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!

Bandersnatch: A Netflix Experience

There is a lot I could say about Bandersnatch, but a lot I won’t say, because this is the kind of experience that shouldn’t be spoiled. It’s another interactive outing from Netflix, following in the footsteps of, as crazy as it sounds, Puss and Book, as well as Minecraft Storymode. This one, though, is not for the kids. This one’s for the adults, for the deep thinkers, for the tech geeks. This one is for fans of Black Mirror.

As very nearly anyone who has watched it will tell you, Black Mirror is already a fantastic series. Every episode delves into a technological possibility of some kind, and forces you to look upon its dark side. The episodes make you think, they make you speculate, they make you want to talk about them for hours with your friends, as I actually did on a podcast once. So how does Bandersnatch, being a Black Mirror episode, stack up? Well, I’m delighted to say that it stacks up perfectly with the others.

Everything you’d expect from a Black Mirror episode, you can find in Bandersnatch. There are eastereggs that point back at other Black Mirror episodes, there are thought-provoking plot developments, and different ones depending on your choices in this case. It’s a tremendous display that is worthy of the series, yet is also a completely new thing.

It is interesting to me as well how Bandersnatch manages to affect you the player. Without leaping headlong into spoiler territory, I’ll explain this by saying that typically, in choice-based games, I try to pick the things that I personally would choose, keeping my decisions as true to myself as I can. This experience managed to convince me to pick certain choices based on pure, undeniable morbid fascination. “Oh I just wonder what happens if I pick this one! Let’s find out!” I gleefully select my choice, reflecting only later on how weirdly delighted I was to do so.

As I have said, this thing is difficult to talk about, simply because I want to talk about it. I want to spill it all, all my thoughts on it, my opinions about it, and hear what others think as well. This, though, is not the place to do so. Right now, I’m just trying to convince you to press play on it if you haven’t already, and experience this for yourself. I promise it will make you think of games like this in a whole new way.

In terms of accessibility, Bandersnatch is pretty much completely accessible, especially on PC. Much like the Minecraft Story Mode experience, the buttons are all clearly labeled if you play it on PC, a fact I wasn’t aware of when I wrote that original blog. There was a small bit of trouble with one particular ending path, but it wasn’t an accessibility problem. I simply didn’t figure out the layout of certain buttons fast enough to act upon them. Perhaps with this little hint, though, you can succeed where I did not. If you’re blind, and using a screen reader, the numbers you need are below all those clickables. That is all I am going to say about it. You’ll know when you encounter the situation I am speaking of.

I think that covers, as much as I can, my thoughts and feelings about Bandersnatch. I’ve seen some folks talking about how a door has opened here, and while I personally feel it began with Minecraft Story Mode, I very much still agree. This form of interactive entertainment works. Some don’t like it when video games play this way because they want a video game. Lots of button presses, jumping, flying, aiming, shooting, fighting, what have you. But if you go into an experience knowing in advance that it’s a thing you watch, and then there happens to be interactivity, it may actually be even better received. I hope you give Bandersnatch a try, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. Thanks so much for reading, and as always, continue to be awesome!

Gamebreak: Bird Box, a Movie Review

This is the sort of blog I don’t usually do. I don’t like limiting a blog’s audience, but I need to in this case. I say to you now, please do not read this blog unless you have seen the movie Bird Box in its entirety, as this is a spoilerific review. Consider this first paragraph a recommendation to see the movie, after which you can read the rest. 😊 Bird Box affected me in a profound way, which is why I write this, but I can’t explain that without spoiling it. So warnings given, everyone ready, here goes.

Bird Box is a movie that starts with a simple, though scary premise. An indescribable something causes a large portion of Earth’s population to commit suicide. It seems to happen when the victims see something, though we’re not sure what as no victim ever survives long enough to explain. There are hints that the victims may be seeing, or somehow reliving their worst losses or greatest fears, but this is never confirmed. I liked this approach, as I agree with the Stephen King philosophy that sometimes not knowing makes it better. I was hooked from the jump when Mallory, the main character, loses her sister in this way, ensuring she can no longer ignore the problem. She makes it into a house, and here we meet most of the rest of the principle cast, save one, Olympia, who shows up later. Tension is already high as Mallory is pregnant, as is Olympia when she arrives.

All this is intercut with the present, where we see Mallory with 2 children heading somewhere on a boat. There’s a clip in the very beginning speaking of a compound where it is safe, and how the only way there is down the river. The speaker says they don’t think they’ll make it with kids, but Mallory is trying anyway. What made things so desperate? Is one of these children hers? If so, is the other one Olympia’s? Where is she then? These questions are laid out in perfect fashion. The pacing of the movie feels smooth, and you get more and more information at a very acceptable rate.

As the movie progresses, you start to learn more. When Mallory is attacked while on the boat, and in a flashback the whole crew is attacked in the supermarket, we learn that not everyone is affected the same way. The attackers don’t wear blindfolds, and seem to want the others to look, to see what they see and allow it to affect them however it will. Later still, when the oh-so-loveable Gary shows up, we learn that these are the psychos. Those who were already psychotic see whatever this thing is as beautiful, and it changes them into warriors who work in favor of this entity. Gary is, of course, one of these, and it’s his intervention that results in poor Olympia’s death, leaving Mallory to take care of both children, one of which was indeed hers, the other is indeed Olympia’s.

I’m skipping over some things here, but it’s nearly time I get to the point. By this time, Mallory is alone save for the kids and Tom, an army vet who has given her some much-needed love in this dark time. Sadly, we already know she leaves alone, and though it takes 5 years, Tom eventually meets his end dealing with a band of 5 no-blindfold people.

The radio message speaking of the compound comes before this, though, and initially Mallory did not want to go at all. Tom’s death serves as the last straw for her, and she determinedly sets out on the boat, taking us smoothly back to the present.

So far, I’ve just described a wonderful movie, but now we get into why it so profoundly affected me. Off they go, the entity tormenting them all the while, whispering, and finally even yelling at Mallory to “look! Just look!” They use the voices of the dead, including Tom’s making it all the more difficult to resist. Nevertheless they do, and finally, finally, they reach the aforementioned compound which is… Here it comes… A school for the blind.

I literally punched the air in emotional, uncontrolled joy when I got to this part, and I’ll explain why. Here is a movie that portrays blind people in a proper, acceptable manner, and it does so in the space of about 5 minutes. These are the ending scenes, so not much time is given to them, but they don’t need much. It wasn’t just that the blind were the saviors, I actually don’t mean that. In the media these days, movies, games, TV shows, disability is treated as a problem, and the disabled are treated as helpless and scared, sometimes even as comedy props. Not so here. Here, the blind did the exact same thing every other survivor did. They worked to find shelter and safety, then reached out to help others where they could. Yes, the blind would technically be immune to this creature, which is helpful, but they went above and beyond to also protect the sighted, using a huge amount of birds as warning beacons so the sighted would know when the entities were approaching.

Again, the point I’m making is not about the blind being the saviors necessarily. The point I’m making is that Bird Box portrayed us as thinking, feeling human beings, which in today’s media is an incredible feat. I was moved, and I was proud that we were being shown in a positive light. It was an experience for me akin to reading Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, which is also excellent, by the way.

Speaking of books, there is a Bird Box book, upon which this movie was based. I’m being clear that this is a review of the movie, though, as I haven’t read it yet. That’s definitely in the cards soon, however. All I can say for now is that the movie is incredible. It’s scary, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful and it’s awful, and it portrays us in a wonderful way. It inspired me so much that I simply had to write about it, something that no other movie has ever done before. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little piece, and I hope that some of you stopped reading at the beginning to go watch Bird Box. As always, I’m open to comment and discussion, but if you contact me on Twitter, please stick to DM’s or keep it spoiler free, as I would want others to experience the same flow of emotion I did. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Muddy Waters Aren’t Always Bad Things

Over the course of many blogs here, I have described many ways in which the blind play games, and ways in which they get the things the mainstream games out there aren’t yet providing them. However, I woefully neglected to mention one particular facet of blind gaming existence, and thanks to inspiration from a few of my followers, inspiration they may not have known they were providing, I am going to correct that. Let’s talk about Muds!

In this context, mud stands for Multi-user dungeon. A simplified description of what this means would be an MMO that is completely text-based. no graphics, no sound unless someone codes a sound pack, which happens sometimes and can be quite cool, but is certainly not required. It’s all about the writing, and all about interacting with a world in a way similar to the clasic text adventures of old, with varying degrees of difference depending on the mud you’re playing. In even shorter terms, it is the blind person’s current answer to MMORPG’s, and it’s hard to argue with. It’s presented in a format both blind and sighted can appreciate if the sighted among them can handle games without graphics. I spoke a bit on that in my Choice of Games Love letter. Muds can be just as dynamic, just as social, and just as feature-filled as any MMO. In some ways, they actually have even more freedom.

You know those MMO’s that let you build a house? Well that’s all well and good, but when you’re building a house in an MMO, you are limited by the available assets and materials in the game. However, most Muds will allow you to write your own description for every room of something you build, meaning it really is all yours. You’re limited by your own imagination, unless of course the mud enforces some basic guidelines. No lightsaber collection in a medeval fantasy, for instance. Still, it feels pretty good to construct something, even if it’s in a Mud and even if you’re imagining a large portion of it, for yourself. I imagine it is a similar sense of accomplishment to that of reaching the same goal in an MMO.

I won’t speak too much more on the mechanics of muds, because they are far, far too varied. Yes, you might think a genre like this would be dying out in this day and age, and certainly Muds don’t host player bases of millions like World of Warcraft or the Old Republic, but there are still hundreds, yes hundreds of them, and some are going relatively strong in comparison to others. The inspiration for this article, in fact, was that a brand new Mud, one boasting a complete RPG-length storyline, side quests, and full MMO features, just went live. It’s called Starmourn, and i haven’t tried it myself, but I feel like I probably will. The thought of that storyline draws me like a moth to a flame. I love narrative.

As I always say, though, this is not justification for not making games, even MMO’s, accessible. We still want to experience the things everyone else is experiencing. We want the grand scale, the production values, the voice acitng, the incredible audio in some cases… We want those things. Muds are great, and they serve a fantastic purpose, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be held to a standard. Let’s play muds. Let’s play a lot of them, and enjoy them, but all the while keep striving for improvement in accessibility. I dream of a world in which we don’t have to entice the sighted away from their graphics because we’re all playing the same games. I believe that can and will happen, but for now, muds.

Seriously, you should try one. Try the new one I’ve just told you about, Starmourn, or try my old haunt, New Moon. Try a mud based on the Discworld franchise, or the Final Fantasy one. All those and much, much more are available. There are tons of worlds to explore and interact with, even though it’s all text. There is fun to be had, there are people to meet and conquer giant bosses with, it’s all there, down in the mud.

I know this blog is kind of short, but I think it says what needs to be said, and sheds light on another tool we blind gamers use to get what we’re craving. As always, I’m happy to continue the discussion via my Twitter, by email, or even in the comments of this very post. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!