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!

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