PC: Blindside(d)

A chance comments discussion over at Syl’s Raging Monkeys about the importance of other senses besides sight in games finally pushed me over the fence and encouraged me to pick up Groupee’s Bundle of the Damned.

Following in the vein of the Humble Bundle and Indie Royale lookalikes, this was some kind of pay-what-you-want game and music and stuff bundle with a scary Halloween theme. To be deadly honest, I have no interest in any of the music and couldn’t tell you if they were good or bad.

None of the games in the bundle are popular must-have great-deal games – on the contrary, none of the games were previously in my Steam games list of 600+ games. Given that I’m in the compulsive habit of collecting games that vaguely sound intriguing on Steam 75% off sales for over 5 years now, many are the Metacritic 55 score type of games that I couldn’t even bring myself to pay $2-5 for. (Maybe at $0-$1, I might try them some day, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, that kind of thing.)

… Except… Blindside.

The description of the game intrigued me a lot. It is ostensibly an audio-only adventure, best played with headphones to navigate a 3D environment made up of audio cues and can be played with your eyes closed to simulate “blindness.”

It’s available for the iPad and iPhone, as well as PC (Desura) and Mac.

I have to say, I’m now wondering if I should have gotten the iPad version instead. The gyroscope turning controls are apparently more natural to grasp.

Color me generally disappointed by the actual implementation of the game. On paper, it’s a very intriguing premise. In practice, if I have to hear “You have died. Reloading saved checkpoint” one more time, I might put a hole in my monitor, or maybe just rip the wires out of my headphones while tearing it off my head.

Is it just me? I know I’m very poor at auditory learning in general. I fall asleep in lectures, when people drone on for more than 30 minutes in meetings, and I tune out most nonfiction audio books that I optimistically borrow from the library after the first track or so. The only audio presentation I’ve ever managed to fully enjoy were the audio plays from SciFi.com, featuring Neil Gaiman’s Snow Glass Apples and Murder Mysteries.

Or is it the game?

I have no issues with the 3D environmental audio effect in Blindside. It is done quite well, and even I can hear that such-and-such sound is on my right, or on my left. (Telling apart if it’s forward or backward of me is a lot harder, though.)

Some may take issue with the slightly cheesy voice acting, which is distinctly on the slightly low budget side, but I’m ready to forgive it as it’s a low budget indie type of game.

My primary problem is trying to get a spatial sense of the ‘room’ exactly as the designers envisioned it (and thus placed audio cues to reflect their vision) plus navigate it with the given key controls according to that imaginary spatial picture.

Key controls are supposedly simple. Arrow keys to move forward, move backward, turn left and turn right.

Unfortunately, and it becomes very obvious very quickly, the question arises, just HOW MUCH forward movement, backward movement, left and right turning are we talking about here with one key press?

Perhaps this dates me, but I belong to the generation of adventure gamers (and MUDders) who envision things in terms of “rooms” and compass directions – a simplified navigation mechanic that lets you go in 4 directions, NSEW, or 8 directions if we throw in the diagonals (NW, SE, NE, SW), and 10 with up and down.

That was my initial spatial map, where I assumed one ‘forward’ would take me into room 1 – where room 1 might actually be part of a bedroom’s wall or some such, and to get to room 2, I would have to tap “turn left” then “go forward” once each. Room 3 would be ‘turn right’ then ‘go forward’, room 4 ‘go backward’ and room 5 ‘turn right, go forward, turn right, go forward’ and so on.

This sort of grid might be overlaid on top of an actual bedroom, say, where the TV might be at position 3, and the closet at position 3, the bed at position 5, and so on…

A little lost bumbling around in the dark later, and some squint eyed sneak peeking at the compass Blindside provides, it was clear, this was NOT how Blindside worked.

Back to the drawing board

In fact, the compass was very worrisome.

It had the eight cardinal directions, but if you notice in the picture above, both the north and northeast directions are highlighted to different degrees. One tap of the left or right key does not shift you to one of eight possible directions, there are MORE degrees of freedom than that. How much more, I haven’t counted, but if I’m ever bored, I might start counting the number of key presses it takes to shift from one fully highlighted arrow to the other.

Instead, in good faith, I tried to revise my mental spatial picture accordingly.

Let’s assume I’m in the center of a room. The narration says there’s stuff to my right and in front of me (that are creating distinctive noises) and so on. So far, so good. Just rotating in place, I can tell where they are in relation to myself.

The problem arises when you have to walk towards them. Basically, turn in place to orientate the stuff to the right of you, turn in place to orientate the same stuff to the left of you, turn in place to approximate somewhere in the middle of that means it’s ahead of you, press forward for an unspecified amount of time and hope that you bump into it. If you do, yay.

If you don’t, then that’s -really- a problem. Because now you don’t know where you are. Pressing forward some more, the game is mysteriously silent and refuses to tell you that you’ve bumped into…say, a wall. You can’t feel anything in an audio-only game, unlike in say, real life.

Gamely, you rotate a bit and press forward some more, hoping to ram into something, anything. The game still says nothing.

More rotations and forward pressing later, you may indeed bump into something the game decided was worth describing to you, or you may end up “sliding” along something – except you don’t know how far and in what direction you’re sliding, and indeed, what you’re sliding against.

In a safe environment with no dangers, this turns into a frustrating guessing game of rotating randomly and charging forward, hoping to encounter the desired goal and move on to the next stage. Eventually, assuming you haven’t given up, you do hit upon the ‘magic spot’ and move on.

Alas, the next sequence was even more annoying. Some bad things happen, and one basically ends up facing Something Loud, Awful-Sounding, and Distinctly Death-Causing should you run into it.

You are very very sure where it is, and that you don’t want to go there.

Problem now is, you want to go back where you came from, where there is a stricken lady screaming a stock phrase which goes something like “help, I’m scared! come back to me please!” on repeat loop.

Alas,  she sounds very muffled compared to AWFUL SOUNDING HORROR NOISE and try as you might, she is essentially ambient audio with little direction as compared to the distinctly not-going-there noise.

As for the rest of the ‘room,’ it’s supposedly an apartment corridor with doors, or some such, and you gotta get back to yours, except you have no idea where it is in relation to where you are now.

Well, shit. Ten minutes later of getting continually eaten by the awful noise because that seemed to be the only way to go forward and actually encounter something (going backward just backed me into an apartment door that wasn’t mine) and some more random rotation hoping to maybe get to the apartment door that was mine, I somehow blundered past the horrible thing back to the girl who had really good lungs and no imagination.

(Suggestion for the future, try continual environmental noises as the cue, not a girl saying the same thing on repeat loop for as long as it takes someone really bad at navigating to get to the next checkpoint. Less immersion breaking that way.)

A little later, I encountered the situation that made me give up.

I believe real blind people get by crossing roads with a combination of asking for aid, tactile feedback in determining where the curb is, a dog guide, and so on. I might be wrong, I don’t have any experience besides what I read on websites. I certainly appreciate that it is an everyday challenge for them.

But I’m convinced that they certainly do NOT fling themselves into oncoming traffic just based on the sounds of the vehicle driving into the distance and hope to survive in between the cars until they get to the other side. That’s just… plain absurd.

And frustrating as a game scenario.

(I did try. I counted my footsteps, hoping to walk an equal amount of distance between safe non-speeding car spots and eventually get to the other side / goal that way, but somehow, after the 4th or 5th car sound, I still got bowled over and squished by an oncoming car. I ran into some poles or other by rotating randomly, and while trying to figure out how to move away from the pole, got ran down by a car. I ran forward and smacked into the thing in the middle which was blocking my path (whatever it was) and while trying to figure out how to slide around it, had a car ram into me. I charged heedlessly forward hoping to avoid the cars on pure faith and was let down.)

Which ultimately is the most damning thing I can say about Blindside. I wanted to like this game. But it’s just not fun to play.

It’s like one of those read-the-author’s-mind adventure game puzzles, made much worse because you can’t see shit. On purpose.

P.S. I’d love to hear what folks brave enough to try it out think. And if you’ve any suggestions on how to navigate properly or how the ‘rooms’ are laid out, which seems to be the bulk of my problem with the game, I just can’t create a picture in my head that matches what the developers think I should doing.

I’m at the point where I think I might have to try and map every coordinate point of the first room keypress by keypress  in order to begin to understand how the hell stuff is laid out. Or maybe I should just go play another game because this one ain’t worth my time.