The rewarding but occasionally unpleasant video game Beyond Eyes has one exceptional idea: You're blind. Or you're Rae, rather, and Rae is blind. Because she can't see, you can't see.
Instead, this young blind girl pieces together a visual picture of the world around her by using her other senses -- mostly sound, but also smell and touch. Occasionally, in the distance, a bird will chirp or a bell will toll, and a faraway image will shimmer. For the most part, however, Rae can visualise nothing beyond a small circle that surrounds her. Everything else is a vast, unknowable whiteness.
I'm not blind, so I have no idea whether the interactive interpretation of blindness in Beyond Eyes -- which was released Tuesday for Xbox One -- approximates the actual experience of being blind. It's worth noting that Rae used to be a seeing person before she was injured in an accident, which seems like a gesture on the game's part to help explain why she sees the world around her inside her head. Does a blind-from-birth person do that while exploring the world? I can't say. The game was very successful, however, at making me feel like my video-game vision had been removed.
What Rae thinks she hears does not always match reality. A clothesline might transform into a scarecrow when she gets close. A woodpecker hammering at a tree might in fact be the clicking of a pedestrian stoplight at a crosswalk.
The climax of Beyond Eyes moved me deeply, a feat that only a very few video games have managed. Yet I also didn't much like whole swaths of the game. Is that evidence that there's something wrong with the game, or that there's something wrong with me?
Playing Beyond Eyes reminded me of a New York Times Magazine essay from a few years ago titled "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables" by Dan Kois, now the culture editor at Slate. In it, Kois examined his relationship to "aspirational" culture, which for him consists of things that are slow and difficult and don't reveal themselves immediately or simply. Kois was writing about movies, specifically about Meek's Cutoff, a Kelly Reichardt film that A.O. Scott described rapturously in the Times as "bracingly original" and a "tough, quiet revelation." (For what it's worth, the audience in the arthouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I saw Meek's Cutoff in 2011 booed when the credits rolled.)
For Kois, the movie was worth seeing -- but only in retrospect. "Which is to say, it affected me viscerally, and I've found myself thinking about it over and over since," he wrote. "But during the time I actually watched the film, I had trouble staying planted in my seat with my attention focused on the screen, as the long dissolves from one wind-blasted plateau to another sent my thoughts blowing in a dozen directions."
This captures almost my exact feelings about playing Beyond Eyes. Rae spends most of the game searching for her lost cat. I found her exploration through a pastoral, watercolor landscape alternately monotonous and frustrating. Under my direction, Rae would creep slowly toward the sound of her mewing pet only to be obstructed by an unseen fence or a treeline that would materialise when Rae got close enough to touch it.
I suppose I might also find the experience of actually being blind to be boring and frustrating, and I probably wouldn't like it very much, either. On that level, Beyond Eyes is a success. Still, as an avowed eater of cultural spinach -- including video-game spinach -- I strongly prefer spinach that tastes like chocolate ice cream (to borrow a phrase from an old boss, the magazine editor Michael Kinsley). Give me Journey, or Papo & Yo, or The Talos Principle, or dys4ia. Those were games that led me to new, unforeseen video-game vistas without making the journey to the mountaintop an unpleasant one.
On the other hand, I think Kois is correct when he writes, "Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span -- movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression." There are fools who think there is no such thing as a civilized player of video games, but those people are -- as this sentence has already determined -- fools. If games are to become what we already believe them to be, there must be a place for games like Beyond Eyes.
When we talk about difficulty in video games, we usually mean games like Spelunky or Dark Souls, games that require practice and repetition to achieve mastery. But there is another class of "hard" game, ones that are meant to be played only once and whose meanings often become clear to players only upon reflection, or in conversation with other players.
In a recent essay, "Against Flow," the critic and designer Lana Polansky worries that video game players and creators are limiting the emotional potential of games by fixating on the need to put players into a meditative state through smooth, polished interactions. "Where flow has become a shorthand for numbed subjectivity -- particularly in the act of playing -- and where this numbed subjectivity is elevated as an ideal player response, we have a crisis," she writes. "It means those intrepid developers who are crafting provocative, dissonant, emotionally challenging games are classified not only as less marketable, but as fundamentally irreligious to the prevailing wisdom of what a good game is supposed to be."
Maybe there was no way to make the final minute of Beyond Eyes as affecting as it was for me without making the middle three hours less exasperating. The exasperation may in fact be what led to my empathetic emotional reaction. That sensation -- of identifying with, rather than witnessing, the experience of another person -- is something that video games do better than any other medium.
Yet I also wish, the way Kois does about his aspirational movies, that I liked Beyond Eyes more while I was spending my time it. Because I really like it, now that I'm not playing it any more.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby