the wall opposite the computer is a screen that reads “The Dreamer: You Are Now Part of the Spectacle … Space is the key to dreaming.”
The second phrase is a double entendre, and the perceptive art patron might hit the space bar on the computer and launch the video game The Dreamer, a surrealist platform game, like Super Mario Bros., depicting the nightmares of a stressed-out politician battling abstract symbolic villains to solve a debt crisis.
The game is one part of Nightfall or Isolated in the Romantic Lie, a multimedia digital art exhibition by UNR MFA student Benjamin Poynter. The exhibition stretches into the “Le Petite Gallerie,” basically a nearby stairwell, and also includes supplemental materials about the game and three short videos.
He wrote, designed and programmed the game, and even voiced the characters. He estimates that the game’s 60 levels required more than 300 hours of programming. About the only aspect of the game that he outsourced was the music, which includes classical pieces like “Moonlight Sonata.”
“I like putting classical music up against basic insanity,” he says.
Platform games are side-scrolling games in which the players direct their avatar characters to jump from platform to platform or jump over obstacles or onto enemies. Poynter says the piece was partially inspired by other platform games like Mario, Earthworm Jim and Psychonauts.
“There aren’t a lot of platform games anymore,” he says. “It’s mostly just first-person shooters.”
The game is also available to play on his website, benjaminpoynter.com.
In addition to The Dreamer, the exhibition includes three video pieces: An animated short called “The Issue with Fantasy,” about a romance curbed by an overactive imagination; “Black Vignette of All Simulated Labor,” a black-and-white portrayal of the angst, stress and tedium Poynter says is inherent in making digital art; and “Ghosts of Lovers Still Gambling,” an “experimental augmented-reality narrative,” a video that transposes angelic animated characters haunting the neon signs outside downtown Reno casinos.
“This is the depressing part of the show,” says Poynter of the videos. “It’s ill-fated romance, people dead in the city, and labor.”
Poynter, like many grad students, tends to talk about his work in exceedingly academic terms—he namedrops Jean Baudrillard, for example—but the game is fun, if a bit clunky, and the animation accessible and appealing.
The unifying theme of the show is the tension between fantasy and reality, and more specifically how time spent in pop culture digital fantasia, like video games and online communities, can disconnect us from the physical world and our real-life problems, like the politician’s debt crises.
“It’s united in one aspect,” says Poynter. “All the pieces deal with characters trapped between realms of fantasy and reality.”