Dallas Flett-Wapash created the seven games in IndigiNES as part of the online exhibition !in:Site; for the Art Gallery of Southern Manitoba. Dallas’s games were originally meant to be experienced in a setting that would bring visitors back in time to the experience of gaming in the early 1990’s. However, in response to Covid-19, this exhibition was moved entirely online.
The seven games in IndiginNES reference different Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games. For example, the game “Awas Dogs” looks like and is played very similarly to Pac Man, “Kevin’s 24/7” takes inspiration from Castlevania, and “Rena” makes cooking feel like a Pokémon battle. While these games were created with the modern game engine Unity, Dallas limited himself to the NES’s colour palette. He used Aseprite to design graphics with large, visible pixels. The games are played with an NES controller, rather than a mouse and keyboard.
Despite these references, the stories these games tell are entirely Dallas’s. They are rooted in his experience as an Indigenous person who grew up on reserves in Canada. For example, “Awas Dogs” relates to his personal experiences being chased by dogs while walking to the grocery store with his mother. It speaks to the costs of living on reserves, and to the $5 yearly treaty payment that hasn’t changed with inflation. It also speaks to Indigenous worldviews; notice the turtle-shaped playing field referencing Turtle Island (an Indigenous name for North America). Throughout the games and menu screens, Dallas uses Cree words and syllabics. He also uses the vernacular of the Swampy Cree reserve he grew up on (a vernacular is a language style specific to a place or group of people). Deadleh!
These works of art let people with similar lived experiences to Dallas feel represented in video games. They re-imagine a past with Indigenous artists included in mainstream video game design. At the same time, they allow people who have never lived on a reserve to learn about Dallas’s experiences. These games highlight both the unique positive experiences of reserve life, as well as the hardships that come from the social inequality many Indigenous communities face. These games could be described as retro-futurism, as they use an art style from the past combined with modern technology, and examine how early digital artworks (like NES games) felt modern or futuristic at the time of their creation. This style hints at how social inequality has also kept many Indigenous communities living in conditions that feel like they belong in the past. It also makes us think about what digital art will look like in the future if Indigenous artists are better represented.
Click here to watch the games from IndigiNES in action, and hear Dallas speak about his works: https://youtu.be/o3qk3GQ8ddQ