Seeing Without Vision

30th January 2005


Although I wrote this piece moments after finishing Seeing in the Dark they are not really connected. One of the reason I prefer science fiction or non-reality FPS games is because it gives developers a chance to experiment with the player’s perception. Unlike a World War 2 game, they don’t have to make everything look as realistic as possible. Whilst having the latest engine certainly enhances the appeal there could be so much more than just graphics.

I believe that this particular subject has many interesting areas that could be addressed, but for this post I want to focus on vision. Without getting scientific let’s look at how humans see. We have a broad range of spectrum perception and movement causes little problem. Our main obvious limitation is distance. We marvel at how an eagle can spot a mouse at almost a mile away, whilst we sometimes struggle to see the number of the buses we are just about to miss!

So, with computer games we have an opportunity to have some fun, try something new and wacky, but do we? No, not very often. I love the effect in the Painkiller demo where you vision is suddenly enhanced. I want to see more stuff like this.

My eyes, my eyes!

As an exercise in creativity let us assume your playing character either loses his sight temporarily (That’s got to be a unique idea in a FPS game: a blind playing character) and we have to replace his vision with something to help him perceive the world around him. Clearly this wouldn’t be done on a level with anything visually spectacular, unless the alternative is even better! Anyway, on with the exercise, I’m going to list a few ideas that could replace normal human vision and will update this post if and when I get any new ideas. Any ideas submitted by PP readers will be added to the main list to make it easier for other readers to view. Credit will of course be given.

The Ideas!
  • Heat:
    Some games use this already, especially the military style ones. It might be nice to see a few variations on this theme.
  • Movement:
    I think I’m correct in saying that snakes only really see things that move (put aside the tongue for a moment). Maybe this could be combined with sound. A fast moving object emits a roaring noise and a slow moving object has more of a gentle hiss to it.
  • Energy:
    Imagine being able to perceive energy. I don’t simply mean see electricity like a spark but the energy as it runs through a cable of the way light bounces off walls etc. Somehow being able to see kinetic energy stored in a spring or lose girder that is about to fall. This idea really excites me because it’s almost beyond our imagination. NOTE: It was only after writing this that I realised this may have been done in Matrix Revolutions with Neo being able to see the bright energy. I’m not convinced this is what I have in mind. I’ll ponder on this point a bit more./li>
  • Radar:
    Yes, boring old radar! The player emits a pulse of some sort and the type of pulse determines the types of things seen. In my mind’s eye I see something like the Matrix of numbers representing solid objects. Some pulses would make his presence known to the enemy (Sound perhaps) and others would be invisible. A balance would need to be used between detection and information gained.
  • Sound:
    Similar to radar but instead of a visual representation of the surrounds we just have better range and quality of perception. I see one option as working like this. In whatever direction we a facing then every ten seconds our sound perception focuses on ten metres further in front of us. When we move again it starts at our face and moves outward. Remember this is just a quick idea off the top of my head so maybe it’s not so good but that’s what this exercise is for: to try and think outside the box!
  • Composition:
    We can generally see what a material is made of by looking at it, but what if everything seemed different based entirely on its composition. Steel and Silver would ot be represented by a shiny silver surface but by something else, maybe the way the molecules are tied together or the different amounts of atoms etc.

Clearly we are limited in what we can represent because currently that representation has to be via the screen or the speakers. However perhaps more use could be made of 5.1 sound with different tones and length of notes representing solidity or construction. I suppose there’s also scope for the use of Force Feedback but since most players use a mouse it’s hard to see any real benefit.

I’ve really only touched upon the visual representation of information and the opportunity is probably only limited by our imagination. To give you some idea of what I’m talking about here is another ideas about perception.

  • Time:
    Imagine being able to “see” into the future. Not a new idea but now think what that would be like if we had little control over how far into the future we saw and when those visions appeared. You are playing a game and suddenly the screen changes to ten seconds in the future and your character is dead. Do you continue running forwards or stop? Is it the running or stopping that causes you to die? Now imagine that these visions are mixed with the past and the place you are in is very symmetrical and your position doesn’t always give you a clue to the time frame. I think you get the picture, in the correct situation and game this “perception” could make an interesting addition to a game’s feature set.

The ball’s in your court, let’s see what you can come up with.


  1. Joe

    I think a good alternative would be the vision Daredevil has in the film (Daredevil was shit I know, hold with me). The scene where the rain falls on him an elektra and we see how the sound sends out pulses he can pick up is good. It could work:

    Stand still, see nothing.
    Walk, your footsteps light up the areas with a similar pulse effect of moving lines (like ripples of sound) that reveal a set distand around you.
    Fighting, a gunshot goes off and suddenly the whole room is brightened so that you can see every detail around the weapon, details blur further out. Explosions could either give normal vision for a second or blind you completely until hearing restored. This would make melee combat exciting and omnipresent for harder fights, sneaky enemies would give the game a fearful and horror-like feel.

    You could couple this with the ability to smack your weapon or foot against the environment in order to light it up, ala Daredevil.

  2. Agreed the vision used in Daredevil would make a good alternative. Perhaps a special weapon could be produced to provide extra help. Something like a flak cannon that has millions of very small vibrating balls.

  3. anonymous123

    My thoughts on the implementation of radar vision is that it would work like on a Radar screen. A periodic pulse would illuminate the shape and counteurs of a room. Meaning that if you enter a new room, for a moment you cannot see anything in there. Then the pulse comes and you can see what’s in the room in real time for several senconds. But after that period, before the next pulse the room seems to freeze. But in actuallity you see the last image of what you saw during the pulse. so you can still navigate the room. But you won’t be able to see an opponent moving, or anything changing in the room until the next pulse “updates” the situation. This kind of vision adds the facet of having to time the pulses, so they go off just as you enter the room. This kind of vision is very similar to “The fog of War” feature often found in Real Time Strategy games. It would be annoying to just go blind, and this would make it He…ck to retrace your steps. But working this way you can go into a room you’ve been in before, but suddenly a deadly opponent appears out of thin air. Several seconds later, you can’t see him anymore, and have 4 choices:
    A.find him using the sounds he makes.
    B. Fire around in a circle
    C. Run and track time so you can turn around just as the pulse comes and see him and blow its brains/arms/ circuits/ cell phone out
    D. you die

    Just throughing this idea out.

  4. I also imagined a periodic pulse and the implementation could take many forms. Unlike a bat whose primary interaction with the world is via their radar the player here would only use this “vision” for short periods. This could mean that the player has a limited time or pulse available and then it becomes a little bit of resource managment, just like ammo.

    Another point is that there coould be different types of pulses that display different things. One pulse displays static thinsg (Walls, floors etc), another pulse moving objects (Similar to snakes?), another one electrical or power sources.

    With regard to your senario at the end, it might be fun if the opponent had exactly the same powers as you. So, he/she/it laso used radar and pulses. This would mean you both had the same advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the pulse could come from a central location, perhaps a huge power source and their timing is irregular?

  5. anonymous123

    That would be very cool. It would make the Radar vision (sounds like a Buck/Flash Gordan thing)more fun to work with, since the playing field is more level. As for your suggestion about irregular timing, what if the timing periodically changed for the pulses? First it would be 5 seconds in between pulses, then 3 for a period, then 8. With regards to radar, I remember reading about how stealth planes give radar the slip by having a very small cross-section, so, to the radar, it looks very small, like a bird. This gave me the thought, what if an opponent had stealth armour or whatnot, and as a result, when the pulse comes, all you can see is a tiny portion of he/she/ it. Worth thinking aout

  6. Joe

    Hmm, not sure about the pulse-scenario thing. To me, it doesn’t sound like it would further gameplay as much as it would obstruct it if you couldn’t control the pulses yourself. If you were gonna go for that kind of thing then obvioulsy it wouldn’t actually be radar as that uses pulses of sound etc, which anybody could do at any time. It would have to be a pulse of something else – call it what you want.

    This actually reminds me a bit now of the Scrye Spell in CLive Barkers Undying. For those who don’t know, it was a horror game with a player who wielded weapons in one hand and magic in the other as he battled the ghosts of this haunted mansion. Very good, very underrated game – voted by PC Gamer as the Second Best Game Nobody Ever Played (1st was Beyond Good and Evil, another gem). The Scrye spell in the game was the only spell you had from the start and it allowed you to see into other planes of existence. In terms of gameplay it served to illuminate bad guys and also to reveal hidden clues and frights. E.G. at the start of the game you are walking to the front door of the mansion and you hear the tell-tale voices that prompt you to use the spell if you wish (Whispering voices -Scrye-See-Look-Illuminate etc) so you cast the spell and suddenly you can see that hanging from the lamppost is a somebodys dying body, blood dripping from them as they strangle. At later points in the game you can see portaits of people turn from pictures of how they were (nice and pretty) into how they are (dead and rotting) and see ghosts reancting their deaths etc. The spell used up mana which could recharge over time.

    Implement this in terms of this idea and we can imagine that the player is in a FPS game also. I’ll imagine an abandoned base system-shock 2 setting for this, but it could be anything. Now, the player is blind (or can only see fragments or whatever, the point is even if they can see static objects or just electricity [ala Tron 2.0] that the ENEMIES are always hidden], the player enters a room and has to make a choice. Do I use my spell/ability/device to check the room for enemies, thus draining my mana/concentration/battery for a time OR do I wait until it attacks me/gets close enough?

    To make the game fair and possible I’d have slow-moving and mostly silent (or not targetable by noise anyway)badguys who are invisible until they get close. When they get close you can see them as the occasional flicker or heat-shimmer effect. Anyone who has played The Hidden Mod for Half Life 2 will get my meaning. They can kill you quickly of course, so the idea is that the player -if they want to stay alive- will use the pulse to reveal them for a time. The pulse would reveal the shape of the creature against a frozen background and the creature would be a frozen image with a long motion blue behind it showing its direction of movement. The image would then quickly fade and the player would be back to square one, shooting at the vague direction of where the creature would be as their vision slowly returns to normal.

    (I think that making the player completely blind would be foolish because nobody really wants to stare at a black screen, so making world-objects or walls etc visible somehow would improve gameplay)

  7. anonymous123

    No one wants to look at a black screen, I agree. The mana system could be much more popular than what I and philip suggested. My thought was not to have blindness of everything briefly, but to not see places you haven’t been to, and not to see enemies briefly. But the mana idea should work well.

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