Making ‘The White Cane,’
A Student Project About Perception and Sensory Deprivation

February 27, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s Game Plan feature asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Evan Kice about The White Cane, a game about memory in which the protagonist’s thoughts give shape to the environment.

The White Cane is a game about a person who cannot see, not a person who is blind. There is a difference — a person who can normally see but is merely temporarily deprived of that sensation may experience some messed up shit. That is the essence of the premise behind The White Cane, although it executes this premise in a particularly clever way. Recalling an experiment he once heard of, during which multiple subjects were confined to dark rooms for two days, Kice tells ANIMAL:

There were a few people who just couldn’t handle it at all after a couple of hours. But the people who did stick it out started hallucinating. I think one person saw, like, a giant pile of oysters. One person was seeing snakes. They kept saying stuff like, ‘I feel like there’s people all around me!’ When you lose any of your senses your brain realizes there’s a blank, and the fun thing that your brain does is it tries to fill in any blanks, and it just fills them in with patterns. It starts filling it in with the best it can assume, and that’s usually not very good when it’s total darkness.

In The White Cane, you control a man fumbling and feeling his way through a black environment that is represented on the screen only by descriptive words in the shapes of objects. Butt up against a wall and the word “WALL” appears writ large where the wall is. A door can be a “locked door,” or an “unusual door,” or an “Another door? Really?”  — the words of the character’s inner monologue shaping the environment for players to see. It’s level design and storytelling combined.

After feeling your way through several rooms and solving a few rudimentary puzzles you’ll be confronted by some sort of monster. All you can see of it are its menacing, red footfalls, and with no way to fight back you’re forced to run. Now the words that once shaped familiar objects in your path become more sinister, reflecting the character’s panicked terror as he flees from his unseen aggressor. Kice says:

As it starts out it’s more descriptive. But as it moves on, the text on the walls begins to form the story. It’s the only story in the game, and it’s basically just a story of this character. And he begins a monologue, through the walls and through whatever he’s standing on. And it’s the window into the character…You remember how, when you’re being chased by the monster, the pipe you run into turns into, you know, ‘YOUR DEMISE,’ and the walls kind of start to get scrambled? Yeah, that starts to happen a lot.

Kice and his cohorts call the character Cieco, which is Italian for “blind” (although they pronounce it “see-so,” when the real pronunciation is more like “see-eh-ko”). Cieco’s apparent fear of darkness comes at least partially from Kice’s own experiences as a child in Texas. He recalls:

My house when I was a kid was very big. Because it was very big, my parents were huge sticklers about leaving lights off, especially if you weren’t in a room. So the majority of my house was dark and large, and that’s probably how I get most of the stuff that’s in the game. When I was a kid, if it was dark, I was sprinting. It was not even a question. It’s become significantly less, especially because working with The White Cane, I’ve actually spent a lot of time sitting in the dark and just trying to figure stuff out like that. But I cannot deny that if you’re by yourself in complete darkness it begins to freak you out. It begins to freak me out, at least.

Kice is in his final semester in the software engineering program at the University of Texas at Dallas. The White Cane was a collaborative project undertaken by Kice and his classmates in the Arts and Technology department’s GameLab program. Students submitted pitches and gave presentations to have their game ideas be considered for GameLab, and Kice’s was approved in part because he was one of only two who bothered to make an actual, working prototype.

The only portion of The White Cane that’s actually playable to the public currently is a demo made for the 2014 Independent Game Festival. It’s maybe 15 minutes long, but it represents everything Kice and his classmates created over two semesters.

Will it ever be completed? Kice says:

The game went over two semesters and essentially went from a ten person team, and no one had any idea what they were doing, and only about half the people had investment in the game—and then we went to three people who all really, really liked the game and really wanted to see it shine. So in between that we kind of had to redo everything. The physics were terrible for the longest time. Things would just fly off the screen. We had no idea how a game with four cubes and a pair of eyes could cause so much trouble, but it did.

The White Cane is kind of in a bit of a limbo state right now. Because the class is over, everyone who was working on it now has full time college semesters. Pretty much everyone who was working on the team is now also trying to get a job. Plus not having it as a mandatory class means that pretty much no one is still working on it. I have one person that I talk to every now and then who still wants to help, but again there’s not a lot that one and a half people can do.

The White Cane IGF demo is available at kice.me/whitecane. Hopefully the full game will be available one day as well.