Stem Stumper is a puzzle game made by Ananse Productions, a small game-making outfit in Massachusetts driving toward the goal of making video games for people for whom video games aren’t usually made. Stem Stumper , Ananse’s debut effort, is made to be enjoyed by blind gamers. And for those, like me, who can see, it allows us to experience what that sensation is like—not just to play something without seeing, but to excel at it, to overcome a handicap.
Stem Stumper is a puzzle game that uses the metaphor of gardening. The game is divided into levels, like Angry Birds or other popular puzzle games. In each level, your iPhone or iPad screen is a plot of land. There is a seed on the bottom right corner. Elsewhere on the land, hiding until you tap them with your fingertip, are one or more packets of fertilizer. Collecting all of them, by tracing your finger from seed to fertilizer, clears the level. In some levels there are tree stumps that block you from connecting the dots; in others the path is crossed by a cloud of poison gas. There are tools buried in the land that will help you with these obstacles: explosive acorns, shields and so on.
This is the twist: Every one of those things on Stem Sumper‘s playing field—the stumps, the acorns, the poison gas, the fertilizer—emits a unique musical signature. So if you couldn’t see your iPhone, because you were blindfolded or blind, you could glide your finger across your iPhone’s screen, across the plot of land and you could hear, through music, the arrangement of all those things. You could paint a mental picture of each of Stemp Stumper’s puzzle levels. You could see by hearing.
Stem Stumper‘s see-it-by-sound Sonar Mode I first played Stem Stumper with its graphics on. It’s a fine puzzle game; neither brilliant or pedestrian. I tried it in its “sonar mode”, a mode that turns off the graphics on the playing field, and forces you to “see” by sound, and the game came alive. Discovering the contours of a level by listening to it as you touch it is a marvelously novel experience.
Stem Stumper is designed to be fully playable by blind players. It includes voice-over of its tutorials to supplement the non-graphics-dependent gameplay. It’s a classy effort, making a game that evens the playing field for sighted and non-sighted gamers.
Stem Stumper [iTunes, 99 cents this week]