The Avengers Really Might be a Fun Ride, but if You’re Blind, They Can’t Assemble Just Yet

Marvel’s Avengers seems like it will be a lot of fun, but not necessarily for the blind. Yet, there is an inkling of possibility there as well. Accessibility would be possible in this game, based on what I’ve seen, with the addition of only a few features. Before we begin our discussion, it must be noted that these beta impressions are based on a beta build provided to me by Square Enix.

From the beginning, it needs to be said that this game lacks any sort of narration. This of course would be vital for its accessibility, especially considering you must first connect a Square Enix account to the game to play. The linking process is, fortunately, one of the more simple processes out there, so one could likely manage it with OCR. Once you’ve reached the appropriate screen, you need only to log into a web site and enter an on-screen code there to link your account. I was able to do this with sighted assistance, and though there was a little confusion during the process, we got it done. This is not the only instance where in-game narration could have been utilized though, and we’ll get to the others shortly.

In terms of accessibility features, the game does include subtitles, as well as targeting and aim assistance, though I’m pretty sure the targeting assistance only applies to enemies, which is an important note we will also get to later. The game also does have an easy campaign difficulty, which I would recommend to any blind folks testing this out for themselves, given the lack of other blind accessibility features. After browsing the options and selecting my difficulty, I began the adventure.

The good news is that this is where a few positives come in. Loading times are fast except when reloading after death, and cut scenes and gameplay flow smoothly. An even bigger positive for us, though, is that it seems all tutorial-related quicktime events will freeze time while their associated tutorial message is on screen, only permitting you to restart time by actually pressing the button you are supposed to press, making these unfailable. This was a nice touch, and introduced me to some of the game mechanics in a way I understood. Again, this was helped along by having access to sighted assistance, so understanding might not be achieved by a blind person on their own since there is 0 narration or explanation of what you’re doing. My sighted fiancé described what I was doing when I pressed these buttons, which likely contributed a great deal to me understanding what the game was attempting to convey. This is where I feel narration, and possibly audio description, are strongly needed.

Another positive, honestly, is the combat itself. I had the most fun in this beta during sequences when I was surrounded by enemies. Using Thor’s hammer, or the Hulk’s devastating attacks against enemies is great fun, and the heavy vibrations of the controller make you really feel the impacts you’re dishing out. Every character feels unique, and it’s not hard to imagine how teamwork is going to factor in once you get through the tutorials and into actual co-op gameplay.

Unfortunately, navigation is still a huge stumbling block in this game. While the surround sound audio is generally good, there is enough platforming here to make movement through the world difficult. There is a particular early sequence with the Hulk that stands out in its difficulty, as you must jump across multiple parts of a breaking bridge. I can’t tell you how many times I had to restart here because I fell. It was a lot.

Now I want to step back a bit, and talk about the auto-aim. Based on what I could tell, it only seems to work in direct combat sequences. There is a point in the first mission where you must aim Thor’s hammer at something far away and throw it, and aim/targeting assistance didn’t seem to work at all here. I had to be carefully guided by my fiancé to aim at the correct spot. This would definitely require some modification for total blind accessibility.

So, based on what I have seen, could this game be made blind accessible? I would actually say, quite confidently, yes. With the equivalent of traversal assistance, such as what was used in the Last of Us 2 to help with jumps and things, along with some audio queues for certain elements, maybe navigation assistance that could also be tied to your co-op partners for an easy follow, slightly better auto-aim, and of course, lots and lots of narration, I do believe Marvel’s Avengers could be playable by the blind. Unfortunately at this stage, I can’t recommend it without a monstrously helpful sighted person who may also need to become a monstrously-helpful co-op partner for later missions. The suddenness with which you need to jump sometimes would make even this difficult, but I could see it being done with enough patience and understanding.

Thanks for reading this impressions piece. More of this will be coming in the future, and I hope it gives people an idea of what you can and cannot expect. As always, share and enjoy! Stay awesome!

Rain and Terrain: How Animal Crossing’s Audio Design Helps Even the Totally Blind

Note: This post is a reblog of a post I wrote for the Audiokinetic Blog, and was published on June 17, 2020.

Animal Crossing is playable by the totally blind! These words have shocked many people to whom they have been spoken, and they even shocked me the first time I heard them. I couldn’t fathom how the blind could play this kind of game. I had certainly never played anything like it before. Nevertheless, now that I had heard it was possible, I had to find out how, and of course I had to try it myself. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you, dear reader, that the primary reason Animal Crossing New Horizons is playable is its audio design. What may surprise you, however, is just how good it actually is. Sit back, relax, and I shall explain it all to you.

For any game the blind can play, we need a lot of auditory information. We need to know where things are so we can find them, or in some cases just use them as landmarks. Animal Crossing does this very, very well. Not only are there different sounds for each type of terrain, making it possible for us to tell the difference between the beach, or grassy areas, or the plaza, but there are plenty of environmental queues. Get this. If there is any wind blowing in Animal Crossing New Horizons, you can hear it blowing through the trees, but not as just another ambient effect. No, you can hear the wind blowing through the trees at their exact positions on your island. This is the first game I can think of where we can actually use the wind itself to discover where individual trees are located. It’s phenomenal!

One of the greatest and most helpful things, though, is your ability to make your own audio landmarks by placing certain items in important areas. My house, for instance, is on the edge of the south beach, allowing me to use the beach as a baseline. I then placed a permanently lit campfire just to the left of my house, ensuring that if I walk along the south beach, I will hear that campfire and find my house every time. To make life even easier, I later placed the shop on the other side of that campfire, so all I have to do is step outside my house, walk around to the left so the campfire is on my right, and there’s the shop door. A third example is my placement of my island’s museum, which is right next to a waterfall on the north side of my river. Why? Because the waterfall is very loud and easy to detect, making it the perfect natural landmark.

Don’t worry, though, I’m not even close to being done. There’s plenty more audio goodness to be discovered in this game. I’ve already talked about how we know where trees are, but I haven’t covered the act of collecting from those trees, or anything else really. There isn’t much to say except that when an item drops to the ground, it makes a sound as it lands. These sounds are also perfectly positioned. So when I swing my axe at a tree, I can tell sometimes that the fruit from that tree landed on the same side of the tree as I’m on, whereas the wood landed on the opposite side. The audio positioning is, truly, that good, and keep in mind this game doesn’t even use surround sound.

Speaking of collection, though, what about those balloons? What about bugs, fish, and fossils? Well, balloons are the easiest. In fact, the deaf/hard of hearing community has lodged a complaint that balloons can be heard long before they can be seen, which is true. As a balloon floats through the air, the sound it makes is very, very distinct. All we need to do is move toward that sound so it becomes loud, then center it in our headphones, and fire that slingshot. I have taken down several balloons in a single shot because they’re so easily trackable. Sometimes it will take several attempts, but usually I’m just not close enough, or the balloon floated behind me. I always get it eventually.

Bugs are a bit trickier. There are bugs that make noise, such as the honeybee, long locust and loudest of all, the mole cricket, but many, many of the bugs make no noise at all. So yes, this is a bit more difficult a problem to solve. What we’ve come up with isn’t technically audio related, but I’ll mention it here for the curious. The strategy for a blind person is to section off an area of your island where you plant many flowers, and leave many tree stumps. Bugs will often come to these places, making it technically possible to catch a couple if you go to that area and start swinging.

Now let’s talk fish. On the surface, (that’s a water pun), fish wouldn’t be easy for a blind person to catch. The instructions for catching fish specifically say that you have to cast your line in front of the shadow of a fish. And no, fish do not make sound when they’re in the water. However, if you use fish bate, it actually summons a fish right to you, or very very near you. And as it happens, the clams you use to make fish bate do make sounds when they’re underneath the sand. The tiny little water spurts they give off are all the indication we need to find them and dig them up. Again, sometimes this takes a few tries, as we don’t always hit the correct spot exactly, but it is certainly doable.

There are a few interesting audio notes about fish, though. While they don’t make sound while swimming, a fish interested in your line does make a series of sounds. One for nudging your bobber, another much larger sound for when they latch on and get hooked, and finally the sound of you reeling them in. This last one is the most interesting, though, and here’s why. It is actually different depending on the size of the fish you’ve hooked. Little splashes for little fish, big splashes for, well, big fish. So, to fish, we throw out our fish bate, then cast our line a few times around us until we hear the interest sound. We then wait for the hooked sound, and one press of A pulls the fish right in. It’s unfortunate that we basically can’t fish without bate, but at least we can do it at all.
So let’s talk about fossils. Unfortunately, fossils are very, very difficult for the blind to dig up, as the appropriate dig spots make no sound whatsoever. Therefore, I don’t have much to say about them, at least when it comes to digging for them on your own. However, the next topic will cover a solution for even this problem.

Next up in this compilation of auditory awesomeness, interacting with friends online. I couldn’t ask for this to be any better without asking for things like chat narration via text to speech, which I don’t think is very likely. At any rate, interacting with friends online is as easy for your friends as it is for you. You can hear every single thing anyone on your island does. Not omnipotently, of course, but the distance from which you can hear things is very long. You might think this isn’t a big deal, but many many games, even online ones, wouldn’t play sound for things your friends do, even if they’re near you, unless they directly affect you or your enemies. Firing a weapon, for instance, but not playing a sound for equipping a new one. Well, in Animal Crossing New Horizons, you can hear… everything! If your online buddy pulls out a different tool, you can hear that. If they shake a tree and pick up the branch and/or the fruit from it, you can hear all of that. Everything they can do, you can hear them doing it. This is especially helpful if your friend is helping you with the previously-mentioned fossil collection. Since fossils don’t make noise, just have a friend hop on, find a fossil spot, stand near it, and clap. You’ll be able to hear it from far away, track it, and then dig up your fossil. Done and done.

I’ve also used this trick with friends that have agreed to give me things. They’ll stand near me and drop items. I can hear them drop so I go pick them up, but if for whatever reason I miss one, they’ll stand at the spot where they dropped it and perform any of the many emotes in the game, all of which also have unique sounds, by the way. It’s a system that allows for true online companionship, even if both players are blind, except of course for the fossil example in which case one must be sighted. But if I want to hop over to a blind friend’s island and drop him some fruit, that’s no problem at all.

Now we move into our final segment, which I will lovingly refer to as the crazy segment. Consider all the things I’ve already told you. Consider how awesome those things are, and now prepare yourselves to be amazed all over again. Did you know that, if I listen to someone walk in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I can tell whether or not they’ve changed their shoes from the default? Yeah. All those terrain sounds exist, but they change depending on what kind of shoes you’re wearing. Nope, I’m not kidding at all. I don’t have these sounds memorized personally, so I couldn’t currently tell you which shoe was which, but I have definitely witnessed this happening for myself. It’s just stunning.

And speaking of stunning, I’m still not done. Let’s talk about rain. When it’s raining in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, everything changes. Yes, everything. The sound of wind running through trees becomes different as the rain also pelts them. The sound of things dropping to the ground changes as the ground is soggier, your footsteps change for the same reason, (and trust me stepping off a plane onto an island where it’s raining and walking across a wet dock is very noticeable), and that’s still not all! If you’re inside a tent or building, you can hear rain hitting the roof. But even better, you can hear this from the outside too, meaning that buildings and tents are technically easier to find in the rain! I feel like I need to say again that I am not kidding. This is truly amazing stuff.

So there you have it. This doesn’t answer all of a sighted person’s questions about Animal Crossing, (I didn’t go into detail on how we use optical character recognition for instance), but it does answer all the audio-centric questions. Next time you visit your New Horizons island, maybe close your eyes for a second and just listen. See what you can figure out. Animal Crossing has outdone the audio design of many, many triple A games out there, and I want everyone to hear it.

The First of Us: My Journey in The Last of Us 2 Blind Accessibility

“We’ve gotta talk to this guy,” said Emelia Schatz from the front row. I was on stage at the Game Accessibility Conference 2017, and though at the time I didn’t know Emelia, or EM for short, I soon would. I at least suspected who she represented, as the topic I had just been discussing was the Last of Us. I was talking about games I couldn’t play, but wished I could. I spoke of how I would give anything to play The Last of Us, and how it was a physical ache when I couldn’t play a game. That is when the infamous line was uttered, and as small a thing as it was, it’s a thing I will never forget.

They did indeed “talk to this guy,” and that conversation, which contained a bit where I told them how I would love to play a game for my sighted fiancé instead of her having to play it for me, started what would become a fantastic and beautiful working relationship. I didn’t know it then, but my pathway was set, and I had already started walking down it.

There’s a lot that I can’t say about my experience working with Naughty Dog. What I can say, though, is that it was unlike anything I could have expected. From the moment I stepped into the Naughty Dog studios for the first time, I felt welcomed. I felt like I belonged there. And that was before I knew for sure that I would really be working with them. This was just a conversation. This was my attempt to sell myself to this studio. I knew it was a huge opportunity, but it was on me to make it work. Could I do it?

Well yeah, I guess I did. I ended up working on the Last of Us 2 for 3 years, both in and out of the studio. My brain never stopped. I was always coming up with things. Things I simply had to get to the team as quickly as possible! I would often write emails that were both really long, but also really frantic, full of walls of text about how we should look into trying this or that thing. From the moment I started, I was all in. I was passionately pursuing this idea that we COULD make this work. I wouldn’t allow us to be stopped. This was going to be the one! I’m doing this!

But I was never alone. First, the passion and dedication of the Naughty Dog team themselves was unbelievable. They were just as all in as I was. I would often speak to them encouragingly, both in person and in emails, and I did this at first because I thought I had to. I thought it was on me to keep them on the accessibility train, encouraging them at every turn so they wouldn’t give up and say “Nope, all this is too much. Can’t do it. Done.” I was THAT terrified at first. But after a while, I started to see that they really, really did want to do this. I saw that I had already won. I saw that there was no turning back for them either. I kept encouraging them after this, but more just because I was saying what I felt, not because I was worried they’d just stop.

Secondly, this game would not be as accessible as it is right now if it hadn’t been for Misty, my wonderful fiancé. Working on a game like this from a blind accessibility perspective was difficult, and it was difficult for the same reason that playing it will be difficult for some blind people for a while. A game like this requires a tremendous mental shift. This is not your audio games, developed by only a few people. This is a huge, huge game, developed by a very large team. Because of this, this game contains massive levels, tremendous amounts of verticality, different ways to get into places, multiple options and approaches for each encounter, an insane number of mechanics and systems, and so on and so on.

I was not immune to needing this shift, and Misty was the one who helped me get there. Most audio games, for instance, require you to kill basically every enemy you encounter. You grow up on audio games and some playable mainstream games, you get used to that idea. But even having watched a zillion playthroughs of the first game, somehow it didn’t stick in my head that I didn’t need to kill everything, and that there were other options I could try for. That’s where Misty came in. Well, that, and keeping me focused on talking to the team instead of just playing the game the whole time. Her input was truly invaluable in helping shape this experience.

So, in case you didn’t know, we did it. 3 years of intense work, and the Last of Us 2 has achieved total blind accessibility. It is my utterly tremendous honor to be a part of that, and not just because it is THIS game. Not even because I longed to play the Last of Us at GAConf all those years ago. The Last of Us 2 is going to stand forever as the first huge, triple A game to embrace and fully support blind accessibility, and I will always, always be able to say that I helped make that happen. That I am in fact largely responsible for that happening. Of course, this game breaks down more barriers than blindness, providing accessibility for tons of disabilities, and for that I look to my other consultants. Steve Saylor, Paul Lane, James Wrath, and even folks I never met like Morgan Baker. All of us did this together. We became a team, and we made something that will be recognized for years to come. And let me tell you something, dear readers. I’m not stopping anytime soon. The Last of Us part 2 is not the last of anything. It is, in fact, the first.

Twitch Revisited: Accessibility wins

The past several months have been great for Twitch Accessibility. Tons of things have been added, changed, and updated that have made the experience better for us totally blind folk. You will, I’m sure, recall the blog I posted wherein I feared having to leave Twitch because it was growing more and more inaccessible as time went on. Now, I’m happy to say, the opposite is happening. There are still some issues, but I think it’s time we take a new look at Twitch from a blind user’s perspective.

Firstly, remember all the things I said I couldn’t do anymore? Things like, ya know, logging in? All that is fixed. Now, not only can I log in without help, but I can edit my panels, edit extensions, and perhaps most importantly for me personally, edit the information on my videos and export them to Youtube if I want. It is such a relief to have this functionality back, and to have the new functionality that comes with it. Fun fact, editing our panels was something we simply couldn’t do at all before, and was not in the first wave of accessibility updates. It’s here now though, and it’s almost funny because I’m sort of scared to do it. Now that I can, I just don’t want to mess anything up. That’s a me thing, though, not a Twitch thing.

Second, let’s talk about the video player. Aside from an unfortunately persistent issue where the video player seems to disappear, at least as far as a screen reader is concerned, the player itself has become much more accessible. Its buttons are labeled, meaning we can press them without fear of somehow breaking it, because we know what each button does. The blind can even create clips now, an act that required a complex Nightbot command before. We can mute and unmute, adjust the volume of an individual Twitch stream, basically everything. Again, this is incredibly refreshing news. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you don’t know what features you’re missing until you’ve got them.

Now let’s take a look at the future. Twitch is about to release a new channel look for its users, and this comes with its own set of features, all of which are, so far, totally accessible. If you stream on Twitch, you can open the dashboard configuration menu, click on preferences, then channel. You may have been to this page before, but now there’s a whole bunch more stuff for you to add there. Firstly, you can add your social links directly to your channel page without having to create a panel for them. You can still create panels, and some links you may want to add don’t fall under the social category, but this is an easy option that will ensure everyone will be able to follow you wherever you’d like them to. Secondly though, and the most awesome in my opinion, is the streaming schedule! You can set up a fully accessible streaming schedule, which includes the ability to set up one or multiple days at a time, add your categorized games, title your streams, and everything. Choosing a game category appears to even add a game graphic for you, which is handy for us folks who don’t do too well with the pictures. It’s a huge improvement, and something I’ll look forward to updating as necessary just because I truly can do so now.

Lastly in the new things department is the ability to add a channel trailer. This isn’t really an accessibility thing unless we count the fact that the “choose video” link is labeled properly, but I thought I’d mention it since we’re talking about this page. And hey, if you’re a streamer of any kind, let alone a blind or disabled one, I would recommend doing this or finding someone willing to do this. A channel trailer can introduce newcomers who might find your channel while you’re offline to the kinds of things you stream, to your style of content, and so on. It’s a great addition that I hope everyone takes advantage of.

In conclusion, Twitch has come a long, long way since I wrote that scary blog many months ago. There are still problems, including a new one that recently sprang up wherein screen readers will read the entire chat every time something new comes in, and the aforementioned disappearing video player, but overall the accessibility improvements that have been made here are massive, and ongoing. I am proud to be a Twitch streamer, and look forward to the continued growth of my community there. Thank you to Twitch for taking all this seriously. Your work has not gone unnoticed. Also thanks to you guys for reading this, and as always, continue to be awesome!

The Narration Crutch

Accessibility of all types has come a long way, even since I started blogging about it. Blind accessibility, too, has undeniably gotten better since then, with more games adding menu narration and actual features that help us play. As you can tell from the title, menu narration is the specific focus of this blog post, because I am actually a bit concerned. Let’s talk about why.

So a lot of games, really quite a lot, have menu narration now. Eagle Island, Crackdown 3, the Division 2, Gears 5, even Minecraft! That’s not nearly all of them either. On one hand, this is great! It’s a huge step forward, no doubt, and absolutely provides us access that we didn’t have before. But, the specific games I’ve just mentioned here have one thing in common, and that’s where we run into my concern. Aside from the narration in these games, they are mostly otherwise inaccessible. Why is that? Well, the answer may be found in words spoken by Microsoft.

Way back when Microsoft opened up their Narrator API’s for 3rd party developers to use, they made a huge point of talking about how easy Narrator was to implement. “A couple lines of code for each area where there is text,” they said, “and you’re done.” “Wow!” thought we. “Like every game is gonna have narration now!” This isn’t true of course, and in fact some games even with narration have largely incomplete narration. This not only makes me wonder about the truth of that statement, but also makes me speculate on the idea that we have perhaps too much narration.

And now we come to my point. My concern is this. Are game developers adding narration because they believe that narration is all they need to check the blind accessibility box? I understand CVAA is part of it, but given the amount of games that don’t have narration yet, I am relatively sure that menu narration still isn’t a requirement just yet. I’m worried, though, that developers are putting all of their understanding of what blind accessibility requires into narration and going, “Awesome! We did it!” I look at games like Gears 5, which I’ve roasted in great detail before, and I see its narration efforts. It’s super broken and super inconsistent, but it is undeniably there. That, along with the 1 other feature added specifically for the blind, (the audio beacon), along with a feature the blind take advantage of, (aim assist), are the only things helping us in that game, and even then only one mode of that game. But do, or did, the Gears 5 developers think they had succeeded at blind accessibility? I know they know about blind players, as the audio beacon was originally added in Gears 4 because of a blind player. So are they sitting somewhere now and thinking “Man, we nailed it!” I hope not, and I hope those haven’t been the thoughts of any other devs either. Blind accessibility is indeed very complicated. This I shall never deny. Narration alone is not enough.

By far the best example of narration in a game that isn’t an audio game is probably Sequence Storm. The narration is essentially flawless, and a lot of effort was put into making it that way. Madden 20 comes in second, because even though its narration isn’t complete, it definitely works well in all the places it exists. In these instances, I can be assured that the developer knew just narration wasn’t enough, as both of these games have numerous other features that go along with it. That is a comfort. But still…

Look, I hope I’m wrong. Despite everything I’ve said, especially about Gears 5, I would happily jump on a plane if given the chance to work directly with them and make some accessibility magic. I want to be wrong about this. However, this has been in my head for a while, and I needed to let it out somewhere. As it happens, I haven’t posted a blog in a bit, so voila! It is done. Thanks for reading, feel free to discuss and throw me some feedback, and as always, stay awesome!