The Accessible Future of Emulation

For the longest time, I have believed that the emulation of games is a bad, bad thing. If you emulate a game, you are doing wrong. You are stealing directly from the mouths of the hungry children of the folks who created it. But what if, just what if, a game could achieve near full blind accessibility through the use of an emulator? What if a game that presents the blind with some serious difficulties in its original form, a game to which no accessibility features are ever expected to be added, is emulated through a particular bit of software that is built with blind accessibility in mind, and thus adds some of those missing features to the game? That is the question we are discussing today, and boy oh boy is it an interesting one.

First, let’s talk about the software in question. After all, you, dear reader, might not know about it. The emulator we’re speaking about, for yes it is in fact real, is called Retroarch. This emulator has been modified to be self-voicing so the blind can interact with its menus, but the real big deal is its ability to read game text. And we’re not talking about just OCR here. I mean, we are talking about OCR, but OCR controlled by AI, as I understand it, which is smart enough to avoid giving you a dump of the entire screen, and instead just gives you what you need when you need it. This doesn’t magically solve every accessibility issue for every game, but it is staggeringly huge nonetheless, and there are certainly games out there that could be made entirely accessible using this kind of technology. When I listened to their video demonstration, which shows a player playing Dessidia Final Fantasy with these features active, I was blown away! I had played this game, even managed to complete it before, but that came with the understanding that I would be skipping a bunch of story text. I mean a bunch! That didn’t happen here, as all the text the player encountered was spoken clearly to them. I couldn’t help it. The part of me that just loves video games, and loves being a gamer, and loves playing whatever games I can, along with the part of me that appreciates effective new technology, just fell in love with this. I wanted the question we are here to discuss not to exist, and I wanted to not feel the guilt I was feeling, because I wanted to dive deeply into the sea of old games made new to the blind by accessibility. But the question is the reason we’re here, so let’s get to that.

I knew the best approach here was the simplest one. Wanna know how game devs feel about emulation? Ask the game devs. So I tweeted my question, asking if emulation would be OK if doing so made a game more accessible. I only got 1 response, but it’s one that may surprise you. It comes from former game developer Drew Thaler, and here is what he had to say. “Unofficially every individual game developer I know loves emulation. It’s great for history, great for speed runs and other enthusiasts, keeps franchises alive, etc. If it delivers accessibility too, awesome! Nobody’s making money off consoles that are old enough to be emulated.”

That wasn’t the response I expected, but boy was it a welcome one. It was, in fact, just what I needed. I have been so trained to view emulation as negative that, even in spite of the reaction my gamer and tech brains had, I was ready to simply never use this software. Now I see that it’s not only OK, but developers of these older games may actually even appreciate it. After all, many developers make games because, get this, they want people to play them. All that said, I do still believe that there need to be some considerations. The focus of our fight for game accessibility should still remain on working with developers to make future games accessible, and to promote that idea, I am still against emulating newer games. Developers need to know that we want to work with them, not just find a workaround. And if we do need to find a workaround for some games, it shouldn’t be this one. If a game is past its prime, though, if it is absolutely no longer being supported, and never had blind accessibility features to begin with, and isn’t making the developer money anymore, well then I no longer see harm in bringing the experience to the totally blind in an even better way with the accessibility features of Retroarch. So my gamer brain and my tech brain can now, officially, rejoice and say “Alright! Bring it on, Retroarch! I am ready to play!!”

Final Fantasy X: Journey toward a Community

When I started my Final Fantasy X Playthrough, I really only had one goal in mind. That goal was to do what I usually do, and use the game to demonstrate what the blind are willing to go through to game, and what made the game playable in the first place. That was its only intent. What I didn’t expect, though, is what happened, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Even as I write this, I am still mulling over my feelings now that it has concluded, and that is a good thing in a lot of ways. I will now attempt to put this all down as best I can. Here’s hoping I do a decent job.

The things I began playing the game to do actually happened almost right away. I wanted to demonstrate the patience required to play the game blind, so I did by allowing myself to wander until I found my next objective, or the next item I needed, in the beginning. I wanted to demonstrate the bits that aren’t so accessible, and I did that by talking about the sphere grid, and the cloisters of trials. I showed the world how the combat system was very accessible, since every attack from every monster sounded different, and combat menus could be memorized to determine whose turn it currently was. After all this, the accessibility demonstration portion was basically over, aside from questions that came from newcomers now and again. I had effectively done the job I set out to do with this game. As it happened, though, I wasn’t done just yet.

I have had a long history with Final Fantasy X. I have, in fact, beaten the game twice before, utilizing help from the sighted only in the parts where it is absolutely required to proceed. So, as I was demonstrating all these things to my viewers, I was drawn to play it again. I was committed to sticking it out, and at first, content to just beat the main game, the same thing I had done before, on stream. I figured it’d be a pretty neat idea. But then, something I didn’t expect started to happen.

Gradually, as the playthrough went on, its identity began to change. Except for those previously-mentioned newcomers, I didn’t have to explain anything anymore. My viewers made 3 things very clear to me. They got it, they respected it, and they wanted to help. Before I knew it, people were pointing me in the right direction for our next objective, or shouting for me to stop because I had just walked past that save point and they didn’t want me to miss it. At first, while I appreciated these gestures, it didn’t quite hit me what was happening. I admit I took them as temporary kindnesses, and didn’t intend to ask for or expect more help than what I absolutely needed help with.

The thing is, the level of connection people had to the playthrough, and the level of assistance they offered, kept increasing. It started to click with me that this was something special, and so I eventually put up the idea of doing all the endgame content I had never been able to do on my own so long as the viewership was willing to continue to help me in the ways that they had. Not only did they agree, they agreed immediately. They were completely into the idea, and wanted to help see it through. And that, if you ask me, is when the real journey began.

The Final Fantasy X playthrough had become a collaborative event. It had morphed from being a thing I was doing to make a point or 2, into a thing that all of us were doing together. Now, people weren’t just telling me where that save point was, or which way I should start walking to get into a new area. Now they were telling me how many dark matter I had, where I could find that monster in the monster arena, and how I as a blind person could play the necessary mini game required to get a few ultimate weapons. To continue to put some perspective on the level of caring and collaboration that existed here, one viewer had started trying to think of a way to build a servo mechanism that would attach to a webcam, and automatically press the X button when lightning flashed in the Thunder Planes, just because he wanted me to be able to complete an in-game challenge related to an ultimate weapon. Those who were knowledgeable about Final Fantasy X were giving me tips on how to farm things easier, and suggestions about ways to fight monsters, and start building my stats for the endgame. If a suggestion created any kind of accessibility trouble for me, we discussed it, and I think a lot of enlightenment came out of those talks.

This attitude toward the playthrough continued, and grew with my audience. Every now and then, someone new would take interest, and more often than not, become a part of the community that was being built around this. It was incredible. The viewers were getting eager just as I was getting eager. Everyone wanted to reach those end game bosses, Nemysis and Penance. That was the goal now, you see. Not just to beat the game, but to beat all its toughest bosses as well.

And so we pushed on. We farmed things, we chatted as I did some grinding for levels, we tested ourselves against other difficult monsters and optional bosses like the Dark Aeons. There were highs and there were lows. Every time another really difficult opponent was defeated, we all cheered and celebrated. But when we found out that, in order to even successfully hit Dark Yojimbo, we needed to increase the party’s luck stat, something I had been basically ignoring up to that point, we groaned a little. No matter what, though, we pushed on.

And so it was this continued until January 21 of 2019. That was the day when both Penance, the biggest toughest boss of the game, was defeated. We then wrapped up the main story, and enjoyed the end together. All the while, the collaboration never stopped. I was running short on time, so one of my viewers, the same one with the crazy webcam idea, hopped into a convenient PS4 shareplay, and walked me to the final confrontation with Sin, the final story boss. I then took control back to finish the job.

I am moved by what this has become. As I said, I’ve beaten the main story of the game before, but never has it meant so much to me as it did this time. As one particular viewer stated, this was the very definition of an odyssey. It was an adventure that all of us participated in, and finished together. Even those who couldn’t help directly, who showed up to check progress or to watch for a while, were part of this event. Furthermore, this event has spawned future plans as well. Now that I truly know the insane support system I have behind me, I’ve decided to dedicate part of my channel to a series I’m calling Let’s play Together, where we attempt to do more collaborations like this. Next up will be the highly-acclaimed JRPG Persona 5, which we have technically already begun. I cannot wait to see what becomes of that playthrough.

I know I am lucky to have found those I have. People who care about me and my content, and who embrace what I’m trying to do. In their way, they are helping me do it. They are amazing, and I couldn’t ask for a better group. I said at the end of the playthrough that, as much as they’ve given me, I hope I have given them something too, whether that’s just entertainment, or enlightenment some of them may not have had before about blind gamers. Maybe, just maybe, seeing this level of caring and collaboration will inspire someone in a way I cannot predict. For now, this event stands as something I will always remember, and a true foundation of my Twitch community.

It’s OK to be Wrong: The Resident Evil 7 Revelation

“Nah, Resident Evil 7 isn’t playable at all by the blind,” I proclaimed to many people. “It’s missing all the features that made Resident Evil 6 playable, like the map trick we use. Plus the layout requires you to do a lot of backtracking, and also I tried the demo… Yeah, it’s not gonna work.” I’ve been saying this for a while now, as my discussions of Resident Evil 6 often lead to talk of Resident Evil 7. Well, it turns out, I was completely and totally wrong. Blind people have apparently been completing the game right under my giant nose, utterly ignoring the fact that I had dismissed it entirely. But how could this be? Am I not supposed to be knowledgeable about these things? Well, let’s discuss.

Here’s the first fun fact. People, as it turns out, are wrong all the time. Experts are wrong at least some of the time. It happens. There are many contributing factors to this. In the case of Resident Evil 7, I believe my problem was that I was holding it up to what Resident Evil 6 was, which is really quite a different game, rather than looking at it in a new light. I was concerned that I couldn’t navigate as easily, yet after following the examples I heard about and trying to play the game again, I discovered that with a little more patience, I could get to where I was going. I was concerned about the fact that ammunition was considerably less in RE7 than in RE6. I’m not far enough in the game that I can confirm how much of a problem this is, but facing facts, people have obviously gotten around this issue. These things are understandably difficult to argue when the facts are in front of you.

But here, folks, is the second fun fact. All of this, all of it, is OK. It’s OK that I was wrong, it’s OK for anyone to be wrong. It’s almost great, even. It shows the perseverance and determination of the blind gaming community that they kept trying, and found a way. It shows the depth of what accessibility means, and how things can be different even for those with the same disability. It stresses the importance of options when creating accessibility features, or in my opinion, any features.

We should, as a community, continue to feed each other what information we can about the games we play. We need to keep talking about them, teaching each other how we were successful at this or that game, and accepting as well that we, even amongst ourselves, are different. We all have different strengths and different skill levels, but so do the members of any other gaming community. To be clear, I’m not saying these things aren’t happening, just that they should continue. I just think an example like this brings their importance to the forefront. It’s a big world out there, and there are a lot of games in it. Let’s keep trying, keep playing, and keep working to make the ones we can’t play more accessible for everyone. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Listen to my Story: How I Came to Play and Love Final Fantasy X

When I first heard the glorious music, sound effects, and yes, voice acting of Final Fantasy X, it was on my brother’s Playstation 2, which was most definitely his and not ours and we were not to even think about touching it without his permission. Anyway, I heard him begin the game, and at first was, believe it or not, unimpressed. The voice acting was cool, sure, but I knew from the second that first full motion video played that the game had to be ridiculously short. It just had to be. That was always the tradeoff with games that used FMV, right?

Obviously, I was very, very wrong. I was used to the way things used to be, and Final Fantasy X, though not a launch title, was fairly early in the PS2 era. I quickly learned that the game was actually quite long indeed, and get this, it had a bunch of those little FMV’s too! Now I was officially impressed, but I still kind of dismissed it. After all, I had never been able to play a full RPG before, so why should I be able to now? Even with voice acting, it just wouldn’t be enough, would it?

I remember that I actually tried the demo first. Back in the days of demo discs, I used to receive one per month, and would always mess around with them. I had success with the demo, but even then, I thought it was just a one off. The demo is fairly short, and mostly just demonstrates combat with very little to worry about otherwise. I wasn’t quite there yet.

It was actually my brother, the very person who got me into video games in the first place, who suggested that I try Final Fantasy X. “You should start your own game!” he said one day after a particularly difficult battle. I scoffed at the idea, but by this point in my life I had already done some pretty cool stuff in games, so I figured I’d at least try. And so, one fine morning, I started playing Final Fantasy X, and did not stop for many, many hours. Turns out it was pretty playable after all.

Make no mistake. Final Fantasy X requires a lot of patience if you’re blind. In the first many, many hour session I played, I didn’t get as far as a sighted person might in the same amount of hours. The facts are that the game isn’t designed with us in mind, so we have to take some things into account. We still can’t actually see where we’re going, so we have to be willing to wander a bit until we can find our destination. We also can’t see items or people in the world, so it behooves us to basically mash the X button as we wander in order to find people or items and interact with them. It’s kind of a silly system, but ultimately it works.

The good news for us is that there is no jumping of any sort. This means that there is never a platform we need to jump to, and thus we know that, wherever our destination is, it’s on the ground we’re standing on. It’s hard to explain why this is important, but consider this. If the option to jump even exists, it’s reasonable to expect that you have to use it in some circumstances. If, like us, you cannot see the platform you must jump to in order to proceed, how would you know when to jump? Even if you just jumped around the whole time, you may not even realize you’re on a new level than you were before, and may keep jumping right off of it. In short, with games that aren’t designed to be played by the blind, the less jumping the better.

Here’s another piece of good news. Combat menus in Final Fantasy X don’t wrap. This means they can be memorized, and even used to determine whose turn it currently is. For example, when the game begins, Tiad the main character only has 2 options in his combat menu: attack and item. Aurin, however, has 3 options, because he possesses a magical ability called armor break. Using this small difference, we can tell if it’s Tidas’s turn, or Aurin’s. The combat menus of all characters will grow as they level up and gain new abilities, but that just means we need to pay attention to when our party members learn new tricks. It’s pretty awesome, and enables us to use essentially the same strategies anyone else would in combat.

Speaking of leveling, though, that’s one of the problem areas of Final Fantasy X. Yes, the game can be played if you’re blind, but with 2 exceptions. One is the leveling system called the sphere grid, and the other is certain sections of the game called the cloisters of trials, which are unskippable and in some cases quite complex.

Back to leveling, though. The way the sphere grid works seems simple enough. As you fight, you gain sphere levels, which enable you to move an equal number of squares on the sphere grid. You also earn spheres, which are used to unlock sphere grid nodes, which ar what actually increase your stats. You might be thinking, “well, can’t you just muddle your way through it and level up a bunch of stuff?” And sadly, the answer is no. You see, as long as you have the sphere levels for it, you are not limited in movement. What I mean by this is that you’re just as able to move backwards as forward, and if you cross certain paths, you will end up in the abilities of your other party members. This latter can be useful in the late game, but is certainly not ideal when you’re just starting out. And, because the sphere grid is full of complex pathways, we couldn’t reliably know which way we’re going, which nodes we’re heading to, or whether we’re just going backwards.

The cloisters are trouble for a different reason. They are all puzzles involving the removal of certain spheres, (notice a theme?) from one spot, and placing them in the correct other spot. We can certainly remove and slot these spheres, but remember we don’t actually have a reference for where we’re going. We could remove a sphere, wander around for a bit, find an empty sphere slot and slap it in, only to then realize we placed it right back in the slot we took it from. And that’s only one problem. We also have no idea which sphere we removed, as there are several different types, some unique to the particular cloister you’re in. Think I’m done? Nope. You also sometimes have to push pedestals into very specific locations, or away from locations they’re blocking, and so on. It’s kind of a nightmare for a blind person.

Aside from that, though, the game is quite playable. We are even helped out by the roads in the game, which are essentially straight in most cases. Crazy, right? There’s another unplayable bit called Blitzball, but it is fortunately not necessary to succeed at Blitzball to complete the game. It is necessary to play it once, but you don’t actually have to win. Certainly I would like to be able to play Blitzball, but part of playing games like this, games that nobody expected a blind person to play in the first place, is acceptance of an inability to do certain things in those games. Always, always try hard, but be ready to accept that some things just might not work.

I’m sure there are some little things I forgot. The playability of that game is kind of like the playability of Diablo 3. So many little things combine to allow us to play it as much as we can. I am proud to say I have beaten the game, and I have my brother to thank once again for steering me toward something great. The funny thing about that particular incident, though, is that he never did that before or since. Aside from that and the practical joke that got me started, he has never tried to get me to try something. It sort of makes me wonder what inspired him that time. In any case, I hope this has enlightened some of you fine folks. I am of course willing to answer any questions I can, so please discuss and ask and share. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Madden NFL 18: I’m Not a Football Guy

Well, folks, the subtitle says it all. I am not a Football guy. I’m not even really a sports guy except for Baseball, but hey, there’s already a blog about that. Today, though, we’re talking about the Madden franchise, specifically Madden 18 as I have not yet tried 19. There’s a lot to say, so let’s talk!

Electronic Arts did a great thing when they chose to allow Karen Stevens to work on accessibility for them. I’m not saying that just to get on her good side, it’s completely true. Not only does she do good work, but many, many other developers won’t even take the steps that EA has. For all the criticism EA gets, this is one thing they did absolutely right, and something they deserve notice for. Good on ya, EA.

Madden 18 introduced a few accessibility features that make it easier for the blind to play. These features are perhaps small to some, but they’re extremely helpful. Furthermore, these features were patched in. It’s worth pointing out that adding accessibility features becomes way more difficult and way more costly after the game has already been completed. This means that what EA did here was even more awesome. Maybe there were only a few additions, but this was still a huge step in the right direction for accessibility.

On the surface, what the additions for the blind amount to are differently-used controller rumbles which give us queues we need in order to play. Whether or not the play we’re executing is a passing or a running play is indicated by a long or short rumble respectively. When a receiver is open and the ball is thrown is indicated by a rumble as well. And the biggest one of all, the kick meter rumbles to indicate when it begins moving, then again for power, then for accuracy. It’s all pretty awesome.

But more than the features themselves, Karen Stevens took the time to write a complete accessibility guide for the game, which includes written descriptions of all menu layouts, explanations of how best to use the features that were added, and even a list of the quicktime events in the game’s Longshot story mode. It’s an extremely comprehensive guide, and is just as important a part of what was done as anything else. This guide, as well as guides for other EA games which have implemented accessibility features, can be found at www.ea.com/able

I think, though, that the most important thing to talk about here is how this game made me feel. This is actually the reason I mentioned not being a Football guy. This is the intangible stuff. Even this blog will likely not do it justice, but hey, I’m gonna try anyway.

There is a lot I don’t understand about Football. I don’t actually know what most of the play names mean. I don’t know much of the terminology. I would fail a quiz on Football basics. All these things are true. Nevertheless, the first time I took the ball and began to run, spun past 1 defender, then another, and zoomed into the end zone for a touchdown, I felt great. I felt like I had just done something awesome. Something that, before, I would have struggled mightily to do. That’s what accessibility can do for people, and that’s what Madden did for me.

It didn’t matter that I don’t typically play Football games, or watch Football, or follow Football. That wasn’t the point. I was playing a game which had been adapted to help those of us who are blind, and doing well at it. What I was feeling is the reason accessibility should be the norm, because it taught me that you don’t have to be a Football guy to experience that touchdown thrill.

I got that same feeling playing through the game’s well-crafted, well-acted story mode. I felt like I was the star of a really quite good sports movie. It wasn’t perfect, since I still didn’t really know what dialog choices I was making, but there were still plenty of moments when I resonated with the characters, who are portrayed as people, not generic Football robots. I felt good as the protagonist stole the show during his high school years, and I felt sad for him as he struggled to maintain friendships. This isn’t necessarily a review, though I guess I’ve made it clear that I think it’s pretty great. Again, though, we come back to accessibility. Remember, this story mode is riddled with quicktime events. It is thanks only to that accessibility guide I mentioned that I was able to enjoy this as well. An entire section of the game was opened to the blind just because someone took the time to write about it. Pretty awesome, if you ask me.

As I write this, I’m actually playing through the Madden 18 story a second time, making different choices and enjoying how the story unfolds all over again. I may never get the best ending, but I may indeed get a different one this time, which will be awesome. It’s just a wonderful thing to be able to do this in the first place. Ultimately I feel like what I’m saying is that Madden 18 is a great example of how a few accessibility additions can make a giant impact on our appreciation of a game. I hope that comes across, as jumbled as this blog seems to me. Now then, I’ve gotta go get drafted, hopefully a bit earlier than last time. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!