At the Dream Emulator Film Club, the boundaries between video games and cinema no longer exist

Meeting monthly at Dalston's Rio Cinema, this new project shows experimental visual art that defies classical categorisation.


Barney Nuttall

During the inaugural Dream Emulator Film Club, I repeatedly found myself asking “Where am I?” Literally speaking, I was sitting in the basement screen beneath Dalston’s Rio Cinema, but it felt as if I was lost in a virtual wasteland. Screening – in the words of organiser Rosa PMS – “esoteric video games” Dream Emulator Film Club is a mind-bending night of psychedelic oddities where the lines between animation, film, gaming, and more are demolished.

This is no Woodstock tie-dyed hangout. Dream Emulator is closer to having a lucid bad trip, endlessly fascinating but requiring stamina. After the event, I emailed Rosa, desperate to know how to classify the footage she screened. “I’m not sure how I’d classify it if I’m being honest”, she replied, “a gameplay experience or showreel might make the most sense.” Her response echoed my own uncertainty. The term genre-defying gets thrown about a lot, but the two games/films on show here certainly fit the bill.

LSD: Dream Emulator was the main event, so much so that the club is named after it. Conceived by Japanese artist Osamu Sato for the PlayStation, this game (in the loosest sense) sees the player walk through liminal spaces inspired by the dream diary of an employee at Asmik Ace, publisher of the game.

During the screening, a selection of clips showed players weaving through worlds braided together by bitmapped textures, psychotropic colours, and triggers activating randomised teleportation. Featuring polygonal designs, fragmentary spaces, and uncanny abominations, such as a giant, green baby’s head, LSD: Dream Emulator feels more like a haunted bowling alley animation than a video game. At times, it felt as if the pixelated acres on-screen bled into reality.

LSD: Dream Emulator is a tough act to follow, but 2:22AM is a fitting companion piece. Developed by Alice Lai, 2:22AM has the player stumble through creepy backrooms doused in VHS-style grain. This makes for a viewing experience more chilling than the dizzying LSD: Dream Emulator, helped by sinister phrases, such as “nothing ends”, bookending some segments. It is essentially Inland Empire meets Slenderman – an unnerving mix – while LSD: Dream Emulator is an experience which transcends eeriness.

There are echoes of expanded cinema in both games; a movement which utilised film as art as part of the American underground cinema scene in the ‘60s. The galactic structures in Jordan Belson’s Allures and Samadhi, for example, envelop viewers in psychedelic environments much like LSD: Dream Emulator. Meanwhile, Storm de Hirsch’s Peyote Queen, a frenetic assemblage of kaleidoscopic images, echoes the hyperlinking energy and surreal imagery in both games shown at the club. Both films and games riff off of staccato rhythms, much like Beat poets of yesteryear, while the countercultural “happenings” put on by The Velvet Underground and acid proponent Ken Kesey embraced multimedia just like the film club.

Yet the heady mix of mandalas and mescalin in expanded cinema doesn’t capture the unhinged eccentricity of the Dream Emulator Club. Even the label of cinema feels like a dilution. Attempting to plug the square peg of Dream Emulator into the round hole of film, or any singular artform, proves to be a fruitless endeavour. These films/games are on another level, far-flung from the previously poor track record of video games on the big screen.

Translating joysticks into jump cuts has resulted in infamously disappointing outcomes in mainstream cinema. Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the likes of Paul W.S. Anderson and Uwe Boll churned out schlocky, low-effort game-to-film adaptations. Seemingly ignorant to the potential of games as an art form, Hollywood waved through games from arcade machines to cinema screens with little thought on if, why or how they should be made as movies. The insertion of random clips from the House of the Dead games into Boll’s film adaptation is just one of many clumsy combinations attempting to fuse games with films.

Although adaptations like Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu have recently upped the grade-point average of video game films to a C, it is profitable popular IP which motivates new adaptations rather than an interest in gaming as art and how it might intersect with film. The potential of gaming has been wasted on the big screen, compacted into presentable offerings of mainstream entertainment to sustain false hierarchies of quality between media forms.

This explains my disorientation at Dream Emulator, an event which breaks the mould by, finally, experimenting with film and gaming as equals. Yes, the screening was visually perplexing, but its form was even more so, circumventing mainstream cinema exhibitionism by offering a psychedelic event intent on breaking boundaries between art forms and beyond. In her email, Rosa notes, “how intertwined these partially beautiful experiences are with queer and trans game developers”. The worlds of LSD: Dream Emulator and 2:22AM are often overwhelming, but they also shimmer, shifting between plains of rainbow iridescence, similar to Kenneth Anger’s homoerotically charged film Fireworks. These worlds are fluid and unrestricted by partitions, speaking to queer and trans experiences through experimentation with form. Both the virtual worlds and the club exhibiting them are safe spaces, celebrating the work of queer and trans people, like Alice Lai, whilst toppling unnecessary hierarchies between media. Defiantly not mere cineplex amusement, Dream Emulator offers something different for people who have been labelled as such.

A completely unique event, Dream Emulator Film Club stands at the precipice of a change in film, gaming, animation, and beyond, taking the video game adaptation into the realms of experimental cinema, and potentially doing away with media forms entirely. With VR technology steadily improving, who knows what this event could be like in the future? Just turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Dream Emulator Film Club convenes monthly at the Rio Cinema in London. 

Published 13 Jun 2024

Tags: Dream Emulator Film Club Rio Dalston

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