At some point, all of us set off on an adventure into the unknown. It’s a common coming of age story, but nearly all of the protagonists in adventure fiction are sighted people. In video games, the number of protagonists with vision impairments is smaller still. Beyond Eyes is one of the few games explicitly about a girl who doesn’t use a sense of sight to navigate the world.
Rae was born sighted, but in an accident her vision became impaired. Still adjusting to living without her sight, Rae mostly explores her small world within the safety of her home’s outdoor garden. A visiting cat she names Nani becomes her sole companion, and Rae always looks forward to Nani’s visits. However, one day Nani stops coming, and Rae sets off on a personal journey to find her friend. Rae enters an unfamiliar world she has not explored on her own before.
As Rae walks around, the vast expanse of white space before her fills in based on Rae’s proximity to the space and how loud it is. Rae will sense a chirping bird perched on a ledge before she knows where a wall is. Using her senses of hearing, smell, and touch, she makes her way far from home, guessing where Nani has been. It’s unclear whether Rae has total blindness or is merely visually impaired, since the white space fills in as she walks into it. Navigating is difficult, as I’d expect it to be for a vision-impaired person in an unfamiliar environment. Running into obstacles becomes a common occurrence, which wouldn’t be so bad if Rae didn’t get occasionally stuck on a wall or a fence. Rae also walks slowly, which makes sense for the pace of the game, but her slow pace is a chore when reaching a dead end and needing to backtrack.
Audio cues both introduce and remove paths to follow. A church bell in the distance will pique Rae’s interest, but a growling dog will frighten Rae. The color in the world becomes darker, and Rae will clutch her sides. At one point a dog follows Rae, and she backs up slowly and anxiously until she falls. If she then pets the dog, she overcomes her fear and stops imagining barking dogs in a scary way. The world is up to Rae’s imagination, which is what makes her filling in the blanks on the player’s screen so interesting. Unlike someone who was born visually impaired, Rae still has a sense of what certain things look like. Sometimes her perceptions are wrong, such as hearing running water and assuming a fountain is nearby, only to realize it was actually a drainage pipe as she touches it. This is used well to some extent; the change in Rae’s perception quickly affects the mood of the game. When Rae hears something blowing in the wind, assuming it to be clothes hung to dry, and discovers it to be a scarecrow, she is momentarily shaken. An overload of sounds, such as a storm, also messes with Rae’s perception of her surroundings.
Developer Tiger & Squid clearly understood sound design would be important to the game; after all, when Rae’s not touching a wall as she walks by, she relies on her hearing to get around. It’s a shame, then, the game doesn’t take full advantage of sounds to navigate the player. I really wish this game was in surround sound and incorporated more sound design beyond the sound of running streams, Nani’s meows, and sudden noises. Being able to hear the crunching of my feet on the grass or the shifting dirt and gravel versus walking on cobblestone or a boardwalk would make me feel like I was firmly in different areas, and I’m sure Rae would easily distinguish the sounds. Greater sound distinction would also make the game more accessible to people with vision impairment.
While I enjoyed the beauty of Beyond Eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this game was about a blind character made solely for sighted people. The lack of audio and text to speech options limits the game to people who do not share Rae’s experiences. As someone with sight, I still had a hard time discerning which things I could interact with. A small strand circles Rae, and it changes color to indicate what Rae is experiencing or whether the player can take an action. For example, a golden strand wafts around Rae when she smells something, and a light green strand circles her when the player can do something, such as climb over an obstacle. However, I missed multiple items I could have interacted with because the green circling strand wasn’t visible enough to me—and I’m a sighted person.
I make a distinction between the player and Rae because as interesting as the game’s premise is, there was always a disconnect between Rae and me; the game couldn’t decide whether I would be playing as Rae or playing as her guardian. We never see or hear her family, so I don’t think Tiger & Squid was trying to get me to empathize with specifically them, but there wasn’t enough I learned about Rae to get to know her better beyond her disability and love for Nani.
Occasionally I saw glimpses of Rae’s character. These were in small interactions, such as dropping a flower into a stream and giggling or sit on a swingset by herself. These moments say a lot about Rae, but they happen infrequently, and I kept desperately wanting to see how Rae would interact with and react to her surroundings because that would tell me more about her. While the primary motivation to move forward in the story is to find Nani, I always felt the most important part of the story was Rae and how she feels about her adventure away from home. However, because most of the time is spent only walking, with few clues as to what Rae is thinking at that moment, that story feels weak, and the story with Nani didn’t feel particularly fleshed out either.
One of the great things about Beyond Eyes is its childlike wonder of the world around us. Yes, Rae can’t see what’s around her, but it’s also an adventure of hers to learn about the world outside of the garden. The game doesn’t pity or condescend Rae, and it avoids clichés about her being an inspiration because of her disability. Rae’s an inspiration because she’s resourceful, inquisitive, and determined.
Beyond Eyes is a game with a great concept that could have embraced more sound design and character building to deliver a compelling story for an audience beyond the sighted.
Beyond Eyes is available now on Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
Carly Smith is a writer and editor living in the greater New York City area where she writes about cosplay, games, and other art/entertainment as a part of her Patreon. Follow her cat pictures and more on twitter @roseofbattle.