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!

Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

Anyone who is a gamer knows how much video games have changed over the years, and not just the games themselves, but the perception of them. This applies to the blind as well, as our perception of game accessibility, what is playable and what isn’t, has also changed. I’d just like to take a moment to reflect and discuss those differences with you now. Let’s see what you think.

Accessibility in video games has become, as the years have gone on, both more complicated, and yet more simple as well. More complicated because the complexity of games is much, much greater than it used to be, and the implementation of accessibility features would involve the writing and/or rewriting of a whole lot more code. At the same time, though, it has become more simplistic because the possibilities of what can be implemented have expanded. Game companies have drastically increased in size, and games are now developed by teams that can go from small groups to well over a hundred people.

And that’s not all. The fact is, accessibility in retro games simply wasn’t a thing that was considered. Not just for blindness, but for anyone. If there was a game you couldn’t play, that was the end of it. There were no patches or fixes you could hope for. The release of a game was the final product, and that was that.

It’s interesting to think back on how all of these things have changed. In the case of blindness, for instance, we knew to accept that there were things we could play, and things we couldn’t, and nothing could be done about the ones we couldn’t. We had dreams, we had frustration, but we also had acceptance. For this reason, some of what I’ve mentioned above didn’t actually matter to us, because that was the way things were.

After all, it’s difficult to argue the fact that the accessibility threshold was a bit lower, at least for the blind. For instance, most very old games didn’t even have a menu. Old consoles didn’t even have an interface of their own. You pop in the cartridge, you turn on your console, you begin playing. If there was a menu option, it was almost always 1 player or 2. That alone eliminates some of the accessibility problems we face today. No menu memorization, no concern over whether a console has text to speech or how good it is, no store to purchase DLC from… It was a simpler time.

Games themselves were more limited in scope back then as well. This is interesting because it meant that a game was usually completely playable by a blind person, or completely not playable. A fighting game, for instance, didn’t even have an in-game move list back then, and although fighters today almost always fall under the playable category, we still don’t have access to those features in most of them. Back in the old days, though, we had just as much access to a fighter as anyone, as a sighted person couldn’t look things up easily either.

There is also an interesting difference in what we had to learn in order to play a game versus what we have to learn now. In older games, there weren’t as many sound effects used. This was good in that it took us a shorter time to learn what each sound meant, but it was also bad. Less sound effects meant fewer indicators for events. This was made worse in games that used the same sound for multiple things. Older fighters, for instance, used the same voice audio for all male characters, and only used a different one if there was a female character. We had to use other things, such as the sounds of certain moves, to determine which fighter was actually present.

Now, there is so much sound in games. This, too, is a good and bad thing. More sound means more work learning each individual one and what it means. This usually takes much longer now as there are so many sounds in the game that it is possible not to notice a particularly helpful one right away. For example, it took me some time to realize that, in Kingdom Hearts, Saura’s footsteps change depending on what keyblade he’s wielding, but once I figured that out, it was immensely helpful.

The fact that the footstep sound difference I just mentioned even exists, though, is a great example of why more sound is a good thing. As long as we can figure things out, there is loads of information available via our ears, some of which the sighted community doesn’t even notice. This is why today’s audio designers love us. We tend to catch the little details that exist, even though there are so many of them.

Today’s sound goes beyond sounds themselves, though. These days, with technologies like surround sound and even 3D audio, we get even more information. We can tell where something or someone is based on the positioning of its sound in our headphones or speakers. Most older games played all their sound from a single speaker until around the mid 90’s.

I’m not really trying to make a point with this blog. This struck me as an interesting topic because of how different things were than they are now, and I thought it would be fun for you guys to think about it too as we move forward into a new age of accessibility. Yes, accessibility takes a lot more work these days than it might have if we had accessibility features back then, but it’s still happening. Developers are starting to communicate with the disabled community, and they’re starting to listen. It’s a wonderful, magical time, but the past, the way things were in the NES and SNES days, had a sort of magic all its own as well. I hope all of this made sense, and I hope as well that it got you thinking. As always, feel free to comment, and check out the support heading for ways in which you can, well, support this content. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Resident Evil 6: Surviving Blind

Resident Evil 6 is an interesting beast. It is an example I have used in multiple conversations when discussing the phenomenon I call accidental accessibility. The reason for this is that its accessibility is very clearly so accidental as to almost be hilarious. In fact, in presentations, I have even made jokes about it. Still, the fact that it’s there is awesome, and since this blog exclusively covers awesome things, we’re going to talk about it.

First up, I should mention its menus. While they will require memorization or a menu guide, they do not wrap. Or more accurately, they do wrap, but in the perfect way for a blind person. I equate them to the menus of the Xbox360, which don’t wrap if you’re holding the arrow key up or down and reach the top or bottom, but do wrap if you then release the arrow and press it again. This is the perfect way to do something like this, because it means that we can always locate the top or bottom of a menu, but can still get to an option we know is in the opposite area quickly if we need to. It’s a nice touch.

Second, we need to cover an option in the game’s settings, which causes the game to automatically perform some of the mor simplistic Quicktime events automatically. There are keywords here, those being some, and simplistic. This means that there are a plethora of the game’s quicktime sequences that are not covered here. Those will have to be learned, and in some cases struggled through, but this helps.

Now we get to the game itself. This is where things get crazy. The primary reason Resident Evil 6 is accessible is an interesting design choice the developers made. There is a button you can press to bring up a view of the area map, with an arrow pointing you toward your objective. That in itself doesn’t sound very useful. The thing is, as the arrow points toward your objective, it also snaps the camera in that direction. And as it turns out, movement in this game is dependent on where the camera is pointing. Therefore, if you hold down the map button, and press the thumbstick forward, you will casually saunter toward your objective.

I say that you casually saunter because of the drawback of playing the game this way. This is the part that makes it clear the fact that this works is an accident. You see, visually on screen when you press the map button, the character looks down at their PDA as if the map were located there. While they are doing this, they cannot move quickly. You the player are not meant to hold the button constantly. You are meant to take a look at where the arrow and camera are pointing, and move on. Not us blind gamers, though. Also, there is no actual pathfinding in place for movement like this, so we tend to get stuck on tables and stairs and protruding objects of any kind, but a quick back up, move off to the side, try again tactic usually fixes this.

Now here’s an accidental accessibility feature that’s kind of going to suck if you don’t have access to a handy sighted person. The game is a bit more fast-paced if you are doing co-op with a sighted individual, and here’s why. During the game, whether or not you’re playing Co-op, pressing the circle or B button orients the camera, and thus you, onto your co-op partner. When playing alone, the partner doesn’t do anything without you, so they’ll never be ahead of where you are. But if you bring in a sighted friend to lead the charge, you can hold circle as you would hold the map button, and your character will follow theirs step for step. It’s pretty awesome.

Now as I’m sure you know, Resident Evil is about zombies. Resident Evil 6 in particular, having strayed from the franchise’s survival horror roots, is more about killing them in all sorts of fun ways. The good news here, though, is that shooting zombies in this game is not only possible for the blind, but very, very fun. Firstly, the surround sound in RE6 is good enough that, if you’re wearing a surround sound headset or have a good system, you can orient pretty well on zombies nearby, and take them out. Even if you don’t have a setup like that, though, every character has a move called a quickshot, which is an autoaimed shot at your nearest target. It does take some of your stamina meter to use, but it’s a good way to start when a hoard is coming at you.

Even executing awesome melee attacks is possible. You can use surround sound to orient and then charge your enemies, dealing some quick damage with a melee combo, and you can even execute counter attacks if you’re fast enough. Every enemy has a well-defined attack sound, which includes a setup for their swing at you. Some are quicker than others of course, but they’ve all got one, and if you can press the melee button just as the attack is coming, you’ll execute an awesome counter. If you become amazing at this, it will actually serve you if you try out the game’s mercenaries mode, which adds 5 seconds to your remaining time for every counter you execute.

Now let’s be clear on this. There are still accessibility issues with this game. Some of the quicktime events not covered by that feature I mentioned earlier are quite tough, relying on precisely pressing a button when a meter is full, or a cursor is in the right spot. No items in the game make any kind of ambient noise, so while we might be able to get to our objective, we miss a million things along the way, including ammo which is of course quite valuable. Finally, there are entire sequences in that game that are nearly impossible if you’re blind, such as a moment where you have to shoot churchbells which of course don’t make a noise until you shoot them, or a moment where you have to line up your gun’s laser site with a reflective disc so the beam reflects the correct way. These are obvious problems which you will likely need assistance to pass, but in spite of them I still have to recommend this game. The playable parts of it outweigh the nonplayable ones, it’s fun and fast-paced at times even though you’re stuck walking slow, and at least on the PS4, you can recruit any willing sighted individual that also has a PS4 to help, as they can take control with Shareplay.

Resident Evil 6 remains a prime example of accidental accessibility. It was not loved by critics, it was not loved by classic Resident Evil fans, but I can honestly say that it remains one of my favorite console games today. If you can look past its deviation from traditional Resident Evil, it has a solid story, excellent voice acting and production values, amazing audio design, and yes, we can basically play it. As always, feel free to contact me with any additional questions you might have after reading this, and thanks for being awesome!