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Cassie McQuater’s Black Room (all works 2019) is a browser-based video game that pulls apart and reconfigures the Nintendo and arcade games of the late ‘80s into a dreamlike, feminist fantasy. At TRANSFER, the experimental media art space that recently relocated from Brooklyn to L.A., Black Room is projected on the wall and presented as a game that visitors can play, clicking and scrolling to move through McQuater’s built world of strange landscapes and disembodied rooms.
Modeled after popular “dungeon crawler” games in which characters navigate labyrinthine worlds while dispatching enemies and finding treasures, Black Room replicates the structure rather than the action. The heroine—a raven-haired avatar—wanders from icy to flaming terrain before finding herself in a dark, sparsely furnished room. Here, the player is prompted to resize the internet browser to find mundane, hidden objects—a pencil, necklace, sock—and click on them to enter subsequent rooms. A twinkling ambient soundtrack heightens the hypnotic quality, and explanatory text, which pops up between rooms, furthers the sense of purposelessness. At one point, the text reads: “This game has never worked. It leads me all over the place…”
As a game, Black Room is best experienced in the intimacy of your own darkened room, since it can be played on any device with wifi and a screen large enough to display the pixelated graphics. Because playing the game is a solitary rather than communal endeavor, it rewards lengthy and multiple solo wanderings, the kind that a public gallery setting doesn’t always encourage.
Adding another layer to the work, the game contains colorful, delirious, scrollable landscapes titled Strange Visions. The various characters that strut or float across these landscapes are all ripped straight from other video games, yet all of these “sprites” are female: Street Fighter’s Chun-Li or Shermie from The King of Fighters. In one Strange Vision, a pale, ghostly figure (Lucy, Bride of Dracula) floats across the screen in multiple against a swampy background of pickup trucks, barrels, frogs, and pink mist. McQuater gives these often subordinate female characters their own space— one devoid of the muscled male combatants around which video games usually revolve. They can’t be controlled by players; instead, they perform their own actions on repeat, independent of external motive or logic. The fractured narrative of Black Room confounds any sense of progress or linear development, making standard gaming goals of conquest and victory obsolete. Here, those stereotypically masculine impulses are replaced by an undefined space, encouraging exploration and meditation rather than competition.
Cassie McQuater: Black Room runs from September 12–November 2, 2019 at TRANSFER (1000 S. Hope St. #420, Los Angeles, CA 90015).