Standards of Story: My Thoughts as a Blind Gamer

Over the many years I have spent both gaming and listening to others play games, a thought has occurred to me more than once. Perhaps, just perhaps, my limited ability to play video games has affected my perception of video game stories. I’m going to try to break that down for you here, and hopefully, it makes sense to someone. I think there’s merit to it, at any rate. Here we go!

Gamers today have incredibly high standards, and why shouldn’t they? They have played through and experienced some amazing stories. They’ve spent hundreds of hours completing the seemingly endless number of fully fleshed out quests in the Witcher 3. They’ve journeyed across a post-apocolyptic united States in the Last of Us. They explored a whole universe of characters and relationships in the original Mass Effect trilogy. And they even traversed the memories of a dying man in To the Moon. Stories in video games can be so, so great, and so fulfilling to experience, as these examples demonstrate.

Yet, all of these examples I’ve given have one thing in common. We blind gamers cannot play any of these games with any amount of success. I’m certainly not throwning any shade at the games themselves, but a fact is a fact. Now sure, we can listen to others enjoy those games, and in all of those examples, I’ve done just that. But the point I believe this blog is going to help drive home, a point that is very, very difficult to convey to non-disabled gamers, is that it’s not the same. Listening to or watching someone else play a game is sharing in their experience, but the experience is still theirs. You can listen to someone play a game, even a choice-driven game like Mass Effect, and sure, you will experience some of the emotional impact of that game, but still, you are missing out on one crucial element. You weren’t the one who made the choice, you weren’t the one who pressed the button. The impact for you is lessened by the fact that it was someone else who ultimately took the actions that lead to that point. You don’t feel like you’re the character, you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, because you are, no matter how much they try to include you. There’s something about the control being in your hands, and entirely your hands. Somehting about making decisions completely uninfluenced by nothing but your own mind. As I said, it’s hard to describe, and hard to convey.

I have come to believe, though, that the fact that we have not truly, fully experienced some of these incredible stories, and even the fact that we cannot in some cases, contributes to a lowering of our standards for story in games. I don’t really mean that as a bad thing. Another way to look at it is that we may tend to be more forgiving toward a story that others don’t necessarily like, whether we’re watching or listening to it, or playing it ourselves. This can result in some very positive experiences.

I recently had one of these experiences myself in Madden 19. Dismissing for a moment my many issues with the gameplay of its story mode, taking a look only at the story itself, I have this to say. Personally, I LOVE the stories in both Madden 18 and 19. Part of me knows that they are full of clichés and commonly used sports movie tropes, but that doesn’t really matter to me. Can you guess why? It’s because I get to experience them for myself. I feel like I am the characters of Devon and Colt because I play through their big moments. I do that. It’s my experience. And the thing is, there aren’t any games I can actually play that can offer me a similar or better experience. So when your personal scope is more limited, you may find appreciation where others find the same old song and dance.

But it goes further. Because my standards are different than the average gamer based on what I’ve played, they even affect my perceptions of games I can’t play. I can give some examples here as well. Mass Effect Andromida was pretty much universally panned, not just because of its animation issues, but also because people claimed it had a largely boring story. Well, though it’s a game I can’t play, I will tell you right now that I personally love what I’ve heard of Andromida’s story so far, and I genuinely look forward to my fiancé finishing it at some point. Yeah, I said it, I love that game. And guess what? Here’s another admission you average gamers probably won’t like much. I like, and can follow, the stories of Final Fantasy XIII parts 1, 2, and 3. Yes, I even like part 3. People always tell me Lightning has a wooden personality, and that the stories are terrible, but personally I don’t see it. I had a blast playing what I could of XIII, and listening to the other games in the series, playing what bits of those games I could, and all the while I enjoyed the story.

I’ve also heard many people say Final Fantasy X-2 is ridiculous. I haven’t even heard that entire game, but I’ll admit right now that I enjoyed what I have heard so far. I’m not sure if general perception of that game stops at the admittedly silly dress sphere concept, but that aside, I think the story’s quite good, and takes some rather dark turns. But here again, maybe that’s my lowered standards of story talking.

Recently, the games we are able to play, including those specifically made for us like A Hero’s Call and Manamon, as well as games modified for accessibility like Madden 19, have helped us grow as gamers in such a way that I believe our standards will eventually start to rise, and potentially equal those of the rest of the gaming community. I still imagine a future where we have a Witcher 3 equivalent, or a Mass Effect equivalent. When I listened to the gameplay trailer for Cyberpunk 2077, something I discuss at length in another blog, I ached to be able to play a game with that much story and that level of detail.

That day is not today, and may not be for many years, but until then, we do have stories to appreciate, and to love. It is as if we, the disabled community, are a couple generations behind, as standards for all gamers have certainly gone up over the years as well. So hey, no matter what we like, let’s like it with all our being, and keep fighting to get on equal ground with everyone else. Let’s just be the gamers we are, and love games, no matter what anyone else thinks. And speaking of thinking, let me know what you think of this blog. Comment, discuss, do all the things. Thanks so much for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Listen to my Story: How I Came to Play and Love Final Fantasy X

When I first heard the glorious music, sound effects, and yes, voice acting of Final Fantasy X, it was on my brother’s Playstation 2, which was most definitely his and not ours and we were not to even think about touching it without his permission. Anyway, I heard him begin the game, and at first was, believe it or not, unimpressed. The voice acting was cool, sure, but I knew from the second that first full motion video played that the game had to be ridiculously short. It just had to be. That was always the tradeoff with games that used FMV, right?

Obviously, I was very, very wrong. I was used to the way things used to be, and Final Fantasy X, though not a launch title, was fairly early in the PS2 era. I quickly learned that the game was actually quite long indeed, and get this, it had a bunch of those little FMV’s too! Now I was officially impressed, but I still kind of dismissed it. After all, I had never been able to play a full RPG before, so why should I be able to now? Even with voice acting, it just wouldn’t be enough, would it?

I remember that I actually tried the demo first. Back in the days of demo discs, I used to receive one per month, and would always mess around with them. I had success with the demo, but even then, I thought it was just a one off. The demo is fairly short, and mostly just demonstrates combat with very little to worry about otherwise. I wasn’t quite there yet.

It was actually my brother, the very person who got me into video games in the first place, who suggested that I try Final Fantasy X. “You should start your own game!” he said one day after a particularly difficult battle. I scoffed at the idea, but by this point in my life I had already done some pretty cool stuff in games, so I figured I’d at least try. And so, one fine morning, I started playing Final Fantasy X, and did not stop for many, many hours. Turns out it was pretty playable after all.

Make no mistake. Final Fantasy X requires a lot of patience if you’re blind. In the first many, many hour session I played, I didn’t get as far as a sighted person might in the same amount of hours. The facts are that the game isn’t designed with us in mind, so we have to take some things into account. We still can’t actually see where we’re going, so we have to be willing to wander a bit until we can find our destination. We also can’t see items or people in the world, so it behooves us to basically mash the X button as we wander in order to find people or items and interact with them. It’s kind of a silly system, but ultimately it works.

The good news for us is that there is no jumping of any sort. This means that there is never a platform we need to jump to, and thus we know that, wherever our destination is, it’s on the ground we’re standing on. It’s hard to explain why this is important, but consider this. If the option to jump even exists, it’s reasonable to expect that you have to use it in some circumstances. If, like us, you cannot see the platform you must jump to in order to proceed, how would you know when to jump? Even if you just jumped around the whole time, you may not even realize you’re on a new level than you were before, and may keep jumping right off of it. In short, with games that aren’t designed to be played by the blind, the less jumping the better.

Here’s another piece of good news. Combat menus in Final Fantasy X don’t wrap. This means they can be memorized, and even used to determine whose turn it currently is. For example, when the game begins, Tiad the main character only has 2 options in his combat menu: attack and item. Aurin, however, has 3 options, because he possesses a magical ability called armor break. Using this small difference, we can tell if it’s Tidas’s turn, or Aurin’s. The combat menus of all characters will grow as they level up and gain new abilities, but that just means we need to pay attention to when our party members learn new tricks. It’s pretty awesome, and enables us to use essentially the same strategies anyone else would in combat.

Speaking of leveling, though, that’s one of the problem areas of Final Fantasy X. Yes, the game can be played if you’re blind, but with 2 exceptions. One is the leveling system called the sphere grid, and the other is certain sections of the game called the cloisters of trials, which are unskippable and in some cases quite complex.

Back to leveling, though. The way the sphere grid works seems simple enough. As you fight, you gain sphere levels, which enable you to move an equal number of squares on the sphere grid. You also earn spheres, which are used to unlock sphere grid nodes, which ar what actually increase your stats. You might be thinking, “well, can’t you just muddle your way through it and level up a bunch of stuff?” And sadly, the answer is no. You see, as long as you have the sphere levels for it, you are not limited in movement. What I mean by this is that you’re just as able to move backwards as forward, and if you cross certain paths, you will end up in the abilities of your other party members. This latter can be useful in the late game, but is certainly not ideal when you’re just starting out. And, because the sphere grid is full of complex pathways, we couldn’t reliably know which way we’re going, which nodes we’re heading to, or whether we’re just going backwards.

The cloisters are trouble for a different reason. They are all puzzles involving the removal of certain spheres, (notice a theme?) from one spot, and placing them in the correct other spot. We can certainly remove and slot these spheres, but remember we don’t actually have a reference for where we’re going. We could remove a sphere, wander around for a bit, find an empty sphere slot and slap it in, only to then realize we placed it right back in the slot we took it from. And that’s only one problem. We also have no idea which sphere we removed, as there are several different types, some unique to the particular cloister you’re in. Think I’m done? Nope. You also sometimes have to push pedestals into very specific locations, or away from locations they’re blocking, and so on. It’s kind of a nightmare for a blind person.

Aside from that, though, the game is quite playable. We are even helped out by the roads in the game, which are essentially straight in most cases. Crazy, right? There’s another unplayable bit called Blitzball, but it is fortunately not necessary to succeed at Blitzball to complete the game. It is necessary to play it once, but you don’t actually have to win. Certainly I would like to be able to play Blitzball, but part of playing games like this, games that nobody expected a blind person to play in the first place, is acceptance of an inability to do certain things in those games. Always, always try hard, but be ready to accept that some things just might not work.

I’m sure there are some little things I forgot. The playability of that game is kind of like the playability of Diablo 3. So many little things combine to allow us to play it as much as we can. I am proud to say I have beaten the game, and I have my brother to thank once again for steering me toward something great. The funny thing about that particular incident, though, is that he never did that before or since. Aside from that and the practical joke that got me started, he has never tried to get me to try something. It sort of makes me wonder what inspired him that time. In any case, I hope this has enlightened some of you fine folks. I am of course willing to answer any questions I can, so please discuss and ask and share. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

PS4 is Best Ambition Capture

This morning, I woke up inspired. “Alright,” I said to myself. “That’s it. It’s time. I’m giving the people what they want, and it starts today! Today, I say! No more capturing games from the PS4 itself! No! I’m gonna use that capture card we’ve had for a while now, and I’m gonna do it direct with OBS, and everything’s gonna work, and everyone will be so happy, and then I’ll get little sounds and/or animations set up for follows and tips, and then everyone’s gonna be even happier, and it’s all going to zoom into an endless spiral of happiness and joy!” That, ladies and gents, is what I thought. I was mentally ready. I thought I was completely prepared. But then, tragedy struck in the form of a hardware and software limitation of the PS4. A tragedy so profound, so shocking, that I have yet to recover from it. You must understand, the process of swiveling a mind from inspiration, all the way around to begrudging acceptance is a long one. I’m still on that swivel. Nevertheless, I wanted to talk about this in a blog, because when it all comes down to it, this particular limitation is kind of ridiculous and, just perhaps, may have even been intentional. Let’s deep dive, shall we?

When I play video games, I use the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset. Why wouldn’t I? There’s a whole blog about it on my site, but in summary, it is not only the best wireless surround sound solution I have ever encountered, it supports 3D audio in some games. I’ve thought about picking up the recent MLB games, for instance, specifically because of this 3D audio support. It is, in short, an amazing headset. Really, I genuinely mean that. I love it!

There’s just one teeny tiny little eensie weensie insignificant problem. If you use the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset, you cannot capture game audio using a capture card. Yep, no game audio at all. I’ve looked into it, there’s really no way. Bummer, huh? That alone was enough to shatter my plans for today into thousands of very small, but very well-crafted sound waves. And make no mistake, these were plans for today, and for my entire future as a streamer. So yeah, it was a blow.

Now don’t you worry. My commitment to my audience is as strong as ever. I still intend to switch to a capture card eventually, but it’s going to require some astonishing changes that I cannot currently afford to make. My research, and questioning of other streamers I know, reveals that I will need a completely different headset for this. One that does not rely on wireless via USB, but rather uses the PS4’s optical port. These headsets, especially the quality ones, are rather expensive, as I’m sure you can imagine. I won’t go into the technical details, but suffice it to say that I know what I need, and cannot yet get it.

The striking thing to me, though, and the reason I’m writing this blog, is the way the PS4 works. When you hook up a headset via USB, (which the platinum technically is as it uses a wireless USB dongle), the PS4 basically says, “OK then. This is the one and only audio source, and HDMI no longer matters. Bwahahahahaha!” This means a capture card, which connects to the PS4 via HDMI, cannot receive the audio, as it’s not even being transmitted that way anymore. The reason this struck me, though, is what this means for platinum headset users. It means that the only way, literally the only way, to capture game audio is to capture directly from the PS4. Only then will its video and audio streams be sent somewhere else along with your headset. As much as I love the headset, I see now what a trap this is.

The ability to capture from the PS4 is limited. You have, for instance, no control over game audio levels. Secondly, you cannot do some of the more fancy things streamers do today, greeting new followers, cheerers, and tippers with a cute little sound and/or animation. It is a set, controlled capturing environment, and it will always be that way. However, if you want that wireless surround sound, and especially if you want that 3D audio in the games which support it, you’ll just stick with it, right? Well, as of today, my answer is no.

More than I can’t afford the headset I’ll need to make this work, I cannot afford to compromise the integrity of my stream. I cannot afford to limit my potential. That, sadly, is exactly what the Platinum does. It hosts wonderful features that I love, but it keeps me where my PS4 puts me in terms of stream quality, and that’s not enough anymore. So my commitment to you, the reader and, hopefully, the viewer, is that I will get this sorted as soon as I can. I will do what I must do to bring you the stream quality you all want. It simply cannot happen right now, but it’s coming. I appreciate you guys, and I want you to know it. Thanks for supporting, and as always, thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!