The first few minutes of Black Room are a twist on my expectations. I know I’m not playing a traditional game. In fact, according the game’s homepage, I’m playing a “browser-based, narrative game about falling asleep while on your computer, on the internet,” where I play as “an insomniac on the verge of sleep, moving through shifting states of consciousness.”
Created and developed by Cassie McQuater, Black Room is free to play (with the option to donate money), and was “conceived as a feminist dungeon crawler, [and] features a majority female cast of video game sprites from the 1970s–current day.” After the game’s opening sequence — a blue light descends through a heron-filled sky before crashing to the ground and turning into a woman — my fingers are only allowed to do one thing: move my character to the right. As I do, the background comes alive with stars and fantastical birds. I’m moving through this dreamscape, alone. When I click on the “?” in the upper-right corner of the screen, I’m told, “The sky is vast. Yawning, you feel as though you’ve just woken from a long sleep. There is only one direction to travel.” Onward it is.
There’s an immediate and deep nostalgia. The colors, the shapes, the creatures — it’s as if I’m back in my old bedroom, playing Sega Genesis, or over at Michael’s house (he had the Super Nintendo). This is all so familiar and yet utterly and enchantingly unfamiliar. There are no jumps to land, no boxes to break, no coins or special items to collect. Just hold down the right directional arrow key, wait, and take in each scene, shimmering with eerie synth music every step of the way. The experience, once I settle into it, is meditative.
That sense of calm is broken at the end of the third level. My figure reaches a waterfall and a bed and freezes in either shock or enchantment or both. The cave fades and the thin outline of a room with a bed and candelabra emerges. The screen goes blue and text appears: “This game has never worked. It leads me all over the place. It only creates other rooms … ”
The screen goes black, with a room outlined in white, a chair in one corner and a candle in another. The scant instructions remind me that I’m supposed to resize my browser in order to find hidden objects. It takes me a little while to realize that “resize my browser” means clicking and dragging around a corner of the window, contorting it (and my many, far too many, tabs).
When I make the browser window small, all the objects in the room pile on top of each other, but a glowing pick circle is revealed “behind” one of the walls. I click it, the room disappears, and I’m given a piece of narrative (italics in the text):
My mother taught me this game,
which her mother taught her —
a trick for falling asleep.
Wanting to please my mother, I played the game.
But I can never hold more than a couple of furnishings
before having to start over…
The room rematerializes, but with slight variations in dimension and in the objects arrayed across the space. I instinctively point and click around the room, and sometimes that leads to new browser windows with Google search results for “paradise” or a short looping video of a landscape taken from inside a car. In effect, the familiar practice of clicking around the internet has been linked to dream logic, to meditation, the interior of the self and to the unconscious inextricably bound to things, pictures, meanings and frantic associations. I still need to find the hidden object in order to continue. As the game declares (italics in the text):
I let myself leave the room if I feel calm enough.
Instead of leading me to other rooms then,
I find myself disappeared to a paved street.
There’s something in the palm fronds,
Like ribbons or debris or animals.
I return and I’m in the room again holding a flower —
A white one.|
After a half-dozen or so iterations of the room, the narrative shifts: “You’ve entered a room filled with blue flowers, which lean instinctively towards a faint light. Beside you is a pool overflowing with a red, opaque liquid … Is it blood?” The room reappears, but with similar images as seen at the beginning. Clicking on the female figure brings up a second narrative, in which the speaker reminisces about childhood. The background music echoes with vaguely threatening, non-verbal voices.
Room after room, the dream state deepens. Sometimes text pops up when you hover over an object (“In the corner sits an odd, dark creature with medusa-like vines emanating from its head.”) There is a childlike sense of adventure going into each room, and a vaguely disconcerting feeling as well. You don’t know which object will take you into another browser, another collaged landscape of retro video game figures. Resizing the browser becomes a gesture that makes the game itself seem like a piece of paper, or a veil of consciousness.
The lyrical narrative throughout is somber, and adds a tender element that’s occasionally at odds with the riotous images. Ultimately, McQuater is able to balance the personal and the impersonal, linear progressions, and dream logic. Her recontextualizing of overly sexualized women characters from old video games is subtle. So subtle, in fact, that I barely noticed the absurdity of these figures. I’ve been deeply conditioned to assume that such figures are “normal,” and it took a particularly jarring juxtaposition of femme fatales, roses, and war planes to drive the point home for me.
Black Room is meant to be played over and over. On my second run, I thought I found all the hidden rooms; on my third, I learned how wrong I was. The experience of re-immersion is satisfying, and the open-endedness of the game leaves plenty of room to insert myself and whatever personal narrative I bring to the table. Like an earnest and searching poem (or, perhaps, a series of visual poems that you can revisit individually), Black Room gives something of itself with each playthrough, and the possibilities for this approach to gaming — surreal, poetic, and exploratory — are beyond intriguing. They seem absolutely necessary in order to push the genre into uncharted territory.
Black Room is out now from Cassie McQuater and has been designed for and tested on Chrome and Firefox browsers.