Double Blind

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Ian here—

I’ve written about synesthetic interfaces before: that is, interfaces that perform a sensory substitution, translating the information normally associated with one sense modality into the phenomenal forms normally associated with another. In my previous work, I’ve usually focused on forms of nonhuman perception and certain modes of perceptual expertise. The release of Perception (The Deep End Games, 2017) yesterday, however, gives me an opportunity to dip into a new topic: disability.

Perception is a horror game about a blind woman exploring a haunted house. Unlike a game such as Papa Sangre (Somethin’ Else, 2010), however—an experiment in audio-only digital game design that has sadly been taken off of the iOS App Store as of this writing—Perception doesn’t court blind and other low-vision players. Rather than featuring robust, binaural sound localization simulation, Perception re-imagines the auditory perception of its blind protagonist Cassie as a kind of sonar vision, thrown up on the player’s screen in spooky, warbly monochrome.

This isn’t the first time games nominally about blindness have been served up to sighted players. In this post, I take up a comparative investigation of Perception alongside Beyond Eyes (Tiger and Squid / Team17 Digital Ltd, 2015), which drops the horror angle in favor of child-friendly, colorful adventure.

Although I was intrigued by the conceit of Perception, I have to admit that when I booted it up yesterday, I was also wary. Last week, I wrote about the diminishing effectiveness of disempowerment fantasies in games. Horror games, like various forms of personal games and advocacy games, rely heavily on disempowerment, and the confluence of horror and disability set off some alarm bells for me. There was a danger, I suspected, that the game’s logic would proceed as follows: “Dark houses are scary. But what’s even darker than being in a dark house? Being in a dark house while you’re blind!” The formula “horror game + disability = harder and scarier horror game” is a bit worrisome, as it frame blindness strictly as an obstacle—a “higher difficulty level,” if you will (to riff a bit on John Scalzi).

Thankfully, the game sidesteps this danger, by virtue of not being particularly scary. Under normal circumstances, this would be a complaint about Perception‘s failure to meet generic expectations. In this case, however, I was actually rather relieved. Mechanically, Cassie’s blindness is used less for scares than it is for pacingPerception leans closer to the “adventure” end of the horror spectrum than the “absolute terror” end, with an emphasis on exploration and storytelling. Cassie’s means of perception becomes one of the game’s means of slowing players down, and getting them in the mood to appreciate a spooky yarn.

That said, Perception has plenty of other problems. Its synesthetic interface is pure fantasy, more closely resembling an attempt to place its players into the being-in-the-world of a bat or a dolphin than the perceptual experience of a blind human. I’m well aware that Perception had no intentions of being Papa Sangre, but it really could have used some more robust sound design, and a more muted visual strategy. I also really wish they had dropped the overt invocation of “echolocation” as the source of Cassie’s “visual” experience. It never comes across as anything more than silly.

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In addition to “echolocation,” Cassie also possesses a “sixth sense”—and this is where the problems really start to pile up. I could grumble about how the “sixth sense” framing posits blind people as superpowered, but that would be besides the point. Blind or sighted, many videogame protagonists have sensory superpowers. Joel can “focus his hearing” in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013). The protagonist of Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016) has his “third eye” for thievery. The player-characters of the Assassin’s Creed series all have whatever the heck “eagle vision” is supposed to be. I’ve long ago learned to shrug off the poorly-explained conceits motivating games’ “press this button to highlight important objects” function. In that respect, I didn’t find Cassie’s “sixth sense” to be remotely offensive.

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What I do find it to be is a game-breaking mechanical crutch. Its inclusion is an obvious concession on The Deep End’s part, an acknowledgement that sometimes, when you’re moving slowly and trying not to bump into the furniture too much, it can be hard to get a “big picture” feel for where to go next. That’s fair enough. But it’s obvious that, once the developers decided to include the feature, the game was designed around the assumption that players would abuse it. As a result, there is a real abdication of using dialogue and environmental cues to direct the player.

To take an example, from the game’s fourth chapter: Upon encountering a flammable obstacle blocking a door, Cassie comments that she could use some matches to burn it. Very well, we’re right by the fireplace: surely, matches must be nearby, right? Tapping Cassie’s cane and poking about the corners of the hearth, however, is a fool’s errand. Instead, Cassie’s sixth sense directs us to a room upstairs, where we read a journal entry. Reading that journal diary unlocks the door to another upstairs room, where we can read another journal entry, and pick up a key. Then we go back down and unlock a door near the fireplace, go up another set of stairs, and pick up the matches from a room on a completely separate wing of the second floor.

I suppose it would be possible to stumble across this sequence of actions without using Cassie’s sixth sense, but it would be deeply frustrating. Perception obviously expects you to constantly rely on the feature, to the point where playing without it would be an unthinkably annoying proposition.

One of the better-known figures at The Deep End is Bill Gardner, lead level designer for BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007), and to be quite honest this was a problem I had with BioShock, as well. Despite being hailed as the spiritual successor to Looking Glass’ considerable legacy, my time with BioShock felt bereft of sense of exploratory discovery offered by the System Shock or Thief games. Whenever I tried to head out on my own, pointedly ignoring the navigation arrow, locked doors greeted me. More often than not, these doors would eventually unlock not because I found a key, but because the game arbitrarily decided it was time for me to go there, pointing the arrow in their direction, and opening them on cue. Perception has exactly this sort of “follow the arrow, and doors will open when they’re damn well ready” logic going on. Blindness, it seems, here becomes just a formal excuse for these developers to lead players around by the nose. (Or, er, whatever sensory organ gives one one’s sixth sense.)

It’s a shame, too, because those moments when the game refuses to give you guidance, when hitting the “ctrl” button prompts only the message “explore to find your next goal,” are actually quite lovely, and some of the creepiest parts of the game. I really wish, for instance, that Perception was bold enough to more consistently feature the sort of cautious interaction of a cavernous, shifting space that we see in this scene from the game’s first chapter, where waypoints are forcibly denied:

As counter-intuitive as it might sound, sometimes you can tell a whole lot about games about blindness at a glance. As you can see in the above video, whenever the surrounding environment isn’t echoing with the sound of Cassie’s cane or footsteps, it plunges into pure blackness. As a way of establishing a lack of sensory information, it works—but, of course, blindness doesn’t have to be represented by blackness. Any sort of blank field, bereft of definition or contrast, would do. Given that it is a horror game, blackness was the obvious route for Perception to go. As we can see from the below screenshot, Beyond Eyes goes for white, which immediately marks it as pursuing a completely separate aesthetic, aimed at completely different audiences.

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Beyond Eyes‘ protagonist Rae isn’t poking around in a terrifying haunted house. She’s just outside, looking for her cat, and encountering the world along the way. Rae’s blindness is quite recent (the result of an accident, seen in the game’s prologue), which means that we, as players, are experiencing her gradual re-orientation along with her, learning to identify sounds, smells, and physical landmarks as she re-acquaints herself with the world.

Rejecting Perception‘s “tap your cane and you’ll see an accurate picture of the world around you for a moment” logic, Beyond Eyes posits perception as a kind of hypothesis-testing. (This was actually a quite popular way of framing perception among orthodox cognitive psychologists in the 1970s-80s, such as R. L. Gregory, David Marr, and Irvin Rock. It was rejected by those in the ecological approach school.) Sometimes, Rae makes mistakes. She might hear what she assumes to be linens flapping in the breeze, and the game’s GUI will happily indulge in that assumption, illustrating a laundry line for the game’s players. When we move Rae closer to the fabric in question, however, filling out the landscape with the game’s gorgeous watercolor imagery, she—and we—might discover that it actually emanates from a scarecrow.

Not only sounds, but also smells can be mis-identified. At one point, a posited broken-down car is corrected to a lawnmower once Rae hears it start up.

For Rae, this is a process of gradual perceptual learning, as she acclimates herself to a revised sensorium. For us, the players, the experience is (somewhat ironically) one of visual discovery and delight. It is already visually astonishing to watch Rae’s understanding of the world fill out the blank canvas of the screen with gorgeous watercolor renderings. When we further add her shifting hypotheses to this recipe, the game’s visuals become a colorful swirl of mutating objects, synesthetically throbbing to sounds in the environment. In the clip below, some animals calling out in the void become an opportunity for visual music:

The pleasures of Beyond Eyes are the pleasures of discovery, with a twist. Open-world adventures from Shenmue (SEGA AM2, 1999) to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017) have established a frame in which discovery in games is linked to conceptions of freedom and limitlessness: “Go wherever you want to go, see whatever you want to see, investigate whatever you want to investigate,” as the instruction booklet for Shenmue put it. This promise is typically tied to games’ visual horizon. “See That Mountain? You Can Climb It,” Bethesda designer Todd Howard (supposedly) said during E3 2011 presentations of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. “You can go explore that,” a CD Projekt employee said, pointing at a tree on a mountain miles away during a 2014 E3 demonstration of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. A mountaintop rendered is a mountaintop promised. Draw distance winks at us, beckoning.

Beyond Eyes has almost no draw distance. It forsakes the visual horizon for the auditory horizon, hinting at new mysteries and goals in the clang of church bells, the roar of traffic, the babbling of brooks. We explore only a small farming village, but we explore it one step at a time, arm cautiously outstretched. This is discovery with a radically different sense of scale.

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Beyond Eyes isn’t perfect, but by the time I had finished Perception, I felt that the earlier game had done far more interesting things with the basic conceit of a blind player-character. Too often in Perception, “blindness” is used as an excuse to leave players in the dark. Literally, in that it uses blindness as motivation for a mostly-black color scheme. Figuratively, in that it renders us entirely dependent upon its designer’s heavy-handed guidance. What’s missing, though, is a genuine sense of disorientation, of discovery, of adapting to new rules and expectations. It’s odd that a twee adventure game—aimed, by all available evidence, at children—would get this precisely right, while a horror game would miss the opportunity.

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