Blind Gamer Logic: Why the Old Republic is Better Than WOW

Thousands, perhaps millions of people would likely linch me for the title of this blog, but the sad news is, if you’re a blind gamer, it’s true. Granted, we can’t really play either of these games, (I personally don’t count autofollowing people in WOW as playing since it leaves you unable to do anything on your own), but we can sure listen to both, and the Old Republic stands out as a better game for us to listen to on the surface. Let’s discuss why.

I’m going to start with the biggest and most obvious thing. The entirety of The Old Republic’s dialog is fully voiced by a record-setting voice cast. Even your character’s responses are voiced. In fact, conversations have a sort of flow to them, like cutscenes. This is far from perfect in the early game, as they use a lot of simple sound effects and, I assume, animations, but picks up a great deal when you get into the expansion content. Conversational cutscenes feel much more fluid, and like an animated TV show. Don’t get me wrong, though, the whole game is fun.

WOW’s dialog is, sadly, not fully voiced. Your character doesn’t have a voice at all aside from pain and death cries and a few battle-related phrases, and quest givers tend to only speak words of introduction, leaving the rest of what they have to say to you to text. I will add, though, that I’ve been told by a friend of mine that later quests in WOW are fully voiced, and that it’s only the early game that isn’t. This is somewhat reasonable, considering WOW is 14 years old, but at the same time I find it a little curious as well. Look at Diablo 3, where Blizard gave voices to characters who didn’t even need them. Every book you find in Diablo 3 is read aloud by the voice of its author, which is great, but certainly not necessary considering many of these authors are characters you never meet. If Blizard is willing to go the extra mile and get a massive voice cast, why could they not add voices to the early game characters since they constantly update WOW anyway? It’s forgiveable, but I think it is a worthy question at least.

The next reason The Old Republic is more easily digested by the blind is something I’m calling Sound Education. The thing about the Old Republic is, well, it’s a Star Wars game. If you’re listening to someone play it, you’re probably already a Star Wars fan. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you are already familiar with Star Wars sound effects, which The Old Republic uses heavily. They even use the obscure ones, like the sounds for different types of speeders and so on. There are new, game-specific sounds to learn, sure, but the barrier is much, much smaller if you know what Star Wars sounds like. The Old Republic is Star Wars through and through.

This is a luxury you simply don’t have with WOW. It is its own beast, and thus the sound for every ability, every type of equipment, all of it must be learned from scratch. This isn’t actually a problem, since we blind gamers are used to learning new sounds all the time, but the differences between the learning curves of these 2 games is worth mentioning.

Now, keep in mind that I said the Old Republic is better for us to listen to on the surface. It is, as it provides all we need in order to enjoy the experience, even if the person playing tells us very little. However, WOW’s history cannot be denied. Its world, its story has developed over years and years and years, and is thus much larger and even more filled out than that of the Old Republic. If you have someone who is willing to tell you the things you aren’t told and can’t figure out from context, if you have someone who is willing to read that unspoken dialog and carry you through the story as well, WOW could potentially turn out to be the better game for story than TOR.

That, my friends, was the inspiration for writing this blog. My fiancé has just recently started playing WOW, new character and all, and she has been reading all that lovely text. I already find myself being drawn into the history of the race we chose, (which was Blood Elf), and the specific quests that pertain to that race. This made me really think about these 2 games, and give WOW a little credit where it is certainly due. I hope you’ve found this article interesting, and I encourage you to discuss and give feedback. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Madden NFL 18: I’m Not a Football Guy

Well, folks, the subtitle says it all. I am not a Football guy. I’m not even really a sports guy except for Baseball, but hey, there’s already a blog about that. Today, though, we’re talking about the Madden franchise, specifically Madden 18 as I have not yet tried 19. There’s a lot to say, so let’s talk!

Electronic Arts did a great thing when they chose to allow Karen Stevens to work on accessibility for them. I’m not saying that just to get on her good side, it’s completely true. Not only does she do good work, but many, many other developers won’t even take the steps that EA has. For all the criticism EA gets, this is one thing they did absolutely right, and something they deserve notice for. Good on ya, EA.

Madden 18 introduced a few accessibility features that make it easier for the blind to play. These features are perhaps small to some, but they’re extremely helpful. Furthermore, these features were patched in. It’s worth pointing out that adding accessibility features becomes way more difficult and way more costly after the game has already been completed. This means that what EA did here was even more awesome. Maybe there were only a few additions, but this was still a huge step in the right direction for accessibility.

On the surface, what the additions for the blind amount to are differently-used controller rumbles which give us queues we need in order to play. Whether or not the play we’re executing is a passing or a running play is indicated by a long or short rumble respectively. When a receiver is open and the ball is thrown is indicated by a rumble as well. And the biggest one of all, the kick meter rumbles to indicate when it begins moving, then again for power, then for accuracy. It’s all pretty awesome.

But more than the features themselves, Karen Stevens took the time to write a complete accessibility guide for the game, which includes written descriptions of all menu layouts, explanations of how best to use the features that were added, and even a list of the quicktime events in the game’s Longshot story mode. It’s an extremely comprehensive guide, and is just as important a part of what was done as anything else. This guide, as well as guides for other EA games which have implemented accessibility features, can be found at www.ea.com/able

I think, though, that the most important thing to talk about here is how this game made me feel. This is actually the reason I mentioned not being a Football guy. This is the intangible stuff. Even this blog will likely not do it justice, but hey, I’m gonna try anyway.

There is a lot I don’t understand about Football. I don’t actually know what most of the play names mean. I don’t know much of the terminology. I would fail a quiz on Football basics. All these things are true. Nevertheless, the first time I took the ball and began to run, spun past 1 defender, then another, and zoomed into the end zone for a touchdown, I felt great. I felt like I had just done something awesome. Something that, before, I would have struggled mightily to do. That’s what accessibility can do for people, and that’s what Madden did for me.

It didn’t matter that I don’t typically play Football games, or watch Football, or follow Football. That wasn’t the point. I was playing a game which had been adapted to help those of us who are blind, and doing well at it. What I was feeling is the reason accessibility should be the norm, because it taught me that you don’t have to be a Football guy to experience that touchdown thrill.

I got that same feeling playing through the game’s well-crafted, well-acted story mode. I felt like I was the star of a really quite good sports movie. It wasn’t perfect, since I still didn’t really know what dialog choices I was making, but there were still plenty of moments when I resonated with the characters, who are portrayed as people, not generic Football robots. I felt good as the protagonist stole the show during his high school years, and I felt sad for him as he struggled to maintain friendships. This isn’t necessarily a review, though I guess I’ve made it clear that I think it’s pretty great. Again, though, we come back to accessibility. Remember, this story mode is riddled with quicktime events. It is thanks only to that accessibility guide I mentioned that I was able to enjoy this as well. An entire section of the game was opened to the blind just because someone took the time to write about it. Pretty awesome, if you ask me.

As I write this, I’m actually playing through the Madden 18 story a second time, making different choices and enjoying how the story unfolds all over again. I may never get the best ending, but I may indeed get a different one this time, which will be awesome. It’s just a wonderful thing to be able to do this in the first place. Ultimately I feel like what I’m saying is that Madden 18 is a great example of how a few accessibility additions can make a giant impact on our appreciation of a game. I hope that comes across, as jumbled as this blog seems to me. Now then, I’ve gotta go get drafted, hopefully a bit earlier than last time. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

The Constant Rise of Our Standards: We are Funny Folk

This blog is not quite a gamebreak, but it is an accessibility break. I was recently struck by an interesting thought, and I wanted to blog about it. We are an interesting people. We do a lot of interesting things. In particular, and the subject of this blog, is the way we raise our standards, but also keep them in check in a way. I’ll explain what I mean.

Have you ever heard the phraise “movie quality graphics” applied to video games? I’ll bet you have, and in fact I’ll bet you’ve heard it several times over several years. You want to know how far back I heard that phraise? I heard it in a description of Mortal Kombat 1. Yes, the original Mortal Kombat, with its revolutionary use of digitized actors and such. Mortal Kombat 1, whose entire arcade imprint was only a hundred megabytes or so. Movie quality graphics.

That’s not actually me ragging on MK1, or the quality of its graphics. My point here is that we never, ever stop raising our standards. If we did, one would have to wonder exactly what movie quality graphics are these days. Follow the trail of graphically praised games, and you’ll see phraises like “movie quality graphics” or the word photorealistic used quite often. Yet, graphics keep improving. Games keep expanding, and the systems that run them keep getting more powerful.

This is what I meant, though, when I talked about how we keep our standards in check in a sense. We all know that progress is happening all the time, yet we are willing to hoist games on a pedestal that, quite honestly, many may not actually deserve. I genuinely think this is because we have a sort of maximum expectation. We believe in our hearts that a video game can only look and sound so good, so when it looks as good or sounds as good as we believe it possibly can, we hold it up to the highest height, only to bestow the exact same praise on the next game.

And speaking of sound, don’t worry, we blind folks aren’t immune to this either. I remember listening to the trailer for Mortal Kombat Deception and thinking, “Man! That sounds real!” The game didn’t sound as good as the trailer, but Mortal Kombat X, the most recent MK game, sounds far, far better than that trailer ever did. Yet still, at the time I was utterly convinced that this was it. My first reaction to hearing the fully voiced cutscenes and full motion videos of Final Fantasy X was that I was certain the game would be short, because there’s no way the PS2 can handle all that. I was glad to be wrong.

Again, I’m not trying to send a specific message with this blog. This sequence of thoughts that I’ve laid out on this page is simply something that intrigued me, and I hope it intrigues you too. We are funny folk, aren’t we? Thanks for reading, keep on gaming, and continue to be awesome!

Leaning IN: Game Trailers and Blind Gamers

Occasionally, I get asked what I get out of a game trailer. The answer is a complicated one, so what better way to discuss it than in a blog? Well, I suppose I could do a highly-edited video where I narrate over a series of shots of me in random locations, but… Nah, we’re just gonna go with the blog. I hope some game industry folks read this one, because I personally believe notes can be taken from it. With that, let’s go.

Game trailers are an interesting beast. We blind gamers don’t hate them, but there a few beats a game trailer has to hit before we can truly appreciate them. Let’s highlight those things by talking about the worst kind of game trailer for a blind person. It’s pretty simple, really. If the audio of a trailer primarily consists of music, it’s a bad trailer for us. Luckily for you, I am prepared to provide examples. Say hello to the resident evil 7 announcement trailer, found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YetHMnhnhM

We can take a couple things from this trailer. The ambience of rain pelting a roof is gloomy, the length of time the character takes to answer the phone is suspicious, and the way he says “She’s back,” is ominous. After that, guess what? We’re done. The trailer fades into music, and while the song is creepy and contains some discordant audio samples, we are told literally nothing. Even when it’s all over, we don’t even know what game we just watched a trailer for. The character, and thus his voice, are unfamiliar to us, so we have no association whatsoever. This trailer, which got loads of hype afterward, is actually useless to us.

There are many trailers like that. EA, sadly, is often guilty of trailers without meaningful audio. Now, though, let’s climb the ladder a bit. I introduce you to, and link you to, the E32018 Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXaogHDLosI

This trailer is better. Why? Because we have narration. We have a story to follow that the trailer is telling us. If we’ve been paying attention, we probably even know what game this trailer is for, as it literally mentioned the year 2077. There are sound effects in the background, and while we have no idea if those are actual gameplay sounds, we can determine that some pretty cool stuf is happening. And yeah, OK, the music is bumpin. Still, it could be argued that we don’t know enough. While we’re getting a feel for the game’s tone thanks to that narrator, we don’t actually know what’s going on visually. I remember how cool people were saying this trailer looked after it dropped, talking about the blades that come out of your wrists and such, and I was just like, “Huh? Wow, that’s cool.” The talk after is the first I knew of it. So this trailer was better, yes, but it generated curiosity more than it generated hype. “Oh man, this sounds cool. I wonder what’s happening? What does that sound mean?” And so on.

Now it’s time to show a trailer that can definitely generate hype, even for a blind gamer. The third rung of our trailer ladder. I now give you the E3 2018 Last of Us 2 Gameplay Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btmN-bWwv0A

Now this is one to talk about, folks. There’s no narration here, so at first there is some confusion. But keep listening, and you soon hear the familiar voice of Elly, one of the stars of the Last of Us Part 1, and this game’s protagonist. Suddenly, you know just what game this is. So you listen harder, trying to glean what information you can, and boy oh boy is there a lot to glean. Even the party here sounds full of people, their voices coming from all around, showing you how good this game’s audio will be. That is then bolstered as we move further into the trailer, where we get to hear Elly sneaking about and stealthily taking out her foes. The audio hear is a marvel, showing off positioning and echo effects, and excellent use of character breaths and sound effects. There are times when I questioned whether what we were hearing was gameplay, only to realize it was thanks to the return of a couple sound effects from the first game. This trailer is mindblowing, and despite having no narration, does its job of generating hype for the game. I have watched this trailer multiple times myself, because there is so much to pick up from its audio. This is a good trailer.

There is of course, a glaring problem with this trailer, however. I knew what it was for both because I recognized Elly’s voice, but even before that, because I recognized the song that was playing as part of Sony’s interesting presentation of the trailer when it was being shown live at E3. The Last of Us main theme was played live before the trailer was shown, and it’s a theme I am familiar with, as my fiancé has played the first game twice. However, had I not possessed that information, had I not recognized that theme or that voice, I would probably still love the trailer, but have no idea at all what game it was for. In this way, its lack of narration is still a problem. But don’t worry, there is one more rung on this ladder.

We now come to the reason I decided to write this article. The very trailer that cemented in my head what I wanted this article to be. And, interestingly enough, we do this by going back to a game we’ve already talked about, Cyberpunk 2077. Beware, if you click the link below, and haven’t seen this gameplay trailer yet, you’re going to be sucked in for 48 straight minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjF9GgrY9c0

Seriously, folks, I just did the search to find that trailer, clicked the link so I could get that address to paste in here, and was still tempted to watch it again myself. This trailer has everything, even if you’re blind. Right off the bat, about 20 seconds in, the narrator, (yes the whole thing is narrated), directly introduces the game. There is no question of what we’re watching here. As we move forward, the narrator remains a solid reference point for events occurring in the trailer, keeping us in the know about what’s going on, or what mechanic is being shown. With nearly complete knowledge and understanding of the gameplay we’re hearing, we can then proceed to admire the audio. We can listen to how every dialog choice doesn’t seem to break the flow. How everything just smoothly moves like a cutscene despite all of it being gameplay. We can imagine what an entire, huge open-world RPG will be like if it’s all as good as this demo, and we can struggle to contain that awesomeness in our heads. It is a real struggle, let me tell you. Even in this day and age, I find it difficult to imagine a 100+ hour game, assuming this reaches the scale of the Witcher 3, that maintains this level of awesomeness.

Anyway, the point is that this trailer’s amazing. It uses narration to guide us while giving us a healthy dose of actual gameplay. It’s essentially perfect for us. Now, I’m not saying all trailers need to be 48 minutes, but this type of trailer, with these specific qualities, works wonders to excite us about a game. Before, I was just curious. Now, I’m completely sold. This is one of those games I will ache for, though I know I won’t be able to play it. It’s a happy sad feeling all at once.

So take note, trailer people. You can show us your game in a trailer too, just give us audio. Honestly, it’s actually sort of baffling when you encounter trailers like the RE7 announcement, as a lot of developers are coming to understand that audio is as important as graphics. It’s as though the people who decide what’s in a trailer are still behind. All of this could probably be fixed with audio described versions of game trailers, but I don’t think the industry has reached that level quite yet. I really, really hope you’ve found this blog intriguing, and thanks as always for reading it. Continue to be awesome!

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!