Gamebreak: Audio Description

Audio Description is, in my opinion, an amazing idea. It’s something that helps blind and low vision folks like myself enjoy entertainment that, in some cases, we couldn’t enjoy otherwise. You may be surprised to learn that there are blind people who hate audio description. Some prefer only to absorb what they can through context. There’s nothing wrong with that, but personally I love it, at least the first time watching something. I’d like to talk more about it in a kind of general sense. There is no specific theme or point to this other than that I want to discuss, and maybe educate folks who don’t yet know some of these things. So with that in mind, here goes!

There is an art to audio description. It’s simple to say that it’s a person in the background of a movie or show describing what’s going on. That’s true, but to do it properly takes skill. You see, audio describers do not wish to step on the toes of any dialog or sound effects that might be present in the show or movie, but at the same time they want to keep their descriptions relevant and informative so the blind person watching understands things they need to know. So, where description is necessary, they will step on sound effects before stepping on dialog. You cannot expect a heavy action scene to be audio described without some tromping on sound effects.

Knowing this, it’s interesting to listen to something audio described, and consider the details that are left out, often only for a short time. For instance, audio describers will often not tell you exactly what a person looks like immediately upon their introduction. New characters are often introduced during tumultuous times, and in those cases, there isn’t enough time to cover that. So an audio describer will instead wait until a moment where the character or characters are performing an action that is easy to describe, but takes time. An example of this would be something like, “Jessie looks out the window contemplatively. She has long, dark, luxurious hair, and smokey gray eyes. She wears awesome clothing, and awesome shoes.”

OK, so the describer wouldn’t actually say awesome clothing and awesome shoes, they’d go into full detail, but you get the idea. They use that contemplative moment, which would likely contain no dialog, to give the viewer more information than they had before. They still have to prepare for the next moments of action, but they learn to use the time they have. I don’t mean to harp on this so much, but personally I find it quite impressive.

Now the thing is, audio description actually used to be fairly uncommon, especially in the US. I remember being a kid in the 90’s, and checking out a couple audio described movies from the library. Yes, the library. You couldn’t find them at video stores, I never knew a place where you could actually purchase them, but the library had a few. A single shelf, to be exact. That’s where I first encountered audio description, and I loved it right away, but it was sure frustrating not to be able to find it on the many, many movies I watched over the years.

I’m pretty sure the UK were one of the first to get a clue when it came to audio description. As the years went by, I kept hearing from friends in the UK that TV shows had it. Then I heard that their movie channels also had it, meaning the movies I loved were being audio described, but over there and not over here. Man oh man, that was painful. I half-joked that I was going to move to the UK for that very reason. Yeah, it was only half a joke. I really wanted to, at the time.

I think it was somewhere around 2009 when the US finally started to figure out that audio description was actually kinda awesome. Some folks in the US had the right idea. Some TV networks like Fox did start supporting audio description before 2009, but I feel like 2009 was the year it really started to click. Suddenly, DVD’s featuring audio description were hitting store shelves. There weren’t many, but they were there, and I remember being shocked every time we found one. It was still in the early days then. A couple years later, iTunes released audio described versions of a few movies, all of which I believe were Disney films. Understand that these were actually separate versions of the movies, specifically made with the audio description track as the primary audio track. Separate purchases entirely.

Fast forward to today, and now I’m overrun with audio described content. iTunes got rid of that old method of providing audio description, and started adding the description audio track to the same versions of movies everyone else was buying. As of a check I did just yesterday, using the audio description project’s web site, iTunes now has a staggering 800+ audio described movies. Furthermore, they’re apparently averaging 18 new additions to their catalog of audio described movies per month. Ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome!

Just in case that’s not enough, Netflix is off and running with audio description these days. Every single Netflix original show and movie gets the audio description treatment, meaning we can fully enjoy all of their content on the day of its release right along with everyone else. To us, that’s a huge, huge deal. Amazon is also working on audio descriptions, but they have a ways to go before getting close to the amazing work Netflix has done. Netflix even goes out of their way to try and get the AD tracks for the licensed content they add every month. It’s quite awesome, and very much appreciated.

There’s even a little audio description project I’d like to give a shout out to, which you can find at youdescribe.org. The goal is to actually describe Youtube videos. Viewers can then listen to the described versions, and even request descriptions for videos that aren’t currently audio described. It’s all done by volunteers too, so anyone who is willing to help out can record an audio description for a video. Descriptions can be rated, though, to help avoid the haters who would record trollish things. It’s an awesome idea, and apparently has gained a lot of traction, as you can find quite a few videos there.

I think that about covers my current thoughts on audio description. In summary, I’m so happy with where we are with it right now. I’m overrun, yes, but that’s a wonderful, wonderful hing. Better to have too many choices than not enough. It’s a good time to be a movie fan. Thanks again for reading, guys, and continue to be awesome!

Pressing Buttons: Quicktime Events and Blind Gamers

Greetings readers! Right on the heals of my Shenmue discussion, I wanted to talk about quicktime events As a refresher, quicktime events refer to those moments when you’re watching what appears to be a cutscene, but you must suddenly press a button to achieve something. Failure to press the correct button by pressing the wrong one, or not pressing it in time, results in a failure of the attempted action, which can sometimes lead to the demise of your character. How, though, do blind people deal with these moments, and what do we think of them? That’s what we’re about to talk about.

First, it’s important to note that there are basically 2 types of quicktime events. The first is one where, regardless of how many times you retry an event, or how many playthroughs of a game you do, the button you need to press never changes. These are the ones blind people are sort of OK with, because we gamers don’t typically mind memorization. If we can memorize a quicktime sequence, that becomes the bit we feel good about when going through that section of the game.

The second type is the worst for us. Quicktime events where everything changes every time cannot be memorized, so we can only rely on, pun intended here, (blind luck) to get through those moments. My first tip to game developers who intend to put quicktime events in their game is to avoid this method. Giving us the option of memorization isn’t quite an accessibility feature, but it is a nice perk.

There is another sort of quicktime event type involving directional movement along with a button, such as pointing a cursor at the proper spot before executing your button press, but that’s another can of worms I don’t think we need to open. This would, in a way, be an even worse option than the random button presses, since we have no idea where a cursor would be in that situation. Telltale does this sometimes, and it’s so, so very agrivating.

So I’ve now given you an idea of how we feel about different types of quicktime events, but let us now approach the big question. When it comes to accessibility, if we’re actually talking about a game with accessibility features implemented, what should be done about quicktime events? My answer might surprise some of you. I’ve heard a lot from developers that the answer to blind accessibility is to remove quicktime events entirely, or make them skippable. This, I tell you now, is the wrong approach. Well OK, in my opinion it is. You’re bound to hear several different opinions on the subject, but hey, another key to accessibility is options. We love options!

Anyway, personally I believe the correct approach is to treat quicktime events like the rest of the game, and make them accessible. Don’t remove them and thus remove the challenge. Don’t make us skip them and potentially miss a great part of the story. To me, those are unacceptable options, and honestly, copouts. Make us feel the intensity of those moments like anyone else. Get some voiceover of the names of each button, or use text to speech. Apply this to the quicktime event so that the button we need to press is spoken right when or right before we need to press it. Do this, and you can even keep your randomized button quicktime events, because we’ll still be properly alerted.

If you don’t want to apply a voice to the button, apply a sound. Create a sound that is different for every potential button we might have to press, and play it at the time it is needed. We can memorize those as well. The important thing, though, is just to give us as close an experience to the one a sighted person has as possible. That’s what we want. We’re not asking for easy mode.

And that’s it, I suppose. Quicktime events are an interesting mechanic, and possibly far more elaborate than some thought, but they do not have to be bad things when it comes to accessibility. I guess that’s my point. With the first type of QTE, the one where buttons are never different, (Shenmue is an example of this), we can deal. Make them accessible, and we will love them. Thanks all for reading, and as always, continue to be awesome!

Shenmue: A Quiet Revolution

Shenmue is an intriguing series, and possibly a bigger deal in the game industry than you realize. You couldn’t be blamed for not thinking so, as it actually did quite poorly upon its initial release. The sad reason for this is that the Sega Dreamcast, the console upon which Shenmue was originally released, was up against some stiff competition at the time, and wasn’t ultimately fairing that well. Nevertheless, Shenmue remains one of those landmark moments in gaming. Let’s talk a little about why.

Though both Shenmue 1 and Shenmue 2 have relatively poor audio quality, bad voice acting, and from what I’ve heard, subpar graphics, the games achieved things that, though uncommon back then, are very, very common today. Shenmue was, for instance, the very first game to coin the term QTE, or Quicktime Event. These are defined as events that flow like a cutscene, but have moments where you must press a button within a certain time limit to succeed. Failing to press the button would result in something unfortunate happening, all the way up to the possibility of your character’s death. These things are ridiculously common today, and are in fact the basis for entire games in some cases. Look at Telltale and their library of games. Look at David Cage’s games, such as the recent Detroit: Become Human. That’s almost literally how the gameplay of those games works, and it all began with this little Dreamcast phenomenon.

Also, as hard as this might be to believe in this day and age, open world exploration games were also uncommon back in the day. The idea that you can explore the entirety of the game’s world, enter nearly every building, and interact with every citizen was astounding in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It’s more the norm these days, but this kind of freedom blew the minds of Shenmue’s fanbase back then. Even now, playing its rereleased versions, it seems pretty impressive to me. The fact that you can ask any of the game’s many, many characters about the person or thing you’re currently looking for, and even if it’s not helpful, most of them have a unique response to the question, is quite amazing even by today’s standards. While most games today will allow you to have a unique conversation with their characters, it’s often specific to one event or place, but in Shenmue, you can focus everyone’s attention on your goal. Neat stuff.

I believe Shenmue and Shenmue 2 were part of a quiet revolution in what could be expected from a game. They may not have done well in terms of sales, but I believe the industry saw the accomplishments they made, and improved upon them over time. I believe Shenmue is the reason some other games exist today, and I think it deserves a lot of credit for that.

We now have Shenmue 3 on the horizon, due to be released in August of 2019. My thoughts on Shenmue 3 are a bit different. I do not expect Shenmue 3 to innovate as 1 and 2 did. I expect that Shenmue 3 is more about fan service, about continuing Rio Hazuki’s story, than it is about innovation. Keep in mind that this is a game funded by Kickstarter, and isn’t being made on a super high budget in comparison to many games today. Also keep in mind what it’ll be up against in the open world scene. You know, that massive open world RPG called Cyberpunk 2077? Based on the recent footage that was revealed, and the explanations that went along with that footage, I don’t think Shenmue 3 will stand up to Cyberpunk 2077 as a comparison. I believe Shenmue would get pummeled in that instance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since its predecessors were at least partially responsible for Cyberpunk’s open structure, but it is an interesting observation of how things have changed in the game industry.

Nevertheless, I do think Shenmue 3 will be good. I think it’ll be fun, and I think it’ll be a worthy conclusion to Rio Hazuki’s story. And hey, maybe I’ll be completely wrong and it’ll blow all of our minds with its crazy new ideas. Eitehr way, I’m still looking forward to it. Shenmue’s beginning was and is a great one, and I’m glad it found a new home on modern consoles. It is deserving of its legacy and its following. If you, dear reader, haven’t checked it out yet, give it a look or a listen. You might be surprised. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Audio Games: Inspiring a Mission of Accessibility

The work that I do these days has a lot of inspirations behind it. We’ve been through many of them on this blog. Today, though, I want to talk about audio games, and their influence on my way of thinking. There are hardworking developers, usually a single individual or team of 2, that make and have made audio only games for the blind, and they don’t get enough credit for their work. It’s time to give them what I can.

The inability to play a lot of video games leaves a lot of holes in our entertainment choices compared to your average sighted individual. Audio game developers sprung forth from this emptiness, seeking to fill those gaps with quality games of all types. Their motivation was to make games resembling those everyone else knew and loved which could be played by the blind. To me, though, they served as both inspiration, and proof positive that my ideas could work.

I can’t even begin to list all the inspirations for me that have come from audio games, but I can go over a few. Audio Games like GMA’s Shades of Doom showed me that shooting enemies blind was possible if you had enough audio indication of where they were. It also showed me that, with a little extra input, we could locate objects lying on the ground. It even had a few secrets for people willing to blow stuff up, which of course I was. It’s a fantastic game that I still enjoy playing today.

Another pretty sweet game called Superliam, created by L-works, taught me that even side-scrolling adventures with occasional platforming elements weren’t out of the question. A fast-paced, sometimes quite intense thrillride, Superliam’s gameplay was frenetic and fun, and I finally got to experience those super Mario moments where you accidentally jump just a little too far off a platform. Whoops!

My mind continued to expand when I played a game called Monkey Business, currently owned by Draconis Entertainment. Monkey business offered up a 3D environment filled with things to find and interact with. One particular level is actually an old western town, and is probably the best example of this. Hear the piano playing in the saloon, walk toward it, and right on into the saloon, where anything might happen next. It felt alive in a way that Shades of Doom didn’t quite replicate with its tight corridors. I personally believe, as crazy as its premis is, it holds up as one of the best audio games to date.

Remember a long time ago when I published my ideas for how a point and click adventure game could be made accessible through the use of interactive menus? Well, that idea was also inspired by audio games like Grizzly Gulch, and Chillingham, both from a developer known as Bavisoft. Sadly, as I understand it, you can no longer play Grizzly Gulch on modern systems, but I’ve heard Chillingham still works. At any rate, those games used systems like that for all of their gameplay. Navigation, inventory management, using one item with another, all of it. Honestly, even combat was sort of menu based, as targets would appear on your left, in the center, or on the right, and you used your arrow keys to switch between those 3 options. Actually, if you were insane, the hard difficulty levels of those games switched things up from 3 options to 5 during combat. It was not easy. I remember both of those games fondly, and still wish Chillingham actually got its sequel. Freakin cliffhangers.

I believe the point has been made here. Audio game developers were the original outside the box thinkers. Their desire to create, and their ingenuity allowed them to come up with amazing ideas that, as far as I’m concerned, developers can apply today. Everyone out there who is a developer of any game, and is looking to make their game blind accessible should check out some audio games. Learn how those developers got around the issues that might exist, and build off of that knowledge to make something awesome happen. These days, we’ve got zombie shooters just for us, we’ve got a card battle game, we even have a couple RPG’s like A Hero’s Call thanks to the entrepreneurship of Out of Sight Games. We’ve got all these, and more as well. You can find more information, and eeven links to these games, on www.audiogames.net

One final clarification. While audio games are, as many other things are, an essential part of the groundwork for making games accessible to the blind, they are still games produced by small teams. This is why I have said before that audio games don’t quite match the scope of today’s epic experiences. This is why the mission of accessibility holds true. You just read that there are actually a lot of audio games out there, and we love them, but we still want to play what everyone else is playing. We still want to play EVERYTHING else. Thanks all for reading, and of course, continue to be awesome!

To the Audio Teams: The Art of Sound

Dear video game audio designers, producers, mixers, editors, engineers, technicians, quality analysts, composers, and any audio-related field I forgot to mention,
This letter from a blind gamer goes out to all of you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for most blind gamers out there when I say thank you. Thank you for putting in the time, and making the effort. Thank you for adding those little extra touches that we notice all the time. The things that a sighted player doesn’t necessarily need, but that add to the audio experience. Thank you for your own desire to make games sound as alive and vibrant as possible. Thank you for immersing yourselves in the material so the experience you create matches the story being told. Thank you for being awesome.

We blind gamers bow before you, audio teams. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. Without those little touches, in some cases, we would be further hindered in our efforts. I’ve said before that blind accessibility is all about information, and the things you guys do with audio give us that information, sometimes whether or not you’re aware of it. I commonly use the example of Kingdom Hearts, where equipping different keychains causes Saura’s footstep and attack sounds to change based on which one is equipped. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is thanks to an audio team that cared to make it so. Because of that, we can tell you by taking a few swings what we have equipped, and from there branch out into how much damage it does, what bonuses it has, and so on. The importance of these little things cannot be underestimated.

But let’s go further. Things get crazier when we consider things that have ambient sound, but don’t necessarily need to. The Death’s Breath crafting component in Diablo 3, save points and treasure spheres in Final Fantasy 13, all of these things and more are examples of necessary objects that we can now locate within a certain distance thanks to audio. Without those ambient sounds, they would just be lost to us. That’s huge! It’s so simple and easy for you audio guys to do, but it’s so, so very helpful.

But really, we’re only scratching the surface here. Let’s go even deeper, and discuss the crazy things audio teams are doing these days, like accurate surround sound positioning and even 3D audio in some cases, realistic echoes based on the objects sound is bouncing off of, (often used to indicate distance between, say, you and a companion), and even dimming of sounds that are blocked by an object such as a wall. The tremendous amount of code that must take is mindblowing, and the fact that you guys work to perfect it, to make it sound right, is inspiring. Let me just tell you now, in case you had any doubt, that it’s worth it.

Now we can’t talk about audio without talking about music. Music is a huge, huge part of creating an atmosphere in a game. I once spoke directly with Austin Wintory, and told him that the music in Journey is what really told me the story. It was true. The music in that game is powerful. It connected with me on a deep, deep level. It made me feel every emotion right along with my fiancé, who was actually the one playing it. I felt the joy of flying for the first time, I felt the rising tension as we got ever closer to our goal… It was an astounding feat of scoring for which Mr. Wintory has received much praise, but if you ask me, not enough. As I’ve said, I wasn’t even the one playing Journey, but when it was all said and done, I felt as though I had. I cannot think of another game that has achieved that effect on me personally.

That is not to say that I don’t love other game music, because I do. There’s a really old game called Stonekeep, which was one of the first games I ever owned. During one part of that game, you wander from the relatively dangerous, though not-too-difficult sewers beneath Stonekeep into the lair of a monstrous evil creature that you, at some point, must defeat in order to proceed. The brilliance of this is that the creature does not immediately attack you. It is, in fact, the music, which changes drastically and ominously the moment you step into the lair, that alerts you to be prepared if you plan on moving forward. After all, the lair itself is not large, and should you actually proceed despite the warning the music provides, then the additional warnings provided by the piles of bones in the area, you will find the beast lerking just a couple corners away. It’s a wonderful, powerful moment in the game, and for me, mostly because of the music.

There are plenty of examples of moments like that in games, but I particularly like that one. The power of music is, I think, becoming more respected these days. I feel like people are taking greater care with music, and that is very much appreciated. Look at, for instance, what Crystal Dynamics did with the first Tomb Raider reboot, scoring every single encounter differently, and using a dynamic music system to make it all flow depending on what you did. That is… That is awesome! There is just no other word for it. Even Killer Instinct for the Xbox One does awesome music tricks, picking up the background music depending on the size of the combos you’re doing. What better way to make you feel good about pulling off an amazing feat of fighting game excellence than to deliver the rousing chorus of that level’s music? It fits perfectly, and it’s also awesome.

I feel as though I could sit here and write about game audio for hours. However, I think that what it boils down to is this. Audio guys, you are our lighting. You are our graphics. You are our art. You are our atmosphere. You are our information. Sometimes, you are our story. You are essential. You are needed. And most of all, you are awesome. Thanks for reading. As always, consider supporting this content if you can, however you can, and continue to be awesome!