First Impressions: Black Room is a browser-based game in which you are a woman performing a meditation for falling asleep called "The Black Room", which was taught to her by her mother, who learned it from her mother. After the first few scenes, which resemble an old side-scrolling game (except there are no actions available other than moving left or right), the “action” takes place in a darkened room. By moving the mouse cursor over what objects can be seen, the story unfolds. Candles and lamps illuminate otherwise hidden objects; hovering over barely visible pillows and chairs reveal other visions.
Black Room has two features that it absolutely nails: atmosphere and making full use of its platform. The atmosphere it creates accurately mimics the sense of being half-awake and half-asleep. Objects disappear when you try to “focus” on them too much; strange plants, animals, and demons(?) appear as a normal part of the setting; certain objects connect to short videos with soothing, trance-inducing images: waves at the beach, looking out the window at flowers while driving, rippling water. The narration reflects the feeling of dreaming: what’s real and what is the meaning behind it?
The other interesting aspect of the game is how it utilizes the fact that it is a browser-based game. Certain objects are revealed only by resizing the browser window—something that isn’t possible on consoles or most mobile devices, and something that isn’t usually done in window-based games. It also uses the ability to open other browser windows to its full advantage. Opening a window in the room opens a new browser window to reveal ascii-art images of what’s outside the room.
After just a quick taste of Black Room, I can tell that I’m hooked.
Going Further: I’m hoping that Black Room benefits from multiple playthroughs. My first impressions about the game haven’t changed; it still hit the right spots: atmosphere, texture, layers of interpretation, nostalgia, spookiness. Sometimes, though, after creating enough buildup, any ending ends up being a letdown. I’m especially reminded of certain TV shows that I think were great—Battlestar Galactica (new series), Lost, and Twin Peaks (both the original two seasons, and the Return)—that relied so much on creating a mystery, and creating a fantastical world that was balanced with a flavor of the real world, and how the ends of those stories were disappointing after all that came before.
The ending of Black Room was especially disappointing because it seemed somewhat disconnected from everything that had come before (at least it did after only one playthrough, which is why I’m definitely playing again, keeping an eye out for more connections). Throughout the game, we get flashbacks to the character’s childhood, some are descriptions of past events, others are just images and sounds from old video games; I expected them to be clues to some larger event in her past.
The big reveal at the end—that the character is a demon—was disconnected from the memories, though it didn’t completely come from left field, as the memories were presented in a nightmarish dreamscape. Perhaps it was my mistake to look at the memories as clues instead of taking them as nostalgia (which is ironic, because many of the images and sound effects were, for me, nostalgic).
Black Room combines the story-driven focus of interactive fiction with fascinating imagery and a love of classic video games and other pop culture. It was amazing to hear sound effects and see sprites from 20 to 30 years ago and to remember playing the games they came from, as though I’d just played them last week. Overall, Black Room was more entertaining than not, and I think that it will benefit from a second playthrough where I’m more likely to pick up on earlier story elements that connect the main body of the game to its ending.