Playing Differently: Minecraft Story Mode

Greetings, folks! What I have to discuss with you today is something that, even I must admit, the title of this blog doesn’t do justice to. Still, I think it is the right title, because it brings to bear the ultimate moral of this particular post, which we will get to later. Now then, if you’re blind, please make sure you are sitting down, because what I am about to inform you of is insane. Also to be clear, when I say insane, I mean it in a good way. Let’s begin. Prepare yourselves.

Not long ago, I wrote a blog about Telltale Games, and how difficult they are to muddle through if you’re blind. Being forced to wander with little to no queues, desperately trying to find the next thing you need to click on, struggling with quicktime events until finally you get them right… It’s hard, but it’s possible with patience.

I also wrote a blog about audio description, a battle that Netflix is winning pretty solidly as they have tons of audio described content available, with more being added all the time. It’s worth mentioning that since that blog was written, they’ve smashed down a few more barricades by really doubling down on audio description for the content they’re licensing. Tons more movies and shows have appeared with an audio description option. Netflix easily remains the king in this area.

Now you might be asking yourself, why did I choose to remind you of those 2 particular previous blogs? I chose to do this because both of the things I just mentioned have collided in an amazing way! A way you will not believe, and a way that, as far as I know, nobody expected. Here’s the short and shocking version. Minecraft Storymode, the quite popular game from Telltale games, is on Netflix, it’s playable, and it’s audio described!!!

OK, have you recovered yet? Well allow me to keep going. Netflix introduced the idea of choice-based adventure videos onto their platform some time ago with Puss and Book, Trapped in an Epic Tale. This was an adventure geared toward young audiences that allowed you to choose which path our cartoon kitty hero took through a magical book. If you’re wondering, yes, I played it… For research. In any case, Netflix said back then that they would gauge whether they continued to release stuff like this on how well this one did. It must have done well, because now we have Minecraft Story Mode!

Basically, the Netflix version of Minecraft Story Mode breaks down the gameplay of the console and PC editions of the game into simple choices. What would be quicktime events in the game itself are completed automatically, and appear as nothing more than part of the story. You would never know you were supposed to press X there. Yet you are left with all the important choices. How will you treat your friends? How will you get out of this jam? Will you be bold, or choose the safer route? Even the most basic choice of all, will your character be male or female? It’s all up to you.

And make no mistake here, your choices do matter. For those who may not have played or listened to a Telltale game before, even your male or female choice matters, as it affects which voice actor plays your character. Yes, there are visual differences too of course, but I mention the voice actor thing as this news is primarily geared toward the blind. Anyway, aside from that, the decisions you make do affect the game, just as they did in the original versions. Choices are retained, and yes, this even holds true across episodes of the season! Netflix magic in action, folks.

Now, let’s talk about actually playing this thing as a blind person. First, let me stress again that it is audio described. This is, needless to say, something the original games did not do, and in my opinion, it adds a new layer for us. The audio description is pretty seamless, and mostly holds up as your choices change things. The describer uses the correct pronoun, for instance, depending on whether you have chosen a male or female hero. You might encounter an instance or 2 when something is repeated after you make a choice, but that is to be expected given the constraints Netflix has to work under to make this work. It doesn’t actually all flow seamlessly like a video game would as you make choices, and sometimes the cuts are detectable. If a scene which was influenced by your previous choices is about to play, you can usually detect when the switch happens. Nevertheless it is very quick, and Netflix has done all they can to make it as seamless as possible.

Now I do have to say that making choices isn’t perfect. Much, much better than the video game version, but still a bit problematic in one sense. I played this using the iPhone app, and the choice buttons that appear on screen, while they can be seen by voiceover and thus used by the blind, are unlabeled from Voiceover’s perspective. Voiceover simply refers to them as “button.” Never fear, though. All is not lost. I was able to figure out certain things that may help you in your journey. Let’s talk about those.

Most of the time, these buttons appear near the bottom of the screen, one on the left, and one on the right. There are instances where this changes, but if you’re worried you’re not finding a button fast enough, you can use voiceover flick gestures to locate them, and press the left or right one accordingly based on which direction you’re flicking.

How do we know what those buttons do? Well, I figured out things that help answer that question as well. I have not yet played the entire journey this way, but so far, certain patterns seem to hold. First, when dealing with conversations between people, the left button seems to hold to a positive response, while the right is a negative one. When making major decisions, the left button tends to hold toward the first option that was presented by the characters, and the right will be the second. When approaching a situation that may involve risk, the left button tends toward the safer route, while the right button goes for the bolder choice. When presented with a decision that implies a yes or no answer, the left button is yes, the right is no. I won’t spoil anything here for those who haven’t played, so it will be up to you to figure out which of these situations you’re in. You may make some mistakes, and hopefully if future releases are planned, Netflix can come up with a way to label these buttons for us, but I think if you follow these basic rules, you’ll mostly achieve what you want to achieve. There are things that break from this formula, like the ability to choose where to look while in a large forest, (no choice is necessarily braver or safer than the others), but I believe this will still help.

Next up, how do you know when to make a choice? This does get a little tricky. As I said before, Netflix did their best to make this as seamless as possible. The drawback to this is that sometimes people will still be talking, or the audio describer will still be describing during the time when you’re supposed to be deciding something. So here are a couple more rules to follow. If a character is asking your character a question, and the pauses between their statements increase in length, you can almost guarantee that you’re supposed to make a choice at that point. The statements they’re making are intended as filler while you’re making your decision, which is why those pauses between them exist. Time to look for those buttons. Second, if 2 characters are arguing, and you haven’t automatically interjected something in a while, you may wish to check for those buttons again, as you may be able to offer your own opinion. Third, if all action seems to have stopped, leaving only music, your character is probably preparing to take some action or other, and it’s time to check for those buttons. And fourth, a nonissue really. Sometimes you actually are prompted directly to make a choice. This happens in the earlier portions of the game, the easiest example being the male or female choice. Male is on the left, female on the right.

One final note. Sadly, it seems that Minecraft Story Mode Season 2 is not yet available. Nevertheless, Season 1 is a long and fantastic adventure, and while it helps, you don’t actually need to know everything about Minecraft to play. It is my hope that Netflix plans on releasing season 2, and that they further the refinement of this new platform. Maybe some won’t see things my way, but I see staggering potential for the blind when it comes to experiencing stories like this. For now, you can go play Minecraft Story Mode immediately as long as you have a Netflix subscriptions. I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I hope what I’ve learned trying this out helps you craft your own story. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Let’s Talk About Let’s Plays

I have said before that we disabled gamers out there long to play games ourselves. We want the same experiences we know others are getting, and just watching a Let’s Play isn’t enough, as it is still someone else’s experience. This remains true, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still watch Let’s Plays, to get from some games what we can. We love video games, after all. So, if you’re a let’s player out there, or someone who is thinking about starting a Let’s Play of a game, this one’s for you. You see, there are things you can do, things some Let’s Players already do, that make things just a bit better for us in the visually impaired category. I want to talk about those things, and also give some mention to a couple folks who already set pretty good examples. A quick note before we begin, though. This really applies to any disability, though the examples I give here focus on visual impairment.

A lot of what playing games for people is, or at least what it should be, is knowing your audience. As your viewership grows, so does its diversity. As word gets around about you, you’ll attract various different types of people. Maybe, just maybe, one of these types is visually impaired. If you get a message in a comment, or in live chat, from a visually impaired viewer who enjoys your content, consider doing what you can to give them the best experience possible. In an ideal world, it would be great if all let’s players did these things automatically, but that’s not the world we live in, so doing them in response to learning that you have that audience will suffice.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, read the text. Even today, many games rely on text-only dialog and story events. If a blind person is watching a let’s play, they obviously wouldn’t be able to read and appreciate these things without your help. Imagine playing an incredible game like Undertale and not being able to read any of the text, or see any of the graphics. Suddenly, the game goes from being the wondrous experience it is to a collection of sound effects. Undertale lives on its story. Take that away, and you essentially have nothing.

Next, be descriptive. We know your audience is likely primarily composed of sighted people, but we’d like to know what that cool thing that just happened was as well. You can disclaim it by saying you’re describing something for your visually impaired viewers if you feel it’s necessary, and no you don’t have to describe absolutely everything, but when an especially neat, or even an especially awful thing happens, it would be nice, and you will be appreciated for it. Again, we know we’re not your only audience. We get that it would take a lot to describe every single room you enter, and every single character you meet. The goal here is to simply provide us as much of the experience you’re having as you can, as you do automatically for the sighted folks who view your content.

Keep in mind that both of these things involve you. They require interaction which, I can’t stress enough, should be a staple quality of any content creator. We blind folks are not likely to watch playthroughs without commentary unless we’re doing it for a second to get a taste of a game’s audio. If you are one of those people who stays involved, if you do communicate with your viewers, great! These are just a couple ways you can keep us involved.

Now, a couple shoutouts. These are people who, for whatever reason, already do the things I’ve described. They set great examples for Let’s Players out there, and should be checked out if that’s what you’re looking for. First, there is Darksyde Phil, who can be found on www.twitch.tv/darksydephil where he streams gameplay almost every day. That gameplay is uploaded to his Youtube channel, www.youtube.com/dspgaming Phil is a colorful individual, and most certainly not PG rated, but he is very considerate of his audience. He reads most, and sometimes all game text, and he ensures subtitles are always on for the hearing impaired as well. Check him out if you want examples of these things with some colorful humor thrown in.

Second, a channel that actually exists for the soul purpose of describing gameplay to the blind. I introduce you to Audio Described Gaming, found at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0liuqhnIvfLbMeL-g3THoA
This individual sadly hasn’t uploaded a new video in a few months, but has several playthroughs, including the previously-mentioned Undertale, that might interest any blind gamer out there. This guy does it all, actually taking the painstaking time to describe every room, every character, and every major in-game moment, along with of course reading the text. He’s a true soldier for us, and I am not alone in wishing he had more content to offer.

That about does it for this particular blog. For my blind readers, I hope I have accurately described the things we’re looking for, and maybe that I introduced you to a new Let’s Player you didn’t know about before. For everyone else, I hope I gave you something to think about in case you ever considered doing a let’s play of your own. Thanks for reading, all, and as always, continue to be awesome!

I Think I’d Play That: Suspension of Uncertainty

Here’s a question for all you sighted readers out there. Have you ever looked at a game, maybe via a trailer, or maybe even actual gameplay, and thought “Hmm. I might like to play that game, but I’m not sure.” Have you had a situation where you remain undecided until the very moment you play the game? I ask you to consider that feeling for a second, and then apply it to a situation in which a game someone may wish to try is inaccessible to them. Pretty lousy, huh? Well, let’s talk about it.

The inspiration for this blog came from a conversation about, of all things, Fortnite. I know that, in its current form, Fortnite is inaccessible to the blind. I can listen to others play it, though, and have done so, but during this conversation I’ve mentioned, I realized something. Even though I’ve listened to many, many Fortnite matches, I am even now unsure if I would like the game even if I could play it. I was intrigued by this feeling, and decided to consider it more deeply.

On the one hand, I personally am a very story-driven gamer. I love a game with a narrative I can sink my teeth into. Fortnite has almost none of that. This is an automatic turnoff. It would, I should think, be very difficult for me to get into a game that doesn’t have one of my favorite aspects of gaming. Yet, I enjoy games like Feer, a game I blogged about previously, and offered tremendous praise to. So… Maybe it wouldn’t matter after all?

Looking at Fortnite’s positives, though, it’s tremendously popular for a reason. It has loads and loads of ever-changing challenges to complete, it has lots of unlockables and game mechanics, and it even has world events that chane aspects of the game. All this sounds great. It sounds like it would really hook me, and enable me to get past the things it doesn’t have. All that on top of an ability to play the game with my friends would admittedly be pretty awesome.

This is where it gets unique, though. For me, for us blind gamers, that’s where the consideration ends. Not only can we not play Fortnite, but we don’t have a Fortnite equivalent that we can play either. So this wonderment I feel, this question of whether I would get into it if I could play it or not, will never have an answer, or rather, won’t have one until some very drastic things happen in the world of accessible gaming. Minecraft is another case like this, where I’m not sure if I’d end up liking it or not.

Again, there isn’t really a message here, save for the constant push to further the cause of accessibility. I was just stricken by how intriguing our position as gamers is sometimes. Our gaming palates aren’t even fully formed, as blind accessibility hasn’t broken into some genres just yet. It’s an interesting thought, and that’s really the only point I had. I hope all this has interested you in some way as well, and I thank you for reading my ramblings. As always, continue to be awesome!

It’s OK to be Wrong: The Resident Evil 7 Revelation

“Nah, Resident Evil 7 isn’t playable at all by the blind,” I proclaimed to many people. “It’s missing all the features that made Resident Evil 6 playable, like the map trick we use. Plus the layout requires you to do a lot of backtracking, and also I tried the demo… Yeah, it’s not gonna work.” I’ve been saying this for a while now, as my discussions of Resident Evil 6 often lead to talk of Resident Evil 7. Well, it turns out, I was completely and totally wrong. Blind people have apparently been completing the game right under my giant nose, utterly ignoring the fact that I had dismissed it entirely. But how could this be? Am I not supposed to be knowledgeable about these things? Well, let’s discuss.

Here’s the first fun fact. People, as it turns out, are wrong all the time. Experts are wrong at least some of the time. It happens. There are many contributing factors to this. In the case of Resident Evil 7, I believe my problem was that I was holding it up to what Resident Evil 6 was, which is really quite a different game, rather than looking at it in a new light. I was concerned that I couldn’t navigate as easily, yet after following the examples I heard about and trying to play the game again, I discovered that with a little more patience, I could get to where I was going. I was concerned about the fact that ammunition was considerably less in RE7 than in RE6. I’m not far enough in the game that I can confirm how much of a problem this is, but facing facts, people have obviously gotten around this issue. These things are understandably difficult to argue when the facts are in front of you.

But here, folks, is the second fun fact. All of this, all of it, is OK. It’s OK that I was wrong, it’s OK for anyone to be wrong. It’s almost great, even. It shows the perseverance and determination of the blind gaming community that they kept trying, and found a way. It shows the depth of what accessibility means, and how things can be different even for those with the same disability. It stresses the importance of options when creating accessibility features, or in my opinion, any features.

We should, as a community, continue to feed each other what information we can about the games we play. We need to keep talking about them, teaching each other how we were successful at this or that game, and accepting as well that we, even amongst ourselves, are different. We all have different strengths and different skill levels, but so do the members of any other gaming community. To be clear, I’m not saying these things aren’t happening, just that they should continue. I just think an example like this brings their importance to the forefront. It’s a big world out there, and there are a lot of games in it. Let’s keep trying, keep playing, and keep working to make the ones we can’t play more accessible for everyone. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Echoes from Levia: Echoes From my Mind

There is a game out there for IOS called Echoes From Levia: Soulbound. It is an audio game, made so it can be played by the totally blind. I have recently completed this game, and I have what may be some unique impressions of it that I wish to discuss. Impressions that are, at least, very different from those of my friends. Let’s get into it.

Firstly, I’m going to be completely, perhaps brutally honest. There is a lot wrong with Echoes from Levia: Soulbound. The game controls extremely poorly, feeling unresponsive most of the time, and slow and clunky the rest of the time. There isn’t a moment in the game where this isn’t plain. Movement is slow, and combat which should be, honestly, extremely simple, may not work out that way because of the game’s tendency to fail to recognize your input. Since you can only take a few hits, this just makes the game all the more frustrating.

On top of that, the voice acting is almost universally bad. When it isn’t, when a voice actor demonstrates their talent, they are hampered by poor dialog writing and direction. The editing, too, is a problem, as weird decisions made during editing completely take away any emersion. If several characters are supposed to speak at the same time, say while raising a toast and saying “Cheers,” they are never allowed to do so. Instead, each individual voice plays about a third of a second apart, making the whole thing sound like a seriously coordinated sitcom bit. It is, well, it’s cringeworthy.

It seems clear that Echoes from Levia: Soulbound was inspired by A Blind Legend, which is a game that plays similarly, but does literally everything better. Movement is not clunky, combat while still simplistic is actually fun and responsive, and the story, writing, and voice acting are all decent, though still not great. A Blind Legend is a good audio game that, given its 4 star rating on IOS, I would say did pretty well, and it seems Echoes from Levia is attempting to capitalize on its success.

Now here’s where things get interesting. I am aware that I have been quite harsh with Echoes of Levia, and I think that, given its pricetag, it’s worthy of that criticism. After all, even Frequency Missing is a better game, with better gameplay and voice acting, and it’s free. However, I still believe Echoes from Levia should be acknowledged for its attempt to iterate on games of this type. Yes, it is a bad game, but it did try some new things as well. For instance, when you’re walking through a city in Echoes from Levia, you’ll come across little cut scenes that feature random townspeople discussing events, or in some cases being a part of them on the side. These aren’t side quests or anything, just additional plot development which, I’m pretty sure, you can miss if you choose not to approach them. A Blind Legend, meanwhile, stays very linear and focused on the task at hand. It works well enough for that story, but there are some areas where A Blind Legend could have benefited from a side jaunt or 2. A Blind Legend never really asks you to explore, Echoes does try to do that.

Second, Echoes from Levia contains some pretty neat puzzle segments, requiring you to move carefully with very little room for error in order to find the solution. These are the game’s high point in my opinion, and again A Blind Legend’s focus on story progression and combat means these don’t really exist as much. It’s another touch that makes Echoes stand out, and deserves at least some acknowledgement.

So Echoes critics, I hear you. I am ultimately one of you. However, iteration doesn’t happen without developers willing to take risks and try new things, and I think Echoes at least achieves that. If the good things about Echoes can be applied to a game that plays, and is written as good as or better than A Blind Legend, we’ll have a fantastic product on our hands. I hope you found something to take away from this blog, and as always, I thank you for reading. Continue to be awesome!