Game reviews: Submerged and Beyond Eyes - uncommon challenges
Productions a riposte to those who say video games too violent; in one you play a girl who must save her dying younger brother on a drowned planet, in the other a blind girl seeking her lost cat
Without a doubt, the biggest criticism from those who claim video games are a "lesser" medium is that they're too violent - too sadistic and crass to be taken seriously, rewarding audiences for brutality rather than character or story development. And for those who continue to be so wilfully and stubbornly ignorant, we present Submerged.
It's an intimate story set in a familiar post-apocalyptic setting: players take on the role of a girl attempting to save her dying younger brother as she journeys across a drowned, Waterworld-like planet. But there are no enemies here. There's no time limit for its sole mission, no penalties if you fail to complete anything, and no way to die.
Foregoing traditional - some might say outdated - ideas of risk or combat, Submerged (published by Uppercut) is a compelling example of how modern gaming is stretching the boundaries to become a more uninhibited and expressive medium. Your mildly mundane search for medicine might be a little simplistic, a series of climbs and hikes across gorgeously bleak drowned-world landscapes, but they're a means to a greater end. The world the developers have created here is hauntingly fascinating. You voyage across underwater streets, up moss-covered buildings and through remnants of the past world that jut out like a series of islets from the depths. And while this is far from a button-masher, you do occasionally encounter the creatures that inhabit this fallen world, from the sea creatures and birdlife that have taken over to the mysterious humanoids that trail your every move.
There are limitations, of course. Submerged can be completed in about four hours, so its world lacks the epic scope of modern sandbox games, especially when you encounter the invisible boundaries that limit your adventures. Graphics can also occasionally fizzle, especially as the game switches from day to night. And, obviously, there are those who will find it all a little boring.
For everyone else, and especially those clouded by reactionary media judgments, Submerged is worth a play. It obviously doesn't make a case for the end of violence in video games - and really, why should it? - but it's a wonderful alternative to the norm: a restrained, cathartic and almost hypnotic exploration of a gorgeously bleak world.
Beyond Eyes - in a sightless world
The most fascinating thing about video games - and I've harped on about this many times before - is how they let you live lives otherwise out of common grasp. Whether it's murderous gangsters, sporting superstars, stealthy secret agents, colossus-destroying fantasy heroes, the possibilities are endless, and by this point, it can seem that nearly all territory has been well mined.
That made Beyond Eyes (Tiger & Squid) an interesting idea on paper. In the game, available for PC, OS, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One, you play as Rei, a sheltered young blind girl who must venture outside her comfort zone in search of her lost cat. Your sightless world is a blank canvas, and it's only through memories, touch, sound and smell that surroundings begin to form in beautiful watercolour-like flourishes, so that eventually you can turn around and see entire areas fully realised.
Or do you? After all, memory can be deceiving, with scenes in the mind's eye changing dramatically without the benefit of sight. And that's unfortunately where the developer drops the ball: raindrops occasionally hamper Rei's abilities and barking dogs frighten her, but an opportunity to simulate the unsighted experience has been missed here.
Instead, we're given traces of a great game, let down by its limited story and a standard set of puzzles. The plot is quite bare-bones, which is compounded by its use of on-screen text to guide us. Worse, the gameplay hints at the confusion of a darkened world, through hampered memories and vague situations, but ends up as a multitude of generic fetch-and-carry missions.
We're not angry with Beyond Eyes, just disappointed. As far as we know, no video game previously had ever tried to create the experience of being blind. But after playing through its frustrating three-hour running time, we kind of wish no game ever did.
Not everyone will agree, and a small but devoted cult has already started to gather behind the game. For those who've seen it all in the gaming world, the ability to be "blinded" by Beyond Eyes' innovative concept might seem effective. But for casual gamers, its shortcomings are easy to see.