For a grad project, it had an ambitious premise: a video game in which a blind girl goes on a quest through a creepy, darkened world, trying to find her brother who has disappeared.
Pulse is meant to give some insight into what it's like to be blind – and also speaks to the ongoing evolution of gaming from a shoot-'em-up good time to a mind-opening experience with broad appeal. Unveiled last week at Vancouver Film School's industry-attended Pitch & Play session to a whole lot of wowed reaction, the game was once reckoned too ambitious for a student project.
"I really thought it was going to be difficult to pull off what they were trying to achieve, because it was just such a different idea of: How do you portray a blind person's world in a game experience?" says industry veteran Dave Warfield, head of Game Design at VFS. "We weren't sure how they were going to do it, or whether they would be able to achieve what they wanted," he says of the five-student team behind Pulse. "But very early on, they put together a prototype that actually kind of blew all our minds."
In the game, Eva, 13, has lost her sight – and with it, the rightful place in her tribe to complete a rite-of-passage pilgrimage to a shrine in the forest. Her younger brother Tahu is sent instead – and disappears. She sets out to find him, throwing little babbling creatures called Mokos to light the way, and fighting off a beast who is also blind.
With its darkened – but still visually dynamic – game environment, Pulse relies heavily on sound design, with a protagonist who essentially sees through sound. "I'm not sure if we had the idea of specifically a blind protagonist at the beginning," says Maxwell Hannaman, a 22-year-old native of Colorado. "It was more: Oh, let's use the idea of sound and echolocation to create some kind of interesting game mechanic."
A Little Red Riding Hood for the digital age, the crimson-cloaked Eva travels cautiously, accompanied by an ominous soundtrack. If she tosses a Moko, it makes more sound, which helps her interpret her environment. "They reflect a little bit of the emotion of what's going on in the world," says student Richard Harrison, 24. "So when they're scared, it kind of implies that you should be scared as well."
An early inspiration for the students was the animated short Out of Sight, about a blind girl who loses her dog in the city. The students walked blindfolded around Harrisons' apartment. They also spoke with blind people, extensively with one man in particular – not just to discover how he navigates through the world, but also to get his take on their idea. "He was totally okay with it," says Hannaman. "He basically understood this is not a game meant for blind people; it's a game more about an interpretation of the blind experience."
Working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for more than three months, the team created an accomplished first level – up to about 45 minutes of play time. If they can secure the time and resources, they would like to complete more levels.
While an impressive technical feat, Pulse also speaks to a continued gaming trend that really took off with the Nintendo Wii. "It's not just the teenage boy in the basement with his Xbox 360," says Warfield. "Whether it's younger children or older women or grandparents," today's players "aren't just going to sit down and play the latest Halo game. … So it's kind of forcing people to try to create different game experiences that appeal to that wider audience."
After last week's reveal, there was an evident sense of relief and accomplishment among the team members – all of whom are still looking for jobs in the industry. Similar to their protagonist, they had carried out their mission against the odds.
"There's a lot of people that, when we pitched this game, originally said, 'Good luck,' " says Harrison. "And they, I think, were really happy to see us pull it off."