The First of Us: My Journey in The Last of Us 2 Blind Accessibility

“We’ve gotta talk to this guy,” said Emelia Schatz from the front row. I was on stage at the Game Accessibility Conference 2017, and though at the time I didn’t know Emelia, or EM for short, I soon would. I at least suspected who she represented, as the topic I had just been discussing was the Last of Us. I was talking about games I couldn’t play, but wished I could. I spoke of how I would give anything to play The Last of Us, and how it was a physical ache when I couldn’t play a game. That is when the infamous line was uttered, and as small a thing as it was, it’s a thing I will never forget.

They did indeed “talk to this guy,” and that conversation, which contained a bit where I told them how I would love to play a game for my sighted fiancé instead of her having to play it for me, started what would become a fantastic and beautiful working relationship. I didn’t know it then, but my pathway was set, and I had already started walking down it.

There’s a lot that I can’t say about my experience working with Naughty Dog. What I can say, though, is that it was unlike anything I could have expected. From the moment I stepped into the Naughty Dog studios for the first time, I felt welcomed. I felt like I belonged there. And that was before I knew for sure that I would really be working with them. This was just a conversation. This was my attempt to sell myself to this studio. I knew it was a huge opportunity, but it was on me to make it work. Could I do it?

Well yeah, I guess I did. I ended up working on the Last of Us 2 for 3 years, both in and out of the studio. My brain never stopped. I was always coming up with things. Things I simply had to get to the team as quickly as possible! I would often write emails that were both really long, but also really frantic, full of walls of text about how we should look into trying this or that thing. From the moment I started, I was all in. I was passionately pursuing this idea that we COULD make this work. I wouldn’t allow us to be stopped. This was going to be the one! I’m doing this!

But I was never alone. First, the passion and dedication of the Naughty Dog team themselves was unbelievable. They were just as all in as I was. I would often speak to them encouragingly, both in person and in emails, and I did this at first because I thought I had to. I thought it was on me to keep them on the accessibility train, encouraging them at every turn so they wouldn’t give up and say “Nope, all this is too much. Can’t do it. Done.” I was THAT terrified at first. But after a while, I started to see that they really, really did want to do this. I saw that I had already won. I saw that there was no turning back for them either. I kept encouraging them after this, but more just because I was saying what I felt, not because I was worried they’d just stop.

Secondly, this game would not be as accessible as it is right now if it hadn’t been for Misty, my wonderful fiancé. Working on a game like this from a blind accessibility perspective was difficult, and it was difficult for the same reason that playing it will be difficult for some blind people for a while. A game like this requires a tremendous mental shift. This is not your audio games, developed by only a few people. This is a huge, huge game, developed by a very large team. Because of this, this game contains massive levels, tremendous amounts of verticality, different ways to get into places, multiple options and approaches for each encounter, an insane number of mechanics and systems, and so on and so on.

I was not immune to needing this shift, and Misty was the one who helped me get there. Most audio games, for instance, require you to kill basically every enemy you encounter. You grow up on audio games and some playable mainstream games, you get used to that idea. But even having watched a zillion playthroughs of the first game, somehow it didn’t stick in my head that I didn’t need to kill everything, and that there were other options I could try for. That’s where Misty came in. Well, that, and keeping me focused on talking to the team instead of just playing the game the whole time. Her input was truly invaluable in helping shape this experience.

So, in case you didn’t know, we did it. 3 years of intense work, and the Last of Us 2 has achieved total blind accessibility. It is my utterly tremendous honor to be a part of that, and not just because it is THIS game. Not even because I longed to play the Last of Us at GAConf all those years ago. The Last of Us 2 is going to stand forever as the first huge, triple A game to embrace and fully support blind accessibility, and I will always, always be able to say that I helped make that happen. That I am in fact largely responsible for that happening. Of course, this game breaks down more barriers than blindness, providing accessibility for tons of disabilities, and for that I look to my other consultants. Steve Saylor, Paul Lane, James Wrath, and even folks I never met like Morgan Baker. All of us did this together. We became a team, and we made something that will be recognized for years to come. And let me tell you something, dear readers. I’m not stopping anytime soon. The Last of Us part 2 is not the last of anything. It is, in fact, the first.

Twitch Revisited: Accessibility wins

The past several months have been great for Twitch Accessibility. Tons of things have been added, changed, and updated that have made the experience better for us totally blind folk. You will, I’m sure, recall the blog I posted wherein I feared having to leave Twitch because it was growing more and more inaccessible as time went on. Now, I’m happy to say, the opposite is happening. There are still some issues, but I think it’s time we take a new look at Twitch from a blind user’s perspective.

Firstly, remember all the things I said I couldn’t do anymore? Things like, ya know, logging in? All that is fixed. Now, not only can I log in without help, but I can edit my panels, edit extensions, and perhaps most importantly for me personally, edit the information on my videos and export them to Youtube if I want. It is such a relief to have this functionality back, and to have the new functionality that comes with it. Fun fact, editing our panels was something we simply couldn’t do at all before, and was not in the first wave of accessibility updates. It’s here now though, and it’s almost funny because I’m sort of scared to do it. Now that I can, I just don’t want to mess anything up. That’s a me thing, though, not a Twitch thing.

Second, let’s talk about the video player. Aside from an unfortunately persistent issue where the video player seems to disappear, at least as far as a screen reader is concerned, the player itself has become much more accessible. Its buttons are labeled, meaning we can press them without fear of somehow breaking it, because we know what each button does. The blind can even create clips now, an act that required a complex Nightbot command before. We can mute and unmute, adjust the volume of an individual Twitch stream, basically everything. Again, this is incredibly refreshing news. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you don’t know what features you’re missing until you’ve got them.

Now let’s take a look at the future. Twitch is about to release a new channel look for its users, and this comes with its own set of features, all of which are, so far, totally accessible. If you stream on Twitch, you can open the dashboard configuration menu, click on preferences, then channel. You may have been to this page before, but now there’s a whole bunch more stuff for you to add there. Firstly, you can add your social links directly to your channel page without having to create a panel for them. You can still create panels, and some links you may want to add don’t fall under the social category, but this is an easy option that will ensure everyone will be able to follow you wherever you’d like them to. Secondly though, and the most awesome in my opinion, is the streaming schedule! You can set up a fully accessible streaming schedule, which includes the ability to set up one or multiple days at a time, add your categorized games, title your streams, and everything. Choosing a game category appears to even add a game graphic for you, which is handy for us folks who don’t do too well with the pictures. It’s a huge improvement, and something I’ll look forward to updating as necessary just because I truly can do so now.

Lastly in the new things department is the ability to add a channel trailer. This isn’t really an accessibility thing unless we count the fact that the “choose video” link is labeled properly, but I thought I’d mention it since we’re talking about this page. And hey, if you’re a streamer of any kind, let alone a blind or disabled one, I would recommend doing this or finding someone willing to do this. A channel trailer can introduce newcomers who might find your channel while you’re offline to the kinds of things you stream, to your style of content, and so on. It’s a great addition that I hope everyone takes advantage of.

In conclusion, Twitch has come a long, long way since I wrote that scary blog many months ago. There are still problems, including a new one that recently sprang up wherein screen readers will read the entire chat every time something new comes in, and the aforementioned disappearing video player, but overall the accessibility improvements that have been made here are massive, and ongoing. I am proud to be a Twitch streamer, and look forward to the continued growth of my community there. Thank you to Twitch for taking all this seriously. Your work has not gone unnoticed. Also thanks to you guys for reading this, and as always, continue to be awesome!

The Narration Crutch

Accessibility of all types has come a long way, even since I started blogging about it. Blind accessibility, too, has undeniably gotten better since then, with more games adding menu narration and actual features that help us play. As you can tell from the title, menu narration is the specific focus of this blog post, because I am actually a bit concerned. Let’s talk about why.

So a lot of games, really quite a lot, have menu narration now. Eagle Island, Crackdown 3, the Division 2, Gears 5, even Minecraft! That’s not nearly all of them either. On one hand, this is great! It’s a huge step forward, no doubt, and absolutely provides us access that we didn’t have before. But, the specific games I’ve just mentioned here have one thing in common, and that’s where we run into my concern. Aside from the narration in these games, they are mostly otherwise inaccessible. Why is that? Well, the answer may be found in words spoken by Microsoft.

Way back when Microsoft opened up their Narrator API’s for 3rd party developers to use, they made a huge point of talking about how easy Narrator was to implement. “A couple lines of code for each area where there is text,” they said, “and you’re done.” “Wow!” thought we. “Like every game is gonna have narration now!” This isn’t true of course, and in fact some games even with narration have largely incomplete narration. This not only makes me wonder about the truth of that statement, but also makes me speculate on the idea that we have perhaps too much narration.

And now we come to my point. My concern is this. Are game developers adding narration because they believe that narration is all they need to check the blind accessibility box? I understand CVAA is part of it, but given the amount of games that don’t have narration yet, I am relatively sure that menu narration still isn’t a requirement just yet. I’m worried, though, that developers are putting all of their understanding of what blind accessibility requires into narration and going, “Awesome! We did it!” I look at games like Gears 5, which I’ve roasted in great detail before, and I see its narration efforts. It’s super broken and super inconsistent, but it is undeniably there. That, along with the 1 other feature added specifically for the blind, (the audio beacon), along with a feature the blind take advantage of, (aim assist), are the only things helping us in that game, and even then only one mode of that game. But do, or did, the Gears 5 developers think they had succeeded at blind accessibility? I know they know about blind players, as the audio beacon was originally added in Gears 4 because of a blind player. So are they sitting somewhere now and thinking “Man, we nailed it!” I hope not, and I hope those haven’t been the thoughts of any other devs either. Blind accessibility is indeed very complicated. This I shall never deny. Narration alone is not enough.

By far the best example of narration in a game that isn’t an audio game is probably Sequence Storm. The narration is essentially flawless, and a lot of effort was put into making it that way. Madden 20 comes in second, because even though its narration isn’t complete, it definitely works well in all the places it exists. In these instances, I can be assured that the developer knew just narration wasn’t enough, as both of these games have numerous other features that go along with it. That is a comfort. But still…

Look, I hope I’m wrong. Despite everything I’ve said, especially about Gears 5, I would happily jump on a plane if given the chance to work directly with them and make some accessibility magic. I want to be wrong about this. However, this has been in my head for a while, and I needed to let it out somewhere. As it happens, I haven’t posted a blog in a bit, so voila! It is done. Thanks for reading, feel free to discuss and throw me some feedback, and as always, stay awesome!

Let’s Talk about Twitch

On August 6, 2018, I began executing a long term plan to achieve my dream. There were many factors in this plan, and one of them was that I’d finally start streaming on Twitch seriously, instead of just occasionally. This has brought with it a lot of positives. I have grown a sizable community of almost a thousand followers who have shared incredible gaming experiences with me, such as our journey through Final Fantasy X and our ongoing playthrough of the Phoenix Wright trilogy. These followers have supported me to a degree that I never expected, and some have become as passionate about the fight for accessibility in games as I am. Yet, despite all the positives, negatives have begun to creep in, and there’s a very high chance that I will have no choice but to switch streaming platforms. Let’s get into all this.

What it boils down to is that Twitch is becoming more and more inaccessible to the blind with each update. First, it was the login screen, but that could be bypassed by authorizing your Twitch account in an app like Nightbot, which counts as a Twitch session in your browser and thus logs you into Twitch. Then, things got more serious. The ability to modify the information on your videos post-stream, and the ability to export them to Youtube directly from Twitch also became inaccessible. I am grateful to have people I trust that are willing to help with that bit, but that’s not really the point. And yes, I could download each video and import it individually, but that’s not really the point either. The point is that a system exists on Twitch to do these things, and I cannot personally use it due to inaccessibility.

Since I did have willing and helpful people though, I soldiered on through this trouble as well. Now, though, an update is about to be released that further cripples the blind accessibility of Twitch. The new dashboard, available in preview right now, makes it impossible for the blind to edit their broadcast information, such as title or game category. This seems like a small problem, but I have heard stories of Twitch taking misnamed streams very seriously indeed. This is just another example of basic functionality no longer working, and for me, it may be the last straw.

The things I’ve discussed so far are things that specifically effect me as a streamer, but don’t worry, certain aspects of viewership on Twitch are difficult. Gifting subs is doable, but requires a battle that you have to be willing to invest time in to win, because no part of it reads naturally with a screen reader. Subbing to a channel for yourself is equally difficult on the main Twitch page, but in that particular case, there is an alternative sub page you can use. The point is, Twitch is just getting harder and harder to use, and the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any indication of positive change makes it difficult to stay.

I have reached out to Twitch about these issues multiple times, but have never once gotten a response. I understand that I am not one of the big timers, but that doesn’t mean my voice should be ignored. Twitch has shown a lot of interest in accessibility advocacy via charities like Ablegamers, but it appears that interest is generalized, and that there is little to no concern for its disabled userbase.

Let me be real. I don’t actually want to leave Twitch. I’ve talked briefly about my community, and I love them. I am grateful for them every day, and I can’t argue with the consistent growth the community as experienced as time goes on. I am now in a place where, occasionally, I make money on Twitch, meaning it feeds into all the other things I do. That said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a far more accessible platform, one whose accessibility is improving with each update instead of going backwards, is staring me in the face. Do I continue to struggle with a platform that, for me at least, just constantly degrades, or do I go to a platform where I sort of already feel welcome thanks to their accessibility efforts, despite the fact that that means losing the community I have spent a year building? It puts me in a difficult position that I am not a fan of. I’m not expecting anyone to draw any conclusions from this post, but I felt these concerns should be brought up by someone experiencing them. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post for what it’s worth. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

I Think I’d Play That: Suspension of Uncertainty

Here’s a question for all you sighted readers out there. Have you ever looked at a game, maybe via a trailer, or maybe even actual gameplay, and thought “Hmm. I might like to play that game, but I’m not sure.” Have you had a situation where you remain undecided until the very moment you play the game? I ask you to consider that feeling for a second, and then apply it to a situation in which a game someone may wish to try is inaccessible to them. Pretty lousy, huh? Well, let’s talk about it.

The inspiration for this blog came from a conversation about, of all things, Fortnite. I know that, in its current form, Fortnite is inaccessible to the blind. I can listen to others play it, though, and have done so, but during this conversation I’ve mentioned, I realized something. Even though I’ve listened to many, many Fortnite matches, I am even now unsure if I would like the game even if I could play it. I was intrigued by this feeling, and decided to consider it more deeply.

On the one hand, I personally am a very story-driven gamer. I love a game with a narrative I can sink my teeth into. Fortnite has almost none of that. This is an automatic turnoff. It would, I should think, be very difficult for me to get into a game that doesn’t have one of my favorite aspects of gaming. Yet, I enjoy games like Feer, a game I blogged about previously, and offered tremendous praise to. So… Maybe it wouldn’t matter after all?

Looking at Fortnite’s positives, though, it’s tremendously popular for a reason. It has loads and loads of ever-changing challenges to complete, it has lots of unlockables and game mechanics, and it even has world events that chane aspects of the game. All this sounds great. It sounds like it would really hook me, and enable me to get past the things it doesn’t have. All that on top of an ability to play the game with my friends would admittedly be pretty awesome.

This is where it gets unique, though. For me, for us blind gamers, that’s where the consideration ends. Not only can we not play Fortnite, but we don’t have a Fortnite equivalent that we can play either. So this wonderment I feel, this question of whether I would get into it if I could play it or not, will never have an answer, or rather, won’t have one until some very drastic things happen in the world of accessible gaming. Minecraft is another case like this, where I’m not sure if I’d end up liking it or not.

Again, there isn’t really a message here, save for the constant push to further the cause of accessibility. I was just stricken by how intriguing our position as gamers is sometimes. Our gaming palates aren’t even fully formed, as blind accessibility hasn’t broken into some genres just yet. It’s an interesting thought, and that’s really the only point I had. I hope all this has interested you in some way as well, and I thank you for reading my ramblings. As always, continue to be awesome!