I’ve had to wear glasses since I was in the 6th grade, when my parents realized that in order for me to play with the DreamCast, or to watch cartoons, I’d have to sit a few feet away from the television. While annoyed at having to wear plastic on my face, I initially only needed glasses for school, and for the television. However, as I got older, my vision steadily declined; I am now a thrall to optometrists, Lens Crafters and contact lens. While the need for some form of visual aid or another is a necessity for me, I am not blind. I’m the furthest thing from blind. I can visually take in the world around me, and movement is easy and secondary in nature. That is, until it’s very dark, or if I’ve misplaced my glasses. Then the world becomes a bit more hostile, a bit more uncomfortable and a bit more claustrophobic. Venturing out at night without glasses or contacts is out of the question, and my hands urgently pat down surfaces in the morning if I didn’t leave my glasses in my usual spot. Both situations send a mild wave of anxiety down my spine until I’m reunited with my glasses/contacts. Then all is right. I can see. I’m not blind. Maybe that’s why I had such a strong reaction to Beyond Eyes, an Xbox One/Microsoft Windows game by Tiger & Squid that weaved a fairytale around an issue seldom dealt with in mainstream media; blindness. Simplistic in its mechanics, yet complex in narrative, Beyond Eyes forced me to grapple with my own fears, biases and contemplate what it means to live without sight.
For me, playing Beyond Eyes teetered between fascination and uneasiness, and there’s a reason for that; there’s nothing I’m as scared of as I am of becoming blind. I used to always have these discussions with my friends when I was younger. “If you were forced to choose, which sense would you lose?” While some of my friends said sound or taste, I’ve always said vision. Everything I do – video games, drawing, writing, reading – is dependent on vision. Not to mention the unrestrained mobility. While it may seem instinctual to value vision over all others, it’s also a cultural construction. The society in which I live also places primacy on the visual, relegating tactile and other senses as secondary. We’ve developed a static understanding of the space around us through vision, and ignore or dismiss the other ways in which our senses can shape the world. Sight also has strong associations in our society with intellect and reason, brought forth through the Enlightenment. The rise of the scientific view, and its emphasis on only what we can see must be true has contributed to a hierarchical classification of the senses, with sight leading the way. Thus blindness may seem so contrary, so ‘unnatural’, so frightening. And for me it is; but people do live this reality and for them it’s a beautiful norm. But we wouldn’t know much about it. Those whom are considered as living with what mainstream society considers a “disability” (which is actually an ableist term; many do not identify as such) are marginalized. Our cultural (and personal) responses towards “disability” are many, usually rearing its head in the form of shame, misfortune,disgust and selfish gratefulness; their otherness draws strong reactions from those who are able-bodied.
Most of our world, then, is informed by, and structured through, experiences of vision. Narratives of blindness are few and far apart, and many portrayals are negative. And even when the media portray blindness in a positive light, there’s still a disconnect between sighted and non-sighted, a gap that struggles to be bridged due to the intrinsic (yet not necessary) difference in the way each understands and constructs the world around them. Difference isn’t bad. It should be celebrated, shared and appreciated; yet we privilege sighted (and able-bodied) narratives over all others. Video games, however, have emerged as having potential as a medium that would allow us to portray or simulate what it potentially means, and how it feels, to be blind. It’s kind of ironic, considering; video games can be seen as the antithesis to blindness, the medium relying on the visual. But some have, and are pushing the boundaries of video games as play, weaving intentions to teach parallel to what we may have come to expect from a ‘hobby’ hinged on the notion of fun and games. But obviously these descriptions or notions limit the nature and potential of video games. Video games can teach; video games can evoke; video games can transform. Beyond Eyes is an example of this. Rae, the 10-year-old protagonist who had lost her vision when she was younger due to a traumatizing accident, grapples with exclusion and loneliness until she finds companionship in Nani, a cat she befriends. Unfortunately Nani disappears one day, prompting Rae to leave her house and venture into a world she’s long avoided, forcing herself to face her fears and anxieties in order to find her best friend. The world starts off as brilliant white but transforms itself into something tangible and concrete once Rae uses memories, smell, sound and touch to construct the world around her. When she’s comfortable and confident, the world is a pallet of vibrant pastel colors and teeming with life. When she’s uncomfortable or frightened, the world darkens and turns hostile. She hunches her shoulders, and holds her body tight, protecting herself from the unknown. While there are a few simple puzzles thrown in here and there, the real challenge in the game is making your way around. In Beyond Eyes, walking in the unknown is the true adventure, akin to the hero saving the world. If you’ve checked out reviews of the game, the majority are critical of it, claiming that the concept was brilliant, but it’s execution was poor; that its potential in altering gamer perspectives on blindness and disability was lost to this. I, in fact, found it to be the absolute opposite. The game frustrated me, it was unpleasant and at times bore me. It wasn’t a “fun” game. It scared me and made me cry. But it did, in fact, make me see the world through the lens of disability. So much so that here we are; here I’m writing about it. Rae’s walk was slow; always moving cautiously, always second guessing her way. The world around her was hostile. But of course it’s hostile; she couldn’t see it. And the triumph of the game not only rested in her completing the adventure, but in discovering that her blindness doesn’t define her; her identity was no longer subsumed by her “disability”. While her blindness once made her fearful and recluse, she rediscovered the beauty of the world in a way we who are sighted will never know, will never feel. Beyond Eyes took full advantage of video game mechanics to create an interactive experience par excellence, encouraging the player to embark shift their understanding of video games, blindness and what it means to rediscover a world no longer accessible through sight. Rather than build a game with the intention of fulfilling normative notions of fun and play, this game’s ultimate raison d’être was to force us to confront a reality that exists, while profoundly shifting players’ perspective on something silenced and hidden. The result wasn’t fun; it was enlightening.
Blindness still terrifies me, yet Beyond Eyes restructured it as a privileged fear rather than a real threat; one in which I confront its virtual realities. The power of video games as a medium to teach has always shown intense potential, and Beyond Eyes demonstrates this in it deeply layered and complex narrative, packaged in this whimsically tragic and hopeful game, compounded by the simplest mechanics.This potential was tapped, and hopefully many more will do so. While players may need to shift their notion that video games are solely a hobby or pastime, Beyond Eyes uses the medium to enable an engagement with different lived experiences; engage with realities that are foreign, or (in this case) difficult to imagine, especially for gamers where vision is primary.
Herein lies the potential of video games, and a tiny little 3 hour game managed to capture with it.