Telltale Games: Making Great Stories Frustrating

Greetings again my most humble and awesome readers. Today I want to talk about the video game developer known as Telltale games. They are known for their episodic story-based titles, which are usually attached to a license of some kind. Back to the Future, Batman, The Walking Dead, and so on. These games are played in the point and click style, and for that reason are not particularly accessible. But you see, myself and some folks like me really love story in games, which is something I’ve covered in blogs before. We love story so much that we will slog through these games regardless. Yeah, I know, we’re crazy. Let’s discuss that.

There are plenty of problems playing Telltale’s games. The most obvious is finding everything we’re supposed to click on and look at and interact with. This is very, very difficult. You can walk freely most times, but you can also move a cursor to click on things as well. So how do we get past this hurtle? Patience. Lots and lots of patience. I often play these games by frantically moving the cursor around with the right thumbstick and mashing the X button on PS4, or A button on Xbox. If I am successful, the character then autowalks to that location and interacts. This is interestingly the feature that makes me believe Telltale games could easily be made blind accessible. Regardless, we are helped slightly by the fact that, in the more recent games, you can only click on most things once. This at least means we don’t have to worry about repeatedly finding the same things over and over, though it’s still a tedious process.

Another problem, though, and some may consider this a more important problem, is dialog. Telltale’s games are heavily influenced by your dialog choices. While we can press buttons to make those choices, we have no actual idea which choice we’re making in advance. This is intensely frustrating, because as the story progresses, we just like anybody else, develop ideas of how we’d like to play the characters, but we cannot really execute those ideas. We must simply live with the choices we are not aware we’re making. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Third, we’ve got quicktime events! Certain moments in the story might require you to press the correct button at the right time to perform some important action. How do we get past these, you might ask? We guess! That’s right, we use trial and error to figure out every button, all the timing, and so on. Eventually, we can usually get through these that way, but it’s definitely not ideal. Dying over and over while just trying to pass a single portion of a game isn’t particularly fun either.

The point I’ve been trying to make with all this is that, as unfun as this can be, I’ve done it anyway. I have accepted that I won’t know which dialog choices I’m making, and that quicktime events are going to take forever. I understand that I’ll need lots of patience to find all the things in each room that I’ll need. Yet, I’ve done it anyway.I played both seasons of Telltale’s Batman like this, occasionally asking for sighted help with certain very specific parts of the game. I also played Tales from the Borderlands, which is a fun and hilarious game, like this as well. I did it because I still enjoy the stories these games tell, and I guess I don’t mind enjoying the story for the story, no matter how much longer that takes me than it would anyone else.

The other point, though, is that these games could easily be made accessible. I won’t go into detail on that here, as I’ve already written a blog which discusses the accessibility of point and click games, but it could be done. Unfortunatley, Telltale themselves have shown a lack of interest in accessibility, not just for the blind but for other types of disability as well. This is unfortunate, as they are capable of producing such great content, but for now it is what it is. It is my hope that one day, their minds change, and we all can enjoy the tales they tell equally. As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

A Love Letter to Choice of Games and Hosted Games

Dear Choice of Games and Hosted Games,
This is a love letter to you from a blind gamer, me. I know you get a lot of these. I know your mailboxes must be full of candy hearts and expensive chocolates, but I couldn’t stop myself from writing one of my own. You see, I unabashedly love you. I love your words. I love your happy moments, and your sad ones. I love the choices you offer, and I love their consequences. When there is a long stretch between new games, I ache. I weep. But then, when that email finally reaches my inbox, when I learn that a new release has finally arrived, my heart soars. I stretch my arms toward the heavens, and I smile, for you have, at last, returned.

It is impossible for me to truly convey what you give to blind gamers like myself. It is a sentiment that I know has been echoed by others, but it is one that I wish every single Choice of Games and Hosted Games author could hear. Your engine, the way it essentially presents itself as web pages, is completely, 100% accessible to us. That outward simplicity which hides so much inner complexity is completely and totally playable by us, and I… We couldn’t be happier.

We live in a world filled with story-driven content that we cannot take part in. So many narrative-based video games are still completely inaccessible to us. We could watch playthroughs of these games, but then we aren’t the ones making the choices. It isn’t our personal experience. Not so with you. You offer us worlds even we can explore. You offer us a moldable, shapeable character that we get to create, and a story in that character’s life that, for a little while, we get to live and experience. There are hundreds of characters to meet, foes to join and defeat, and worlds to either save or destroy, all thanks to the choices we make, and the character personality we crafted.

I just wish I could express to you how big a deal that is. I’ve been a gamer my entire life, enjoying the games I can play, and struggling with those I wanted to, but ultimately couldn’t. I’ve also been a reader, and a lover of stories of all kinds. To have your utterly immense and completely accessible library of stories and experiences literally right at my fingertips is mind-boggling and amazing in a way that I cannot properly convey to you. You are awesome!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why now? We’ve been around for years. Where is this letter coming from?” Very true. This has honestly been building for a long time. With tremendous titles like Zombie Exidus, Hero’s Rise, and perhaps the most technically impressive, Tin Star, my desire to write something like this has steadily increased. The final straw, though, was one of your newest games, Choice of Magics. I have now played through this particular story in its entirety 3 times, and I am considering a fourth. Each time, I’ve gotten an ending that was completely different from the ones before it, but it’s about more than just the ending. The ways in which the story can change, even as it’s going on, are so drastic. There are things that can happen that I didn’t believe until they did. It’s an incredible experience, and up there with your best. It is what made me decide it was time to write this. You should be proud of it, as should its author.

Now I’ll admit that I’m also a lover of audio drama, both for good audio design and great perfomances. For that reason, there’s a part of me that wishes your games had the backing of music, sound effects, and voice acting. I think experiences like that could be incredible, yet I also understand why that’s not a part of your design. To have a fully realized video game version of the adventures you guys create, though, (and a fully accessible one at that), would draw in others who haven’t checked you out for whatever reason, and I guarantee they would stay. Here’s why.

It goes so far beyond accessibility with you guys. Both Choice of Games and Hosted Games stand as proof that it is possible to write games in which your decisions matter, something that it seems most developers struggle with. I don’t know if it’s because of publishing deadlines, or the unwillingness to put in the work, but to reach an ending of a choice-heavy game only to discover it’s basically the same as the last ending you got is never fun, and with you guys that almost never happens. If someone directly transferred some of the amazing works I’ve mentioned here into video games, they would be spectacular.

Please understand that this is basically an idle fantasy. As successful as I think they’d be, I ultimately would not seek to change your vision. Personally, though, I wish EVERYONE appreciated you guys as much as I do. I know you get tons of praise as it is, and I am delighted at your success, but I wish everyone who hasn’t checked you out could tear their eyes away from those graphical masterpieces for long enough to check out the unrivaled stories you have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some of those graphical masterpieces are truly great games, and I wish I could play in them too. Still, you guys deserve to be held high for what you do, and that is my goal with this letter. I’m putting you on a pedestal whether you like it or not.

Aside from being a love letter, this is also a thank you. Thank you to the Choice of Games team for having this vision, and thank you for crafting the choice script engine. Thank you to the authors who spend countless hours creating these masterpieces, and putting in the work to keep all those variables in line. I don’t know how I would manage to do what you guys do. Thanks even to the other Choice of Games readers and Hosted Games, who have given them the attention and success they deserve. Thank you all.

Sincerely,
Brandon Cole
Your not-so-secret admirer

For those who haven’t, seriously, check out their stuff on IOS, or even play it on their web site if you like. I don’t think you’ll regret it. And as always, thanks for reading. Please comment, leave feedback, and conversate. Continue to be awesome!

MLB: Road Away from the Show

Regarded as perhaps the best baseball simulation ever created, MLB the Show is held up high every year for its continued improvements on what is already a fantastic product. That is, unless you’re a blind gamer. If you are, you may think just about the opposite these days. The reason I want to discuss MLB: The Show, though, is because it’s an interesting case. The games in the franchise used to be very, very accessible, but seemingly year over year, their accessibility for blind gamers has steadily decreased. Let’s discuss.

Basically, what it ultimately comes down to is that MLB: The Show has perfectly simulated itself right out of blind accessibility. It’s very, very difficult to fault the game for becoming less accessible over the years, because the major reason for that is that it has become more realistic. The sounds of an incoming pitch, formerly a tremendous help, are now much quieter, because they would be in real life. There are new mechanics for bat positioning to get the perfect swing, and with those come insane amounts of math the game does when you swing the bat to determine just how the ball is hit and what happens as a result. This of course means that you should try to use these precise swinging mechanics, which of course means you must know exactly how the ball is coming at you… I think you get the idea.

Certain other features, like the guess pitch feature, have been toned down, at least where audio is concerned. The indication we had guessed correctly used to be much more apparent than it has recently become. Pitch speed, again realistically, has become a lot more variable. Back in the days of MLB2006, we could just time the speed of just about any pitch and be right most of the time. Now speeds vary drastically depending on pitch and pitcher both, which lead us to use the guess pitch feature and always guess fastball. This way if you were right, you would know to swing quickly. Now even that workaround works less often.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There are still helpful features. I admit the last MLB the show game I played was MLB2016, but I believe the Autofielding feature is still there. The absence of this feature would make the game all but unplayable without major accessibility changes. Basically this meant that if the ball was hit, your players would automatically go chasing after it and make the catch if they could. This didn’t function as an automatic win, because player stats could affect their success, but it is a wonderful help to the blind. The commentary of MLB The Show, as well, has always been spectacular.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I get it. I understand completely that MLB: The Show continues to be a wonderful franchise year after year, with every game garnering ridiculous amounts of critical success for its realism and attention to detail. The loss of the things that made the game playable make sense, as they were never specifically features designed for us. I will also say that I sincerely appreciate the fact that the MLB team has worked hard on accessibility for other types of disabilities. It is my understanding that people with motor impairments can play MLB: The Show with just 1 button. That is a wonderful, awesome thing, for which they deserve the praise they’ve received.

Still, I can’t help but wish I could get back into playing MLB: The Show again. I still love the sport of Baseball. I would love to pick up the latest edition and discover that its playability had actually increased. Perhaps someday, as I continue to pursue the dream of helping to make games accessible to the blind, I will be able to convince our friends at Sony San Diego to give it a shot. If that ever happens, I’ll gladly take a brand new ride on the road to the Show.

Thanks for reading. As always, your feedback and support are appreciated. I’m not just writing these things for myself. Keep smiling, and continue to be awesome!

Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

Anyone who is a gamer knows how much video games have changed over the years, and not just the games themselves, but the perception of them. This applies to the blind as well, as our perception of game accessibility, what is playable and what isn’t, has also changed. I’d just like to take a moment to reflect and discuss those differences with you now. Let’s see what you think.

Accessibility in video games has become, as the years have gone on, both more complicated, and yet more simple as well. More complicated because the complexity of games is much, much greater than it used to be, and the implementation of accessibility features would involve the writing and/or rewriting of a whole lot more code. At the same time, though, it has become more simplistic because the possibilities of what can be implemented have expanded. Game companies have drastically increased in size, and games are now developed by teams that can go from small groups to well over a hundred people.

And that’s not all. The fact is, accessibility in retro games simply wasn’t a thing that was considered. Not just for blindness, but for anyone. If there was a game you couldn’t play, that was the end of it. There were no patches or fixes you could hope for. The release of a game was the final product, and that was that.

It’s interesting to think back on how all of these things have changed. In the case of blindness, for instance, we knew to accept that there were things we could play, and things we couldn’t, and nothing could be done about the ones we couldn’t. We had dreams, we had frustration, but we also had acceptance. For this reason, some of what I’ve mentioned above didn’t actually matter to us, because that was the way things were.

After all, it’s difficult to argue the fact that the accessibility threshold was a bit lower, at least for the blind. For instance, most very old games didn’t even have a menu. Old consoles didn’t even have an interface of their own. You pop in the cartridge, you turn on your console, you begin playing. If there was a menu option, it was almost always 1 player or 2. That alone eliminates some of the accessibility problems we face today. No menu memorization, no concern over whether a console has text to speech or how good it is, no store to purchase DLC from… It was a simpler time.

Games themselves were more limited in scope back then as well. This is interesting because it meant that a game was usually completely playable by a blind person, or completely not playable. A fighting game, for instance, didn’t even have an in-game move list back then, and although fighters today almost always fall under the playable category, we still don’t have access to those features in most of them. Back in the old days, though, we had just as much access to a fighter as anyone, as a sighted person couldn’t look things up easily either.

There is also an interesting difference in what we had to learn in order to play a game versus what we have to learn now. In older games, there weren’t as many sound effects used. This was good in that it took us a shorter time to learn what each sound meant, but it was also bad. Less sound effects meant fewer indicators for events. This was made worse in games that used the same sound for multiple things. Older fighters, for instance, used the same voice audio for all male characters, and only used a different one if there was a female character. We had to use other things, such as the sounds of certain moves, to determine which fighter was actually present.

Now, there is so much sound in games. This, too, is a good and bad thing. More sound means more work learning each individual one and what it means. This usually takes much longer now as there are so many sounds in the game that it is possible not to notice a particularly helpful one right away. For example, it took me some time to realize that, in Kingdom Hearts, Saura’s footsteps change depending on what keyblade he’s wielding, but once I figured that out, it was immensely helpful.

The fact that the footstep sound difference I just mentioned even exists, though, is a great example of why more sound is a good thing. As long as we can figure things out, there is loads of information available via our ears, some of which the sighted community doesn’t even notice. This is why today’s audio designers love us. We tend to catch the little details that exist, even though there are so many of them.

Today’s sound goes beyond sounds themselves, though. These days, with technologies like surround sound and even 3D audio, we get even more information. We can tell where something or someone is based on the positioning of its sound in our headphones or speakers. Most older games played all their sound from a single speaker until around the mid 90’s.

I’m not really trying to make a point with this blog. This struck me as an interesting topic because of how different things were than they are now, and I thought it would be fun for you guys to think about it too as we move forward into a new age of accessibility. Yes, accessibility takes a lot more work these days than it might have if we had accessibility features back then, but it’s still happening. Developers are starting to communicate with the disabled community, and they’re starting to listen. It’s a wonderful, magical time, but the past, the way things were in the NES and SNES days, had a sort of magic all its own as well. I hope all of this made sense, and I hope as well that it got you thinking. As always, feel free to comment, and check out the support heading for ways in which you can, well, support this content. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Resident Evil 6: Surviving Blind

Resident Evil 6 is an interesting beast. It is an example I have used in multiple conversations when discussing the phenomenon I call accidental accessibility. The reason for this is that its accessibility is very clearly so accidental as to almost be hilarious. In fact, in presentations, I have even made jokes about it. Still, the fact that it’s there is awesome, and since this blog exclusively covers awesome things, we’re going to talk about it.

First up, I should mention its menus. While they will require memorization or a menu guide, they do not wrap. Or more accurately, they do wrap, but in the perfect way for a blind person. I equate them to the menus of the Xbox360, which don’t wrap if you’re holding the arrow key up or down and reach the top or bottom, but do wrap if you then release the arrow and press it again. This is the perfect way to do something like this, because it means that we can always locate the top or bottom of a menu, but can still get to an option we know is in the opposite area quickly if we need to. It’s a nice touch.

Second, we need to cover an option in the game’s settings, which causes the game to automatically perform some of the mor simplistic Quicktime events automatically. There are keywords here, those being some, and simplistic. This means that there are a plethora of the game’s quicktime sequences that are not covered here. Those will have to be learned, and in some cases struggled through, but this helps.

Now we get to the game itself. This is where things get crazy. The primary reason Resident Evil 6 is accessible is an interesting design choice the developers made. There is a button you can press to bring up a view of the area map, with an arrow pointing you toward your objective. That in itself doesn’t sound very useful. The thing is, as the arrow points toward your objective, it also snaps the camera in that direction. And as it turns out, movement in this game is dependent on where the camera is pointing. Therefore, if you hold down the map button, and press the thumbstick forward, you will casually saunter toward your objective.

I say that you casually saunter because of the drawback of playing the game this way. This is the part that makes it clear the fact that this works is an accident. You see, visually on screen when you press the map button, the character looks down at their PDA as if the map were located there. While they are doing this, they cannot move quickly. You the player are not meant to hold the button constantly. You are meant to take a look at where the arrow and camera are pointing, and move on. Not us blind gamers, though. Also, there is no actual pathfinding in place for movement like this, so we tend to get stuck on tables and stairs and protruding objects of any kind, but a quick back up, move off to the side, try again tactic usually fixes this.

Now here’s an accidental accessibility feature that’s kind of going to suck if you don’t have access to a handy sighted person. The game is a bit more fast-paced if you are doing co-op with a sighted individual, and here’s why. During the game, whether or not you’re playing Co-op, pressing the circle or B button orients the camera, and thus you, onto your co-op partner. When playing alone, the partner doesn’t do anything without you, so they’ll never be ahead of where you are. But if you bring in a sighted friend to lead the charge, you can hold circle as you would hold the map button, and your character will follow theirs step for step. It’s pretty awesome.

Now as I’m sure you know, Resident Evil is about zombies. Resident Evil 6 in particular, having strayed from the franchise’s survival horror roots, is more about killing them in all sorts of fun ways. The good news here, though, is that shooting zombies in this game is not only possible for the blind, but very, very fun. Firstly, the surround sound in RE6 is good enough that, if you’re wearing a surround sound headset or have a good system, you can orient pretty well on zombies nearby, and take them out. Even if you don’t have a setup like that, though, every character has a move called a quickshot, which is an autoaimed shot at your nearest target. It does take some of your stamina meter to use, but it’s a good way to start when a hoard is coming at you.

Even executing awesome melee attacks is possible. You can use surround sound to orient and then charge your enemies, dealing some quick damage with a melee combo, and you can even execute counter attacks if you’re fast enough. Every enemy has a well-defined attack sound, which includes a setup for their swing at you. Some are quicker than others of course, but they’ve all got one, and if you can press the melee button just as the attack is coming, you’ll execute an awesome counter. If you become amazing at this, it will actually serve you if you try out the game’s mercenaries mode, which adds 5 seconds to your remaining time for every counter you execute.

Now let’s be clear on this. There are still accessibility issues with this game. Some of the quicktime events not covered by that feature I mentioned earlier are quite tough, relying on precisely pressing a button when a meter is full, or a cursor is in the right spot. No items in the game make any kind of ambient noise, so while we might be able to get to our objective, we miss a million things along the way, including ammo which is of course quite valuable. Finally, there are entire sequences in that game that are nearly impossible if you’re blind, such as a moment where you have to shoot churchbells which of course don’t make a noise until you shoot them, or a moment where you have to line up your gun’s laser site with a reflective disc so the beam reflects the correct way. These are obvious problems which you will likely need assistance to pass, but in spite of them I still have to recommend this game. The playable parts of it outweigh the nonplayable ones, it’s fun and fast-paced at times even though you’re stuck walking slow, and at least on the PS4, you can recruit any willing sighted individual that also has a PS4 to help, as they can take control with Shareplay.

Resident Evil 6 remains a prime example of accidental accessibility. It was not loved by critics, it was not loved by classic Resident Evil fans, but I can honestly say that it remains one of my favorite console games today. If you can look past its deviation from traditional Resident Evil, it has a solid story, excellent voice acting and production values, amazing audio design, and yes, we can basically play it. As always, feel free to contact me with any additional questions you might have after reading this, and thanks for being awesome!