A Dream Arcade level designed by Richie Pope Credit: Submitted image

A Dream Arcade level designed by Richie Pope Credit: Submitted image

Pixel art comes to life in Dream Arcade

Light Grey Art LabÂ’s latest is a video game with art from 27 contributors

WHITTIER — By 1 p.m. on Sept. 12, Light Grey Art Lab’s Chris Hajny had been awake for about 30 hours, and with six hours to go before that night’s opening of Dream Arcade, he wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon.

“It’s hard to make a videogame,” Hajny said, striking a note of understatement.

All in all, he seemed surprisingly lucid for someone who’d just pulled an all-nighter polishing every line of code for Dream Arcade, which is both a video game and the virtual venue for a pixel art show.

The game is the medium through which 27 different artists’ work comes to life in a playable, explore-able, interactive space. Each artist designed an environment and a unique set characters for one the game’s levels, which run the gamut from Neapolitan-flavored candy land to a post-apocalyptic cityscape.

All of this is so typical for Light Grey Art Lab, a very atypical kind of creative venture. A show in their gallery is very often also an exercise in product development, a collaboration with both local and far-flung illustrators, graphic designers, cartoonists and other creatives that ends up packaged as a slickly designed book, tarot deck, card game or whatever they come up with next.

This isn’t even Light Grey Art Lab’s first video game. Great Personality, a dating simulator released earlier this year, has been downloaded more than 20,000 times, Hajny said.

Lindsay Nohl, Light Grey Art Lab’s founder and Hajny’s wife, wrote the script for that game, which plays something like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. And when Nohl gave a presentation on that project at a local co-working space, it caught the attention of software developer David Washington.

To build Dream Arcade, Washington and Hajny started with an open-source video game engine they found online and tweaked it. That engine is basically the framework of Dream Arcade, and the art gets wrapped around it.

The game itself is what’s known in geek-speak as a “side-scrolling platformer,” utilizing same format as 1980s and ’90s console classics like Super Mario Bros., Metroid and Castlevania. Run, jump, squash baddies and collect coins — that formula, to nostalgic Millenials and their older siblings, is as warmly familiar as a Pop-Tart.

To demonstrate the game, Hajny took the controls of a Microsoft Surface — one of several dozen the company loaned Light Grey Art Lab for the gallery show, thanks to Washington’s connections — and skipped to crime noir-themed level with art from Philippe Poirier, a Montreal-based illustrator.

Hajny sent Poirier’s cartoony, trench coat-sporting hero up to the locked door of a mansion, then reversed course and ran down a dark, lamp-lit street. When the character slipped through a manhole into a maze-like underground world, it felt more than a little reminiscent of level 1–2 of Super Mario Bros., at least to one child of the ’80s looking on.

A real video game aficionado, like Hajny, would point out that the smooth, subtle graphics look much more like first-generation PlayStation than NES. If they outshine the straightforward game play, that’s a good thing; Dream Arcade is supposed to be an art show, after all.

“Some of these (levels) remind me of the really good Capcom games, like MegaMan X,” he said. A hardcore gamer like Hajny might recognize that as high praise.

Gallery Manager Jenny Bookler, who was looking on over Hajny’s shoulder, said each artist had to operate within a set of tight constraints so that their character designs would mesh with the game. Each of the actions, like a jump or attack, is a five- to seven-frame animation.

“It had to be pixel-perfect,” Bookler said. “Everyone came up with different, interesting solutions.”

Some, like local tattoo artist Dominic Skrade, had little previous experience with pixel art, let alone video game design. Skrade’s hero, or anti-hero, is a green-skinned Cyclops who squashes his enemies by simply walking over them in a way that seems meant to evoke the arcade classic Rampage.

The totally satisfying — not to mention hilarious — “splat” sound effect was Hajny’s doing.

Nohl and Hajny came up with a loose storyline for Dream Arcade to link the 27 levels together and explain the shifting characters and settings.

“It’s kind of like this inter-dimensional traveler story,” he explained. But the story seems beside the point. Dream Arcade is really about interacting with an artist’s work in a totally unexpected way.

As Bookler put it: “In this, you’re really immersed in the artist’s world.”

To immerse yourself in Dream Arcade, stop by Light Grey Art Lab before Oct. 5 or find the game for download on the Windows Store.


Dream Arcade

WHEN: Through Oct. 5

WHERE: Light Grey Art Lab, 118 E. 26th St.

INFO: lightgreyartlab.com, 239-2047