There has long been a strange mysticism applied to blind characters in our fictional worlds. Whether it’s comic books, movies or games, we tend to use the blind as either hapless victims, terrible comic relief, or superhuman beings whose other senses are absurdly heightened. But some developers put more thought into portraying blind characters than that.
Mortal Kombat’s blind swordsman, Kenshi, is an homage to the classic Blind Samurai stories of Japan, but recent games have taken a more evolved and singular approach to using the blind as a means to convey a story and gaming experience in a new and—rather ironically—visual way.
A good case in point is Beyond Eyes, a game on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. It’s a labor of love for creator Sherida Halatoe, who spent almost five years creating this interactive story about a young blind girl named Rae searching for her cat. Beyond Eyes is the least “gamey” game here, but also the most intimate in the way it portrays its blind protagonist. Beyond Eyes doesn’t have enemies or traditional video game goals, but is really more of a walking journey as Rae explores the land and town around her home. It’s a melancholy tale about overcoming fear and dealing with loss, but the slow and methodical pacing makes it far from traditional.
That said, even here, there is no doubt Sherida wasn’t creating a blind simulation. Rae explores her world without a cane and passes through unfamiliar territory without much trouble. The game makes creative use of Rae as an unreliable witness for its gorgeous water-colored visual environments though. A sound portrayed on the screen as one thing might end up as something else entirely. Beyond Eyes is most successful at translating a sense of empathy and even wonder to the player with its beautiful look and very personal story.
Recently released on PC, Pulse takes a very different approach to the portrayal of its blind lead. This is a first-person perspective game of platform navigation and exploration, so it’s about as accurate a representation of a normal blind person as, say, Netflix’s Daredevil. But like other games of this sort, its real focus is on the idea (and to some extent, myth) of how the blind use echolocation. Pulse’s main objective is to create a distinctive style of visuals that hide the overall landscape, only revealing things in a fascinating, bare-bones manner when noises are created.
As a game, Pulse is gorgeously minimalist and surreal, confusing and disorientating, and amazingly intriguing. One particularly nice minor touch is that when you stand still in quiet areas, the landscape just fades away to darkness. Developer Pixel Pi Games’ goal was to experiment with the concept of taking something away from players they otherwise take for granted—in this case, a reliable visual world. “The experience is one of not knowing what’s in front of you or around you, fear of the unknown pressing down on you, and having the bravery to step into it anyway,” Maxwell Hannaman, Pixel Pi’s founder, told me. “That, I believe, is where our experience comes closer to the reality of being vision impaired.”
This is a fairly widespread viewpoint for those who delve into the concept of using the blind as a means to create new forms of visual-audio perspectives. Both Pixel Pi Games and Sherida Halatoe are upfront about the fact that their goal is to create a unique way to tweak standard perceptions in game. However, both also did their homework by researching the topic and meeting with members of the blind community to gain added insight into the condition.
One of the most intriguing upcoming games that uses a blind heroine (and it’s interesting to note all the protagonists mentioned here are girls or women) is Deep End Games’ Perception. Headed up by William (Bill) Gardner, former lead on the more mainstream BioShock series, this is a first-person horror survival game featuring Cassie, a blind and rather snarky lead, trying to solve the mysteries within a haunted and disturbed house.
Like the other games, Perception lets players use echolocation to explore, discover and stealthily avoid the house’s evil occupants. Bill did a lot of in-depth research and general talking with experts on the subject (as in, blind people) to get a better handle on how they go about day-to-day activities.
“The idea came from a desire to show the world in a different way. So many games put you in the same role over and over,” Bill explained. “How could I show a different perspective? I was lucky enough to be able to spend a good deal of time studying blindness. I spent the semester doing ethnographic studies of blindness with a focus on the use of tech.
"Obviously as a game, you have to take liberties,” he continued. “It’s impossible to really understand what it’s like to be blind. We are making a game meant to be played by many people. As we tuned the game, we found that people would often have a very hard time playing if we went too far.”
Perception’s funding campaign was successful enough for Bill and company to add a low-vision mode for those who have limited sight problems, but aren’t completely blind. Since true blindness is actually rare, this is the kind of active focus developers should be putting into games to make them more accessible.
While these sorts of experiences are really just using blindness as a means to create a way to limit the player’s field of vision, on iOS there is a series that takes the leap into blindness by creating an entirely sound-based experience. Papa Sangre and its sequel have no visuals at all, save for a very simple movement interface. Using headphones, the game simulates a 360-degree sound field and the player must navigate purely from sound cues. While universities and labs have experimented with games that mimic actual blindness, Papa Sangre is one of the very few games that takes the concept and runs with it commercially. It’s a distinctive and challenging horror game that works—provided you take the time to darken the room, avoid distractions, and really allow yourself to be sucked into its bizarre sightless world.
Admittedly, graphic-less games are mostly a curiosity. Perception, Pulse, and Beyond Eyes are really just using blindness as a means to create a specific ambiance that no other disability could manage. Want a game with a deaf character? Just turn the volume off. Sight and sound are the only methods we have to experience gaming so far, so it’s not surprising developers are searching for ways to scratch the surface of these two senses to find something new. Yet how we approach using an actual real-world disability to create a virtual gimmick for non-disabled players is something everyone should consider, just as these developers have.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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