Cassie McQuater’s Archive of Female Fighters

Text by Claire Milbrath

I played Cassie McQuater’s video game Black Room for a few Blue Dream-enhanced hours. McQuater’s work is high-functioning art. It’s poetry, and it’s painting. Black Room is a browser-based narrative game about shifting states of consciousness. The game functions as a historical archive of female fighters of video games past, who seem to haunt each level of the game. A few levels in, you realize there is no way out, and no point. It’s frustrating at times. She wants us to slow down and meditate on this work.

Excerpts from Cassie’s Black Room

Level 1: A free falling blue flame descends from a smoggy sky filled with pink flamingos. Landing in a sudden burst, I emerge in the form of Chun-Li, to begin a long, poetic journey. Chun-Li, of Street Fighter II fame, was the first female fighter in video game history. An expert martial artist with thighs of steel, Chun-Li was born in the 90s, first in pants, later in a cropped qipao and white combat boots. Despite Nintendo’s eventual censorship of her up-skirt moments, Chun-Li was named “Hottest Babe of 1992” by Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Nuxia, the Chinese female warrior, has long been an obsession of male and female audiences alike. 3000 years ago, the first woman commander fought in China, initiating what would develop into a rich history of women warriors in the centuries to come. Legends of these women soldiers, most famously Hua Mulan, who disguised herself as a man to battle, and Xun Guan Niang, who at age thirteen led a secret martial arts troop across enemy lines, led to the creation of the mythic Nuxia in Chinese literature, and later, cinema and video games.

In the 60s, filmmaker King Hu popularized the warrior princess in theatres. His Buddhist-swordplay epic Come Drink with Me, spotlit a beautiful 19-year-old Cheng Pei-pei, bouncing off trampolines hidden under roofs, skimming bamboo tree tops while wielding her sword majestically. Following the success of Hu’s swordswomen, the Shaw Brothers film company became a factory for female martial arts stars. We see the parallel rise of Japan’s femme-fatale-like swordswomen, such as the infamous assassin Lady Snowblood.

Sega and Nintendo carried the Nuxia torch into the 90s, ramping up the sexuality to appeal to horny 12-year-old gamers. Who can forget hot Jade from Mortal Combat? By 1992 video game animators had perfected “breast physics” with Fatal Fury’s Mai Shiranui’s enormous springy boobs. 1994 saw the climax of Nuxia as sex symbols, with the invention of Stripfighter II, a game where all the fighters are strippers.

This is where McQuater picks up the thread, dropping these hyper-sexual swordswomen into her beautiful hellscape, Black Room. The game is a visual art trip intended to create anxiety and confusion. Inspired by childhood insomnia and late nights watching her grandma play Zelda, Secret of Mana, and Castlevania, McQuater’s game feels more intimate than interactive.