‘The Blind Swordsman’ Teaches How to See Video Games More Clearly

When I was 10-years-old, I fell in love with an issue of G.I. Joe called “Silent Interlude.”

It wasn’t love at first sight.

In fact, at first I felt ripped off. I had just purchased a comic book with no words in it for 60 whole cents. All I could do was look at the pictures. This was something that I did at the comic book stand for free all the time, for crying out loud.

Indeed, this act was often how I chose what comic books I would be buying that week, taking a glance through the book and seeing what looked cool, what potentially might make for a good story. I felt like someone had left out half the experience of the need to buy a comic. You know, reading a comic, finding out its story. But someone, I felt, had left out the story and that someone probably owed me 60 cents.

However, on looking through the comic a few times, I discovered something. A story could be told just through pictures, and there was a pretty cool story being told in “Silent Interlude,” maybe even in a way best told without words.

“Silent Interlude” is a story about Snake-Eyes, the most mysterious member of the Joes, infiltrating a Cobra stronghold to rescue his fellow soldier and lady love, Scarlet. Words would, of course, be intrusive in this stealth mission. Snake-Eyes, it would be shortly revealed in the larger story arc of G.I. Joe, was trained as a ninja, silence is his element and appreciating his ability to do his job without making a sound was, perhaps, the most appropriate way to view the character. Also, as a result of recognizing the fact that Snake-Eyes himself is mute, which is what had always made him seem especially mysterious, especially cool and unknowable to kids like me, it dawned on me just how clever this issue was in its execution. Finally, that Snake-Eyes’s former friend and now ultimate nemesis, Storm Shadow, made his first appearance in the comic book series in this issue further emphasized how amazing it was to leave the issue silent and thus mysterious. Who was this guy? What was his relationship to Snake-Eyes? These questions were deepened by a lack of exposition, a lack of explanation for what I was seeing.

In a sense, what “Silent Interlude” had done had boiled down the comic book to its most essential form for me. Comic books are dominantly a visual medium. Yes, they tell stories, and, yes, they often have words in them, but, perhaps, their main allure is in how they tell stories with pictures. The fact that I often determined what comic book to pick up based on flipping through and glancing at images, rather than reading a summary on the back of the book (as one would do with a dominantly textual form of narrative, like the novel) actually spoke directly to this central importance of the image to the experience of comic books.

All of which I was reminded of the other evening as I began to play a game by Evil-Dog and SickDeathFiend called The Blind Swordsman. The Blind Swordsman is a game about, well, a blind swordsman. More specifically, you play as a blind swordsman on a quest to restore his sight.

The game begins with a beautifully drawn prelude and some exposition about who the Blind Swordsmen is and what his goal is. Similar visual and auditory vignettes precede each gameplay sequence, which concern doing battle with a series of foes that stand between the swordsman and the warlock that he seeks to heal his damaged sight. And while this is a flash game that clearly doesn’t skimp on creating a world that is interesting to look at, the gameplay, which is from the blind swordsman’s perspective, features no visuals at all.

That’s right, no visuals. Barring old school text adventures, we largely think of video games as a visual medium, somehow like film or comic books, a medium that tells its stories most clearly through sight and spectacle. However, The Blind Swordsman‘s actual moments of interactivity leave the player looking at a black screen, mimicking the blindness of the character that they are preforming as, a screen that only includes instructions on how to do battle, how to turn, how to parry, and how to attack. The game is played based only on the player’s responsiveness to sound (and indeed this is a game best played with headphones on for this reason).

As your opponents taunt you and move around you, you are tasked with parrying their blows and attacking at the right moment based only on aural cues. Needless to say, the game is not an easy one, especially the first time that you pick it up. Learning the appropriate timing to react and respond to your enemies is critical to the experience. Indeed, it is the experience.

While The Blind Swordsman at first might seem like madness, a video game without an essential component of the video game, the video part, in a fundamental way it reminds me of what “Silent Interlude” revealed to me about the essential components of its medium. If comic books are grounded on visual storytelling, video games are based on reaction, reflex, and timing, and like “Silent Interlude” by removing some of the distracting features that exist in the medium, the game emphasizes the core of the most significant experience of video games. This form of game, as opposed to most of their non-digital brethren, like card games or board games, are about well executed physical reaction and response. Yes, games are about intellectual response, learning, and planning, but the video game is uniquely suited for an intellectual response being enacted through physical action. The video game is a game of the mind, but it takes intellectual challenge and gives it a tangible and sensory way of recognizing the performance of that activity. It is about what you do in response to that which challenges you. That this is frequently represented through visuals is notable but not necessary. It is reflexive action that is the dominant interest of the experience of the medium.

That The Blind Swordsman doesn’t take the unique perspective of its protagonist for granted is, of course, like “Silent Interlude”’s clever nod to Snake-Eyes’s muteness, a limitation directly acknowledged not merely by the narrative but by the form that the narrative takes. In the case of The Blind Swordsman, limitation is expressed not only through narrative but impressively — and somewhat initially frustratingly — by the form that the gameplay takes. However, when a medium clears out some of its distracting and inessential components, the result can often be initially be a little frustrating. It ain’t always love at first sight.

You may feel ripped off at first by The Blind Swordsman. However, it is a game that may make you recognize what you love about video games all the more clearly as it reveals what video games are really all about by ridding itself of its glossy features and focusing only on what is essential to the experience, exceptionally executed performance.

You can play The Blind Swordsman for free at Newgrounds.