Alt-Frequencies: A Lot More Than Static

An update to this article: This game is available on Android, Windows, and Mac as well, and is accessible to the blind on Android and Windows, with an update to the Mac version coming soon as of this writing.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it another thousand times if I need to. Accessibility is happening. This is a solid fact that becomes readily apparent every time a developer takes on the task of making their game or app accessible. Every time a new experience is opened up for us because a developer wanted us to share in it as well, I am reminded again that it’s a great time to be a gamer. This was true of Alt-Frequencies, a game by Accidental Queens and Arte, and published by Plug in Digital, with a truly awesome concept behind it. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Imagine, if you will, that there existed a time loop. Imagine that bits of time keep on resetting and repeating over and over with seemingly nobody the wiser. Now, imagine what radio would be like in that scenario. That’s the first part of what Alt-Frequencies is, but with a gameplay addition that proves to be quite unique. More on that later.

You are someone unaffected by the time loop. This puts you in a unique position to affect the loop. You are not the only one, as an underground organization strives to get your attention, begging you to alter events and end the time loop for good. An intriguing story, to be sure, but how does gameplay work? That is where this game truly shines.

Earlier, I mentioned radio. This is because the radio is entirely how this game’s story is conveyed. You have access to several radio stations which you can listen to. These stations play different content every chapter, and each has their own unique flow and presentation. Each one is full of information and lore. Some of it is very important, some of it isn’t, but even the unimportant bits are presented in an authentic way that keeps you interested. More on that later as well.

Gameplay works like this. You do your very best to find bits of information that are relevant. Things that, if they got out, would change the flow of information you’re hearing on the radio. You can record clips from any radio station with a simple downward swipe, and then send them to another station by swiping left or right to that station, then swiping up to send it. DJ’s will react to your submission, even if it’s something they can’t use, and some of those reactions give you hints as to whether or not anyone else might be able to use it. If it’s something they can use, you will progress in the game, having altered that particular instance of the loop. New information might come out as a result of your interference, something you could send to another channel during the same chapter, or maybe you’ll have solved that chapter, and automatically move onto the next. That’s not all, though.

This mechanic allows for a unique way to present player choice, which the game takes full advantage of. Imagine being given the choice to send an important bit of information to one particular station or another, but only being able to send it to one. Imagine having multiple pieces of important information that you could send, but needing to choose which is more important. Both these scenarios, and more, are presented to you throughout the course of this game, and I personally love this. Here is a way to provide player choice without interrupting the flow of the game for a menu of choices, and without even necessarily being super obvious about the fact that there are choices. The potential for a thing like this is huge. I don’t necessarily think the developers went this far, but there could very easily be hidden, not at all obvious choices you could make. Some choices are hinted at, but why not toss in a surprise third option for the really clever? That doesn’t mean choices like this exist in the game, but I look at this game and I see possibilities. I can’t help it. I almost think that was part of the intent of the developer.

The only game mechanic I didn’t mention in that description is the ability to jump quickly through audio clips on a station if you know what you’re looking for, but that is basically all you need to know in order to play this deceptively complex game. What I want to talk about now, though, is presentation. In a game composed entirely of radio stations, presentation is basically the backbone. So, how’d they do?

They… did… perfectly! That is the best way I can put it. Each station has exactly the feel that station is supposed to have, and they didn’t do anything halfway. The voice acting is perfectly cast, and everything down to the microphones they use makes it all seem real. The news station, the morning show on Fresh FM, and talk radio station are extremely high-quality, complete with professional-sounding station identification bits. Meanwhile, the college radio station is, realistically, a bit lower quality, with some very basic identification and simpler presentation, because a radio station like that wouldn’t have the fancy budget. Even that, though, is something you need to take care to make sound right. If they had used the same super high audio quality on the college station that they used with, say, the news station, I may not have been as immersed. Great care was taken to ensure they got it all right, and I can’t stress enough how well they did. I got attached to these radio hosts. Ennis, who runs the talk radio show, has a genuine sort of talk radio host charisma, and while he can be a bit opinionated, that’s kind of his job. If his show were real, I’d probably listen to it because he is legitimately entertaining. The morning show hosts act like your typical quirky morning show personalities, and I liked them as well, though I think Old Bob really could tone it down just a notch. That’s not a criticism of the voice actor, though, it is the kind of thing one might think about any morning show personality who can’t approach anything without doing a silly voice. Anyway the point I’m making here is that the presentation is spot on.

Now let’s talk about bugs. Yes, unfortunately, there are a couple, though not many. I encountered one game crash when skipping through audio clips, but fortunately no progress was lost in that instance. I only found one thing that may be considered a major bug, and I will attempt to explain it without spoiling any of the story. There is a moment where you must send a very, very important piece of information to the news station. I did so, and multiple other stations including the news station reacted to it. I thought that maybe it would benefit me to then send the reaction of another station back to the news station. What happened was that the news station played the new message I had sent containing the reaction, but their reaction was still the same one from the original clip I had sent. I then experimented with this to confirm it was a bug, and sent the news station a clip of morning show host Michelle coughing. Hilariously, the news station then played this clip, but acted as though I had just send them the original clip they had reacted to. I’m not sure how a “good morning” cough conveyed that information, but apparently it did. The fix is pretty simple here I think. The news station needs to ignore incoming clips after the first one has been successfully posted. Nevertheless it’s a bug that does kind of break the magic a bit, so I’m mentioning it here. The only other issue I found involved the game’s accessibility, which is my next topic.

You might be asking why I took this long to get to the accessibility portion of the review. This was actually intentional. You see, it is important for me to highlight how quickly and easily a game can flip from being completely inaccessible to being fully accessible. Sometimes it really is the smallest things. This game was made, I believe, with Unity. By default, Unity is a completely inaccessible game engine. The Voiceover screen reader would read absolutely nothing in your standard Unity game. Think about this for a second. The in-game interface for Alt-Frequencies would likely have been accessible anyway, without modification, by the very nature of its simplicity. However, none of that would have mattered, because thanks to Unity, we wouldn’t even be able to start the game. Remember, Voiceover sees nothing in a standard Unity interface. Our stumbling block in Alt-Frequencies would be… The main menu. Crazy, isn’t it?

Fortunately, there exists an accessibility plugin for Unity, and I believe it is this that Accidental Queens and Arte took advantage of. Once they made this decision and used the plug in to implement voice over accessibility, we were off and running. So while it’s true that it may not have taken much work, as only those front menus had to be made accessible to us, that’s also not the point. Accidental Queens and Arte were willing to remove a barrier to access to allow us to experience their game. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what accessibility is.

Onto the very slight accessibility bug, though. When I finished the game, I was presented with the credits, however I didn’t know this for several moments as these were not read aloud. While I could flick through them just as I did the main menu, Voiceover didn’t read any of them except at one point where it attempted to decipher the text. Occasionally, voiceover will manage to pull some text out of what it’s trying to read, and say “possible text,” followed by whatever it manages to decipher, and this happened once, which was enough to tell me that I was supposed to be looking at the credits. While this isn’t a major issue, and what needs to be accessible certainly is, I do hope it’s fixed only because we deserve to know who to thank for this masterpiece of a game.

I think that pretty well covers it! Guys, if you’re on IOS, android, Windows, and soon Mac as well, and you haven’t tried Alt-Frequencies, do so. It is wonderfully written and performed, and has some moments that just made me smile with utter delight. One such moment was being able to listen to an ongoing event through 3 synchronized perspectives. I 100%, absolutely, completely want more from this developer, and hope they make their next game just as accessible for us. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

You Vs. Weird: A Discussion of You Vs. Wild

Throughout the course of the last few months, I’ve written multiple blogs about Netflix’s interactive experiences, and so far, I’ve basically loved them all. I even enjoyed the experimental Puss and Book interactive adventure, if only because I saw the potential in it for so much more. That potential was realized in both Minecraft Story Mode, and Black Mirror Bandersnatch. I was so incredibly delighted with those experiences that I simply had to write about them. I feel I have to write about this new one as well, but for a very different reason.

To me at least, even the description of You Vs. Wild is off-putting. It basically tasks you with helping Bear Grills survive in harsh environments by making decisions. This sounded utterly silly to me. Bear Grills may sound like the name of a movie action hero, but he’s a real person, and a celebrity survival expert. The idea that we could even help him survive unless we were also experts was ridiculous. There were other reasons this struck me funny as well, but I’ll get to those in a moment. For now, I’ll say that I still decided to try it, given the awesomeness of the previous interactive experiences Netflix had released. Unfortunately, all my worst fears were proven correct.

I find it difficult to fully explain the problem I have with this experience, but I will do my very best. Firstly, I’ll again mention that Bear Grills is an actual person, not a character in a story or video game setting. Therefore, the unrealism of this experience becomes blatantly clear right from the start. Supposedly, we are going on missions to save this person, or find this medicine, but all the banter and all the hype cannot make the experience feel any less staged. And because it feels this way, the illusion of actual choice is shattered. When you play an experience like this, you should feel like these choices are yours, and that you’re controlling a narrative. However, the clearly faked cenarios here ust make it all the more clear that Bear Grills has already done all of the things you could potentially choose, because he would have had to do them for those choices to exist. A well done experience hides this simply by being so well done that you don’t think about this truth.

Unfortunately, another detractor from this experience is Bear Grills himself. He may be a survival expert, but an actor he is not. His performance when trying to uphold this paper-thin plot is sort of awful, and completely unbelievable. It is just the topper on what is already a strange and unsatisfying experience.

Believe it or not, there actually is exactly one thing I did like about this experience. Netflix has clearly done work to make the flow between the videos that play when you make a choice a seamless experience, and this shows in You Vs. Wild. When you make a choice, you actually get a little sound effect indicating your choice is locked in. Meanwhile, Bear will be explaining the merits of both choices as the timer counts down, done in the same way a major moment of suspense would be built on a standard survival TV show. When this moment ends, the video hen almost seamlessly flows into whatever choice you actually made. The split between video files is actually quite hard to detect unless you’re really listening for it, which is quite an achievement if you ask me. This is something that has gotten progressively better over the course of all of the interactive experiences. The cuts in the original Puss and Book experience were quite long and easily detected, Minecraft Story Mode cut down on the time, but the cuts were sudden, made the moment you pressed the button, and taking away from the video game feel of the original. Bandersnatch did a decent job of interweaving long enough pauses into its narrative that the choices seemed to flow pretty well together, though the cuts were made obvious by the audio describer mentioning first one thing, then the other. The way the interactivity is handled here is, I will admit, probably the best it ever has been. It is unfortunate that this is the only positive I have, though.

My conclusion is this. Interactive experiences are still wonderful in concept. My opinion here has not changed. I simply feel that this particular experience didn’t fit the format. However, if they apply their nearly perfected method of handling the interactivity to future experiences, I have complete faith that they’ll be able to create some really spectacular things. I honestly don’t know if this was critically well-received or not, but if it wasn’t, I hope it doesn’t discourage Netflix from pursuing other types of interactive experience. Thanks for reading all, and I hope you were able to make sense of my thoughts here. As always, continue to be awesome!

Why Being a Blind Gamer is Better

Over the course of my blog, I’ve talked about a lot of things. I’ve talked about the struggles, and the successes of being a blind gamer, I’ve talked about accessibility and how awesome it is sometimes, and where it could improve other times. Through all that, though, I haven’t revealed one of blind gaming’s biggest secrets. I haven’t explained why being a blind gamer is, in fact, better. I haven’t covered the hidden benefits. That’s what I’m going to do for you now. Prepare yourselves, because these are things many people don’t even consider until they witness it, or until we bring it up. Here goes!

Who needs a TV? No, seriously, who needs one? The answer, of course, is you sighted gamers. You’ve gotta have your polished graphics, and your 4K resolution. You’ve gotta have your HDR colors, and oooo those water effects! We blind gamers… We need none of those things. Why, almost every single day I stream those fancy console games I play, our TV is completely off. This is the one that really gets a lot of sighted people. My dad’s reaction was especially memorable when he walked in from work, heard game audio, and saw nothing. His brain didn’t know how to process it, so in a way it was almost like he got mad at me for not having the TV on. Then he actually thought about it, and it got funnier. Why bother turning that pesky TV on? All I need is the sound! This brings me to my next point.

Blind gamers can get cheaper hotel rooms! Of course, you don’t wanna go too cheap here. After all, you really don’t want a bedbug coming home in your bag. But hey, if one of the features of a hotel room you’re looking into is a 2000-inch TV, maybe you could scale back a bit. After all, you’re a blind gamer. Bring your console, bring your headset, plug into power, and you’re golden! Or another possibility if you don’t mind a little latancy, and if the wifi is good enough, and if your console is a PS4, just bring your laptop, and a controller, and use remote play! You can even afford to turn visual quality down a bit to ensure you can connect, because again, who needs graphics? 😊

Every console is practically mobile! Since you don’t need a TV, you can game wherever there’s a power outlet. Pro tip, this world contains many power outlets. If I could fit my PS4 into a carry-on bag, I could Playstation on a plane! Yeah, I know the Switch can do that, but we blind gamers, we awesome, fantastic, amazing blind gamers, are the only ones who can PS4 or even Xbox on a plane. This of course doesn’t take their size into account. You probably couldn’t actually do this, because both consoles are pretty large, and you couldn’t fit much else into a carry-on if you put one in, but in terms of mechanics once you got one onto a plane, you could totally do it. So clearly I’m driving the no TV thing into the ground, but to be fair, it’s pretty awesome. I actually have a friend who simply doesn’t have a TV, but owns and plays both a PS4 and Xbox One. But that’s not the only blind gamer benefit.

We can game long range! Both the PS4 and Xbox One’s controllers have the ability to route all game audio through the controller, and through a headset you connect to that controller. They also have surprisingly long wireless ranges, which most folks have no reason to take advantage of. You know, because they need to see the screen and all. Well, we are not so restricted. We can hook a headset up to our controller, launch a game, and take said controller out to, say, the porch swing. Ah, a nice relaxing gaming session far, far away from the console we’re gaming on. Feeling the sun on your face as you perform a gruesome fatality in mortal kombat, hearing the chirp of the birds as you take down a few more zombies in Resident Evil 6, these are the pleasures we blind gamers can enjoy. Now, I hear you again saying, “But, Nintendo Switch!” Sure, but both PS4 and Xbox One controllers, in my opinion, have superior battery life, and facing facts, the Switch is still a significant power level down from both of them. Still, this does lead to my next point.

Finally, finally, I’m actually going to talk about the Switch in a positive light, in order to demonstrate the fact that we blind gamers are potentially far more forgiving to ports of games. Mortal Kombat 11 is my example here, having just recently played the Switch version. To me, the port is essentially perfect. Yes, I notice the slowdown in transitional areas such as the boss fight, and I notice the bit of chop between gameplay and story cut scenes, but those are the only 2 things I knock off of it. Meanwhile, a review I heard on the Switch version suggested that it was so bad because of the scaled down graphics, especially in the portrayal of the crypt, that you definitely should not ever get the Switch version ever unless you don’t have any other console. Wow, that’s harsh. But guess what? I, and blind gamers everywhere, don’t care much about that, because they didn’t mess with the audio! I will say that I noticed very, very light compression, but we’re not talking MK9 on the vita here. The audio was still crystal clear, and as beautiful and savage as it is on every other console. Sounds like a solid port to me, and one I’ll be glad to take on the go. Ah, being a blind gamer rules!

Before I close, I want to be sure you understand that this post is all in fun. There are certainly benefits to being a blind gamer, and I think I’ve outlined them pretty well, but of course the sighted gamers out there have it pretty good too. Even though I can’t see them, I acknowledge there’s something to be said about game graphics being near photo realistic these days, not to mention the amount of games sighted gamers can play dwarfs those we can. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Continue to be awesome!

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!