Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Blind UCCS student aces video game to surprise of its makers

DAVE PHILIPPS Updated: March 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

Like a lot of college guys, Terry Garrett can get obsessive about video games, playing for hours until he finally beats the hardest level. He swerves and bobs as he jumps over monsters and dodges death rays. He grimaces and groans when he finally dies.

There is just one difference between Garrett and other college gamers. And its huge. Garrett is blind.

“I play by sound and memory,” Garrett, 23, said recently as he sat down to play a round of “Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus,”  a fantasy game in which players help a lanky blue slave escape from his captors on an alien world. “I can take what I hear and make a 3-D image in my head of what is going on around me.”

He is so good at what he does that he can beat all 15 levels of the game, something the game’s creators find astounding. (See a video at gazette.com of him playing.)

“I’m blown away,” said Daniel Boutros, a spokesman for Oddworld, the company that created “Abe’s Exoddus.”

Though Garrett first beat the game about five years ago, its creators only learned of the feat this winter, when Garrett wrote to thank the company for adding such rich sound to the game.

Oddworld's creative director, Lorne Lanning, told Garrett his mastery of the "Abe's Exoddus" was something to be proud of, adding: "Oddworld has always been about inspiration, and your story is inspiring more people than could fit in a Superbowl stadium."

“I’ve never met anyone as inspiring as Terry in my entire nearly 32 years of life,” Boutros said. “Unfortunately, he’s far too nice and humane to become a politician, or I’d advise him to run for president.”

Garrett has other plans, anyway. He is almost finished with a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs — a first for a blind person. Ultimately, he wants to be an astronaut — which would be another first. Also, he’s close to getting a black belt in karate and has climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro — not firsts, but still, pretty darn amazing.

“He impresses me,” said professor Mike Larson, who runs the UCCS product-development lab, where Garrett works. “He is thoughtful, conscientious; he has a disability but at no point has it prevented him from doing what he wants.”

Garrett grew up in rural Fort Lupton, one of three boys. From the start he had problems with his eyes — cataracts, infections, cloudiness. Twenty-two surgeries eventually left nothing but scar tissue. Garrett lost sight in his left eye when he was 5 and in his right eye when he was 10. Before going blind, he loved to play video games with his brothers. After, he tried to keep playing, but it seemed useless.

“I went through a few years of bitterness and anger,” Garrett said. But slowly he started to notice how his lack of sight sharpened his other senses.

He came to Colorado Springs to go to the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. There he slowly learned how to hone his hearing to create a landscape of sound he could navigate. He also had great teachers he credits with inspiring him to go beyond what most people think is possible.

It was during that time that he heard his older brother playing a new game called “Abe’s Exoddus.” Its sound was better than any game he had heard. Every monster and obstacle made a distinct noise. The lanky blue hero’s feet tapped with each step. He could tell if Abe was running, walking, creeping or crawling.

“Each sound meant something,” Garrett said. “And I was able to slowly figure it out.”

There were challenges — enough to make most people give up. He had to build a map of the whole game in his head, complete with thousands of spots where he had to duck or jump or run at just the right moment. But soon he was able to play right along with his brothers. Then he was able to beat them.

“They joked that I wasn’t even really blind,” Garrett said. That is, until the day the display of their TV burned out and Garrett was able to keep playing without even noticing, while the other boys gaped in astonishment.

Garrett has had mixed success with other games, depending on the quality of their sound. A lot of them, he said, “are just a lot of blips and beeps.”

He is currently struggling to defeat “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” When he plays, he puts a stereo speaker on each side of his chair and uses slight differences in volume to navigate the 3-D realm. His seeing-eye dog, Clover, curls at his feet.

Parents everywhere might think, “Isn’t there something he could be doing with his time besides video games?”

Garrett agrees. He goes to Universal Kempo Karate three times a week, where he is a brown belt and helps teach classes.

“A lot of the beginning students don’t even realize he is blind at first,” said his instructor, Joe Gardino.

While Garrett struggles with kicks and punches, Gardino said, he is a master of grapples and holds. “If he can get ahold of you, look out. He is very quick and talented.”

Garrett also takes a full load of classes at UCCS, though it has been hard to get engineering texts loaded with graphs and tables translated to Braille. When he graduates next year, he will be the first in his family with a college degree.

And in a way, he said, the countless hours of video games have helped him with both karate and engineering. They trained him to perceive the slightest noise and translate it into a spacial image, which helps with such varied activities as sparring on the mat and navigating campus. The games also forced him to memorize thousands of spacial commands and dimensions — a skill that helps him turn out prototypes with the milling machines in the prototype lab.

“The computer’s numerical control machining uses X, Y and Z directions, which is not so different from video games,” Garrett said. “I absolutely think ‘Abe’s Exoddus’ was good practice.”

His special attention to sound in gaming may also have opened another avenue. After the makers of “Abe’s Exoddus” learned that Garrett could literally beat their game with his eyes closed, they asked him to help with sound design. Since then, another company has also called. It may be, in the future, that games have a rich and vibrant soundscape with the help of Garrett.

Asked if his brothers are astounded that he can beat games they cannot, he just smiled and said, “They are used to it. People that don’t know me think it is outstanding. They don’t look at it as amazing because they know me well. They think, ‘Just another thing Terry can do.’”

Call the writer at 636-0223.

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