Road to the IGF: Cassie McQuater's Black Room
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Black Room takes the player on a insomnia-fueled journey of tabs and dream-like internet places, following female game characters as they explore new narratives in an ever-shifting, fragile HTML world.
Gamasutra spoke with Cassie McQuater, developer of the Nuovo Award-nominated Black Room, to talk about deriving calm from the chaos of the internet, telling a modern fairytale through tabs and reimagined game worlds, and the challenges of creating a dream-like feel for this personal story.
Creator of rooms both neon and black
I’m Cassie!! I made Black Room over a period of two years. My collaborators, Ronen Goldstein and Brendan Coates, did the audio for the game, and my friend, Maia Asshaq, contributed her beautiful writing.
I made my first video game - one about a sad, neon house - in 2014. I got into video games as a medium while I was working on a project in Google Earth - making digital installations for imaginary inhabitants and painting directly into the landscapes via KML. I wanted to make something truly interactive, and Unity was recommended to me. I got really into it, and into the small community of indie devs who support each other, and decided that games is where I want to be. Since then, I’ve made several interactive works, small games, and installations.
A bedtime internet fairy tale
Black Room is very autobiographical in nature; I struggle with insomnia and anxiety. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I came up with the idea to make a game that was played directly through the HTML/source code of the pages. The player would have to look underneath the facade of the browser in order to progress through the game. Like leaving unrelated comments in your code, and the comments would be where the actual game took place.
Over the following years, the game moved away from this original idea to focus more on the mythology, fantasies, and stories of my childhood combined with the nostalgia of a pre-bubble internet. "The Black Room" poem, which guides the player through the first half of the game, is about imagining a black table in a black corner in a black room, and so on, was a method actually proposed to me by my mom when I was younger and struggling to sleep. Imaging rooms in my head made me very dizzy, and nervous, and that’s where this game begins.
My grandmother also suffered from insomnia and used to play video games: Zelda, the Mana series, Final Fantasy, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, all night long, and when I’d sleep over at her place I was enthralled just watching her beat these games over and over. This was my only access to video games. I was not allowed to have a console at home as a kid, so these trips to grandma’s house and those games were like bedtime fairy tales to me. And, of course, I have always been fascinated with digital folklore, and with our relationship to the internet browser, which we use now as a ferry to communication more than ever. Browsing the internet late at night is, I think, something a lot of people who suffer from insomnia or sleep issues can relate to. So in that way, late night internet browsing became my bedtime fairy tale, just like grandma’s NES became hers. From that first connection, the entire narrative in Black Room bloomed into what it is now.
The tools to shape the darkness
Painting with the internet as a canvas
Our use of the internet is far from purely utilitarian at this point, but we do generally go online to seek something: news, stories, entertainment, updates from friends, updates from strangers. The internet can be both amazingly impersonal as well as very intimate, often at the same time. This duality colors our daily interactions, and in my opinion makes a web browser an extremely rich place for a narrative game to live, filled with all this nuance almost by default, and one I haven’t seen explored explicitly in games in the last few years.
I have always been interested in, and consider myself a net artist at heart, so it felt natural for me to decide that I wanted to make a game with the internet as a canvas. And I wanted to start that immediately by creating an unmemorable URL for the game: a random smash of 26 or so letters, counteracting the idea of SEO, of the capitalistic desire to colonize/monetize the web. I wanted Black Room’s URL to have to be passed from person to person, copied and pasted directly, like a middle school note or a secret.
A realm that becomes more and more alive
I use several visual cues to signify the shifting levels of the player's dream world, mostly by increasing color, movement, and the amount of pure content on each subsequent page of Black Room. For example, the game starts in a simplistic room: an outline with single white lines defining “walls,” a folding chair, and a candle. Slowly, the black rooms become more complex; color is gradually introduced. I initially stick to some of the first internet colors - kill screen blue, red, neon green, white.
About halfway through the game: a burst of hot blue, a pile of orchids, pngs, a room with a character from the Wizardry series - finally some full-color graphics. The dream is evolving, getting deeper, getting more complex, building its narrative. I begin to use gifs instead of stationary objects. The rooms become more and more alive. Eventually, you end up in fields of sprites, with an overwhelming amount of colors and movement.
Mechanically, other than the ever-present need to resize the browser in order to progress, the game starts as a very basic point and click before shifting into something reminiscent of dungeon-crawler style gameplay, and finally breaking through to fighting game vignettes. It’s like a brief journey through different types of video game genres, while at the same time being about your brain making subliminal associations through color and tone. I hoped that these elements would gently guide the player subconsciously through the story.
A story in tabs
The other thing that happens as gameplay progresses: more and more tabs open up as the player clicks around on different elements. The increasing number of open tabs work together to build a more cohesive, but at the same time physically scattered, story.
The most challenging thing was weaving the fragments of narratives and different types of gameplay together in a way that felt natural, but still jarring enough to make the player feel some unease. I relied on the cultural obsession with “Too many tabs open!!!!” to add tension. But doing things like that - making default browser behavior necessary to gameplay - was something really hard for me to navigate as far as the players’ experience goes. I had to give up a lot of control, while at the same time imposing a lot of restrictions on the player. If you have your browser set to open tabs in a new window, for example, instead of just a new tab, the gameplay would be totally different; it would be broken.
A lot of front end devs feel strongly about this type of thing too - about taking a preference away from the user, popping a “_blank” in the code to force a page to open in a new tab. I had to decide that my game wasn’t going to rely on “best practice,” in code. Ensuring cross-platform compatibility for such a thing would have been impossible. I discovered that, if I wanted to be really inventive with gameplay, I couldn’t be afraid of breaking all the “best practice” rules.
The hyperlinks used in the game are very fragile - they may break if (and when) browser settings change. The fragility of works in a browser was pointed out to me in one of the first pages of Black Room. There’s a link to Google search results for “Paradise.” A few months ago, the image results changed from all these idyllic landscapes and beautiful sunsets, to pictures of Paradise, California burning. I never could have predicted, a year ago when I made that page, that this small part of my game would change so drastically. That’s why I love making work on the internet though - the internet is alive, the work can really change unpredictably.
Freeing women game characters from misogynistic environments
I was looking for a way to bridge my memories of my grandma playing old NES/SNES games with the central "Black Room" poem/meditation about decorating a room with increasingly invisible, black objects in it. Playing video games was how she dealt with her insomnia.
I starting looking into old video game sprites from there, remembering the games she played. I was not shocked, but continually saddened, by the extremely violent sexual narratives imposed on the majority of women characters, especially present in early '80s/'90s fighting games. The women characters’ narratives and animations were so bland and sad and based purely around the desires of their male counterparts and/or obviously targeted towards (and usually created by) a very specific genre of male heterosexual desire.
I began to find comfort in taking these women characters out of their demoralizing environments and giving them new ones, where their sexualized animations could be more about themselves and less about their relationship to the men playing and designing their games. I was looking at hundreds of sprite sheets a day, and the misogyny built into in these characters became absolutely overwhelming to me.
Giving the women characters new perspectives and environments became a way to help me cope with it, and also tied in to the women lineage/family history narrative in the game: about my grandma and her games, my mother and her "Black Room" meditations, and my own personal childhood reading bad romantic fiction that idealizes dangerous men (I’m looking at you, "Wuthering Heights"). For me, and for Black Room, without giving away too much, this culminated in the apparition of Lilith - a female demon who is the antithesis of the Bible’s Eve.
On the feelings McQuater sought to evoke in the player
Nostalgia. Which is a weird feeling that is very abstract and often hard to nail down. Deja vu. A comfort to see familiar characters and worlds but a weird tension between those worlds not fitting together as remembered. Like when you dream and you realize you're dreaming for a brief second, and you have to decide to continue the dream or wake up. A weird, uncomfortable and otherworldly place to be.
Mingling the familiar with the unfamiliar
Mingling of the real and the unreal is what my dreams, at least, are like. In dreams, we see characters we may know doing foreign, impossible things, we ascribe meaning to items we’ve never seen before, we can work through ideas that might elude us in our waking life but in our subconscious life make perfect sense. We remember our own personal histories this way too - we blend fact and fiction based on how we feel at the time, or how we want to feel about ourselves later. This game taps into that idea - a blending of personal history/ mythology and memories and dreams to tell its story.
Finding calm in the chaos of the internet
We rarely use the internet for relaxation, especially in the political chaos that has been the last few years. We are often so tuned in that it’s overwhelming. Burnout is real. Allowing the internet to be a place of meditation/ relaxation is a way of combating that. Sometimes, I have to log off Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or whatever because I feel like there’s so much information - so much bad news - that my brain doesn’t know how to deal with all the data.
I find myself opening tabs unconsciously, but not knowing what to search, where to go, without social media as a guide, serving me content. If someone out there feels that way too, maybe they can click on Black Room in that moment. Maybe it will help them relax and think about the glowing rectangle in front of us a little differently.