X-ray vision and similar superhuman visual tricks have become a video game design staple. As the worlds in mainstream games grow more detailed and complex, it can be helpful to let a player see through walls or to highlight objects of interest—used properly, x-ray vision not only enlivens an environment but also makes it more manageable. The one sticking point is that nobody in the history of the world has possessed x-ray vision. So when hapless writers are forced to explain the extraordinary eyes of otherwise human characters, it figures that the resulting narrative justifications are often a stretch. These stretches pop up even in games that take themselves somewhat seriously, like last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. This origin story casts the hero, Lara Croft, as a greenhorn who grows into an adventurer when her expedition faces deathly peril. Fittingly, she starts out weak—except for her extremely helpful “survival instinct.” Engaging this “instinct” grays out the background and lights up important objects on the screen, essentially serving as a “here’s how to solve this puzzle, you idiot” ability. Sure, you could argue that this is one way to dramatize Lara’s heightened focus in a life-or-death situation. Still, such outsized talent undermines Lara’s “zero to hero” arc, and by offering players such a handy parlor trick, Tomb Raider stunts the growth of our own survival instinct, as well.
Lara Croft may be a survivor, but Hitman: Absolution’s Agent 47 is a killer. That’s okay, because it turns out that murder instinct makes you extra-good at seeing stuff, too. Lucky! Activating “Instinct Mode” in Absolution drenches the world in grayish blue and allows 47 to see his enemies through walls. Better yet, 47’s intuition is so keen that he can also see into the future, with streaks of red fire illuminating the exact path that his rival will take in the coming moments. Such extraordinary sight and foresight are ostensibly the product of 47’s vast experience as a ruthless killer. But Absolution can’t let 47 use these abilities all the time, because that would make him even more of a demigod—that is, it would make the game too easy. The bizarre upshot is that 47’s raw intuition is assigned to a meter that rapidly drains as you use his x-ray vision. So this is the rare “instinct” that becomes deeply ingrained through years of intense training and then disappears after it’s used for five seconds. With instinct like this, it might be better not to trust your gut.
In the gory video game companion piece to the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie, Logan’s acute animal senses allow him to enter a feral vision mode that turns the world gray and highlights his enemies. That part makes sense. He could easily sniff them out with his heightened sense of smell. But those feral instincts pick up on a lot more than just enemies. Apparently, Wolverine can also smell ledges that would be good for climbing and pointy things in the environment that would be good for impaling, and he can “see” the path to his next objective (represented by a trail of floating blue particles). Some people chalk this up to heightened animal instincts. We choose to believe that Wolverine can smell the trail of whatever he’s chasing. And he’s always chasing something.
Although it was one of the earliest proponents of the modern x-ray vision trope, the Assassin’s Creed series might still take home the prize for most contorted explanation. “Eagle Vision” exists in all of us, they say, as a genetic gift from the superhuman race that preceded our own. In people where this gene expresses strongly, like the master assassins who star in the series, an ability develops to sense friends, enemies, and targets from a distance. Or maybe (bear with us here) it’s the Animus—the sci-fi virtual reality system through which you inhabit these assassins—approximating the subject’s talents through Technicolor trickery. Or maybe it’s some combination of the two; it depends on when you ask. So Eagle Vision might never have been an actual sense, even though it has been called Eagle Vision for nearly a millennium and for all intents and purposes looks and acts like magical glasses. It’s the sort of half-nonsense explanation you’d expect to find in the manifest of a lunatic who cuts out all the eyes in Us Weekly.
For better or worse, James Bond’s vast arsenal of gadgetry did not survive the transition into the gritty Daniel Craig era. This new 007 gets by with little more than some guns, nice cars, and modestly souped-up Sony Ericsson cellphones. That’s the setup in Craig’s movies, anyway. The Bond of Blood Stone, a video game follow-up to Quantum Of Solace, is blessed with an omniscient smartphone. (Whether or not it’s a Sony Ericsson, it’s hard to say, but let’s give Bond the benefit of the doubt when it comes to unwavering brand loyalty.) This magnificent device can tell him all sorts of things about the environment around him. When he stares at the phone, your view is obscured by a green filter with all the blurriness and scan lines of a worn-out VHS tape, but you’re now able to see the location of your next goal and any enemies or items around you. As you might imagine, this is important information, so you’re liable to spend most of a mission walking around or hiding behind cover while looking at your phone. If you try to run while staring at it, though, your view gets all blurry, because it’s hard to look at your phone while sprinting. A minor victory for realism.
In George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series (on which the Game Of Thrones TV show is based), Bran, one of the narrating characters, is a “skinchanger,” able to transfer his consciousness into animals like his pet wolf. That strange ability is the major driving point of his story as he journeys to discover what the power means and how he can use it to protect his family. In the Game Of Thrones video game, the psychic link your character shares with his pet is just an excuse to have wavy, colorful “scent trails” lead you to the next quest objective. Your skinchanging talents can also tell you whether to ambush enemies by reading their emotions. Your bond is so strong that when your dog goes tracking and finds something, he can just bark and you’ll appear beside him, even though you’re supposedly in a trance somewhere else.
Old BJ Blazkowickz didn’t need no fancy eyes to shoot Nazi scum back in the ’90s, but when he came back around for a new Wolfenstein adventure in 2009, he started seeing Nazi castles bathed in a weird green glow and his foes blotched with glowing red weak spots. No, BJ didn’t get super-soldier eye implants. He was just peering through the Veil, a mystical barrier that exists between our dimension and another magic-filled one. As evil dimensions go, this is an awfully helpful one, as the Veil visions let BJ know exactly where to shoot his enemies for maximum damage. You summon the Veil by using the Thule Medallion, Wolfenstein’s MacGuffin. BJ has it, and the Nazis want it. Why? Because it was made by the Thule, a mythical race of giants who might be ancestors of the Aryan race. And also because it turns you into some sort of magnificent slaughter wizard.
There are good detectives, and there are great detectives, and then there is Batman. It makes sense that the world’s greatest detective would rely heavily on something called “Detective Mode,” a combination of intense concentration and in-cowl optical technology that allows him to—stop us if you’ve heard this one—see highlighted enemies through walls. And since Bruce Wayne is an incredible hypocrite about personal privacy, Detective Mode shows him everything right down to people’s heart rates and naked skeletons. Batman primarily uses this deep personal invasion to detect better ways of dive-kicking enemies in the face. Hey, if your town’s greatest criminal was holed up in a fun house named after himself, you’d need to find other outlets for your detective skills too.
Both Batman and Sherlock Holmes have been called “the world’s greatest detective” so perhaps it’s appropriate that, like the Arkham games, The Testament Of Sherlock Holmes has a special mode to represent the title character’s impressive powers of observation. If you’re stumped while investigating, you can turn on Holmes’ “sixth sense,” which makes little magnifying glasses hover over clues in the scene—which is handy, given how hard it can be to make out small objects in the game’s cluttered tableaux. But you’d better have a good memory and get as many clues in your line of sight as possible because the ability can only be used every few minutes. Still, having the clues doesn’t solve the mystery on its own, so players have to test their own detective skills by putting all the pieces together. Enhanced vision is no substitute for good old-fashioned deductive reasoning.
Shortly before Corvo Attano, the main character of Dishonored, is to be executed, a mysterious figure called The Outsider appears and deems Corvo worthy of using The Outsider’s magic powers. While everything about The Outside screams “I’m a creepy demon guy,” he doesn’t seem to actually care if you do good or bad things with his gifts, preferring instead to sit back and watch how your choices play out. One of the earliest powers he gives you is Dark Vision, and it’s the stealthy assassin’s best friend. Dark Vision highlights objects of interest (loose cash, food, ammunition) and uses beams of light to indicate where your enemies are looking. Most enhanced vision modes have a drawback to discourage overuse, and while Dark Vision limits your view quite a bit, the biggest reason to avoid using it is the annoying noise it makes. “Hunts and dies,” it whispers when you activate the power. Or maybe it’s “enhanced eyes.” Or it could be “it hands the dice.” It’s suitably magical-sounding (and probably just gibberish), but if having to hear it over and over again is the price The Outsider demands for his powers, maybe he’s not as morally ambiguous as he lets on.
In the original Thief series, master criminal Garrett didn’t need flashy x-ray vision to see what he could climb on, spot traps, or identify valuables to steal. In 2014’s Thief reboot, though, Garrett has magic eyes just like everyone else. His own larceny earns him those magic eyes in the first place, though. In the opening moments of the game, Garrett and his gal pal Erin are trying to steal a glowing blue rock called the Primal Stone. Meanwhile, spooky old men in robes are trying to make it do something crazy and magical. The ritual goes haywire, and the rock explodes, seemingly killing Erin and embedding chunks of magic rock right into Garrett’s face. The experience is traumatic enough to sideline Garrett for a year, but the magic rocks do make his life easier by giving him the ability to highlight everything he can interact with. Purists that want the most out of Thief can go into the settings menu and turn off “Focus” completely, making those eye rocks nothing more than a goth-tastic fashion statement.
When superpowers don’t quite jibe with narrative logic, one way for developers to resolve the conflict is to ignore it altogether. Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us earned praise for its thoughtfully drawn characters and its moving story, all of which hold together nicely if you ignore the playable action sequences. When the developers want to contextualize the fraught relationship that your character, Joel, has with his young sidekick, Ellie, they provide a fleshed-out backstory in which Joel fails to save his daughter from the zombie scourge. Conversely, when The Last Of Us seeks to explain your ability to see scary zombies through walls, it just tells players that Joel has extraordinary listening skills—you hear so well that you can see, essentially. (If you think that doesn’t make sense, shut up, or you’ll damage Joel’s delicate ears.) The irony is that the “Clickers,” the infected humans who are terrorizing the populace, are supposed to be endowed with their own extraordinary quasi-sonar. In practice, though, Joel “hears” far better than they do. It’s a clumsy setup, but in Naughty Dog’s defense, the studio is just acknowledging a reality of video games: Audiences are far more willing to suspend disbelief when they’re in control of the action than they are when they’re watching scripted scenes. Put another way, we’re less concerned with the rules of reality when we’re the ones bending them.