Glitch Art and the Surreal—a Look at 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator, the Newest Exhibit at Chicago Gamespace, and a Conversation with Jonathan Kinkley

The curator for Chicago Gamespace loves video games. You can tell by the way he talks about them—and not just the games you know, but games that defy boundaries and expectations and dip their digital toes into high art. Another dead giveaway is his museum in which he lovingly curates exhibits dedicated to video game history. The latest exhibit—which opened last weekend and continues through the end of July—is a little off of the beaten path for a museum that usually focuses on the history of games we know, to bring us history of an entire art form you may not be familiar with.

I haven’t had much luck getting together to have a face-to-face with Jonathan Kinkley since our original meeting, way back during a Bit Bash event years ago. Back then we spoke of the need for video game preservation, how video game history is important, and how those auteurs responsible for important work are often left behind or forgotten. Our conversation last Sunday was essentially more of the same, but now Kinkley has put some pretty impressive plans into action, and has a gallery that has hosted a half a dozen different exhibits—all while surviving COVID.

鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator at Chicago Gamespace. Photo: Marielle Bokor

At first I thought Jon Cate’s glitch art 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator was a departure from the history-centric angle that Chicago Gamespace  has taken. However, Kinkley used our conversation as an opportunity to give me some great insight into glitch art and its origins—with the first intentional glitch art created way back in the late 70’s/early 80’s by Jamie Fenton on a Bally Astrocade. Artists like the featured Jon Cates have used glitch art as a medium to break boundaries of what many might consider traditional art to create a sort of fusion of high art and technology gone awry.

In our interview with Kinkley, I discovered that 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator is actually a companion to a feature film. “The film is kind of about a lot of things, you know. The genocide of native Americans, it’s about the culture conversions between east and west with Chinese immigrant population who were working in mines and railroads in what we call the old west, and it’s largely without narrative, apart from the messaging or commentary on various sociopolitical issues. It’s a really striking film, and it’s similar to  鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator in that it’s largely black and white and uses some of the 3D models that were created for the film.”

鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator at Chicago Gamespace. Photo: Marielle Bokor

On display in Chicago Gamespace is 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator set up next to a striking image from the film. The game itself is also striking, visually, with a pixelated aesthetic that Kinkley compared to the Return of the Obra Dinn and other games that use intenionally pixelated graphics. But 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator goes beyond just trippy visuals, adding in sound and music clips like you’re hearing them from the next room, or from a passing vehicle.

The game is a dark, western-themed walk through a dreary landscape made up of visual glitches. In fact, the experience was a little overwhelming for this author, and its effects unsettling.  鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator is a haunting game that, despite its gameplay primarily consisting of walking around at your own pace, manages to feel like a tense experience. Intellectually I knew I was safe in-game and out. But the constantly strange visuals mixed with snippets of audio—like you would hear from a passing car—made me feel like there was something wrong.

鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator at Chicago Gamespace. Photo: Marielle Bokor

As you play frames will pop-up. Sometimes these are non-sequiturs with old-west style dialogue. But even familiar dialogue is sometimes strange, or written in a way that’s not quite right. Other times these frames will come up in relation to what you’re seeing on screen. These lines of dialogue never offer direct insight, often just cryptic phrases or quips that were just as confusing as enlightening. It’s like I was receiving information to a bigger picture I couldn’t fathom from this intentionally limited vantage point, like I was a ghost trapped in this glitchy hell.

鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator isn’t a game I would play for fun, but it’s an important piece of the history of glitch art—history that’s constantly being made by new media artists like Jon Cates. Chicago Gamespace continues to celebrate the history of video games through works such a 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator.

Chicago Gamespace. Photo:Marielle Bokor

If you want to check out 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator for yourself, as well as a number of other video games that are essential to video game history, Chicago Gamespace is open Sundays from 1 to 5 pm by advance ticket purchase.

You can also check out 鬼鎮 (Ghosttown) Spirit Simulator on its page.

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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.