Echoes from Levia: Echoes From my Mind

There is a game out there for IOS called Echoes From Levia: Soulbound. It is an audio game, made so it can be played by the totally blind. I have recently completed this game, and I have what may be some unique impressions of it that I wish to discuss. Impressions that are, at least, very different from those of my friends. Let’s get into it.

Firstly, I’m going to be completely, perhaps brutally honest. There is a lot wrong with Echoes from Levia: Soulbound. The game controls extremely poorly, feeling unresponsive most of the time, and slow and clunky the rest of the time. There isn’t a moment in the game where this isn’t plain. Movement is slow, and combat which should be, honestly, extremely simple, may not work out that way because of the game’s tendency to fail to recognize your input. Since you can only take a few hits, this just makes the game all the more frustrating.

On top of that, the voice acting is almost universally bad. When it isn’t, when a voice actor demonstrates their talent, they are hampered by poor dialog writing and direction. The editing, too, is a problem, as weird decisions made during editing completely take away any emersion. If several characters are supposed to speak at the same time, say while raising a toast and saying “Cheers,” they are never allowed to do so. Instead, each individual voice plays about a third of a second apart, making the whole thing sound like a seriously coordinated sitcom bit. It is, well, it’s cringeworthy.

It seems clear that Echoes from Levia: Soulbound was inspired by A Blind Legend, which is a game that plays similarly, but does literally everything better. Movement is not clunky, combat while still simplistic is actually fun and responsive, and the story, writing, and voice acting are all decent, though still not great. A Blind Legend is a good audio game that, given its 4 star rating on IOS, I would say did pretty well, and it seems Echoes from Levia is attempting to capitalize on its success.

Now here’s where things get interesting. I am aware that I have been quite harsh with Echoes of Levia, and I think that, given its pricetag, it’s worthy of that criticism. After all, even Frequency Missing is a better game, with better gameplay and voice acting, and it’s free. However, I still believe Echoes from Levia should be acknowledged for its attempt to iterate on games of this type. Yes, it is a bad game, but it did try some new things as well. For instance, when you’re walking through a city in Echoes from Levia, you’ll come across little cut scenes that feature random townspeople discussing events, or in some cases being a part of them on the side. These aren’t side quests or anything, just additional plot development which, I’m pretty sure, you can miss if you choose not to approach them. A Blind Legend, meanwhile, stays very linear and focused on the task at hand. It works well enough for that story, but there are some areas where A Blind Legend could have benefited from a side jaunt or 2. A Blind Legend never really asks you to explore, Echoes does try to do that.

Second, Echoes from Levia contains some pretty neat puzzle segments, requiring you to move carefully with very little room for error in order to find the solution. These are the game’s high point in my opinion, and again A Blind Legend’s focus on story progression and combat means these don’t really exist as much. It’s another touch that makes Echoes stand out, and deserves at least some acknowledgement.

So Echoes critics, I hear you. I am ultimately one of you. However, iteration doesn’t happen without developers willing to take risks and try new things, and I think Echoes at least achieves that. If the good things about Echoes can be applied to a game that plays, and is written as good as or better than A Blind Legend, we’ll have a fantastic product on our hands. I hope you found something to take away from this blog, and as always, I thank you for reading. 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!

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.

GDC for All to See!

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to report that the GDC panel I was a part of, entitled “Beyond Graphics: Reaching the Visually Impaired Gamer,” is now live and available for the world to see. I’m not talking just the slide show, no no, this is the full video of the entire panel. Watch me bring the message of blind gaming to the masses. Listen to the interesting questions we received once the talking was done. Listen as one of my co-panelists murders a small creature! It all happens in this panel, and now you can check it out.

Another Nod for all us blind gamers out there!

Ladies and gents, a new article has been written by a gentlemen named Richard Moss, (@MossRC for all those who will surely desire to shower him with adoration following this post), regarding gaming as a blind person, both accessible games and audio games. Basically every aspect of gaming and being blind. This article was written for Polygon, a mainstream media outlet, and let me tell you, it’s awesome! I urge you with all the power my urger can muster to check it out. Like it, comment on it, spread it around! It features both Liam Erven and myself, as well as several others who have made contributions to the blind gaming community. And now, a link.
http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/8/6/4550490/blind-games-rock-vibe
Again, spread that around everywhere you can. We’ve gotta make sure as many people as possible see it. Enjoy!