The Accessible Future of Emulation

For the longest time, I have believed that the emulation of games is a bad, bad thing. If you emulate a game, you are doing wrong. You are stealing directly from the mouths of the hungry children of the folks who created it. But what if, just what if, a game could achieve near full blind accessibility through the use of an emulator? What if a game that presents the blind with some serious difficulties in its original form, a game to which no accessibility features are ever expected to be added, is emulated through a particular bit of software that is built with blind accessibility in mind, and thus adds some of those missing features to the game? That is the question we are discussing today, and boy oh boy is it an interesting one.

First, let’s talk about the software in question. After all, you, dear reader, might not know about it. The emulator we’re speaking about, for yes it is in fact real, is called Retroarch. This emulator has been modified to be self-voicing so the blind can interact with its menus, but the real big deal is its ability to read game text. And we’re not talking about just OCR here. I mean, we are talking about OCR, but OCR controlled by AI, as I understand it, which is smart enough to avoid giving you a dump of the entire screen, and instead just gives you what you need when you need it. This doesn’t magically solve every accessibility issue for every game, but it is staggeringly huge nonetheless, and there are certainly games out there that could be made entirely accessible using this kind of technology. When I listened to their video demonstration, which shows a player playing Dessidia Final Fantasy with these features active, I was blown away! I had played this game, even managed to complete it before, but that came with the understanding that I would be skipping a bunch of story text. I mean a bunch! That didn’t happen here, as all the text the player encountered was spoken clearly to them. I couldn’t help it. The part of me that just loves video games, and loves being a gamer, and loves playing whatever games I can, along with the part of me that appreciates effective new technology, just fell in love with this. I wanted the question we are here to discuss not to exist, and I wanted to not feel the guilt I was feeling, because I wanted to dive deeply into the sea of old games made new to the blind by accessibility. But the question is the reason we’re here, so let’s get to that.

I knew the best approach here was the simplest one. Wanna know how game devs feel about emulation? Ask the game devs. So I tweeted my question, asking if emulation would be OK if doing so made a game more accessible. I only got 1 response, but it’s one that may surprise you. It comes from former game developer Drew Thaler, and here is what he had to say. “Unofficially every individual game developer I know loves emulation. It’s great for history, great for speed runs and other enthusiasts, keeps franchises alive, etc. If it delivers accessibility too, awesome! Nobody’s making money off consoles that are old enough to be emulated.”

That wasn’t the response I expected, but boy was it a welcome one. It was, in fact, just what I needed. I have been so trained to view emulation as negative that, even in spite of the reaction my gamer and tech brains had, I was ready to simply never use this software. Now I see that it’s not only OK, but developers of these older games may actually even appreciate it. After all, many developers make games because, get this, they want people to play them. All that said, I do still believe that there need to be some considerations. The focus of our fight for game accessibility should still remain on working with developers to make future games accessible, and to promote that idea, I am still against emulating newer games. Developers need to know that we want to work with them, not just find a workaround. And if we do need to find a workaround for some games, it shouldn’t be this one. If a game is past its prime, though, if it is absolutely no longer being supported, and never had blind accessibility features to begin with, and isn’t making the developer money anymore, well then I no longer see harm in bringing the experience to the totally blind in an even better way with the accessibility features of Retroarch. So my gamer brain and my tech brain can now, officially, rejoice and say “Alright! Bring it on, Retroarch! I am ready to play!!”

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