Silent Protagonists and Blind Gamers

Before we really get into this, I want to point out that this isn’t specifically a blind accessibility thing. This particular blog is my own opinion, colored by the perspective I have as a blind gamer. It is entirely possible that other blind gamers have a different opinion on this subject, and that opinion is quite valid. That said, I want to discuss my thoughts on silent protagonists in games, and why I personally don’t like them much.

To be clear, I understand the reasoning behind the silent protagonist. Not giving your character a voice is a way of asking the gamer to project themselves onto the character, voice and all. There is a certain amount of sense to that, but as with most things in video games, it’s quite a bit different when you’re blind.

When a sighted person plays a game with a silent protagonist, they still have a reference for that character. They still have physical form within the game world, which the player can view. In most cases silent protagonists are more about projecting personality than physical appearance. Even in a situation where they’re both, such as a first person shooter like Doom, the sighted person still has something to look at. In doom’s case, it’s the character’s gun, and the red mist that appears if you’re very hurt, an effect used to indicate your eyes are bleeding. With a blind person, this is all gone.

For me, a game with a silent protagonist feels false. I end up feeling like the story is lacking a depth it could achieve if only the character could have actual conversations. While the story is told to the sighted in facial expressions, body language, sword flourishes, and so on, I hear sound effects, and just want more. It is as if I was handed a blank canvas and told to paint a character onto it, but wasn’t given any paint to use. That may not be the greatest metaphor, but it’s the best I could come up with to describe how it feels.

On the other hand, protagonists who speak, who lend their own personalities to a game, are some of my favorite characters. Tidas from Final Fantasy X is a little whiny, but passionate and, when it comes down to it, a stalwart warrior. Joel from the Last of Us is complex and deeply wounded, with motivations based on his life experience. I love these characters and many many more, because I can fully connect with them. I hear the trepidation in their voice as they make the decision to do something they don’t’ want to do. I hear the resolve as they come to realize that they must do something difficult for the greater good. These are general examples, but I think they make the point. I like getting immersed in a story the game is telling me. When there is player choice, I certainly do try to project myself into making that choice, or make it based on how I feel the character would given the way their personality has developed over the course of the game, but I’m OK with that character belonging to the game at the end of the day. Tell me a good story with good characters, and you’ve got me.

Again, this is entirely my opinion, but my hope is that it gives you some perspective on one way a blind gamer might think, and inspire discussion. Before I go, though, I will ad one thing. There are exactly 2 games where a silent protagonist is great, and those happen to be both of the modern Southpark games. The reason this works, though, is because they used the silent protagonist trope specifically to make fun of it, and I can laugh along with everyone else at that. As always, let me know what you guys think, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

Is Gold Gun Golden Fun?

There’s a new game in town, folks, and it’s called Gold Gun. Developed by My True Sound, it is an episodic adventure set to take place over the course of 7 episodes where you are a blind agent fighting the forces of evil inside a virtual simulation of the deep web. The first episode has been released for free to everyone, and it sounded intriguing to me, so I took some time to play it. Here are my thoughts, just for you.

Firstly, what Gold Gun is attempting to achieve here is awesome. You can tell thought has been put into making the game a fast-paced, flowing cinematic experience. Quick tilts to change direction while you’re running, and simple 2 finger taps to grab things on the run, or even to grab enemies, demonstrate the game’s intent. This is a positive thing, and I applaud the overall direction here. Unfortunately, I must sadly confess that there are a lot of negatives which I must address.

The first thing, the one that jumps right out at you, is the voice acting. Every single performance, without exception, sounds bored, and some sound completely emotionless. Any gravitas a scene should have is utterly ruined by these lackluster efforts. I understand that budget can be an issue with small developers, I really do, but if your intent is to make a cinematic experience for us to become immersed in, you need to, at the very least, improve the voice direction if not hire completely different actors. The acting is so off in some areas that I have trouble even telling what’s supposed to be going on, since no actor conveys the emotion they are supposed to convey. Tooting my own horn here a bit, but as someone with a professional video game voice acting credit, I believe I could help out here immensely, even with just my input if not my voice. No matter what, this needs to improve if people are going to be expected to buy future episodes.

Secondly, there are moments that shatter the cinematic flow I spoke of earlier. Moments where you’re following a colleague make your blind protagonist seem silly, as you stop on a dime whenever there’s a turn, and for some reason, wait for your colleague to walk several steps, sometimes 9 or 10, down the corridor, before you can even take a turn action. This is ludicrous. We blind people don’t simply stop and wait when someone we’re following starts turning. We track them, and turn right along with them. This could be handled so much better by simply starting to shift their voice and footstep sounds in a new direction as they keep conversating, and expecting us to follow the sound by tilting in that direction. It’s what we do already, and would be much more realistic.

The game is also afflicted with many immersion-breaking audio issues. When you shoot an enemy, you don’t actually know if your shot connected, as they offer no reaction whatsoever. Certain environmental audio loops have empty silence at the end, meaning you get repeated moments of about a third of a second of silence every time the sound loops. Basically there’s environmental audio, then there isn’t for a second, and then there is again. It’s incredibly jarring. The 3D audio engine seems to take a second to shift the voices of the characters as well, as often times they’ll start in the center, then snap to where they’re supposed to be. Furthermore, every character, even the ones you’re supposedly following, sounds like they’re behind you. In short, a lot of audio problems.

I want to stress again that not everything about this experience was negative. I genuinely do like the concept of the game, and I do like the way it controls. However, my ultimate conclusion is not a good one. Here it is. This build of the game should not be offered as its first episode, free or otherwise. This should be considered a concept demo, and the actual first episode should be released later, keeping the core concepts and characters, but making dramatic improvements to writing, voice acting, and audio in general. The potential for a grand cinematic story is there, but this, in its current form, is not that. Please feel free to comment and discuss if you like, and thanks for reading. As always, continue to be awesome!

is Fortnite Leading the Way Into the Future?

Today, February 2, 2019, an event took place in Fortnite. This time, though, it wasn’t one of their typical world and story events. This time it was, no joke, a live concert. But to me, it was so much more. What I witnessed when I witnessed this event was incredible potential. So incredible that I had to write about it, and believe me I never expected to write about Fortnite.

The concert was incredible. About 20 minutes beforehand, a mode called Showtime appeared in the game, wherein the circle stayed in Pleasant Park, the location of the concert stage, and gave everyone a countdown timer to get there, which was of course counting down to the concert itself. Marshmallow, the performing artist, even did a mic check beforehand. Sounds like such a small thing, but that clued me in to how epic this was going to be. Once that counter finally hit 0, everyone automatically became weaponless, and the show began.

Now you might think the show was nothing more than some piped in music, no kills, and people doing Fortnite dances, but you would be wrong. Yes, the music played, and everyone began to dance, but then it got crazier. Remember, this is all in a video game, so they can do more than just throw lasers at you. As the first beat dropped after the intro and the big pyro exploded, it bounced all the characters that were present up into the air. Later, just as the lyrics of the current song were “we can fly,” that’s exactly what happened to everyone. Suddenly everyone was flying, looking down at the spectacle beneath them. As the show went on, the DJ activated his mic, asking everyone to squad up and show off their favorite emotes. I see through this portion, as it’s highly unlikely he was watching anyone in particular in reality, since the concert was taking place in likely thousands of matches at once. Still, it’s the fact that the show was more than just music and light that I’m getting at here. I can’t even play Fortnite, but hearing the reaction of my fiancé as she experienced this event was truly an incredible moment.

That’s how we now get to the point of this blog. Now that I’ve witnessed it, I am boggled by the fact that technology like this isn’t being leveraged in tons of other ways. We are in a digital age, an internet age, and there are so many insane applications for this kind of thing! I understand that not everyone has amazing internet, but those who are playing a game that requires at least decent internet probably have the decent internet they need to play it. So how about leveraging this kind of tech to create things in MMO’s? Why must most games have precise, controlled world events that are always the same, just triggered by the developer at different times, when they could be doing just about anything? Why not use this technology to make the player feel even more a part of the game world than they already do?

Come on, devs! Wanna hype some big space military operation? Have your players head to a briefing location, and host a live briefing there like in Ernest Cline’s Armada. Live streamed dialog of some authority figure explaining what must be done, screens showing targets and operational concerns, all of it. I will no longer buy the idea that that cannot be done, because we have just witnessed it. And while you’re at it, devs, change your game world live like Fortnite does. Don’t just make a video and call it done, make actual changes. Don’t be scared, and don’t apologize for it. People might not like it, but they’ll be able to talk about how they were there for it.

Community is a powerful thing. Games recognize that to a certain extent, but how much more could emersion be increased if things like this are fully embraced? The craziest thing here is that Fortnite, of all games, appears to be the first. This game that started as such a small thing with a tacked on Battle Royale mode is now leading the way in interactive live events? Playstation Home tried to do things like this, true, but never took it to the level Fortnite has, and also never actually functioned all that well either. It’s incredible, and I hope people are taking notes. I’m certainly thinking other performers could find a way to use this, but like my previous Armada example, that’s really only the beginning here. Let me know what you guys think of all this, and where you think we’re going in the future. As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Final Fantasy X: Journey toward a Community

When I started my Final Fantasy X Playthrough, I really only had one goal in mind. That goal was to do what I usually do, and use the game to demonstrate what the blind are willing to go through to game, and what made the game playable in the first place. That was its only intent. What I didn’t expect, though, is what happened, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Even as I write this, I am still mulling over my feelings now that it has concluded, and that is a good thing in a lot of ways. I will now attempt to put this all down as best I can. Here’s hoping I do a decent job.

The things I began playing the game to do actually happened almost right away. I wanted to demonstrate the patience required to play the game blind, so I did by allowing myself to wander until I found my next objective, or the next item I needed, in the beginning. I wanted to demonstrate the bits that aren’t so accessible, and I did that by talking about the sphere grid, and the cloisters of trials. I showed the world how the combat system was very accessible, since every attack from every monster sounded different, and combat menus could be memorized to determine whose turn it currently was. After all this, the accessibility demonstration portion was basically over, aside from questions that came from newcomers now and again. I had effectively done the job I set out to do with this game. As it happened, though, I wasn’t done just yet.

I have had a long history with Final Fantasy X. I have, in fact, beaten the game twice before, utilizing help from the sighted only in the parts where it is absolutely required to proceed. So, as I was demonstrating all these things to my viewers, I was drawn to play it again. I was committed to sticking it out, and at first, content to just beat the main game, the same thing I had done before, on stream. I figured it’d be a pretty neat idea. But then, something I didn’t expect started to happen.

Gradually, as the playthrough went on, its identity began to change. Except for those previously-mentioned newcomers, I didn’t have to explain anything anymore. My viewers made 3 things very clear to me. They got it, they respected it, and they wanted to help. Before I knew it, people were pointing me in the right direction for our next objective, or shouting for me to stop because I had just walked past that save point and they didn’t want me to miss it. At first, while I appreciated these gestures, it didn’t quite hit me what was happening. I admit I took them as temporary kindnesses, and didn’t intend to ask for or expect more help than what I absolutely needed help with.

The thing is, the level of connection people had to the playthrough, and the level of assistance they offered, kept increasing. It started to click with me that this was something special, and so I eventually put up the idea of doing all the endgame content I had never been able to do on my own so long as the viewership was willing to continue to help me in the ways that they had. Not only did they agree, they agreed immediately. They were completely into the idea, and wanted to help see it through. And that, if you ask me, is when the real journey began.

The Final Fantasy X playthrough had become a collaborative event. It had morphed from being a thing I was doing to make a point or 2, into a thing that all of us were doing together. Now, people weren’t just telling me where that save point was, or which way I should start walking to get into a new area. Now they were telling me how many dark matter I had, where I could find that monster in the monster arena, and how I as a blind person could play the necessary mini game required to get a few ultimate weapons. To continue to put some perspective on the level of caring and collaboration that existed here, one viewer had started trying to think of a way to build a servo mechanism that would attach to a webcam, and automatically press the X button when lightning flashed in the Thunder Planes, just because he wanted me to be able to complete an in-game challenge related to an ultimate weapon. Those who were knowledgeable about Final Fantasy X were giving me tips on how to farm things easier, and suggestions about ways to fight monsters, and start building my stats for the endgame. If a suggestion created any kind of accessibility trouble for me, we discussed it, and I think a lot of enlightenment came out of those talks.

This attitude toward the playthrough continued, and grew with my audience. Every now and then, someone new would take interest, and more often than not, become a part of the community that was being built around this. It was incredible. The viewers were getting eager just as I was getting eager. Everyone wanted to reach those end game bosses, Nemysis and Penance. That was the goal now, you see. Not just to beat the game, but to beat all its toughest bosses as well.

And so we pushed on. We farmed things, we chatted as I did some grinding for levels, we tested ourselves against other difficult monsters and optional bosses like the Dark Aeons. There were highs and there were lows. Every time another really difficult opponent was defeated, we all cheered and celebrated. But when we found out that, in order to even successfully hit Dark Yojimbo, we needed to increase the party’s luck stat, something I had been basically ignoring up to that point, we groaned a little. No matter what, though, we pushed on.

And so it was this continued until January 21 of 2019. That was the day when both Penance, the biggest toughest boss of the game, was defeated. We then wrapped up the main story, and enjoyed the end together. All the while, the collaboration never stopped. I was running short on time, so one of my viewers, the same one with the crazy webcam idea, hopped into a convenient PS4 shareplay, and walked me to the final confrontation with Sin, the final story boss. I then took control back to finish the job.

I am moved by what this has become. As I said, I’ve beaten the main story of the game before, but never has it meant so much to me as it did this time. As one particular viewer stated, this was the very definition of an odyssey. It was an adventure that all of us participated in, and finished together. Even those who couldn’t help directly, who showed up to check progress or to watch for a while, were part of this event. Furthermore, this event has spawned future plans as well. Now that I truly know the insane support system I have behind me, I’ve decided to dedicate part of my channel to a series I’m calling Let’s play Together, where we attempt to do more collaborations like this. Next up will be the highly-acclaimed JRPG Persona 5, which we have technically already begun. I cannot wait to see what becomes of that playthrough.

I know I am lucky to have found those I have. People who care about me and my content, and who embrace what I’m trying to do. In their way, they are helping me do it. They are amazing, and I couldn’t ask for a better group. I said at the end of the playthrough that, as much as they’ve given me, I hope I have given them something too, whether that’s just entertainment, or enlightenment some of them may not have had before about blind gamers. Maybe, just maybe, seeing this level of caring and collaboration will inspire someone in a way I cannot predict. For now, this event stands as something I will always remember, and a true foundation of my Twitch community.

Gamebreak: The Spectacle of Music

When you’re blind, live performances aren’t actually all that different from listening to music in a studio. There’s the crowd, of course, and we can usually detect when an artist is really singing versus using a dub track, but otherwise there is little difference. Sure, live concerts are still fun, as certain artists have a way of creating an atmosphere. The music is all around you, the crowd is going crazy, and maybe the artist throws in some chatter to get the crowd extra hyped. These things are all great, but there’s so much more that we blind folks miss all the time, and that’s what I want to talk about.

Concerts are more than just musical performances these days. They are visual spectacles as well, as artists go through frequent costume changes, lighting effects are used, stage platforms move, dancers do very specific routines to the song, and so on. All of this is generally lost on a blind audience member. We can’t even detect when the artist moves around, since we’re hearing the audio through the arena or stadium speakers. Those artists who begin their shows with visuals on a big screen with a rumble, or single long musical note in the background might not realize it, but we’re mentally skipping that part of the concert, since we cannot see it. All it is to us is an indicator that the music will be starting soon. I’m writing all this for context, and I promise I’m about to get to the point. Bear with me.

I have written many things about Netflix and their inclusion of audio description over the past few months. They’re just incredible about it. Nevertheless, last night I experienced yet another surprise. I was browsing through the catalog, looking for something new to watch after having just finished yet another amazing series, when I encountered the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour. I personally admire Taylor as an artist, and thought it was cool Netflix did something with this. Plus my fiancé actually photographed this tour when it was in Ohio, so I was doubly intrigued. I figured I might llisten to it, and genuinely didn’t expect anything more than crowds, music, and maybe Taylor occasionally talking to the audience. I was wrong.

Right from the jump, the entire event was audio described. Suddenly, all the spectacle of the show was there for me as well. The dancers who came out in military garb during “Ready For it,” the way Taylor made male dancers fall with a wave of her hand during “I Did Something Bad,” (an action that is relevant to the song itself), it was all there. Every costume change, every platform rising over the audience, and even specific mentions of fans that got some screen time, such as a fan in a carnival barker’s outfit. Finally, a concert which took me beyond the music. In a way, I was there with that crowd more than I have been at some concerts where I was physically present. It is difficult to describe, but it was a wonderful experience.

To be perfectly clear, I am aware that many theatres these days have audio description support for plays, which is also a wonderful thing, but I have not seen much mention of this being used in a big arena or stadium concert environment. I am also not saying this is the first time this has ever happened, only that this is the first instance of this I’ve seen. Netflix has once again gone above and beyond here. After all, there are still certain things that Netflix does not provide audio descriptions for, such as standup comedy specials. I grant you there wouldn’t be much to describe in that case, but hey, some comedians do use visual humor. It therefore means something to me that the extra step was taken to describe this show.

It is my sinceer hope that ideas like this are adapted into live shows more. Not just later, when they’re posted on platforms like Netflix, though that is a wonderful thing, but in the moment. If a blind person attends any kind of big live show or event, they should have some access to what’s going on. For plays, there is generally someone up in a booth describing the play live as it happens, while the blind people in the audience wear headsets to hear it. Why couldn’t this be adopted to larger events, and tours like this one? Have a live describer for concerts, and with something like, say, a wrestling event, patch us into the commentary channel. Of course, I am aware wrestling commentators talk about other things during commercial breaks, so synchronize the system somehow so we don’t hear too much. The point here is that I think it’s very doable. Sure, we have services like Aira, but the astronomical prices of that service don’t exactly make it an ideal solution. Best if the arena, and/or the concert promoter provides the service as part of the show.

For now, I hold the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour as the highest in live concert audio description. It’s basically perfect, as the descriptions are cleverly interwoven with the music so as not to step on any lyrics. We can sing along even as we take in the spectacle that is music today. I hope this article makes you think, and as always I encourage comment and discussion. Thanks so much for reading, and continue to be awesome!