Thoughts on The Black Room
Alternate Title: The Black Room Will Make You Remember That Embarrassing Shit You did in Middle-School and it Doesn’t Even Care
I don’t usually find myself feeling confused while trying to figure out what a game is about. Though I don’t really think that’s to my credit. Most games aren’t very subtle when it comes to themes or what they are intend to make the player feel. This is a medium where a game named Brothers has the subtitle A Tale of Two Sons to make sure you really understand what it’s about. Even in cases where a game is purposely vague, I never feel like it’s because I’m too dense to understand it, just information is purposely fuzzy. The sorts of games that make people say “stories don’t need to have answers for everything.”
The Black Room made me feel confused. Incredibly so.
I probably should have read the game’s store page first.
The Black Room is a game about falling to sleep, specifically the moments right before, and going down rabbit-holes on the internet late at night. This is important to know, otherwise the imagery, the words, the everything will leave you profoundly confused. I mean, I’m still profoundly confused, but with some reassurance that maybe that confusion isn’t all on me.
The game’s primary mechanic is strong: you are presented with a room, changing the shape of the room will change what you can see. The goal is to find the glowing object in the room and interact with it, leading you into another room. Usually there are other interactive objects hidden around the room. Some of these objects might reveal some text, others might send you into a mini game of sorts. The key aspect of this that I haven’t mentioned yet is that this is a browser game. So when I mentioned changing the shape of the room, what you’re actually doing is changing the size of your web browser! It never failed to make me feel a touch clever to expand and shrink the window to find all of the secrets in what was otherwise a humbling experience.
The rooms and scenes created in this game are striking to say the least. The first couple of rooms you enter are a bit plain, but still wonderful. Furniture of varying sizes and perspectives are pretty much the only things to observe in these rooms. As you progress through more rooms, things start to change into the fantastic. An ASCII art-piece here, a textured floor there, maybe a weird string of dialogue along the way. Eventually, these visions get much stranger and more inventive. Mythic beings greet you in each room, otherworldly plants and creatures start to pop up. Along with the rooms becoming more foreign, the secret landscapes you stumble upon do as well, with assorted sprites of all kinds all over the place.
The game was “conceived as a feminist dungeon crawler,” and I would say it succeeds in this regard. It evokes dungeon crawlers in many subtle ways. Stretching and shrinking the room sometimes feels like peeking around a corner as you try to look for hidden objects behind windows and around doors. And it’s portrayal of women seems to be… in a sense, radical? There’s something powerful about seeing characters I’m so familiar with outside of their usual games - where they were often fighting or treated as not much more than eye candy - just living their lives.
I should reassure you, yes, I felt confused because I felt I was missing something while playing this game. But I don’t want to imply that was because I wasn’t having an engaging experience. To the contrary, my curiosity was constantly piqued by the images and sounds and writing in this game. Especially the imagery. I wanted to make sure that I had good screenshots of the game for this piece, and each time I entered a new room I kept thinking “well, I NEED to capture a screenshot of this!” I have 34 captures now (and won’t be showing most of them because, well, you need to see this). Every vista will have you looking for the snipping tool or cmd-Shift-4. Just as much the game had me constantly reflecting on myself. This game evoked childhood memories, my greatest fears, my dreams. This game knows how to grab a hold of your brain and extract the very thoughts you would only think about as you head to sleep.
The Black Room is a great companion to help you explore a ton of different memories and ideas, vaguely guiding you from one thought to another. If you’re anything like me, you may not entirely get every image, sound, or verse, but you might just leave The Black Room a bit more understanding of yourself.