Ever since it was revealed to be joining the Xbox library of digital games at Microsoft’s E3 press conference, I’ve had a keen interest in playing Beyond Eyes. Its concept seemed to drift through the realm of indie games and into the choppy waters of arthouse gaming. Well, it’s just been released with minimal fanfare to the world, so I thought I’d give it a go.
In Beyond Eyes you control Rae, a 10-year old girl who has seemingly never left the comfortable sanctuary of her garden. She spends a number of months (played out in quick time through some ingenious art design) befriending Nani, a local tabby cat. All is well until one day, Nani doesn’t return and Rae’s anxiety gets the better of her. She takes the bold decision to leave the garden on the search for her only real friend in the world.
Oh, and Rae is completely blind.
As such, the game world is but a blank, white canvas. The environment is revealed to you as you traverse it in an alluring watercolour style. A path materialises into existence as your footsteps bounce off its cobbles for instance, or a bridge over a trickling stream appears as you brush by its stony supports.
It’s this use of senses other than sight that set Beyond Eyes apart from the rest of the gaming world. Smells waft through the air directing you to useful objects, the gentle whistling of birds reveals a tree line for a fleeting instant, and Rae’s world is ominously bordered by a thick smog; an effective visual metaphor for a roaring main road.
It’s perhaps at its cleverest when dealing with an often forgotten sense: ‘imagination’. As Rae approaches the sound of gently splashing water, her young imagination envisages a picturesque fountain. Closer inspection reveals the source of the noise to be a far less attractive sewer outlet. The distant sound of a whirring engine? Just someone mowing the lawn… or something more sinister? We never found out.
That being said, some of Beyond Eye’s ideas don’t strictly translate well into game play features. After just a few seconds with the game, I was instinctively clicking the thumb sticks and squeezing the triggers in the hopes of discovering a button that would raise Rae’s cautious ramble to a swifter pace.
But thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. Someone without the ability to see the world clearly isn’t going to sprint about a habitat littered with obstacles.
As those obstacles often come into view at a moment’s notice, Beyond Eyes forces you to take a tentative approach to exploring. You find your eyes transfixed on the centre of the screen just where Rae’s feet are, almost unable to take in the full extent of the slowly unfolding beauty around you. I found myself sticking to familiar objects – most notably a large seawall for fear of getting lost in the vast, featureless beach ahead of me.
While the game’s design techniques become apparent towards the end of the game as you familiarise yourself with them, it’s this kind of focus on the task at hand that makes usually trivial matters such as following a path a brain-tasking encumberance. It’s something I imagines was intentional, to allow players a glimpse into what dealing with blindness must really be like.
With the world being revealed to you bit by bit at such a slow pace, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever take the time to explore every nook and cranny for secrets. It’s almost frustrating to think how much could be out there that will go completely missed. But then it clicked; that must be a frustration felt by the 285 million visually-impaired people worldwide.
While no piece of software will ever recreate the day to day struggles suffered by visually impaired persons the world over, Beyond Eyes’ developers Tiger And Squid have done an astounding job in getting players to think about what it must be like for those with an incomplete view of the world.
Some of its ideas may translate poorly to gameplay mechanics, but at no point is this title ever trying to be out and out ‘fun’. It’s an experience more than a game, clocking in at just less than two hours from start to finish but providing beautifully thought provoking moments throughout. Tiger and Squid could’ve easily compromised on the whole concept to make things a little more ‘accessible’, and in this day and age it’s commendable that they didn’t rest on their laurels.
If you’re looking for mindless escapism, steer clear. But if you want a challenging title unlike anything you’ve played before, Beyond Eyes is well worth a look.