Audio Games: Inspiring a Mission of Accessibility

The work that I do these days has a lot of inspirations behind it. We’ve been through many of them on this blog. Today, though, I want to talk about audio games, and their influence on my way of thinking. There are hardworking developers, usually a single individual or team of 2, that make and have made audio only games for the blind, and they don’t get enough credit for their work. It’s time to give them what I can.

The inability to play a lot of video games leaves a lot of holes in our entertainment choices compared to your average sighted individual. Audio game developers sprung forth from this emptiness, seeking to fill those gaps with quality games of all types. Their motivation was to make games resembling those everyone else knew and loved which could be played by the blind. To me, though, they served as both inspiration, and proof positive that my ideas could work.

I can’t even begin to list all the inspirations for me that have come from audio games, but I can go over a few. Audio Games like GMA’s Shades of Doom showed me that shooting enemies blind was possible if you had enough audio indication of where they were. It also showed me that, with a little extra input, we could locate objects lying on the ground. It even had a few secrets for people willing to blow stuff up, which of course I was. It’s a fantastic game that I still enjoy playing today.

Another pretty sweet game called Superliam, created by L-works, taught me that even side-scrolling adventures with occasional platforming elements weren’t out of the question. A fast-paced, sometimes quite intense thrillride, Superliam’s gameplay was frenetic and fun, and I finally got to experience those super Mario moments where you accidentally jump just a little too far off a platform. Whoops!

My mind continued to expand when I played a game called Monkey Business, currently owned by Draconis Entertainment. Monkey business offered up a 3D environment filled with things to find and interact with. One particular level is actually an old western town, and is probably the best example of this. Hear the piano playing in the saloon, walk toward it, and right on into the saloon, where anything might happen next. It felt alive in a way that Shades of Doom didn’t quite replicate with its tight corridors. I personally believe, as crazy as its premis is, it holds up as one of the best audio games to date.

Remember a long time ago when I published my ideas for how a point and click adventure game could be made accessible through the use of interactive menus? Well, that idea was also inspired by audio games like Grizzly Gulch, and Chillingham, both from a developer known as Bavisoft. Sadly, as I understand it, you can no longer play Grizzly Gulch on modern systems, but I’ve heard Chillingham still works. At any rate, those games used systems like that for all of their gameplay. Navigation, inventory management, using one item with another, all of it. Honestly, even combat was sort of menu based, as targets would appear on your left, in the center, or on the right, and you used your arrow keys to switch between those 3 options. Actually, if you were insane, the hard difficulty levels of those games switched things up from 3 options to 5 during combat. It was not easy. I remember both of those games fondly, and still wish Chillingham actually got its sequel. Freakin cliffhangers.

I believe the point has been made here. Audio game developers were the original outside the box thinkers. Their desire to create, and their ingenuity allowed them to come up with amazing ideas that, as far as I’m concerned, developers can apply today. Everyone out there who is a developer of any game, and is looking to make their game blind accessible should check out some audio games. Learn how those developers got around the issues that might exist, and build off of that knowledge to make something awesome happen. These days, we’ve got zombie shooters just for us, we’ve got a card battle game, we even have a couple RPG’s like A Hero’s Call thanks to the entrepreneurship of Out of Sight Games. We’ve got all these, and more as well. You can find more information, and eeven links to these games, on www.audiogames.net

One final clarification. While audio games are, as many other things are, an essential part of the groundwork for making games accessible to the blind, they are still games produced by small teams. This is why I have said before that audio games don’t quite match the scope of today’s epic experiences. This is why the mission of accessibility holds true. You just read that there are actually a lot of audio games out there, and we love them, but we still want to play what everyone else is playing. We still want to play EVERYTHING else. Thanks all for reading, and of course, continue to be awesome!

To the Audio Teams: The Art of Sound

Dear video game audio designers, producers, mixers, editors, engineers, technicians, quality analysts, composers, and any audio-related field I forgot to mention,
This letter from a blind gamer goes out to all of you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for most blind gamers out there when I say thank you. Thank you for putting in the time, and making the effort. Thank you for adding those little extra touches that we notice all the time. The things that a sighted player doesn’t necessarily need, but that add to the audio experience. Thank you for your own desire to make games sound as alive and vibrant as possible. Thank you for immersing yourselves in the material so the experience you create matches the story being told. Thank you for being awesome.

We blind gamers bow before you, audio teams. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. Without those little touches, in some cases, we would be further hindered in our efforts. I’ve said before that blind accessibility is all about information, and the things you guys do with audio give us that information, sometimes whether or not you’re aware of it. I commonly use the example of Kingdom Hearts, where equipping different keychains causes Saura’s footstep and attack sounds to change based on which one is equipped. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is thanks to an audio team that cared to make it so. Because of that, we can tell you by taking a few swings what we have equipped, and from there branch out into how much damage it does, what bonuses it has, and so on. The importance of these little things cannot be underestimated.

But let’s go further. Things get crazier when we consider things that have ambient sound, but don’t necessarily need to. The Death’s Breath crafting component in Diablo 3, save points and treasure spheres in Final Fantasy 13, all of these things and more are examples of necessary objects that we can now locate within a certain distance thanks to audio. Without those ambient sounds, they would just be lost to us. That’s huge! It’s so simple and easy for you audio guys to do, but it’s so, so very helpful.

But really, we’re only scratching the surface here. Let’s go even deeper, and discuss the crazy things audio teams are doing these days, like accurate surround sound positioning and even 3D audio in some cases, realistic echoes based on the objects sound is bouncing off of, (often used to indicate distance between, say, you and a companion), and even dimming of sounds that are blocked by an object such as a wall. The tremendous amount of code that must take is mindblowing, and the fact that you guys work to perfect it, to make it sound right, is inspiring. Let me just tell you now, in case you had any doubt, that it’s worth it.

Now we can’t talk about audio without talking about music. Music is a huge, huge part of creating an atmosphere in a game. I once spoke directly with Austin Wintory, and told him that the music in Journey is what really told me the story. It was true. The music in that game is powerful. It connected with me on a deep, deep level. It made me feel every emotion right along with my fiancé, who was actually the one playing it. I felt the joy of flying for the first time, I felt the rising tension as we got ever closer to our goal… It was an astounding feat of scoring for which Mr. Wintory has received much praise, but if you ask me, not enough. As I’ve said, I wasn’t even the one playing Journey, but when it was all said and done, I felt as though I had. I cannot think of another game that has achieved that effect on me personally.

That is not to say that I don’t love other game music, because I do. There’s a really old game called Stonekeep, which was one of the first games I ever owned. During one part of that game, you wander from the relatively dangerous, though not-too-difficult sewers beneath Stonekeep into the lair of a monstrous evil creature that you, at some point, must defeat in order to proceed. The brilliance of this is that the creature does not immediately attack you. It is, in fact, the music, which changes drastically and ominously the moment you step into the lair, that alerts you to be prepared if you plan on moving forward. After all, the lair itself is not large, and should you actually proceed despite the warning the music provides, then the additional warnings provided by the piles of bones in the area, you will find the beast lerking just a couple corners away. It’s a wonderful, powerful moment in the game, and for me, mostly because of the music.

There are plenty of examples of moments like that in games, but I particularly like that one. The power of music is, I think, becoming more respected these days. I feel like people are taking greater care with music, and that is very much appreciated. Look at, for instance, what Crystal Dynamics did with the first Tomb Raider reboot, scoring every single encounter differently, and using a dynamic music system to make it all flow depending on what you did. That is… That is awesome! There is just no other word for it. Even Killer Instinct for the Xbox One does awesome music tricks, picking up the background music depending on the size of the combos you’re doing. What better way to make you feel good about pulling off an amazing feat of fighting game excellence than to deliver the rousing chorus of that level’s music? It fits perfectly, and it’s also awesome.

I feel as though I could sit here and write about game audio for hours. However, I think that what it boils down to is this. Audio guys, you are our lighting. You are our graphics. You are our art. You are our atmosphere. You are our information. Sometimes, you are our story. You are essential. You are needed. And most of all, you are awesome. Thanks for reading. As always, consider supporting this content if you can, however you can, and continue to be awesome!

Twitch: Another Day, Another Fight

Hey everyone, it’s rant time! Today’s topic, the gameplay streaming service known as Twitch. “But Brandon,” I hear you say. “You use Twitch yourself!” I do, because certain aspects of Twitch make it the best option for what I am doing. However, that does not mean it is free from all judgement, and ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to judge.

We of the disabled community are fighting inaccessibility all the time. Sometimes we fight it where we work. Sometimes we fight it when we go out. Sometimes we fight it in video games, as I do. It feels like all day, every day, we’re fighting society’s refusal to simply accommodate us. If that sounds like whining to you, you’re probably not disabled, and have no idea how honest I am being right now. Regardless of what you might think, access to everything should be a wright for all. Inaccessibility is more than a lack of access, it’s a lack of freedom to do things and experience things others can. It is wrong.

I have been working to correct assumptions, and right wrongs where I can where video games are concerned. Video games have been my focus because I have always loved them, and as a result I’m passionate about playing them. Long story short, this brings me to where I am today, attempting to educate and entertain with my gameplay analysis and discussions about accessibility and whatnot. Wouldn’t it figure, though, that one of the tools I use to do this, (this is where we come back to Twitch), is now partially inaccessible?

The worst part of this situation is that there used to be no problem. Even up until a couple weeks ago, the ability to edit info on Twitch videos, and then export them to Youtube was perfectly accessible. Oh sure there had been problems before that while the new site was in beta, but it seemed as though all had been fixed. I actually thought that perhaps my concerns had been listened to and addressed. I was wrong.

Everything was fine the first couple days after I started doing this full time. I was delighted with how things were going. Then, somewhere, some switch got flipped, or some process was altered, and everything changed. Suddenly, attempting to export my video pulled up a page that a screenreader can’t even read. Even using additional tactics such as Optical Character Recognition wasn’t enough to get an idea of where I should be clicking. Overnight, this functionality has become totally inaccessible to the blind.

As before, I attempted to get a response from Twitch’s support account on Twitter, @twitchsupport. I had heard they really do answer requests. But just as before, I got no response. My supposedly more highly-valued affiliate status doesn’t seem to matter much to them, because addressing accessibility concerns is, as it is for many companies I’ve learned over the years, too big a task. Or, if anything, it is something that is placed on the back burner, and I mean the one in the way, way back, which is covered in dust from disuse.

So how have I overcome this issue? Well, for the moment, I have actually recruited a friend of mine. This friend has graciously agreed to, with my permission, log into my Twitch account every day, and export the relevant videos. Is that not the dumbest and most unnecessary thing you’ve heard all day? It’s necessity. It’s responding to Twitch ignoring the problem. It’s doing what I have to do to make something out of this. I do it because I want people to see these videos and learn from some, and be entertained by all. This work matters to me. It’s just a shame I have to take such measures in order to do it.

I’m not expecting a miracle to spring forth from this blog. This is, as advertised, a rant. I would love to see change. I would love for this to result in a conversation with the Twitch development team. Believe me, it’s a conversation I would love to have. But I’m going to leave you with this. Consider, for a moment, what it means that I don’t expect anything. It is, unfortunately, still a general expectation that people will not listen or care, and that’s a sad state of affairs. At any rate, I’m done for now. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

The Xbox One Elite Controller: How Elite is it?

I’m going to start this blog off by answering the question in its title. The Xbox One Elite Controller is, in fact, elite. It is full of great ideas, not all of which I use but all of which are tremendously implemented and useful to folks of all sorts. It might be a bit on the expensive side, and I hear a new one may be on the horizon soon, but I personally think it is a tremendous value. Let’s discuss.

Firstly, the controller is extremely responsive in all aspects. You might think that’s just something they say on the box, but it appears to be true. The face buttons and triggers seem to react smoothly, the thumbsticks have a solid, steady feel that is responsive while managing not to be too sensitive, and the directional pad, (which at first made me nervous due to its very different design), seems to work perfectly every time. It is made to better account for diagonal presses as well as the traditional 4 directions, and this makes it feel a bit floaty when you’re moving it, but it works well despite that. I had no trouble pulling off moves in Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct.

Even better, the entire controller is configurable. Get this. You can configure the sensitivity of every button including the triggers and, if you want to really get into it, you can remap every single button as well. You can even configure the brightness of the light on the Xbox button. That’s some serious configuration. Maybe in the next model you’ll be able to transform the controller into any shape you like! I personally look forward to playing fighting games with my grilled cheese sandwich controller.

Seriously, though, I’m not done. Let’s just say that remapping the existing buttons isn’t enough for you. Perhaps you have issues with hand mobility, perhaps you just like buttons. Either way, the elite controller has you covered. There are 4 additional, attachable/detachable buttons that can be configured during remapping as well, given you even more options. These buttons attach to the grips, making them easier to reach while holding the controller. They are magnetized, making them easy both to add and remove, and if you don’t use them, just keep them in the handy dandy hardshell case the controller comes with. Ya know, just in case you ever want to attach your run button to the grip of your controller, or something like that.

If you can believe it, though, I’m still not done. Both thumbsticks, as well as the directional pad, are completely swappable. The controller actually comes with 1 spare directional pad, and 2 spare differently-sized thumbsticks. Again, configuration is the name of the game here, until you start playing a game, in which case the name of the game you’re playing is the name of the game. You get it. I’m just saying, it’s amazing.

Just one more thing, and then I promise I’ll stop blowing your mind. All these configurations, the remapping, the sensitivity, all of it can be assigned to different controller profiles, which you can then save to the controller. Yes, you can only save 2 at a time, but a flip of a switch swaps between them, leaving you freedom to have your own way of playing games even if someone else wants to keep things as they are by default. It’s another thoughtful feature that makes this controller complete.

I think I’ve made the point by now. The Xbox One Elite controller is a really neat, really well-made device. Everything is considered from configurability to comfortability, as its grips are easy to hold. Microsoft deserves almost as much praise for that as they do the Adaptive Controller, but the adaptive controller is just too amazing to handle, and one can only take so many brain explosions. I thank you all for reading this little review, and please continue to be awesome!

Gamebreak: Comic Books and the Blind

Hi kids! Do you like comics? For the sighted among you, have you stopped to consider just how many images are in a comic? Like, ya know, the entire thing? Well if you haven’t, please do so now, and ask yourself, “But what about the blind? Can they appreciate comics at all?” Well, today, I’m taking a break from my usual gaming-related discussion, and answering that question. Excelsior!

When you’re blind, especially those of us who are totally blind, your access to the wonderful worlds that exist in comics is limited. The comic books themselves are pretty much out of the question. There are no braille versions, and even the digital versions are still just scanned images. This has a tendency to make conversations with sighted people about comics awkward, as they will invariably know some details you are not aware of. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped me from liking both Marvel and DC, and the well-known properties they produce. How, though, do I get what little knowledge I do have?

The keyword here for us is novelizations. Without them, we would have almost nothing. Some comic novelizations are available in audio on audible.com, but if you want the very best versions of some of the greatest Marvel and DC moments in comic book history, you’ll want to check out the hefty comics section of www.graphicaudio.net. These guys are great about adapting graphic novels into fully cast, fully dramatized audio books. Through them, you can experience the event’s of DC’s Infinite Crisis, and Marvel’s Civil War. You can learn about well-known characters like Batman, or more obscure ones like The Question. Not every Graphic Audio production is a masterpiece, but it is kind of wonderful to binge their audio books, and gobble up some comic book knowledge.

So, as you can see, our access is still limited. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that we have a couple options to enjoy comics these days. Maybe someday, a benevolent artificial intelligence will enable us to read all comics everywhere at will, right before concocting a secret plot for world domination! Sounds great, right? Well, until that day, I hope this article has done at least one of two things. First, I hope it has shed light on how we blind folks have access to at least some comic book history, and second I hope it has shown some blind people something they may not have known about. NO matter what, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!