Playing in the Dark: On Gaming’s Blind Protagonists
"Perception" and "Beyond Eyes" are very different experiences connected by their protagonists' shared disability. We speak to their makers.
"I'm always kicking around ideas for horror stories," says Bill Gardner, creative director of the in-development Perception. "Horror is just part of my DNA. But at the same time, I really feel it's important to come at the genre with a fresh perspective. Frankly, I feel that too many games just rely on a different take on the whole meat circus aesthetic and run with that. So I'm always jotting down the seeds of different ideas for the genre. And I've always felt that people have a visceral fear of the unknown. It's no secret that horror loves darkness and ambiguity. Information is the enemy of horror."
Perception is a rarity in video gaming, a highly visual medium—it strips its central character, Cassie, of her sight. What you see on the screen as you play is an environment visualized by a kind of echolocation—Cassie will slam a stick, or her boot possibly, onto the ground to get a read on what's ahead of her. She finds herself in what might otherwise be a fairly genre-typical spooky mansion, Echo Bluff, and its surrounding grounds, but with a significant sense shut off, both protagonist and player alike will feel the dread of what's around them more keenly than, say, a game with more explicit gory imagery, such as the excellent for what it is The Evil Within, or of course the original Resident Evil.
Boston-based Gardner, whose past credits include work at Irrational on BioShock: Infinite and SWAT 4, is heading up the small team at The Deep End Games to bring Perception to the masses having raised $168,000 on Kickstarter to get the project off to a flying start. Its salient point, the blindness, came to Gardner after a grad school class.
"My professor said, 'Tonight, you'll think of a brilliant idea.' I usually love this sort of challenge, so I gave it a shot. Sure enough, by the time I put my keys in the door, I had the premise for Perception in my head. I remember sitting in the parking lot for another half hour or so, thinking, 'Man, I have to make this happen.' The next day I was on the phone with some former colleagues from Irrational, including Jim Bonney, our audio director, and I was able to very quickly assemble the team and get cranking. It's been one of those rare projects where the pieces fit together so cleanly. I think it speaks to the fact that the premise, the moment-to-moment gameplay and the narrative all complement each other."
Perception will be released for PC, and hopefully consoles (says me, anyway), in 2016. "It's coming along nicely," Bill says. "We're making progress on our core features, and we've done quite a lot of recording with our voice actors, continued to advance our systems, and charged ahead." It's a very striking game with obvious appeal, leaning on survival horror tropes while simultaneously offering something quite unusual to the mix, but it won't be the first game I've played where the protagonist can't see. Far from it.
My first was The Nightjar, an iOS game made by Somethin' Else in 2011. Your character, the sole human being left aboard the otherwise abandoned space ship that gives the game its title, isn't blind, but the craft's lighting is shot, leaving its halls and corridors bathed in blackness. But it's OK. You're OK. "There is one complex life form aboard the ship," chirps its AI. That's you, very much alive. And then, contact: another human on a ship a day's travel away, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, begins speaking to you over a headset, offering advice on where to go to get off the Nightjar which, by the way, is dangerously close to disappearing into a black hole. Better get a move on. Progress is made by following the bleeps and buzzes of the items you need and the passageways to take, so headphones are essential (the screen is blank besides movement controls). You're sure that, even though you can't see your own hand in front of your face, you're going to make it through. Sherlock flipping Holmes isn't about to let you down. But then comes a chilling announcement: "There are two complex life forms aboard the ship, of which one is human." Oh, shit.
And it escalates, rapidly, from there. One alien becomes 30 aliens. Benedict's always there, in your ears, offering assistance when he can—but even his famously dulcet tones can't calm my juddering nerves as I'm tip-toeing around creatures eager to make me a meal, hearing their breath all around me, desperate to not brush up against one of them in this overwhelming darkness. The Nightjar wasn't its makers first foray into zero-visuals gaming—another journey through invisible nightmares, Papa Sangre, preceded it in 2010, putting the player in the shoes of a soul just recently deceased and tasking them with escaping one of the afterlife's most hellish places, the palace of Papa Sangre. It received a highly acclaimed sequel in 2013. And mobile gaming is home to further sight-restricted experiences: there's BlindSide, which has come over to Mac and PC since its iOS debut in 2013, and Somethin' Else went down the zombie horror route in the wake of Papa Sangre II with Audio Defence: Zombie Arena.
All of these games have one thing in common: depriving the player of their sight is used to amplify the title in question's horror qualities. They're designed for scares. But this summer's Beyond Eyes, released for several platforms, took a very different approach to playing blind. Made by Sherida Halatoe under her Tiger & Squid studio banner, and published by the previously VICE Gaming-profiled Team17, it casts you, person with pad in hand, as a 10-year-old girl called Rae who, after losing her eyesight in a fireworks accident some years earlier, has been a withdrawn figure with no true friends. Save, that is, for a cat that comes to visit her garden, Nani. One day, Nani doesn't show up, and racked with worry, Rae leaves the safety of familiar surroundings in an attempt to find him.
"I wanted to make a game where you'd guide a character around the world and be really invested in keeping them from danger, because their behavior and perception of the world would be influenced by how you treated them," says Sherida, when I ask about her inspiration for incorporating a blind protagonist. "That, and I wanted to make a really pretty game with soft colors swirling and morphing on the screen. Making Rae blind felt like it would fit perfectly with those ideas."
Rae's world emerges gradually, like that of Perception, but is based on what her other senses are picking up: sounds and smells, mainly. As she arrives in a new area, the screen is purely white. There's the running and splashing of water: she imagines a beautiful fountain. You walk her closer, and the smell reveals what she's really stood beside: a stinking drain. The wonderful visuals of Beyond Eyes are its most immediately engaging aspect: they paint themselves across the screen, across the canvas, like watercolors. As a game, its depth is relatively shallow—there isn't much to do beyond point Rae where you think she needs to go, often bumping into walls or fences, or reaching impassable roads. But it's something that's worth playing the once for its uniqueness, and its positive intentions.
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"I spoke to blind people about the sort of situations they would encounter in their daily life," Sherida tells me. "Things that would confuse them, like construction work at the bus station for example. I asked about the things they liked, and if they saw things when they're dreaming. I also spent a few days blindfolded to get an idea what it was like, and I went to a special exhibition were you can experience daily scenarios in pitch black while guided by a blind guide and a white stick."
"I wanted for players to understand others and themselves a little better after playing it," she says, when I ask about what she wants gamers to get out of their time with Beyond Eyes. "My main 'lessons' that I hope people take away from it are that life can be what you want it to be, that sometimes things happen that are terribly unfair and out of your control but you can still decide how you will let them affect you. Be brave and enjoy try to enjoy life, as there is beauty everywhere, even in scary or mundane things."
'Beyond Eyes,' launch trailer
Rae is frequently scared as you move her into the white—by the barking of dogs, the roar of traffic, the cawing of crows. She will not go near so many things that you and I would stroll past without a second thought. But her mind's eye pictures what's around her in vivid colors, unlike what we've seen so far of Perception. "I initially tried to create visuals in black and white," says Sherida. "It looked pretty cool and abstract, but also a bit creepy and horror-ish. It made it difficult for me to tell the story that I wanted, and create the right mood." That's also why Beyond Eyes begins with white, not black and its afraid-of-the-dark connotations, as its canvas, rather like 2012's The Unfinished Swan, a more abstract game about pursuing—yep—a runaway swan, where the player flings ink at the invisible environment before them to reveal paths to take. The Unfinished Swan is so very far from a horror game. Perception, on the other hand, is all about shitting the player up.
"For months, Cassie has been tormented with visions of the mansion," Bill says, explaining the premise of the game. "Her nightmares have driven her on a quest for answers. She needs to know what's behind these visions. She knew in her heart that the mansion was real. She spent countless hours researching what she'd seen. Eventually, she discovered Echo Bluff in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Being headstrong and impulsive, she jumped on the first plane from Phoenix. She learned that the mansion has been abandoned for many years and decides to enter the house to find her answers. The house is rich with centuries of history. Cassie will piece together what happened in the house, and as she does so, she'll be thrown back in time to experience the house from a different era. As she gets close to her answers, The Presence will try and stop her. It roams, searching for her. And if it spots her, Cassie better run and hide."
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The Presence. No further explanation necessary to know that's A Bad Thing. "I'm extremely proud of Perception's story," Bill continues. "While I'd love to talk more about it, I am particularly leery of spoilers. Aside from the ending of BioShock: Infinite, it's probably one of the most difficult games to talk about without giving too much away. But I think it's bold in a lot of ways. We took a chance by making Cassie blind. I didn't know how people would react to that. I generally think of gamers as open to trying new things, but I was worried that it might be too different for some. Thankfully, people have really embraced the game."
Both Beyond Eyes and Perception show that developers can challenge themselves to take away, or experiment with, a substantial element of video gaming's connection with its audience: what they see on the screen. I'm not envisioning a sudden influx of blind playable characters in video games over the coming years, but Bill's right: such an approach is bold in an era where even indie games can be easily lead down the path of least resistance, producing results that aim for an appeal-to-all middle ground rather than push away at the creative margins. Beyond Eyes wasn't a complete success, and Perception might well come up short of the highest expectations, too. But these games are offering something unusual, something that might make us consider at how we can better understand blind people, and others with disabilities, for real. And that itself, before Metacritic scores or Steam ratings are assessed, is surely something to celebrate.
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