IFComp 2011: Blind

Spoilers follow the break.

“Who says blindness is a handicap?” asks the tagline in the game’s description — and the first line of the game when you start it up, and it’s brought up a couple of times within the body of the game as well. It makes me want to scream “I do!” every time I see it. But putting that aside, the point is that this is a game with a blind protagonist. This one of those ideas that’s been bandied about for a long time — Kevin Wilson, author of Once and Future, had a vaporware project with a strikingly similar premise to this game as early as 1994 — because it seems such a natural fit for a text-based medium, where the game isn’t providing visuals directly and can describe things however is appropriate. Still, it’s a gutsy move, in part because there are a lot of blind people who play IF. It’s one of the few forms of computer game that a blind person can play. And they’ll know if you get it wrong.

And I’m a little curious about that. The PC’s self-description including the detail of “auburn hair” seems inauthentic to me, but I suppose it could still be a part of her self-image if she wasn’t blind from birth (a detail that seems important, but which we never learn). Room descriptions here are generally similar to how they work in IF with sighted protagonists, just with vision-specific details like colors replaced with sounds and smells. So you walk into a room and get a full description of its contents, including exits. Is this how blind people experience the world? It seems more like an impressions-at-first-glance sort of thing. I suppose we could take it that the game is simply glossing over a certain amount of automatic feeling around, but it seems strange when it says things like “There’s a door at the far end of the room”. It definitely wasn’t at the far end when the PC noticed it.

I mentioned smell there, and I’m going to mention it again now, because not enough games emphasize smell. It’s a part of our sensory palette that can do a lot to enrich a description, but it’s usually just ignored, and when it’s not, it’s usually just for unpleasant smells. And, unfortunately that’s how it is here. The room descriptions frequently mention the feel of the floor under your bare feet (thick carpets, sticky linoleum), but for the most part, rather than letting the non-visual details add richness, the descriptions are pretty utilitarian. (“A stove sits on the north wall, a fridge/freezer beside it. There are a few cabinets on the west wall, and a door leads east.”)

When it does venture beyond that, it’s mainly to describe the PC’s inner feelings, which are generally feelings of fear and revulsion, because the whole premise is B-movie slasher schlock. You’ve been abducted by a serial killer/cannibal who thinks that your blindness makes you easy prey, because he thinks it’s a handicap. (Which, apparently, it’s not!) So you grope your way around his squalid serial-killer house, hiding when you hear him approach, looking for a way out that isn’t locked.

It took me a good long time to realize that I didn’t have to just hide from him, and could simplify matters a lot, and get access to his keys in the bargain, by killing the guy. Apparently there are ways to do this by setting up traps for him, but I took the simple approach and beat him to death with broomstick. I’m guessing that this wasn’t supposed to be as hard to figure out as it was, or perhaps, to give the author credit for more subtlety than his prose suggests, that it’s supposed to be a realization related to the stated theme: that your blindness isn’t a handicap, and therefore that you can fight back. But honestly, I don’t think the blindness was even an issue for me. I didn’t think of fighting mainly because this is IF, where, traditionally, “violence is not the answer” (as the Inform library’s default messages put it). Also because my goal was simply to escape and notify the police, and because the game was successful enough in making me put myself in the PC’s shoes (or lack thereof) to think about how I would approach the situation in real life.

There’s one thing about the whole situation that I didn’t really grasp at the time, but which in retrospect was probably important. In the basement, there is a generator that you can turn off, prompting the killer to come down and turn it back on again. I was thinking of this as just a way to control his whereabouts, but it probably also turned off the lights, putting you on an even footing with him — better than even, in fact, because you’re used to not being able to see and he’s not. The thing is, if there actually are lights that go out, you can’t tell. So if I’m right about this, it’s a violation of one of the rights enumerated by Graham Nelson: the right “to be able to understand a problem once it is solved”.

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