Representing blindness through art in Another Sight
Lunar Great Wall CEO Marco Ponte talks us through his studio's inaugural game that renders a world of darkness in the style of Monet
Video games are an inherently visual affair, so it may seem strange to build one around the concept of being blind.
It's something numerous indies have attempted before, but the latest and perhaps most striking example comes from Lunar Great Wall, the newly opened Italian studio that's attempted to both build games and teach development.
Another Sight is the debut title from the Milan-based developer and puts players in the role of Kit, a young girl who loses her sight after being trapped in a tunnel that collapses. She is guided by a mysterious cat-like creature who essentially serves as her eyes, feeding back information that paints a picture of her surroundings on the player's screen.
"The idea first came to me when I read an article reporting there are several blind people who use human echolocation to detect objects in their environment and are able to orient themselves by interpreting sound waves reflecting of objects," CEO Marco Ponte tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Moreover, there is even a school to teach blind people to develop this skill through the use of palatal clicks.
"I wanted to develop this concept further and create a protagonist with this ability, so I began to think about how shapes would be perceived and what difficulties they would face in interacting with the environment."
To fully research the experience of blindness, Ponte and his team visited the nearby Istituto dei Ciechi in Milan, which has a permanent exhibition entitled Dialogue in the Dark. Attendees are guided through a variety of daily experiences in complete darkness, with activities designed to explore all the other senses, such as taste, touch and smell.
"When I was thinking about how blind people perceive shapes through echolocation, art seemed like a natural fit in my mind"
"Passing through this environment allowed us to rediscover the world around us and turned a simple daily action in an extraordinary event," says Ponte. "Being able to experience this journey in a similar fashion to how a blind person must perceive it, relying exclusively on the senses of touch, hearing, smell, taste, gave us an insight into how the world around must be perceived by those without sight.
"We've tried really hard to replicate this sensation within the game, to allow players to rediscover the world in new ways thanks to the different skills of our protagonists."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Another Sight's visual representation of blindness is that it is heavily inspired by the works of world famous artist Claude Monet. This is in part because Monet himself is represented in the game, one of the many historical figures Kit meets as she traverses this strange underground world she discovers.
"When I was thinking about how blind people perceive shapes through echolocation, art seemed like a natural fit in my mind," Ponte says. "It allows us to simplify or distort the environment around the players in order to generate strong emotional responses. We felt that Impressionism, with its unique style and distinctive brushstrokes would really add to the experience and no-one embodies this style more than Monet."
Defining and recreating this famous style has been the team's biggest technical challenge. Even when developing the initial tools to create an impressionist environment, Lunar Great Wall couldn't know how effective it would look on the screen.
However, by the end Ponte reports they had built a "smart and truly complex graphic algorithm" that can be applied to any 3D world.
"With this technology we can decide which parts of the scene to 'paint' with our impressionist effect and the result is often very similar to player being surrounded by an impressionist painting," he says.
"With Another Sight we want to provide a different and emotional point of view, to make people think a bit and - why not - to grow up."
The creative vision didn't stop there. Throughout Kit's journey, she meets more cultural figures and these encounters influence and evolve the graphical style of the game.
"This is something that we really wanted to play around with in our concept for Kit," Ponte explains. "As her sight is heavily influenced by the characters close to her, her perception of the world around her changes as narrative choices are made within the game.
"When her adventure starts the character closest to Kit is Monet. As the story progresses she meets over cultural figures and partially change her perception This means that Kit's 'sight' goes through different styles which we had to create, affecting post process and the particles effects in her vision."
Lunar Great Wall gave itself even more creative leeway by choosing to set the game in a world with steampunk and fantasy elements. While Kit is trapped in the tunnels between London circa 1899, it is not the UK capital we know but more one modelled on alternative visions of the city - with the studio calling out Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in particular.
For Ponte, this was crucial to giving the game more depth, rather than focusing purely on the main character's visual affliction. "We didn't want to create a game which on the surface could be perceived to be just about not having sight," he says. "Life is a journey of discovery, an adventure, a search, regardless of your physical capabilities. What is most interesting to us as developers is to give players an experience from a different point of view, as a journey to be experienced, not as a goal."
Another Sight will be on show at GDC in San Francisco next week, and releases for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch later this year. It's an important release for Lunar Great Wall; not just because it's the team's debut title, but also because it's indicative of the "emotive games" the studio hopes to define itself with.
"For us an emotive game is one which is able to generate an emotional response in our players and at its core - that's what storytelling is all about," Ponte explains. "With Another Sight we want to provide a different and emotional point of view, to make people think a bit and - why not - to grow up.
"The games industry has a great artistic, cultural and intellectual responsibility nowadays. Although there are some masterpieces that entertain by telling us something non-trivial, they are still few compared to the number of games that come out every month. "At Lunar Great Wall, we want to make all of our games stand out with their beauty, depth and originality. Maybe we won't always hit our crazy aesthetic goal every time, but we will always aim to create the best."