My Perception of Perception: A Rant and Review from a Blind Gamer

I never thought the day would come when I would regret backing something on Kickstarter, but it has finally arrived. I do not back Kickstarter projects very often, because I have little enough money that I have to make decisions on how to spend it. However, if I really believe in a project, I will take that leap. Such was the case with Perception by the Deep End Games. Allow me to explain what got me hooked.

Perception is a game in which you control a totally blind character named Cassie as she explores a mysterious house. It’s a survival-horror style game, made by developers who have done work on games like Bioshock. Now guys, just looking at it like that, it sounds utterly amazing. I was totally in.

Then, over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and finally getting a chance to try the game myself once it was released, I have learned the awful truth. The game is, in fact, an insult to the blind on not just 1, but 2 completely different levels. Let us discuss.

First, let’s talk accessibility. After all, you would think that, if you’re playing as a blind character, then a blind person would be able to play the game, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, the 2 primary focuses of the Kickstarter campaign were the voice actress for the main character, (and yeah, she’s pretty good), and the visuals. That’s right. Look, ladies and gentlemen, upon these visuals which, if the character were actually blind, would not exist. Aren’t they gorgeous? Isn’t the art style, like, so super cool?

Now, OK. If I force myself, I can get past the visuals being there. It’s a sighted world, and we want them to get some enjoyment out of this game. Sighted people like graphics, therefore we need goodlooking graphics. But then, I’m yanked backward because… The developers should want EVERYONE to enjoy this game, right? Should the blind not be invited to hold Cassie up as their own video game icon?

Apparently not, because I promise you, I guarantee you they barely tried at all when it comes to making their game blind accessible. Oh yeah, it was brought up during the campaign, and they addressed it pretty early on. Their answer was, quite honestly, pretty disgusting. This isn’t word for word, but they said something like, ‘Well, we tried, but we just can’t find an engine that will work for us.”

So what that tells me is that The Deep End Games was basically looking for a magical win button. Some piece of code they could just plop into their game, and boom! It’s accessible just like that! I feel like they googled “Blind Accessibility Engine,” and when they didn’t find anything, they said “Oh well, we tried.” I do not believe for one second that they consulted with a single blind gamer to discuss how the game might be made accessible. They certainly didn’t consult with me, and I’m a pretty good resource for this kind of thing. And maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong, but hey, perception is everything, right guys?

Here’s the worst part, folks. There are building blocks for blind accessibility in that game. Yeah, that’s right, they actually did a couple things correctly which, had those things been expanded upon, may have made the game accessible to us. For instance, Cassie’s 6th sense ability can be used to point you toward your next goal. It works very much like Resident Evil 6’s accidental accessibility where it shows you your objective, and points the camera at it, making forward movement then lead you in the right direction. Of course, this feature only mocks us, because it is taken away from you several times, asking you to “explore to find your next goal.” We also run up against the Resident Evil 6 problem of getting stuck a lot, but the point is that it sometimes helps, but not as much as it could.

The second thing they did right is that the audio recordings you can find have ambient environmental noise before you find them. The sound is like that of a running tape in a tape recorder. You can hear these from decently far away, though, so finding them is still difficult. Also, the “memories” you can interact with, or more accurately, things that trigger memories, have ambient ghost whispering noises that play until you find them. The problem here, though, is that the whispers are infrequent, so if you miss one, you may be wandering for a bit until you hear it again.

And third, the ironically funniest of them all, Cassie’s phone is almost completely accessible! Why? Because it has to be. Once again, they did not do well at passing her off as a real blind person, which we’ll get to later, but they would have failed utterly had Cassie’s phone not been equipped with Text to Speech. So yeah, I can listen to her text and voice messages, I could read a note if I had found one as she uses her phone to scan it, and I can listen to her… Oh wait! Look! Another glaring problem! Yes, most of her phone is accessible, but the text to speech does not read the items in her music collection. Sure is lucky she only has like 3 or 4 songs, instead of the hundreds and thousands most people do today. Whew!

The point that I’m making here is this. Everything that might be considered an attempt at accessibility was done in a half-hearted manner, and maybe most of it wasn’t even done for that reason at all. The developers never really tried, or even cared all that much about accessibility. But putting accessibility aside for a second, let’s get to part 2 of this rant. The second reason this game is an insult to the blind.

A message to the Deep End Games. Blindness does not work the way you think it does, or the way you desperately want it to work so you can justify your game mechanics. The game begins insulting the blind during its insanely short tutorial. “Sound is how we see,” says Cassie’s teacher, who is apparently a super knowledgeable blind person himself. Well actually, Mr. Teacher, that is not completely accurate. Sound is only one component. Turns out we have 3 other senses that we also use, all of them working together to compensate for a lack of vision.

The insult continues as you learn how this apparently works. First, we hear the sound of a fan, and the teacher asks what it is. It should be noted that the audio design takes a hit here, as the fan was not on before the teacher asks what the sound is, and when it does utrn on, it is just there, at full strength, rather than spinning up the way a fan would. Anyway, Cassie identifies the sound as a fan, making no other observations about it than that. Yeah, I actually made one. To me, it sounds like a fan with a small piece of paper or plastic caught in the blade. I made that observation without even tapping my cane! Let’s talk about that, though.

The teacher asks Cassie what’s in front of the fan. Apparently the only way Cassie can figure this out is to tap her cane. Yeah, the only way. She is in fact instructed to do this by her fully grown, very knowledgeable blind teacher. She does, and just like magic, she knows there’s a coffee mug in front of the fan! Wow! Now, maybe her cane actually hit the mug, which ya know, would risk knocking it over and possibly breaking it, but let’s say it did. I can’t verify that, being blind and all. But then why, if the mug was in cane-striking distance, would she not just reach out and find it that way? The whole thing is completely ridiculous and wrong, and sets up the game mechanic they’re trying to demonstrate to feel like an insult everytime you use it.

So here it is. Here’s the conclusion to all this. Perception is a terrible game that could have been great. Had any actual effort been put forth to make it accessible, it could have been a game that brought the blind and sighted together in a cool survival horror experience. And in this time, where video game accessibility is actually starting to become an accepted and widely-discussed part of game development, it is a shame this was not done. It is an enormous, enormous missed opportunity. The ntire game comes off as an attempt to cash in on a new survival horror idea without considering the immense possibilities that could lead to, and then tries to pat itself on the back for taking a couple real world inspirations. (Be My Eyes is used in the game, and it is a real app for the blind). I am finding it difficult to truly express my anger and disappointment with this title, and I worry that it will actually become a step back for the blind, making people who play it think we just swing our canes around everywhere like bumbling idiots. (It is actually possible to walk around and unknowingly break small things during the game). I understand this rant may unpopularize me with some, but I feel it needs to be said for the sake of the blind community.

Game Accessibility is Happening

The feeling going into the first ever Game Accessibility Conference was a positive one, yet I can honestly say that I still wasn’t completely sure what to expect. How was this going to go? Would people really listen? Would they care? Those are harsh questions, but given the difficulty of making our wish for accessibility known in the past, they were legitimate ones. After all, I was once sent a form letter by THQ in response to some requests I made about their Smackdown wrestling games. The letter thanked me for my appreciation of their stunning graphics. Yeah, seriously.

This conference, though, was not that. It was so much more. For my general readership, keep in mind that this conference was about gaming with all types of disabilities. Blindness, deafness, those who require one-switch controls, even discussions about using VR while in a wheelchair. And the best part is, the conference was full of those who not only listened, not only cared, but kept an open mind, and looked to be inspired. I feel that everyone there wanted to know exactly how they could help make this work, and those who already knew were more than willing to impart that knowledge. I cannot describe how that made me feel.

The world is beginning to change. Accessibility is now understood to a far greater extent, and disabled communities all over the world are beginning to be recognized as gamers, just like everyone else. Of course, there are those who have advocated for disabled gamers for years, such as the Ablegamers foundation, but this conference represents a whole new level of recognition, acceptance, and willingness to find solutions, in my opinion.

I’m happy to report that my speech, which centered of course on video gaming from a blind gamer’s perspective, was extremely well-received, and that I was approached by many, many people afterward to talk about the possibility of blind accessibility for them. That, ladies and gentlemen, felt great. Even when I was at GDC in 2014, even though I was pretty well received there, and even though I got a lot of compliments, I also got quite a bit of negativity when I began approaching developers about accessibility. Few attempts were made to actually discuss solutions, and I was often just turned down, with the assumption that it was not possible. Not the case at all with this conference, not once.

I am writing this blog with a very specific purpose in mind. I do not want to repeat what I said in my presentation, as that will be available for all to watch. Instead, I am writing this as a followup to the conference, and as reassurance to all of my readers that all of this is real, things are really happening, and people do want to help make those things happen. It is not going to be instantaneous, but we are further along than we’ve ever been, and based on discussions I have now had, I know that we are going to keep moving forward. Games should really be for everybody, and I’ve never believed more strongly that they will be. And furthermore, I want to assure all those who read this that I will always do whatever I can to help this process along. This conference has only increased my passion for games, and I look forward to similar events in the coming years.

Game Accessibility Conference 2017

I am extremely excited and happy to announce that I will be a speaker at the Game Accessibility Conference being held in San Francisco in 2017. The conference takes place on February 27, and will cover game accessibility of all types. While I will speak on behalf of the blind gamers out there, there will be representation for many other disabilities as well, from the gamers themselves to the developers who have taken steps to make their games more accessible. Find out more at www.gaconf.com and, if you’re able to, maybe consider attending. If you’re reading this and you’re in the game industry, we absolutely encourage you to attend, because game accessibility is important, and making sure the widest audience possible can play your game should be important. I look forward to February, and hope to meet some of you there.

Video Game Console Accessibility for the Blind takes ONE Step Forward

Ladies and gentlemen, today, Thursday, November 12, marks another step forward in the accessibility of home video game consoles. Today, Text to Speech arrived on Xbox One! The most readily apparent fact is that now, both current generation consoles have text to speech capability of some sort, but this post is here to specifically discuss the feature on Xbox One. And so, without further adue, let’s begin.
Activating Narrator, (the name of the text to speech software on the Xbox One, and by no coincidence, the name used for Microsoft’s text to speech software within Windows), is super easy. If you have a Kinect, simply say Xbox, Turn on Narrator. Within seconds, you’ll here the words “Starting Narrator.” But hey, even if you don’t have a Kinect, activating Narrator is as easy as holding the Xbox button, then pressing the menu button. Awesome, right?
Now, those who have a Kinect do have one particularly annoying issue to look forward to, especially if their system is new. Narrator cannot be activated until the Kinect is calibrated for sound. The reason for this is that, since Narrator will be reading your Xbox for you, it will likely say the word Xbox several times. Xbox, of course, is the word that triggers Kinect voice commands, so the Kinect needs to be able to differentiate between your voice and other background noise, and the speech coming from the TV or speaker system.
Once narrator has begun, navigating the various screens is a pretty simple afair. At the top, you have several tabs, including home, community, games, apps, One Guide, movies and TV, and music. Once you’ve selected the one you want with the left and right arrow keys on the controller, you can scroll through that tab with the up and down arrow keys. If you reach an item that Narrator calls a section button, this indicates a deeper list of items that can be moved through with the left and right arrows. For example, navigate to the games tab, and scroll to New Releases. This will be a “section button.” Move left and right to hear all the games released recently, and if you like, press A to select one.
Pressing left from the first tab on the home screen brings you to the guide window, where you can read your notifications, access your friends list, read messages, and so on. All of this appears to be accessible. From here, friends can even be invited to the game you’re playing, or you can join one that they are playing.
This kind of basic navigation will get you through most menus. It will allow you to do everything from browsing your library and launching games, to purchasing new games and content from the store on the console. Yes, there is a working web store we can already use, but now, well, just imagine! At last, we can make those impulse buys just like everyone else!
There are, in fact, very few things that don’t work. Almost the entire community tab is completely inaccessible, which is too bad but not horrible. The one and only thing I really, really didn’t like is that the Achievements screen is also utterly inaccessible. Sometimes it will read enough to let you know there are things there, but you won’t know what those things are. That, certainly, is one thing that could be fixed.
Also, it should be noted that third party apps do not function with Narrator. Skype does to some extent, but then Skype is now a Microsoft app. Other apps like Netflix, Hulu, and so on, won’t work with Narrator at all, though I could see this being technically possible in the future. We’ll see.
Aside from some lag issues and the above mentioned unreadables, there aren’t many problems with the new Narrator feature. There are things that remain untested, such as whether or not the acquisition of achievements is spoken aloud, but I can confidently say that this was a very good first attempt at Xbox One accessibility from Microsoft.
I want to make clear here that I am in no way hating on the Playstation 4. The fact that both consoles are accessible to the blind is more than just good, it’s incredible. The fact that the Xbox One’s accessibility is, for the moment, quite a bit better should not be viewed as a competitive victory, it should be viewed as a step forward for all accessible video gaming. Competition breeds results. Perhaps Sony will take note, and the next time their text to speech feature is updated, perhaps it will be a massive, game changing update. Only time will tell, and right now, the future looks pretty bright for the blind.
One last thing. As long as it’s available, you can check out my audio demonstration of the Xbox One’s Narrator feature using this link. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and found it informative, but regardless, keep on gaming, and keep shouting out your desire for accessibility in both games and consoles alike!

A Weekend with PS4: My Thoughts on the PS4’s new Text to Speech Feature

It’s so easy for the sighted to completely overlook. It’s just one option, one setting, sitting there amongst the rest. Yet, for the blind, it represents the biggest change in video game console accessibility of all time. It’s something we’ve always wanted, but were never really confident we’d have. Now, at last, it’s here, and we can’t stop talking about it.
As has been pretty widely advertised at this point, the Playstation 4 has gained an accessibility menu. In amongst features for enhanced zoom, and button mapping, is the surprising inclusion into the accessibility lineup, text to speech. For the very first time, the totally blind have access to some parts of their video game console that, before, we would have simply ignored. Still, my opinion on this feature developed over time. Over a weekend, in fact. So now, I want to take you along with me on that journey. A journey of discovery, and of appreciation. Then, I want to try and express just how monumentally huge and important this is. Let’s see if I can do both.
When I first activated the Text to Speech feature, which I did with the help of my sighted fiance Misty, my initial reaction was disappointment. Immediately upon activation, there was no voice informing me that it was on, or ready, or anything of that sort. I hopped around the settings menu for a few seconds, and still nothing. “Really?” I thought. “Not even settings?”
So I backed out to the home screen of the PS4, hoping that maybe the TTS was just set up in such a way that the setting didn’t apply until you exited the settings menu, and that now it would begin speaking. Still no luck. I moved around the home screen, desperately hoping it would say that name of one of the games there. I went to the upper menu, hoping that something would be spoken as I moved over its options. Settings, friends, still nothing.
Finally, I managed to locate both the messages, and party options, and pressed X on them. At last, speech. Still, the feeling of disappointment didn’t quite go away. After all, I had heard that TTS would be included in the latest update, and I had hoped, hoped to the point of despiration, that it would cover everything. The home screen, the store, Playstation Now, all of it. It was a bit of a blow to see this was not the case.
I didn’t have too much time to experiment that night, but I still mulled it over. I realized quickly that the TTS being present at all was nothing short of incredible. So what if it doesn’t read everything? It’s there. It has never been there before. So my disappointment became a mere blip on my radar of awesomeness.
Then, over the weekend, I got a chance to experiment fully with what the TTS did support, and I was amazed. I had a fantastic time startnig a party, inviting my friends to it, chatting with them there, and even starting a Shareplay session so I could be spectated. A couple times, I even handed over the controller, (both first and second player), to play with those who were also in my party. I sent both text and voice messages back and forth, and marveled at the ease of use of the on screen keyboard. I learned the shortcuts for the keyboard, which I had no cause to do before now. I did all this using TTS. I could do none of this before TTS was added to the PS4. It was an incredible weekend, and it rekindled my love for that system.
That was my journey, and half the reason I needed to write this blog. The other half is this. I want to make it known to as many people as I can how amazing, and important a step this is in the accessibility of video games. This is a doorway, folks. It’s not the only one, but it is another one, and it’s cracked open. If Sony fills out this feature, it will crack open even wider. Blind people all over the place will purchase PS4’s if they know they can use every single aspect of it. Some are doing it now, and this is only the first iteration of TTS. Then, thinking bigger here, if Sony establishes some sort of hook into the TTS, even game developers can use it, and make their own games more accessible, perhaps even playable with the addition of spoken text.
Thinking bigger than that, if we fling the door all the way open, what about the competition? If this feature gets enough attention, then why wouldn’t Sony’s competitors, like Microsoft, jump on the opportunity to make their own version of this? And if they do, well, competition breeds quality. At least it should. The winners here are us, the gamers, specifically the blind gamers. This truly is huge, and however far that door opens, I for one cannot wait.