Adventure Gamers Awards
Note: The PC/Mac port has been reviewed separately with a different score.
It’s funny how some of the most important aspects of life are the ones we most often take for granted. Things like breathable air, clean water, and opposable thumbs are often unappreciated despite—or maybe because of—how much we use and rely on them. And if you’re fortunate enough to have all five of your god-given senses operating, I’m willing to bet you take those for granted from time to time too. But when Aaron Rasmussen suffered a few days of blindness after a chemistry accident, he instantly stopped having that luxury. Certainly the experience stuck with him long enough to inspire the game BlindSide, a unique adventure which removes visuals entirely and forces players to rely purely on what they can hear.
This style of gameplay almost begs for a horror setting. After all, isn’t the scariest monster the one you can’t see; the one whose appearance is the worst thing you can possibly imagine while you shudder in the dark? The scares here are few in number, and are hampered now and then by the dialogue’s somewhat inconsistent tone, but when they work they work well. The end result isn’t perfect, but considering it’s the first offering of an almost completely original idea, this is easily forgiven. BlindSide is an experience you currently won’t find anywhere else.
The game casts you in the role of Case, an assistant professor who is woken up by his girlfriend Dawn when she becomes concerned by a power outage. After unsuccessfully trying both a flashlight and matches, Case realizes the problem is far more unsettling than a simple power loss. Stepping briefly into his building’s hallway, he finds a terrified neighbor who has also been struck blind. This already horrific situation is made considerably worse when a growling creature attacks the unsuspecting neighbor, prompting Case to flee back to his girlfriend and his fire escape. Upon discovering that cell phones don’t work, the two form a plan to head across the street to use the landline in Case’s office. Naturally the presence of dangerous monsters and the inability to see make this simple task far more challenging.
While most people would find their way around a dark room with tentative steps and groping hands, that’s obviously not an option for the players controlling Chase. Basically you charge him forward until he hits something, at which point he informs you what it is he’s run into, often with a grunt of pain. Not having any visuals, sounds obviously play a key part in BlindSide’s gameplay. Each room or environment has a variety of sounds that get louder or softer as you move Case towards or away from them. These noises are critical to orienting Case, as the direction they're coming from relates to where Case is facing. Face a wall clock, for example, and you’ll hear it out of both speakers or headphones. Turn 90 degrees to the right and you’ll only hear it on your left. Between this and Case’s descriptions of where he remembers things being in your current location, navigating blind is surprisingly manageable. One of the best ideas is the ability to slide along certain items and most walls. Some sound effects only play when you’re moving forward while sliding along a surface, making it much easier to do things like hug walls to locate doors and move along the edges of a room.
It’s hard to really categorize BlindSide's gameplay because these navigational challenges represent pretty much the sole means of interaction. There isn’t any problem solving and there aren’t really any puzzles. Instead, the entire game acts like a giant environmental audio maze. Essentially Case tells you what your next objective is, like a certain door or a fountain or a book of matches, and you make your way blindly towards it, hoping not to be attacked by monsters along the way. In the segments where these monsters do appear, you have a certain time limit to make it to the next objective without being eaten. Fortunately, the game saves checkpoints before any of the really hairy situations, so dying rarely sets you back more than a couple of minutes.
With such a unique premise, the big question is: does it work? The answer is a resounding yes. That’s not to say it’s flawless; there were a couple of times I got hung up a little on a piece of the scenery and had to back up before reorienting myself. There was another section where I was trying to time crossing the street without getting hit by some sort of train, and the audio cues were fairly unclear on how close I was to where the train passed. But after I got used to the basic controls, I found myself navigating through hallways and rooms with relative ease. This is impressive, since it’s easy to imagine just how frustrating BlindSide could be if the controls weren’t up to the task.
While the almost complete lack of visuals makes the interface rather simple, there are some natural differences between the iOS and PC/Mac versions of BlindSide. On the iPad or iPhone, the screen shows a visual of broken glass, which is pretty much the only image you’ll get for this game. Touching and holding your finger on the top of the screen moves Case forward and touching the bottom makes him back up. Tapping the middle provides an audio clue, reminding you of your current objective and its immediate direction. Turning is done by actually turning your body in place, so you should ideally be standing to play the game, or sitting in a chair that swivels. However, there is an alternative play mode in which Case can be rotated by tilting the device rather than turning your whole body. This is a great addition, as turning in place isn’t going to always be possible, and one of the big advantages to playing games on iOS devices is that they can be played pretty much anywhere. That being said, I found orienting myself by tilting to be a little bit confusing and not nearly as intuitive as the original control scheme.
The PC version has the exact same graphic on screen, but your method of control is naturally a little bit different. Moving forward and back is done by holding down the up and down arrow keys, while rotating Case left and right is done with the arrow keys as well. The same help system is activated with the “H” key. The one big addition over the handhelds is the ability to make a directional compass appear in the middle of the screen, which always points north relative to Case’s facing. This can be turned on and off, though it should be noted that the designers specifically advise that they feel the game is best experienced with the compass disabled.
With so many platform choices, what works best? I first tried the game on my iPhone 4, rather unsuccessfully. I have an iPhone 4, not 4S, and the game wasn’t even able to make it past the tutorial level before stuttering uncontrollably and becoming unplayable. I downloaded a newer version of the game which allowed me to run it in a less demanding format, but this also ended up crashing before long. I then tried running the game on an iPad 2, where it worked flawlessly. The PC version similarly presented no technical problems, but the platform itself is more of an obstacle. The best feature of BlindSide is how immersive it is, and actually rotating your body to orient yourself is a much more visceral means of navigation. Using PC arrow keys worked pretty well to orient myself once the compass helped me gauge exactly how long I had to press them to turn an even 90 degrees, but it never quite reaches the same level of immersion the iPad (and presumably the iPhone 4S) have. The PC/Mac ports are still well worth playing if you have no other option, but if you own a higher-end iOS device, you not only save a dollar on your budget purchase, you are getting a better experience for it.
It’s good that BlindSide's central conceit work so well, because some of other aspects of the game need a little polish before the next planned episode. The dialogue is fairly weak, even for such a simple story. Case and Dawn engage in such lighthearted banter half the time that I wonder if they really grasp their dire circumstances. Case suggests crossing the street to find a landline and Dawn quips, “Well, I’m in, because the alternative is getting eaten.” The two escape from an extremely dangerous room and she muses, “I wonder what sort of horrible thing is going to happen to us next” in such a calm, dry tone of voice it almost sounds like she’s pondering the time. When she challenges Case’s ability to use a handgun, he gets humorously defensive and refers to his experience playing “Time Crisis”. The corniness of the joke isn’t the problem so much as its very presence makes it hard to believe these two literally just woke up blind in a world with carnivorous monsters stalking them.
It doesn’t help that even in the more serious moments the voice acting is fairly poor. Case himself is played by one of the game’s designers, but he turns in a better performance than some of the others, most notably Case’s work colleague, Allen, who shows up late in the game and is particularly unconvincing during his brief role. Dawn’s voice acting is better, but even she has a few moments that sound forced or stilted. As some of the Kickstarter money that originally funded the game was specifically earmarked for professional voice actors, the result is a little disappointing. The stars of the voiceover show, by far, are the monsters themselves. All you really hear of them are growls and snarls, but heard while playing the game alone in a dark room, it is genuinely terrifying.
The scary sections of the game are the best part, though there’s only a precious few in a game that can last less than an hour. Scarce as they are, I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say there’s one scene where I attempted to cross a room while hearing them breathing all around me that will stay with me for a long time. They all add up to the type of horror that simply hasn’t been seen (or, well, heard) before, and that is ultimately what makes BlindSide such an easy title to recommend. There’s nothing else like it on the market right now. The experience may be flawed, but it’s still a completely unique experience, which is more than a lot of far more established game companies are providing, and the small asking price easily outweighs the short play time. Aaron Rasmussen and his co-creator Michael T. Astolfi have hit upon a great idea and pulled off the technical aspects of it impressively. Stumbling around in the dark has never been as fun, or as scary, as this.