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!

The Accessible Future of Emulation

For the longest time, I have believed that the emulation of games is a bad, bad thing. If you emulate a game, you are doing wrong. You are stealing directly from the mouths of the hungry children of the folks who created it. But what if, just what if, a game could achieve near full blind accessibility through the use of an emulator? What if a game that presents the blind with some serious difficulties in its original form, a game to which no accessibility features are ever expected to be added, is emulated through a particular bit of software that is built with blind accessibility in mind, and thus adds some of those missing features to the game? That is the question we are discussing today, and boy oh boy is it an interesting one.

First, let’s talk about the software in question. After all, you, dear reader, might not know about it. The emulator we’re speaking about, for yes it is in fact real, is called Retroarch. This emulator has been modified to be self-voicing so the blind can interact with its menus, but the real big deal is its ability to read game text. And we’re not talking about just OCR here. I mean, we are talking about OCR, but OCR controlled by AI, as I understand it, which is smart enough to avoid giving you a dump of the entire screen, and instead just gives you what you need when you need it. This doesn’t magically solve every accessibility issue for every game, but it is staggeringly huge nonetheless, and there are certainly games out there that could be made entirely accessible using this kind of technology. When I listened to their video demonstration, which shows a player playing Dessidia Final Fantasy with these features active, I was blown away! I had played this game, even managed to complete it before, but that came with the understanding that I would be skipping a bunch of story text. I mean a bunch! That didn’t happen here, as all the text the player encountered was spoken clearly to them. I couldn’t help it. The part of me that just loves video games, and loves being a gamer, and loves playing whatever games I can, along with the part of me that appreciates effective new technology, just fell in love with this. I wanted the question we are here to discuss not to exist, and I wanted to not feel the guilt I was feeling, because I wanted to dive deeply into the sea of old games made new to the blind by accessibility. But the question is the reason we’re here, so let’s get to that.

I knew the best approach here was the simplest one. Wanna know how game devs feel about emulation? Ask the game devs. So I tweeted my question, asking if emulation would be OK if doing so made a game more accessible. I only got 1 response, but it’s one that may surprise you. It comes from former game developer Drew Thaler, and here is what he had to say. “Unofficially every individual game developer I know loves emulation. It’s great for history, great for speed runs and other enthusiasts, keeps franchises alive, etc. If it delivers accessibility too, awesome! Nobody’s making money off consoles that are old enough to be emulated.”

That wasn’t the response I expected, but boy was it a welcome one. It was, in fact, just what I needed. I have been so trained to view emulation as negative that, even in spite of the reaction my gamer and tech brains had, I was ready to simply never use this software. Now I see that it’s not only OK, but developers of these older games may actually even appreciate it. After all, many developers make games because, get this, they want people to play them. All that said, I do still believe that there need to be some considerations. The focus of our fight for game accessibility should still remain on working with developers to make future games accessible, and to promote that idea, I am still against emulating newer games. Developers need to know that we want to work with them, not just find a workaround. And if we do need to find a workaround for some games, it shouldn’t be this one. If a game is past its prime, though, if it is absolutely no longer being supported, and never had blind accessibility features to begin with, and isn’t making the developer money anymore, well then I no longer see harm in bringing the experience to the totally blind in an even better way with the accessibility features of Retroarch. So my gamer brain and my tech brain can now, officially, rejoice and say “Alright! Bring it on, Retroarch! I am ready to play!!”

Let’s Talk about Twitch

On August 6, 2018, I began executing a long term plan to achieve my dream. There were many factors in this plan, and one of them was that I’d finally start streaming on Twitch seriously, instead of just occasionally. This has brought with it a lot of positives. I have grown a sizable community of almost a thousand followers who have shared incredible gaming experiences with me, such as our journey through Final Fantasy X and our ongoing playthrough of the Phoenix Wright trilogy. These followers have supported me to a degree that I never expected, and some have become as passionate about the fight for accessibility in games as I am. Yet, despite all the positives, negatives have begun to creep in, and there’s a very high chance that I will have no choice but to switch streaming platforms. Let’s get into all this.

What it boils down to is that Twitch is becoming more and more inaccessible to the blind with each update. First, it was the login screen, but that could be bypassed by authorizing your Twitch account in an app like Nightbot, which counts as a Twitch session in your browser and thus logs you into Twitch. Then, things got more serious. The ability to modify the information on your videos post-stream, and the ability to export them to Youtube directly from Twitch also became inaccessible. I am grateful to have people I trust that are willing to help with that bit, but that’s not really the point. And yes, I could download each video and import it individually, but that’s not really the point either. The point is that a system exists on Twitch to do these things, and I cannot personally use it due to inaccessibility.

Since I did have willing and helpful people though, I soldiered on through this trouble as well. Now, though, an update is about to be released that further cripples the blind accessibility of Twitch. The new dashboard, available in preview right now, makes it impossible for the blind to edit their broadcast information, such as title or game category. This seems like a small problem, but I have heard stories of Twitch taking misnamed streams very seriously indeed. This is just another example of basic functionality no longer working, and for me, it may be the last straw.

The things I’ve discussed so far are things that specifically effect me as a streamer, but don’t worry, certain aspects of viewership on Twitch are difficult. Gifting subs is doable, but requires a battle that you have to be willing to invest time in to win, because no part of it reads naturally with a screen reader. Subbing to a channel for yourself is equally difficult on the main Twitch page, but in that particular case, there is an alternative sub page you can use. The point is, Twitch is just getting harder and harder to use, and the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any indication of positive change makes it difficult to stay.

I have reached out to Twitch about these issues multiple times, but have never once gotten a response. I understand that I am not one of the big timers, but that doesn’t mean my voice should be ignored. Twitch has shown a lot of interest in accessibility advocacy via charities like Ablegamers, but it appears that interest is generalized, and that there is little to no concern for its disabled userbase.

Let me be real. I don’t actually want to leave Twitch. I’ve talked briefly about my community, and I love them. I am grateful for them every day, and I can’t argue with the consistent growth the community as experienced as time goes on. I am now in a place where, occasionally, I make money on Twitch, meaning it feeds into all the other things I do. That said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a far more accessible platform, one whose accessibility is improving with each update instead of going backwards, is staring me in the face. Do I continue to struggle with a platform that, for me at least, just constantly degrades, or do I go to a platform where I sort of already feel welcome thanks to their accessibility efforts, despite the fact that that means losing the community I have spent a year building? It puts me in a difficult position that I am not a fan of. I’m not expecting anyone to draw any conclusions from this post, but I felt these concerns should be brought up by someone experiencing them. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post for what it’s worth. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

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!