Telltale Games: Making Great Stories Frustrating

Greetings again my most humble and awesome readers. Today I want to talk about the video game developer known as Telltale games. They are known for their episodic story-based titles, which are usually attached to a license of some kind. Back to the Future, Batman, The Walking Dead, and so on. These games are played in the point and click style, and for that reason are not particularly accessible. But you see, myself and some folks like me really love story in games, which is something I’ve covered in blogs before. We love story so much that we will slog through these games regardless. Yeah, I know, we’re crazy. Let’s discuss that.

There are plenty of problems playing Telltale’s games. The most obvious is finding everything we’re supposed to click on and look at and interact with. This is very, very difficult. You can walk freely most times, but you can also move a cursor to click on things as well. So how do we get past this hurtle? Patience. Lots and lots of patience. I often play these games by frantically moving the cursor around with the right thumbstick and mashing the X button on PS4, or A button on Xbox. If I am successful, the character then autowalks to that location and interacts. This is interestingly the feature that makes me believe Telltale games could easily be made blind accessible. Regardless, we are helped slightly by the fact that, in the more recent games, you can only click on most things once. This at least means we don’t have to worry about repeatedly finding the same things over and over, though it’s still a tedious process.

Another problem, though, and some may consider this a more important problem, is dialog. Telltale’s games are heavily influenced by your dialog choices. While we can press buttons to make those choices, we have no actual idea which choice we’re making in advance. This is intensely frustrating, because as the story progresses, we just like anybody else, develop ideas of how we’d like to play the characters, but we cannot really execute those ideas. We must simply live with the choices we are not aware we’re making. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Third, we’ve got quicktime events! Certain moments in the story might require you to press the correct button at the right time to perform some important action. How do we get past these, you might ask? We guess! That’s right, we use trial and error to figure out every button, all the timing, and so on. Eventually, we can usually get through these that way, but it’s definitely not ideal. Dying over and over while just trying to pass a single portion of a game isn’t particularly fun either.

The point I’ve been trying to make with all this is that, as unfun as this can be, I’ve done it anyway. I have accepted that I won’t know which dialog choices I’m making, and that quicktime events are going to take forever. I understand that I’ll need lots of patience to find all the things in each room that I’ll need. Yet, I’ve done it anyway.I played both seasons of Telltale’s Batman like this, occasionally asking for sighted help with certain very specific parts of the game. I also played Tales from the Borderlands, which is a fun and hilarious game, like this as well. I did it because I still enjoy the stories these games tell, and I guess I don’t mind enjoying the story for the story, no matter how much longer that takes me than it would anyone else.

The other point, though, is that these games could easily be made accessible. I won’t go into detail on that here, as I’ve already written a blog which discusses the accessibility of point and click games, but it could be done. Unfortunatley, Telltale themselves have shown a lack of interest in accessibility, not just for the blind but for other types of disability as well. This is unfortunate, as they are capable of producing such great content, but for now it is what it is. It is my hope that one day, their minds change, and we all can enjoy the tales they tell equally. As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

A Love Letter to Choice of Games and Hosted Games

Dear Choice of Games and Hosted Games,
This is a love letter to you from a blind gamer, me. I know you get a lot of these. I know your mailboxes must be full of candy hearts and expensive chocolates, but I couldn’t stop myself from writing one of my own. You see, I unabashedly love you. I love your words. I love your happy moments, and your sad ones. I love the choices you offer, and I love their consequences. When there is a long stretch between new games, I ache. I weep. But then, when that email finally reaches my inbox, when I learn that a new release has finally arrived, my heart soars. I stretch my arms toward the heavens, and I smile, for you have, at last, returned.

It is impossible for me to truly convey what you give to blind gamers like myself. It is a sentiment that I know has been echoed by others, but it is one that I wish every single Choice of Games and Hosted Games author could hear. Your engine, the way it essentially presents itself as web pages, is completely, 100% accessible to us. That outward simplicity which hides so much inner complexity is completely and totally playable by us, and I… We couldn’t be happier.

We live in a world filled with story-driven content that we cannot take part in. So many narrative-based video games are still completely inaccessible to us. We could watch playthroughs of these games, but then we aren’t the ones making the choices. It isn’t our personal experience. Not so with you. You offer us worlds even we can explore. You offer us a moldable, shapeable character that we get to create, and a story in that character’s life that, for a little while, we get to live and experience. There are hundreds of characters to meet, foes to join and defeat, and worlds to either save or destroy, all thanks to the choices we make, and the character personality we crafted.

I just wish I could express to you how big a deal that is. I’ve been a gamer my entire life, enjoying the games I can play, and struggling with those I wanted to, but ultimately couldn’t. I’ve also been a reader, and a lover of stories of all kinds. To have your utterly immense and completely accessible library of stories and experiences literally right at my fingertips is mind-boggling and amazing in a way that I cannot properly convey to you. You are awesome!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why now? We’ve been around for years. Where is this letter coming from?” Very true. This has honestly been building for a long time. With tremendous titles like Zombie Exidus, Hero’s Rise, and perhaps the most technically impressive, Tin Star, my desire to write something like this has steadily increased. The final straw, though, was one of your newest games, Choice of Magics. I have now played through this particular story in its entirety 3 times, and I am considering a fourth. Each time, I’ve gotten an ending that was completely different from the ones before it, but it’s about more than just the ending. The ways in which the story can change, even as it’s going on, are so drastic. There are things that can happen that I didn’t believe until they did. It’s an incredible experience, and up there with your best. It is what made me decide it was time to write this. You should be proud of it, as should its author.

Now I’ll admit that I’m also a lover of audio drama, both for good audio design and great perfomances. For that reason, there’s a part of me that wishes your games had the backing of music, sound effects, and voice acting. I think experiences like that could be incredible, yet I also understand why that’s not a part of your design. To have a fully realized video game version of the adventures you guys create, though, (and a fully accessible one at that), would draw in others who haven’t checked you out for whatever reason, and I guarantee they would stay. Here’s why.

It goes so far beyond accessibility with you guys. Both Choice of Games and Hosted Games stand as proof that it is possible to write games in which your decisions matter, something that it seems most developers struggle with. I don’t know if it’s because of publishing deadlines, or the unwillingness to put in the work, but to reach an ending of a choice-heavy game only to discover it’s basically the same as the last ending you got is never fun, and with you guys that almost never happens. If someone directly transferred some of the amazing works I’ve mentioned here into video games, they would be spectacular.

Please understand that this is basically an idle fantasy. As successful as I think they’d be, I ultimately would not seek to change your vision. Personally, though, I wish EVERYONE appreciated you guys as much as I do. I know you get tons of praise as it is, and I am delighted at your success, but I wish everyone who hasn’t checked you out could tear their eyes away from those graphical masterpieces for long enough to check out the unrivaled stories you have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some of those graphical masterpieces are truly great games, and I wish I could play in them too. Still, you guys deserve to be held high for what you do, and that is my goal with this letter. I’m putting you on a pedestal whether you like it or not.

Aside from being a love letter, this is also a thank you. Thank you to the Choice of Games team for having this vision, and thank you for crafting the choice script engine. Thank you to the authors who spend countless hours creating these masterpieces, and putting in the work to keep all those variables in line. I don’t know how I would manage to do what you guys do. Thanks even to the other Choice of Games readers and Hosted Games, who have given them the attention and success they deserve. Thank you all.

Sincerely,
Brandon Cole
Your not-so-secret admirer

For those who haven’t, seriously, check out their stuff on IOS, or even play it on their web site if you like. I don’t think you’ll regret it. And as always, thanks for reading. Please comment, leave feedback, and conversate. Continue to be awesome!

A Cheater’s Path to Accessibility

Hey folks, it’s me again, your blind accessibility dude. As you know, one of the things I do is talk about how we play games that aren’t necessarily intended to be accessible for us. Well, mostly back in the old days, one answer to that question was a quite fun and interesting one. That answer, ladies and gentlemen, is cheat codes!

When I was a young boy in the 90’s, I had a computer, and very few games which were given to me by a friend of our family. Two of those games were Doom, and Doom2. At first, I didn’t really se these as playable, though I had been messing around with many console games by that point. At first I thought it was the shooting, but that notion was dispelled once I learned that, in those older games at least, you only had to be facing your enemy to fire upon them. The real reason turned out to be the exploration, and in a couple cases, the traps. The blind had no points of reference in Doom 1 or 2. No footstep sounds, no indication of where walls or doors were unless you happened to press the spacebar at the right time, and so on.

I almost abandoned all hope, but then I discovered a mystical, magical solution. Cheat codes! With these, I could have it all! I could wield every weapon in the game, I could walk through those annoying walls that blocked my path, and I could be invincible to my enemies! And if I could not locate the exit to a level, no problem. One quick code, and it was onto the next. Using this newfound knowledge, I rampaged through the demon hoards, laughing at my enemies as they expired before my tremendous might.

So I know what some of you may be thinking, and I get it. Technically, if I used cheat codes, I wasn’t really “playing” the game the way it was intended to be played, and argueably I wasn’t really completing levels either since I could jump around. You are correct, but consider these things. Firstly, accessibility of games wasn’t really a consideration back then. There was no real hope that Doom or Doom 2 would be made more accessible to the blind. Therefore, rather than not play it at all, I did so in such a way that I found lots and lots and lots of enjoyment in it. Given the circumstances, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Secondly, I would argue that, in some cases, making a game accessible sometimes requires us to play it in a way it may not originally have been intended. Of course, the ultimate goal is always to preserve as much of the game as possible, adding accessibility while maintaining the developer’s vision, but still, changes must be made. Cheat codes, at the time, represented ways to change a game to make it more playable in cases where it wasn’t already. I repeated my Doom strategy several times on games like Duke Nukem 3d, Blood, and so on, and had great fun with all of them.

Another great example of cheat code use to get enjoyment out of a game I cannot necessarily play to its fullest is Grand Theft Auto. Oh I Thoroughly enjoyed it when my friends played the GTA games for me, allowing me to hear the story, but I longed to get into the action in some way. Imagine my elation when I learned what cheat codes existed in those games. Imagine my delight when I learned I could summon a tank.

Yes, that is where that’s right. My enjoyment of GTA3, Vice City, and San Andreas all came from getting the greatest weapons, lots of ammo, and a tank, then causing mayhem. Call it a stress reliever, call it a disturbing peak into my young mind, call it what you want, but I LOVED it. I couldn’t do much else, but man oh man I could spend hours laughing as police cars attempted to ram my tank and exploded on impact. It was just something in a video game that made me feel awesome for a little while. I promise I am not a psycho.

Cheat codes these days are a little less prevalent. There are still some games that have them, but they were once far, far more common. We’re also in an age, though, where accessibility is being taken more seriously, so I’m not all that worried about it. The point here is that, among other things like fighting games and surprising gaming accomplishments, cheat codes were also part of my gateway into gaming, and I would say they were just as important a part as all the others. They taught me that there was more than one way to enjoy a game, and I think that’s part of the reason I tend to think outside the box when it comes to accessibility ideas. The influence is real, and I’m proud to acknowledge it. As always, thanks so much for reading, and of course feel free to give your feedback however you like. Continue to be awesome!

Commentary: The Most Undocumented Accessibility Feature

Continuing the sports theme from my previous blog about MLB, today I want to talk about commentary. These days it is a standard part of any sports game, and has been since the N64 era, but today we’re going to talk about what it is in the context of blind gaming. That’s right, kids, it’s an accessibility feature. “What?” the sighted readers gasp. “It is? But… But how? It wasn’t made just for the blind!” True, but it serves that purpose for us. Let’s discuss.

One of the primary themes I use when discussing the challenge of blind accessibility with game developers is information. In most cases, blind accessibility involves figuring out what information we don’t have, and then figuring out how we’re going to get it. That is a simplistic explanation, but I think the principle holds up pretty well most times. While, to the sighted player, commetary is just a part of the presentation that makes their sports game more immersive, to us it is a source of information. Think of all the things commetary tells you these days. In Football and Baseball, it gives you a real understanding of how a play is going. Yes, that’s what play-by-play commentary is supposed to do, but the point is just that it does so, and it is a feature that can be turned off.

Play-by-play aside, commentary in newer sports titles takes it a step further, giving us access to information we simply didn’t have in the old days, like player and team stats. How cool is it to get an audio rundown of how a player is doing so far this year, or how they did last year, or find out what the team’s schedule is for the next week? Trust me, if you can’t see it, it’s pretty freaking cool.

Unfortunately, not all commentary is good commentary. The WWE2K series, for example, has managed to do something truly amazing. They have actually managed to make their commentary worse with every passing year. Do you know which game has better, more helpful commentary than, let’s say, WWE2K18? I’ll tell you. WWF Warzone for the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 has better commentary. It’s completely true.

The problem here is that 2K chose to focus the commentary on the side banter that sometimes happens during a wrestling match rather than the actual wrestling. What comments are made about the match are simplistic and unhelpful, like “Oh that was a great strike there.” If I’m not the one playing, or if I’m involved in a match with several wrestlers in the ring at once, I have no idea who threw this great strike, or who just did that incredible reversal… Sometimes I don’t even know who performed a finishing move, because they only say something like, “And there it is!” There it is indeed.

The banter itself is not necessarily the issue. I don’t actually dislike the banter, as it really is a part of wrestling’s presentation. The commentary is so focused on that, though, that there is no discussion of the actual moves, or of the wrestlers’ progress beyond the existence of rivalries, or their most recent win or loss.

The reason that Warzone, or its sequel Attitude have better commentary is because it is focused inward on the match currently taking place. They talk about the moves, they talk when someone is out on their feet, they have loads of responses to in-match events. These are games from 1997 or so, but I’d take their commentary any day.

The thing is, it’s appalling that the WWE2K series has such bad commentary. Last year, 2K went on and on about the auditory overhaul the game was getting. They also said the game would now be using the commentary engine from the NBA2K series. There is exactly 0 evidence that this was actually done. If you’re reading this, and are unfamiliar with either of these game franchises, do me a favor. Take a second and look for a gameplay video of NBA2K18. Listen to that commentary. Listen to how it flows in almost a natural way, and how sometimes small audio files are combined to form whole sentences. When listing some stats, for instance, they’ll have a basic sentence structure, filled in with the correct numbers for that player’s actual stats. All of this flows seamlessly as if it were one. You actually have to be listening for the breaks, or you won’t even notice them. Listen to that. Then find a gameplay video of WWE2K18, and listen to that mess. If you’ve done that, please comment and tell me if you believe WWE2K is using the same backend commentary system, because I sure don’t.

Ultimately, this article is not about wrestling games, though I think they served very well to demonstrate the point. This article is about commentary in general, and why it is so important to us blind gamers. Good commentary is so often overlooked by critics. Almost every sports game review I’ve watched just criticizes the commentary of any sports game, even the ones with amazing commentary, saying it’s repetitive. Of course it’s repetitive. The announcers who did the voiceover work to create the commentary for these games only spent a finite number of hours recording that commentary, and thus could only create a finite number of total responses. Game critics seem to think that commentary should be done live by the real announcers in realtime for every single game that is being played by a human being. It’s a ridiculous argument.

It doesn’t matter that we occasionally hear the same messages over and over again. In a game with good commentary, (MLB: The Show is another example of this), the important thing is that the messages are there in the first place. They give us much of the information we need, and thus, by the very existence of commentary, sports games become more accessible. As always, feel free to comment here or on Twitter or Facebook with any feedback you have, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

MLB: Road Away from the Show

Regarded as perhaps the best baseball simulation ever created, MLB the Show is held up high every year for its continued improvements on what is already a fantastic product. That is, unless you’re a blind gamer. If you are, you may think just about the opposite these days. The reason I want to discuss MLB: The Show, though, is because it’s an interesting case. The games in the franchise used to be very, very accessible, but seemingly year over year, their accessibility for blind gamers has steadily decreased. Let’s discuss.

Basically, what it ultimately comes down to is that MLB: The Show has perfectly simulated itself right out of blind accessibility. It’s very, very difficult to fault the game for becoming less accessible over the years, because the major reason for that is that it has become more realistic. The sounds of an incoming pitch, formerly a tremendous help, are now much quieter, because they would be in real life. There are new mechanics for bat positioning to get the perfect swing, and with those come insane amounts of math the game does when you swing the bat to determine just how the ball is hit and what happens as a result. This of course means that you should try to use these precise swinging mechanics, which of course means you must know exactly how the ball is coming at you… I think you get the idea.

Certain other features, like the guess pitch feature, have been toned down, at least where audio is concerned. The indication we had guessed correctly used to be much more apparent than it has recently become. Pitch speed, again realistically, has become a lot more variable. Back in the days of MLB2006, we could just time the speed of just about any pitch and be right most of the time. Now speeds vary drastically depending on pitch and pitcher both, which lead us to use the guess pitch feature and always guess fastball. This way if you were right, you would know to swing quickly. Now even that workaround works less often.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There are still helpful features. I admit the last MLB the show game I played was MLB2016, but I believe the Autofielding feature is still there. The absence of this feature would make the game all but unplayable without major accessibility changes. Basically this meant that if the ball was hit, your players would automatically go chasing after it and make the catch if they could. This didn’t function as an automatic win, because player stats could affect their success, but it is a wonderful help to the blind. The commentary of MLB The Show, as well, has always been spectacular.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I get it. I understand completely that MLB: The Show continues to be a wonderful franchise year after year, with every game garnering ridiculous amounts of critical success for its realism and attention to detail. The loss of the things that made the game playable make sense, as they were never specifically features designed for us. I will also say that I sincerely appreciate the fact that the MLB team has worked hard on accessibility for other types of disabilities. It is my understanding that people with motor impairments can play MLB: The Show with just 1 button. That is a wonderful, awesome thing, for which they deserve the praise they’ve received.

Still, I can’t help but wish I could get back into playing MLB: The Show again. I still love the sport of Baseball. I would love to pick up the latest edition and discover that its playability had actually increased. Perhaps someday, as I continue to pursue the dream of helping to make games accessible to the blind, I will be able to convince our friends at Sony San Diego to give it a shot. If that ever happens, I’ll gladly take a brand new ride on the road to the Show.

Thanks for reading. As always, your feedback and support are appreciated. I’m not just writing these things for myself. Keep smiling, and continue to be awesome!