My Perception of Perception: A Rant and Review from a Blind Gamer

I never thought the day would come when I would regret backing something on Kickstarter, but it has finally arrived. I do not back Kickstarter projects very often, because I have little enough money that I have to make decisions on how to spend it. However, if I really believe in a project, I will take that leap. Such was the case with Perception by the Deep End Games. Allow me to explain what got me hooked.

Perception is a game in which you control a totally blind character named Cassie as she explores a mysterious house. It’s a survival-horror style game, made by developers who have done work on games like Bioshock. Now guys, just looking at it like that, it sounds utterly amazing. I was totally in.

Then, over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and finally getting a chance to try the game myself once it was released, I have learned the awful truth. The game is, in fact, an insult to the blind on not just 1, but 2 completely different levels. Let us discuss.

First, let’s talk accessibility. After all, you would think that, if you’re playing as a blind character, then a blind person would be able to play the game, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, the 2 primary focuses of the Kickstarter campaign were the voice actress for the main character, (and yeah, she’s pretty good), and the visuals. That’s right. Look, ladies and gentlemen, upon these visuals which, if the character were actually blind, would not exist. Aren’t they gorgeous? Isn’t the art style, like, so super cool?

Now, OK. If I force myself, I can get past the visuals being there. It’s a sighted world, and we want them to get some enjoyment out of this game. Sighted people like graphics, therefore we need goodlooking graphics. But then, I’m yanked backward because… The developers should want EVERYONE to enjoy this game, right? Should the blind not be invited to hold Cassie up as their own video game icon?

Apparently not, because I promise you, I guarantee you they barely tried at all when it comes to making their game blind accessible. Oh yeah, it was brought up during the campaign, and they addressed it pretty early on. Their answer was, quite honestly, pretty disgusting. This isn’t word for word, but they said something like, ‘Well, we tried, but we just can’t find an engine that will work for us.”

So what that tells me is that The Deep End Games was basically looking for a magical win button. Some piece of code they could just plop into their game, and boom! It’s accessible just like that! I feel like they googled “Blind Accessibility Engine,” and when they didn’t find anything, they said “Oh well, we tried.” I do not believe for one second that they consulted with a single blind gamer to discuss how the game might be made accessible. They certainly didn’t consult with me, and I’m a pretty good resource for this kind of thing. And maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong, but hey, perception is everything, right guys?

Here’s the worst part, folks. There are building blocks for blind accessibility in that game. Yeah, that’s right, they actually did a couple things correctly which, had those things been expanded upon, may have made the game accessible to us. For instance, Cassie’s 6th sense ability can be used to point you toward your next goal. It works very much like Resident Evil 6’s accidental accessibility where it shows you your objective, and points the camera at it, making forward movement then lead you in the right direction. Of course, this feature only mocks us, because it is taken away from you several times, asking you to “explore to find your next goal.” We also run up against the Resident Evil 6 problem of getting stuck a lot, but the point is that it sometimes helps, but not as much as it could.

The second thing they did right is that the audio recordings you can find have ambient environmental noise before you find them. The sound is like that of a running tape in a tape recorder. You can hear these from decently far away, though, so finding them is still difficult. Also, the “memories” you can interact with, or more accurately, things that trigger memories, have ambient ghost whispering noises that play until you find them. The problem here, though, is that the whispers are infrequent, so if you miss one, you may be wandering for a bit until you hear it again.

And third, the ironically funniest of them all, Cassie’s phone is almost completely accessible! Why? Because it has to be. Once again, they did not do well at passing her off as a real blind person, which we’ll get to later, but they would have failed utterly had Cassie’s phone not been equipped with Text to Speech. So yeah, I can listen to her text and voice messages, I could read a note if I had found one as she uses her phone to scan it, and I can listen to her… Oh wait! Look! Another glaring problem! Yes, most of her phone is accessible, but the text to speech does not read the items in her music collection. Sure is lucky she only has like 3 or 4 songs, instead of the hundreds and thousands most people do today. Whew!

The point that I’m making here is this. Everything that might be considered an attempt at accessibility was done in a half-hearted manner, and maybe most of it wasn’t even done for that reason at all. The developers never really tried, or even cared all that much about accessibility. But putting accessibility aside for a second, let’s get to part 2 of this rant. The second reason this game is an insult to the blind.

A message to the Deep End Games. Blindness does not work the way you think it does, or the way you desperately want it to work so you can justify your game mechanics. The game begins insulting the blind during its insanely short tutorial. “Sound is how we see,” says Cassie’s teacher, who is apparently a super knowledgeable blind person himself. Well actually, Mr. Teacher, that is not completely accurate. Sound is only one component. Turns out we have 3 other senses that we also use, all of them working together to compensate for a lack of vision.

The insult continues as you learn how this apparently works. First, we hear the sound of a fan, and the teacher asks what it is. It should be noted that the audio design takes a hit here, as the fan was not on before the teacher asks what the sound is, and when it does utrn on, it is just there, at full strength, rather than spinning up the way a fan would. Anyway, Cassie identifies the sound as a fan, making no other observations about it than that. Yeah, I actually made one. To me, it sounds like a fan with a small piece of paper or plastic caught in the blade. I made that observation without even tapping my cane! Let’s talk about that, though.

The teacher asks Cassie what’s in front of the fan. Apparently the only way Cassie can figure this out is to tap her cane. Yeah, the only way. She is in fact instructed to do this by her fully grown, very knowledgeable blind teacher. She does, and just like magic, she knows there’s a coffee mug in front of the fan! Wow! Now, maybe her cane actually hit the mug, which ya know, would risk knocking it over and possibly breaking it, but let’s say it did. I can’t verify that, being blind and all. But then why, if the mug was in cane-striking distance, would she not just reach out and find it that way? The whole thing is completely ridiculous and wrong, and sets up the game mechanic they’re trying to demonstrate to feel like an insult everytime you use it.

So here it is. Here’s the conclusion to all this. Perception is a terrible game that could have been great. Had any actual effort been put forth to make it accessible, it could have been a game that brought the blind and sighted together in a cool survival horror experience. And in this time, where video game accessibility is actually starting to become an accepted and widely-discussed part of game development, it is a shame this was not done. It is an enormous, enormous missed opportunity. The ntire game comes off as an attempt to cash in on a new survival horror idea without considering the immense possibilities that could lead to, and then tries to pat itself on the back for taking a couple real world inspirations. (Be My Eyes is used in the game, and it is a real app for the blind). I am finding it difficult to truly express my anger and disappointment with this title, and I worry that it will actually become a step back for the blind, making people who play it think we just swing our canes around everywhere like bumbling idiots. (It is actually possible to walk around and unknowingly break small things during the game). I understand this rant may unpopularize me with some, but I feel it needs to be said for the sake of the blind community.

Game Accessibility is Happening

The feeling going into the first ever Game Accessibility Conference was a positive one, yet I can honestly say that I still wasn’t completely sure what to expect. How was this going to go? Would people really listen? Would they care? Those are harsh questions, but given the difficulty of making our wish for accessibility known in the past, they were legitimate ones. After all, I was once sent a form letter by THQ in response to some requests I made about their Smackdown wrestling games. The letter thanked me for my appreciation of their stunning graphics. Yeah, seriously.

This conference, though, was not that. It was so much more. For my general readership, keep in mind that this conference was about gaming with all types of disabilities. Blindness, deafness, those who require one-switch controls, even discussions about using VR while in a wheelchair. And the best part is, the conference was full of those who not only listened, not only cared, but kept an open mind, and looked to be inspired. I feel that everyone there wanted to know exactly how they could help make this work, and those who already knew were more than willing to impart that knowledge. I cannot describe how that made me feel.

The world is beginning to change. Accessibility is now understood to a far greater extent, and disabled communities all over the world are beginning to be recognized as gamers, just like everyone else. Of course, there are those who have advocated for disabled gamers for years, such as the Ablegamers foundation, but this conference represents a whole new level of recognition, acceptance, and willingness to find solutions, in my opinion.

I’m happy to report that my speech, which centered of course on video gaming from a blind gamer’s perspective, was extremely well-received, and that I was approached by many, many people afterward to talk about the possibility of blind accessibility for them. That, ladies and gentlemen, felt great. Even when I was at GDC in 2014, even though I was pretty well received there, and even though I got a lot of compliments, I also got quite a bit of negativity when I began approaching developers about accessibility. Few attempts were made to actually discuss solutions, and I was often just turned down, with the assumption that it was not possible. Not the case at all with this conference, not once.

I am writing this blog with a very specific purpose in mind. I do not want to repeat what I said in my presentation, as that will be available for all to watch. Instead, I am writing this as a followup to the conference, and as reassurance to all of my readers that all of this is real, things are really happening, and people do want to help make those things happen. It is not going to be instantaneous, but we are further along than we’ve ever been, and based on discussions I have now had, I know that we are going to keep moving forward. Games should really be for everybody, and I’ve never believed more strongly that they will be. And furthermore, I want to assure all those who read this that I will always do whatever I can to help this process along. This conference has only increased my passion for games, and I look forward to similar events in the coming years.

The Platinum Wireless Headset and 3D Audio: My Uncharted Adventure

When I first heard that the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset would support not only 7.1 surround sound, but true 3D audio, I knew I had to check it out. The potential for 3D audio in video games, especially for the blind, is staggering, and I wanted to see if playstation could make it a reality. What follows is a general review of the headset itself, along with my experience with its 3D audio feature in Uncharted 4.

I liked the feel of the headset as soon as I pulled it from its padded box. It’s not too heavy, with large ear cups to ensure the best sound possible, and even before you actually wear it, the feel of the padding lets you know it’ll be comfortable. This impression was proven accurate when I put it on for the first time. It is comfortable, and light enough while on your head that you don’t feel weighed down by a bulky piece of equipment. I was already looking forward to this.

The controls turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate, and to use. Though each control is the same shape, they are all well-separated from one another, and each is tactily different. The mute button for the microphone, for instance, is a little more inset than the rest of the buttons. The The power switch, which doubles as your switch for presets, has a couple of obvious bumps on it. And all of the controls, except for the switch that activates or deactivates virtual surround, are on the left side, making it even less confusing.

In case you manage to acquire one of these headsets, and you’re one of my primary audience, let’s go through what you’ll find starting from the bottom of the left earpiece. Nearest the bottom is a 3.5 MM jack, used with the supplied patch cable to plug the headset into any standard headphone jack. Next to that, the USB Mini port, used to charge it. Then, in order, heading to the top, we have the master volume buttons, the mute button, the power/presets switch, and the game audio/chat audio balance buttons. Down tilts the balance toward chat audio, up tilts it toward game audio. And as mentioned, the only thing you’ve got on the right is the switch for virtual surround. Up is on, down is off, though you’ll hardly need me to tell you that once you hear it.

And speaking of the sound, it’s fantastic. Sure, the first game I played was Mortal Kombat X, as anyone who follows my Youtube channel can probably guess, and that game doesn’t represent the height of surround sound, but still, it sounded great. Every hit sounded more impactful because of the bass that headset pumps out, and the surround sound did lend itself a little to the 2D fighting environment. When I tossed my opponent across the screen, I felt like I had done so. That game has great audio, and the Platinum headset made it sound even better.

And still on the topic of sound, I should mention for the visually impaired that the headset does possess some identifiable beeps and boops when you interact with it. Mute the mic and you get one beep, unmute it and you get a lower tone beep. More beeps when you press the volume and balance buttons, and some helpful power and connected tones when you flip the switch. The whole thing is very easy to use, just gotta make sure that dongle’s plugged in, and you’re off.

Now, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time for my take on the 3D audio supported by the Platinum Headset. As of this writing, the only game that supports the headset’s 3D audio feature is Uncharted 4. Well, I haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to someone play the other Uncharted games, (and unfortunately they aren’t accessible to the blind), but I still had to try it. So, with the help of my fantastic fiance to enable some of Uncharted 4’s famous accessibility features, (not actually intended for the blind but helpful nonetheless), I fired it up.

Let’s get the big statement out of the way first. The 3D audio works. You really can hear things above and below you, and all around you. Even in 7.1 surround, sounds tend to emanate from specific places. The 3D audio seems to really put sound all around you, which is awesome.

However, I have to say that, as awesome as it is, and as helpful as I believe it will be in games, it isn’t perfect. Initially, we had the aim setting set to toggle, which is an accessibility option that allows you to press a button once to activate aiming mode, and press it again to turn it off. While set to this mode, I attempted to locate my enemies after having presumably toggled the aiming mode on, and could not do so, even when audio told me they had to be right in front of me. I am not sure why this is, and it could even be that, as a blind gamer, there are fundamentals of shooting in a game that I don’t understand. Regardless, aiming worked a thousand times better when we switched it back to Hold, where you hold a button to aim instead. The aim assist snapped to each target for me, and I was able to take them out.

Stepping back in time a bit, though, I want to talk a bit more about the 3D audio, and how it did help me. In the beginning, you have to swim a little to locate your companion, who is working on your damaged boat. Because he calls to you at first, I was able to orient on his position. Then, by listening for the sounds of his work, I was able to find him. This in itself says a lot for the potential for 3D audio. In a truly immersive environment, and it seems with perhaps just a little in-game help, who knows what we’ll be able to do? I’ll tell ya this, even being blind, the sound of our enemies’ boat approaching from the far left, and stopping right in front of us as our companion frantically works behind us was appropriately ominous.

Flashing forward again, once we got aiming working, I was able to take out our enemies. Then, through some rather typical blind person trial and error gameplay, I was able to start the boat we leave on, (I believe it’s actually the opposition’s boat though I could be wrong), and drive away. The 3D audio didn’t really take part here, I just tried to turn regularly in hopes of avoiding objects. Left a little, then right a little, and so on. Then, something happens, (no spoilers here), that moves you to the next part of the game. Unfortunately, this is where my journey ended.

The next part of the game involves a significant amount of platforming, which even 3D audio could not help with in the slightest. After all, regular platforms, rooftops in this case I believe, don’t make noise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly stubborn. I tried. I tried a lot. But it was not to be.

Not wanting to be done testing the awesome 3D audio feature, I got a little help through that bit, and moved onto the next, which involved stealth. This didn’t work out much better, as it took a bunch of questions for me to figure out what I was supposed to do here. I finally figured out how to take cover against a wall that is next to you the whole time, (more on that later), and got through the first section of that. After that, though, I could progress no further without being seen. The audio just was not enough. That was the true end of my 3D audio expedition, though for the sake of playing the game blind, it really ended when I reached the platforming bit.

So let’s go back to that wall, and talk about the things the Platinum Headset’s 3D audio feature doesn’t do. As I said, it’s not perfect. Distance seems to be an issue, as although it can project certain sounds to what seems to be very far away, it seems as though there’s some kind of threshold there. If something is very far in front of you, the 3D audio may project it to sound like it’s very, very far in front of you. However, once it reaches a certain point nearer you, the sound puts it seemingly right in front. I suspect this was part of my aiming problem, though again that’s difficult to verify. My evidence for this is that the call from my companion in the beginning just seemed to be in the virtual surround field, but the agonized call of someone who saw me accidentally plunge to my death off a rooftop seemed remarkably far away.

The other thing it doesn’t do, though it makes sense as technology just isn’t quite there yet, is echo properly. There is a term that, to my knowledge, was coined by Stevie Wonder. That term is sound shadows. It is a name for the way you can hear how sound reflects off of objects around you if you listen, and it’s something a blind person uses all the time. Ever see a blind person round a corner without having touched the wall with hand or cane, and wondered how they did it? That’s how. We have trained ourselves to hear sound reflect off of the wall next to us. When that disappears, we know that wall has ended. We can use this same technique to gauge a person’s height, as obviously surrounding sound reflects off of people too. But in 3D game audio, this does not exist.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find this to be surprising. A system like the one that would be required to create this effect would be massive. Every single object, person, and wall would have to have their own pocket of sound-blocking that follows them around. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, as true, binaural 3D recorded audio actually DOES simulate sound shadows. Listen to the 3D audio dramatization of Stephen King’s The Mist, and if you know what to listen for, you’ll know what I mean.

Because of these things, though, I was unable to tell both how far away I was from the wall I had to take cover against, let alone that there was a wall there to begin with. Had I been able to hear the sound shadows of objects around me, or the way my own jumps echoed off of those objects, I may have been able to intuit where my next platform was. I could still be wrong, and that might not always be enough as you could be jumping a great distance sometimes, but I think all this needs to be said. And hey, as difficult as I understand this would be, it’s never a bad idea to give audio designers something to strive for in the future.

In short, “it’ll sound like you’re really there” is very difficult to sell to a blind person, but again, please please don’t misunderstand, this was still a pretty great experience. I strongly believe that 3D audio could be one of the keys to blind accessibility of video games, and this was still enough to encourage that belief. In other words, it’s a great start, and I’m OK with that… For now.

Now, this is also a review of the Platinum Headset itself, and I think I’ve covered its many positives, so before I go, I must mention the one and only negative I have found. This negative technically isn’t about the physical headset. Rather, it’s about the Headset Companion app for PS4. This app, most unfortunately indeed, is completely inaccessible to the blind. Though the PS4 now possesses text to speech capability, and though that ability extends to 1 of their built-in apps as of this writing, (TV and Video if you’re curious), it does not work in the Headset Companion. Why does this matter? It matters because developers have programmed presets for their games, which can only be downloaded with this app, and those presets change the way those games sound to exactly what the developers wanted them to sound like. To a blind person who cares very, very much about game audio, this is a huge deal, and a huge disappointment that we cannot use it.

But, as most accessibility disappointments do, this only makes me want to strive harder for accessibility, so I will. I will focus on all the positives for now, (the headset is truly great, and hey, I got past the bit with the boat in Uncharted 4), and I will do what I can to make those negatives go away. I’m not going to give this thing a review score, as it’s also a bit of a blog post, but no matter what you came here for, I hope you got something out of it. Thanks very much for reading, game on, and continue to be awesome!

Microsoft E32016 Press Conference Quick Thoughts

Greetings again!
Well, turns out I do have something to say. The Microsoft Press Conference is now over, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the Play Anywhere idea is a good one. Moving forward, ordering a game for Xbox One or Windows 10 gives you the game on the other platform, and saves automatically transfer. The work they’re doing with cross platform play, being able to play not just cross platform on PC and Xbox, but on mobile devices as well, is also a great idea. Those are the things I approve of, along with a few of the games that sounded neat. The Happy Few, and Scalebond were especially interesting to listen to.
However, I was right. New hardware has been announced. The Xbox One S is a slimmer Xbox One, which is fine. New players can come in and get that one. Great. My real problem is the other piece of new hardware they announced. Project Scorpio. It is a new Xbox Console, with tons more power, capable of delivering high-fidelity Virtual Reality gaming without sacrificing performance or graphical quality, and so on. Here’s the thing that I don’t think Microsoft wants you to consider.
When they made the announcement, they tried to soften the blow by assuring you that all previous games and accessories would of course work with this thing. That’s all well and good, but let’s talk about moving forward. Starting basically now, new Xbox One games will be made with this new console in mind. “But,” you say, “We’ve also been reassured that new games will continue to work on the original Xbox One as well!” Yes, I’m sure they will, but think about this. Developers want to keep moving forward. They want to provide you with the best experiences they can. So they are absolutely going to focus on harnessing the power of this new system, and games played on a regular Xbox One are going to suffer for it. No matter what they say about all games working everywhere, there will come a time, probably sooner than later, where you will simply need this new system, or be forced to deal with what appears to be a broken game.
Now, this isn’t just me ranting at Microsoft. I don’t agree with the fact that it’s rumored Sony is doing this same thing. Gaming is already an expensive hobby. We as console gamers should not be forced to buy new hardware when it is not a new system, just a hardware and power upgrade. Now, PC gaming is a more expensive hobby, and I get that they already do this. You have to if you’re going to keep up with the constantly improving PC world. I just do not agree with the idea of consoles going that way. Many console gamers buy consoles so they don’t have to keep up with PC’s. I’m not a fan, and I’m definitely not sold. This is only my opinion, but there it is.
I’ll leave this post at that. Who knows, I might be back once the Sony Press Conference is over. We shall see, folks.

E3 2016: Discussion, concerns, VR

Greetings folks!
I have been away from the blog thing for way too long. I know it, and if you’ve read my other blogs, you probably know it too. However, the 2 major E3 press conferences of 2016 are taking place today, and so I thought I would discuss my thoughts and concerns about this year. Don’t worry though, there are positives here as well.
First, VR. It’s the hip thing right now, especially with Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR device. Given the timing, though, and the fact that the Playstation VR is due out in October, I’m worried that Sony’s press conference will be utterly dominated by VR games, which on the surface doesn’t sound like something the blind community, (which I represent with this blog in case you’re a new reader), would really be able to take advantage of.
Now, though, I offer a potential positive. Sony has made a bold claim regarding the Playstation VR. Supposedly, it will incorporate 3D audio. Now, I say this is a bold statement because many individual games have claimed they used 3D audio in the past, and that hasn’t exactly been true. The original Baldur’s Gate 2 had a setting for 3D audio, and all it actually does is add additional environmental effects and such. Unreal Tournament 3 had a similar setting if i remember correctly, and it was just meant for surround systems. So the implication here is that many, if not most people, don’t actually understand what true 3D audio is. If, however, the Playstation VR does use real, true 3D audio, there may be a reason for the blind to at least try it out. I’m not saying it’ll magically make every game accessible, but it could increase accessibility, definitely. Knowing exactly where your enemies are, which real, true 3D audio would allow, would be amazing. Distance, height, everything.
Still, even if that distant hope turns out to be true, we won’t know it watching Sony’s conference. So I worry, but I also hope that Sony delivers something for both VR and standard players. I know VR is going to be a part of it, I just hope it’s not all of it.
Second, new hardware. No real positive here. I am not really pleased by the rumors of the Playstation Neo, and the Xbox 2, or the Xbox One Slim, or whatever they want to call it. I know it’s been 3 years now, but I just do not feel like purchasing all new hardware. I cannot imagine how either Microsoft or Sony would sell me on a new PS4, or Xbox One, at this current moment when I’m perfectly happy with the systems I got. Slimmer isn’t going to do it for me. Even if they say something like, “It’ll load faster and stuff!” That won’t do it for me either. That’s just not enough reason for me to spend money on essentially a new console.
Now, if they offer some kind of direct trade in program, I would accept that, but that’s extremely doubtful. And yes, I know if I don’t want it, I can just not buy it, but I’m trying to speak for the general public right now, I suppose. Is this what we really need right now? I’m just saying i don’t think it is.
That’s about it for now. There may be more posts later today, depending on what actually happens. I am going to base that on whether or not I have anything to say about it. The press conferences that have already taken place, EA and Bethesda, were interesting, but don’t have much to offer us. More Fallout, more Doom, more Quake, more Madden, a few new games we likely cannot play, and so on. So here’s hoping for the best Microsoft and Sony conferences we can possibly get. Truly, I want them to be great. So impress me, guys.