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Indie Horror Month 2014: 'BlindSide'

BlindSide is a good example of how scary something new can be.

It’s Indie Horror Month once again here at Moving Pixels, which means it’s time for more esoteric horror games, starting with an iOS game that’s meant to be played with your eyes closed.

Blindside is an iOS audio horror game. In it, you and your girlfriend (and everyone else it seems) have suddenly been struck blind. You navigate though this sudden darkness using the sounds of your environment, like the humming of a fridge or the whooshing of a fan. And then, of course, there are the monsters you must avoid. They'll happily eat you if you get too close to them, so that's a clue to avoid any deep growling you might hear. The game also uses the phone's gyroscope to determine where you're facing. That means to turn in the game that you must physically turn your body. You play BlindSide by standing (or sitting in a swivel chair) and spinning in place. It looks goofy from the outside, but it creates an exciting and immersive experience.

It all works surprisingly well. The sounds are given a binaural effect to help convey direction. If there's a fountain on your left, you'll hear splashing in your left ear only, and if you turn to face the water, the sound spreads evenly to both ears. Because of this effect, BlindSide must be played with headphones. It would be practically unplayable without 3D sound. The game is smart about how it spaces out these environmental sounds. You'll usually hear multiple things at once, but never enough to overwhelm you. Two points of interest are enough to convey a sense of your immediate space.

The need to physically turn also helps reinforce this sense of space and direction. It's one thing to hear a fountain behind you, but it's another thing to turn and hear the splashing rotate around you. The game can be played without this physicality. There's another control mode that allows you to sit or stand in place and just tilt the phone to turn, but I found it to be very confusing. The game already asks you to accept an abstracted reality and control scheme, and the physicality helps make the audio cues less abstract, helping you to create a 3D map of the world in your head. Virtual space feels more real when it demands some kind of physical interaction.

Once you get your bearings and you know where you want to go, you touch the top of the phone's screen to walk forward, touching the bottom of the screen moves backwards, and touching the center gives you a hint. These are the only touch screen controls, and they're simple enough to ensure you don't have to look at the screen. In fact, the game encourages you to close your eyes when you play since "You don't need them anymore."

The hint button is incredibly useful since it not only restates where you want to go, but it also states where that goal is in relation to you. Your character narrates his position in clear and simple language to minimize any confusion. Theoretically, you could abuse this function by tapping it over and over again until you’re facing the right direction and then just head towards it. Tap and the office is behind me, tap and the office is to my left, tap and the office is to my right, tap and the office is in front of me. Move forward. Puzzle solved. Such abuse would betray the spirit of the game, but BlindSide also recognizes that it’s a weird game with a weird control scheme. It never limits the number of hints that you can use. It trusts you to only use them when necessary.

The one downside to the game and its audio focus is that the clear and simple directions lessen the fear factor. It's a matter of practicality winning out over tone. Dialogue might be hard to understand if the narrator or his girlfriend spoke with the appropriate amount of fear. Instead, the characters are more exasperated than horrified. In fact, they seem more distraught over their sudden blindness than over the sudden appearance of monsters near them. That's because the beginning is a "cut scene" of sorts, dialogue without gameplay, so there's less need to be clear and calm.

However, this actually lends the game a B-movie charm. The characters recognize that they're in a crazy situation and immediately work to get out of it. They're not going to waste anytime with questions of "realism," and their swift acceptance makes them likable and capable. I want them to survive if only because they're not stupid.

That’s not to say that the game’s not scary. The appearance of the first monster is especially frightening as it comes out of nowhere. In all honesty, BlindSide probably wouldn’t be scary as a visual game. It would probably be just another indie survival-horror game in a sea of indie survival-horror games. What fear it does evoke stems entirely from the loss of our most important sense. Blindness is naturally unnerving for someone not used to it, so the game makes you feel anxious even when there’s no danger. It's temping to open your eyes at times just to reestablish your place in the real world, but again, that would betray and spirit the game. Also, again, BlindSide trusts you to keep yourself immersed in the experience.

BlindSide is a good example of how scary something new can be. So much of horror is based on visual tropes, and those tropes, while eternally effective on a primal level, do lose some of their power over time. BlindSide puts us in a new situation that’s naturally uncomfortable. Even if its tone was relentlessly upbeat, it would still be somewhat frightening simply because it's so unusual. BlindSide isn’t the scariest game of Indie Horror Month 2014, but it is by far the most unique.

It’s available on the iOS app store, or newly available on PC and Macs through Desura.

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