How Beyond Eyes went from a beautiful student project to one of the stunners of E3

Sherida Halatoe is from the Netherlands, and this seems important. It is a country of color, known for its tulips, windmills, and Van Gogh’s splotchy paint gobs. Her game Beyond Eyes is about perception and what happens when that is taken away. You play as a blind girl wading her way through the world, and though Halatoe is not blind, while watching her play her game during a private playthrough at Microsoft’s Xbox E3 booth I can tell that she comes from a vibrant place and does not take that for granted.

Beyond Eyes began as her college graduation project while at HKU (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht); she worked on the game by herself for three-and-a-half years. Last August, Team17 approached her about publishing. Once Microsoft expressed interest in showing it off during their E3 press conference, a team of twelve had been working to turn Halatoe’s vision into a fully realized Xbox One game releasing this summer.

“There’s no text in the game, there’s no interface, there’s no spoken dialogue that you can understand,” Halatoe says. “Most of the story is told visually.”

the focus on imagery makes both complete sense and none at all 

For a game where the main character is blind, the focus on imagery and color as our only source of information makes both complete sense and none at all. The majority of the screen is a stark, milky white. But a game whose entire screen was blank for its entirety might as well be an audio-only game like The Night Jar or an interactive radio play. The game’s protagonist was not born blind; she recalls the sense of being witness to her world.

As she moves through a meadow, pink ribbons swirl outward from her, coloring in her surroundings. The more of the world that you interact with, the more she learns, and her field of vision will gradually broaden. Her other senses help fill in the gaps. As Rae crosses a stone bridge she hears a frog. It ribbits and bounds along the railing, and the player sees the frog and its landing points as colored-in, floating points of interest in the pervasive white, until she can no longer hear it and the frog fades away.

When Rae approaches unknown areas, the limits of her knowledge are represented by darker, smeared outlines. “Her body language shows she’s very uncomfortable,” Halatoe says, Rae clutching her elbows and hugging her body. “If there’s a dangerous situation, she won’t be able to go through with that. On the other hand, for the player there is an opportunity to change her perspective.”

We often take for granted what we think we know. In talking with the non-sighted community while researching the game, Halatoe learned that much of their experience dealt with the unintended misdirection that occurs during routine navigation. As Rae continues through a prairie, she hears the trickle of water; on-screen, we see a fountain, since she remembers what these look like. As she nears the sound, it shimmers and turns into what it is: A dripping drain pipe.

Later, a clothesline of laundry blowing in the breeze ends up being a scarecrow. Birds soon surround you; Rae is scared and backs away, flinching from the unexpected presence of cawing things. Throughout the game you can choose to keep your distance, remembering the pleasant memory, or approach these unknowns and add to her collective understanding of the world, even if it pains her in the short-term.

Games such as Shadow of the Colossus and Ico showed her examples of narratives consumed not with world-saving but other, more human devotions. But it was Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard that made her interested in how player’s controls could change the character and how, in turn, their reaction changes the player. That game’s main character is an elderly woman; due to her frailty, if you move her too fast she stumbles and falls.

Rae’s journey echoes a population more willing to explore and understand 

“You feel really, really bad for her,” Halatoe remembers, “but it was interesting to see how your input affects the protagonist.”

When Halatoe first began developing what would become Beyond Eyes, there were very few mainstream platforms for the kind of empathetic, story-driven, artistically-guided games she wanted to make. Now all three console makers regularly feature independent games that eschew big-budget spectacle for intimate engagement. More importantly, players are seeking them out. In a way, Rae’s journey echoes that of a mainstream population more willing to explore and understand that which they previously did not understand.

“I’m very lucky,” Halatoe admits, knowing that if she’d developed this game a decade ago it would have remained a free alpha stuck online somewhere, languishing out of sight. Instead, Microsoft has given her a private room to demonstrate the game to the world’s press.

On screen, Rae cowers under an umbrella, the pounding rain limiting her perception to a tight circle: the water has washed away any scent and the sound is a thundering drone with no visual equivalent in her memory.

She walks on, tentative though unceasing. The rain lets up. She hears the slight meow of her cat Nani. This is the reason we are walking through unknown farmland; Rae is looking for her cat that ran away.

“They become best friends, they play little games,” Halatoe says. “And they cuddle a lot.”

Sounds like motivation enough to get back something lost.