Blindness may seem like an incongruous choice of themes for the largely visual medium of videogaming, but more and more experimental games have been exploring the concept of sight impairment in new and unique ways of late, from the sound-only BlindSide to the beautifully illustrated Beyond Eyes. The latest to step boldly into the fray is Pulse, which gets its name from the kind of echolocation used by bats and dolphins. You’d think that might set the table for the kind of gameplay to expect, particularly when the game’s own early promotional materials emphasized sonar as a major component. It turns out to be a largely non-interactive element, however, leaving you mainly to navigate the world’s twisty, surreal environments in the midst of a psychedelic lightshow punctuating the dark.
Originally a group student project before being successfully Kickstarted as a full commercial product, Pulse in many ways is similar to Beyond Eyes, in that you rely on your other senses to fill in a functional picture of the landscape around you. But rather than a carbon copy of its predecessor, Pulse is more like the carbon paper itself. Where Beyond Eyes is grounded in familiar reality, Pulse is entirely steeped in unreality to the point of narrative incomprehensibility. And while Beyond Eyes is bathed in soothing white, Pulse plunges you deep into suffocating blackness between moments of illuminating vibrations.
The story of Pulse can be summed up succinctly: I have no idea. Okay, it’s not quite that dire, but not far off. You play as a girl named Eva, who lost her sight at an early age but has enough memory of the world to envision it in her mind’s eye by the sounds and reverberations it creates. You find yourself arriving at a kind of remote wilderness, an unwelcome visitor who must save your people from someone or something menacing, even as the ground itself begins to rumble around you. Who and where your people are, what exactly endangers them, and what you need to do to save them is never made clear – even when you’re actually doing it – but only you can be the saviour, because your blindness-honed abilities give you alone the capacity to overcome the challenges of a world enveloped by darkness.
At various points along the way, a deformed “talking” crow pops up to spew cryptic clues that only serve to further muddy the waters. The story reminded me of an ancient indigenous legend in which spirit and land are one, but no attempt is made to make it at all cohesive, or even understandable. I don’t mind a little fragmented metaphysical mystery being gradually and creatively unveiled, but this comes off less as poetic storytelling and more like deliberate obtuseness to keep you… uhh, well, in the dark. At some point in any tale, something has to make sense to fully engage the audience, but in Pulse nothing ever does. Even at the end I didn’t really know what had happened, or why.
Fortunately, the world of Pulse is interesting enough to keep you motivated to press on. You’ll start out on the shores of this strange land, having docked your boat to pursue the rest of your journey on foot. Throughout the game you’ll traverse a variety of environments, each area generally having its own distinct colour palette: the forest is initially a mix of greens and purples, abandoned ruins are bathed in oranges and reds, while both the crystalline caves and snowy tundra are comprised of rich blues and white. You’ll never get a complete picture of the terrain around you, but the various ambient noises, including wind blowing, water lapping, and even your own footfall provide ever-changing snapshots at regular intervals. On a few occasions you’ll encounter dangerous creatures best avoided, and the screen will turn blood red whenever one catches you in its sight, giving you enough time to stealthily sneak away. This makes no logical sense, of course, but it’s a clever use of additional colour. Stand still for long, wherever you are, and the whole world will be consumed by inky darkness.
The images you “see” are not fully formed, inhabiting more of a middle ground between translucent wire-frame reconstructions and fully fleshed-out objects, though the nearer the object to you, the more detailed it is and the greater its opacity. Only up close will you be able to make out particulars like flowers, bulrushes, tribal masks and totems, as well as more ominous sights like menacing eyes peering at you or the skeletons of those who have come before you. Sometimes your mental images can be misleading though, because you’ll frequently envision far-off scenery only to find that your way is blocked by obstacles you didn’t know existed. I’m not convinced this phenomenon was ever adequately justified, existing mainly to turn the landscape into an unforeseen maze, but at least it can be rationalized by organic sounds interacting differently with various parts of the environment, depending on proximity.
There is no discernible goal in Pulse, other than to keep moving forward and find out what happens. The crow gives off a hazy aura that can sometimes be detected from afar, giving you a point of reference to aim for at times, but in general you’re left roaming onwards and occasionally upwards with no clear sense of direction or purpose. As someone who despises aimless wandering in games, I was bracing myself for the worst in striking out blindly (both literally and figuratively) into the great unknown, but to the developer’s credit, the maps are self-contained and intuitive enough that I rarely found myself turned around or feeling lost.Continued on the next page...