Why Being a Blind Gamer is Better

Over the course of my blog, I’ve talked about a lot of things. I’ve talked about the struggles, and the successes of being a blind gamer, I’ve talked about accessibility and how awesome it is sometimes, and where it could improve other times. Through all that, though, I haven’t revealed one of blind gaming’s biggest secrets. I haven’t explained why being a blind gamer is, in fact, better. I haven’t covered the hidden benefits. That’s what I’m going to do for you now. Prepare yourselves, because these are things many people don’t even consider until they witness it, or until we bring it up. Here goes!

Who needs a TV? No, seriously, who needs one? The answer, of course, is you sighted gamers. You’ve gotta have your polished graphics, and your 4K resolution. You’ve gotta have your HDR colors, and oooo those water effects! We blind gamers… We need none of those things. Why, almost every single day I stream those fancy console games I play, our TV is completely off. This is the one that really gets a lot of sighted people. My dad’s reaction was especially memorable when he walked in from work, heard game audio, and saw nothing. His brain didn’t know how to process it, so in a way it was almost like he got mad at me for not having the TV on. Then he actually thought about it, and it got funnier. Why bother turning that pesky TV on? All I need is the sound! This brings me to my next point.

Blind gamers can get cheaper hotel rooms! Of course, you don’t wanna go too cheap here. After all, you really don’t want a bedbug coming home in your bag. But hey, if one of the features of a hotel room you’re looking into is a 2000-inch TV, maybe you could scale back a bit. After all, you’re a blind gamer. Bring your console, bring your headset, plug into power, and you’re golden! Or another possibility if you don’t mind a little latancy, and if the wifi is good enough, and if your console is a PS4, just bring your laptop, and a controller, and use remote play! You can even afford to turn visual quality down a bit to ensure you can connect, because again, who needs graphics? 😊

Every console is practically mobile! Since you don’t need a TV, you can game wherever there’s a power outlet. Pro tip, this world contains many power outlets. If I could fit my PS4 into a carry-on bag, I could Playstation on a plane! Yeah, I know the Switch can do that, but we blind gamers, we awesome, fantastic, amazing blind gamers, are the only ones who can PS4 or even Xbox on a plane. This of course doesn’t take their size into account. You probably couldn’t actually do this, because both consoles are pretty large, and you couldn’t fit much else into a carry-on if you put one in, but in terms of mechanics once you got one onto a plane, you could totally do it. So clearly I’m driving the no TV thing into the ground, but to be fair, it’s pretty awesome. I actually have a friend who simply doesn’t have a TV, but owns and plays both a PS4 and Xbox One. But that’s not the only blind gamer benefit.

We can game long range! Both the PS4 and Xbox One’s controllers have the ability to route all game audio through the controller, and through a headset you connect to that controller. They also have surprisingly long wireless ranges, which most folks have no reason to take advantage of. You know, because they need to see the screen and all. Well, we are not so restricted. We can hook a headset up to our controller, launch a game, and take said controller out to, say, the porch swing. Ah, a nice relaxing gaming session far, far away from the console we’re gaming on. Feeling the sun on your face as you perform a gruesome fatality in mortal kombat, hearing the chirp of the birds as you take down a few more zombies in Resident Evil 6, these are the pleasures we blind gamers can enjoy. Now, I hear you again saying, “But, Nintendo Switch!” Sure, but both PS4 and Xbox One controllers, in my opinion, have superior battery life, and facing facts, the Switch is still a significant power level down from both of them. Still, this does lead to my next point.

Finally, finally, I’m actually going to talk about the Switch in a positive light, in order to demonstrate the fact that we blind gamers are potentially far more forgiving to ports of games. Mortal Kombat 11 is my example here, having just recently played the Switch version. To me, the port is essentially perfect. Yes, I notice the slowdown in transitional areas such as the boss fight, and I notice the bit of chop between gameplay and story cut scenes, but those are the only 2 things I knock off of it. Meanwhile, a review I heard on the Switch version suggested that it was so bad because of the scaled down graphics, especially in the portrayal of the crypt, that you definitely should not ever get the Switch version ever unless you don’t have any other console. Wow, that’s harsh. But guess what? I, and blind gamers everywhere, don’t care much about that, because they didn’t mess with the audio! I will say that I noticed very, very light compression, but we’re not talking MK9 on the vita here. The audio was still crystal clear, and as beautiful and savage as it is on every other console. Sounds like a solid port to me, and one I’ll be glad to take on the go. Ah, being a blind gamer rules!

Before I close, I want to be sure you understand that this post is all in fun. There are certainly benefits to being a blind gamer, and I think I’ve outlined them pretty well, but of course the sighted gamers out there have it pretty good too. Even though I can’t see them, I acknowledge there’s something to be said about game graphics being near photo realistic these days, not to mention the amount of games sighted gamers can play dwarfs those we can. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Continue to be awesome!

The Constant Rise of Our Standards: We are Funny Folk

This blog is not quite a gamebreak, but it is an accessibility break. I was recently struck by an interesting thought, and I wanted to blog about it. We are an interesting people. We do a lot of interesting things. In particular, and the subject of this blog, is the way we raise our standards, but also keep them in check in a way. I’ll explain what I mean.

Have you ever heard the phraise “movie quality graphics” applied to video games? I’ll bet you have, and in fact I’ll bet you’ve heard it several times over several years. You want to know how far back I heard that phraise? I heard it in a description of Mortal Kombat 1. Yes, the original Mortal Kombat, with its revolutionary use of digitized actors and such. Mortal Kombat 1, whose entire arcade imprint was only a hundred megabytes or so. Movie quality graphics.

That’s not actually me ragging on MK1, or the quality of its graphics. My point here is that we never, ever stop raising our standards. If we did, one would have to wonder exactly what movie quality graphics are these days. Follow the trail of graphically praised games, and you’ll see phraises like “movie quality graphics” or the word photorealistic used quite often. Yet, graphics keep improving. Games keep expanding, and the systems that run them keep getting more powerful.

This is what I meant, though, when I talked about how we keep our standards in check in a sense. We all know that progress is happening all the time, yet we are willing to hoist games on a pedestal that, quite honestly, many may not actually deserve. I genuinely think this is because we have a sort of maximum expectation. We believe in our hearts that a video game can only look and sound so good, so when it looks as good or sounds as good as we believe it possibly can, we hold it up to the highest height, only to bestow the exact same praise on the next game.

And speaking of sound, don’t worry, we blind folks aren’t immune to this either. I remember listening to the trailer for Mortal Kombat Deception and thinking, “Man! That sounds real!” The game didn’t sound as good as the trailer, but Mortal Kombat X, the most recent MK game, sounds far, far better than that trailer ever did. Yet still, at the time I was utterly convinced that this was it. My first reaction to hearing the fully voiced cutscenes and full motion videos of Final Fantasy X was that I was certain the game would be short, because there’s no way the PS2 can handle all that. I was glad to be wrong.

Again, I’m not trying to send a specific message with this blog. This sequence of thoughts that I’ve laid out on this page is simply something that intrigued me, and I hope it intrigues you too. We are funny folk, aren’t we? Thanks for reading, keep on gaming, and continue to be awesome!

Commentary: The Most Undocumented Accessibility Feature

Continuing the sports theme from my previous blog about MLB, today I want to talk about commentary. These days it is a standard part of any sports game, and has been since the N64 era, but today we’re going to talk about what it is in the context of blind gaming. That’s right, kids, it’s an accessibility feature. “What?” the sighted readers gasp. “It is? But… But how? It wasn’t made just for the blind!” True, but it serves that purpose for us. Let’s discuss.

One of the primary themes I use when discussing the challenge of blind accessibility with game developers is information. In most cases, blind accessibility involves figuring out what information we don’t have, and then figuring out how we’re going to get it. That is a simplistic explanation, but I think the principle holds up pretty well most times. While, to the sighted player, commetary is just a part of the presentation that makes their sports game more immersive, to us it is a source of information. Think of all the things commetary tells you these days. In Football and Baseball, it gives you a real understanding of how a play is going. Yes, that’s what play-by-play commentary is supposed to do, but the point is just that it does so, and it is a feature that can be turned off.

Play-by-play aside, commentary in newer sports titles takes it a step further, giving us access to information we simply didn’t have in the old days, like player and team stats. How cool is it to get an audio rundown of how a player is doing so far this year, or how they did last year, or find out what the team’s schedule is for the next week? Trust me, if you can’t see it, it’s pretty freaking cool.

Unfortunately, not all commentary is good commentary. The WWE2K series, for example, has managed to do something truly amazing. They have actually managed to make their commentary worse with every passing year. Do you know which game has better, more helpful commentary than, let’s say, WWE2K18? I’ll tell you. WWF Warzone for the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 has better commentary. It’s completely true.

The problem here is that 2K chose to focus the commentary on the side banter that sometimes happens during a wrestling match rather than the actual wrestling. What comments are made about the match are simplistic and unhelpful, like “Oh that was a great strike there.” If I’m not the one playing, or if I’m involved in a match with several wrestlers in the ring at once, I have no idea who threw this great strike, or who just did that incredible reversal… Sometimes I don’t even know who performed a finishing move, because they only say something like, “And there it is!” There it is indeed.

The banter itself is not necessarily the issue. I don’t actually dislike the banter, as it really is a part of wrestling’s presentation. The commentary is so focused on that, though, that there is no discussion of the actual moves, or of the wrestlers’ progress beyond the existence of rivalries, or their most recent win or loss.

The reason that Warzone, or its sequel Attitude have better commentary is because it is focused inward on the match currently taking place. They talk about the moves, they talk when someone is out on their feet, they have loads of responses to in-match events. These are games from 1997 or so, but I’d take their commentary any day.

The thing is, it’s appalling that the WWE2K series has such bad commentary. Last year, 2K went on and on about the auditory overhaul the game was getting. They also said the game would now be using the commentary engine from the NBA2K series. There is exactly 0 evidence that this was actually done. If you’re reading this, and are unfamiliar with either of these game franchises, do me a favor. Take a second and look for a gameplay video of NBA2K18. Listen to that commentary. Listen to how it flows in almost a natural way, and how sometimes small audio files are combined to form whole sentences. When listing some stats, for instance, they’ll have a basic sentence structure, filled in with the correct numbers for that player’s actual stats. All of this flows seamlessly as if it were one. You actually have to be listening for the breaks, or you won’t even notice them. Listen to that. Then find a gameplay video of WWE2K18, and listen to that mess. If you’ve done that, please comment and tell me if you believe WWE2K is using the same backend commentary system, because I sure don’t.

Ultimately, this article is not about wrestling games, though I think they served very well to demonstrate the point. This article is about commentary in general, and why it is so important to us blind gamers. Good commentary is so often overlooked by critics. Almost every sports game review I’ve watched just criticizes the commentary of any sports game, even the ones with amazing commentary, saying it’s repetitive. Of course it’s repetitive. The announcers who did the voiceover work to create the commentary for these games only spent a finite number of hours recording that commentary, and thus could only create a finite number of total responses. Game critics seem to think that commentary should be done live by the real announcers in realtime for every single game that is being played by a human being. It’s a ridiculous argument.

It doesn’t matter that we occasionally hear the same messages over and over again. In a game with good commentary, (MLB: The Show is another example of this), the important thing is that the messages are there in the first place. They give us much of the information we need, and thus, by the very existence of commentary, sports games become more accessible. As always, feel free to comment here or on Twitter or Facebook with any feedback you have, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

Game Accessibility is Happening

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

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

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

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

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

The Platinum Wireless Headset and 3D Audio: My Uncharted Adventure

When I first heard that the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset would support not only 7.1 surround sound, but true 3D audio, I knew I had to check it out. The potential for 3D audio in video games, especially for the blind, is staggering, and I wanted to see if playstation could make it a reality. What follows is a general review of the headset itself, along with my experience with its 3D audio feature in Uncharted 4.

I liked the feel of the headset as soon as I pulled it from its padded box. It’s not too heavy, with large ear cups to ensure the best sound possible, and even before you actually wear it, the feel of the padding lets you know it’ll be comfortable. This impression was proven accurate when I put it on for the first time. It is comfortable, and light enough while on your head that you don’t feel weighed down by a bulky piece of equipment. I was already looking forward to this.

The controls turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate, and to use. Though each control is the same shape, they are all well-separated from one another, and each is tactily different. The mute button for the microphone, for instance, is a little more inset than the rest of the buttons. The The power switch, which doubles as your switch for presets, has a couple of obvious bumps on it. And all of the controls, except for the switch that activates or deactivates virtual surround, are on the left side, making it even less confusing.

In case you manage to acquire one of these headsets, and you’re one of my primary audience, let’s go through what you’ll find starting from the bottom of the left earpiece. Nearest the bottom is a 3.5 MM jack, used with the supplied patch cable to plug the headset into any standard headphone jack. Next to that, the USB Mini port, used to charge it. Then, in order, heading to the top, we have the master volume buttons, the mute button, the power/presets switch, and the game audio/chat audio balance buttons. Down tilts the balance toward chat audio, up tilts it toward game audio. And as mentioned, the only thing you’ve got on the right is the switch for virtual surround. Up is on, down is off, though you’ll hardly need me to tell you that once you hear it.

And speaking of the sound, it’s fantastic. Sure, the first game I played was Mortal Kombat X, as anyone who follows my Youtube channel can probably guess, and that game doesn’t represent the height of surround sound, but still, it sounded great. Every hit sounded more impactful because of the bass that headset pumps out, and the surround sound did lend itself a little to the 2D fighting environment. When I tossed my opponent across the screen, I felt like I had done so. That game has great audio, and the Platinum headset made it sound even better.

And still on the topic of sound, I should mention for the visually impaired that the headset does possess some identifiable beeps and boops when you interact with it. Mute the mic and you get one beep, unmute it and you get a lower tone beep. More beeps when you press the volume and balance buttons, and some helpful power and connected tones when you flip the switch. The whole thing is very easy to use, just gotta make sure that dongle’s plugged in, and you’re off.

Now, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time for my take on the 3D audio supported by the Platinum Headset. As of this writing, the only game that supports the headset’s 3D audio feature is Uncharted 4. Well, I haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to someone play the other Uncharted games, (and unfortunately they aren’t accessible to the blind), but I still had to try it. So, with the help of my fantastic fiance to enable some of Uncharted 4’s famous accessibility features, (not actually intended for the blind but helpful nonetheless), I fired it up.

Let’s get the big statement out of the way first. The 3D audio works. You really can hear things above and below you, and all around you. Even in 7.1 surround, sounds tend to emanate from specific places. The 3D audio seems to really put sound all around you, which is awesome.

However, I have to say that, as awesome as it is, and as helpful as I believe it will be in games, it isn’t perfect. Initially, we had the aim setting set to toggle, which is an accessibility option that allows you to press a button once to activate aiming mode, and press it again to turn it off. While set to this mode, I attempted to locate my enemies after having presumably toggled the aiming mode on, and could not do so, even when audio told me they had to be right in front of me. I am not sure why this is, and it could even be that, as a blind gamer, there are fundamentals of shooting in a game that I don’t understand. Regardless, aiming worked a thousand times better when we switched it back to Hold, where you hold a button to aim instead. The aim assist snapped to each target for me, and I was able to take them out.

Stepping back in time a bit, though, I want to talk a bit more about the 3D audio, and how it did help me. In the beginning, you have to swim a little to locate your companion, who is working on your damaged boat. Because he calls to you at first, I was able to orient on his position. Then, by listening for the sounds of his work, I was able to find him. This in itself says a lot for the potential for 3D audio. In a truly immersive environment, and it seems with perhaps just a little in-game help, who knows what we’ll be able to do? I’ll tell ya this, even being blind, the sound of our enemies’ boat approaching from the far left, and stopping right in front of us as our companion frantically works behind us was appropriately ominous.

Flashing forward again, once we got aiming working, I was able to take out our enemies. Then, through some rather typical blind person trial and error gameplay, I was able to start the boat we leave on, (I believe it’s actually the opposition’s boat though I could be wrong), and drive away. The 3D audio didn’t really take part here, I just tried to turn regularly in hopes of avoiding objects. Left a little, then right a little, and so on. Then, something happens, (no spoilers here), that moves you to the next part of the game. Unfortunately, this is where my journey ended.

The next part of the game involves a significant amount of platforming, which even 3D audio could not help with in the slightest. After all, regular platforms, rooftops in this case I believe, don’t make noise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly stubborn. I tried. I tried a lot. But it was not to be.

Not wanting to be done testing the awesome 3D audio feature, I got a little help through that bit, and moved onto the next, which involved stealth. This didn’t work out much better, as it took a bunch of questions for me to figure out what I was supposed to do here. I finally figured out how to take cover against a wall that is next to you the whole time, (more on that later), and got through the first section of that. After that, though, I could progress no further without being seen. The audio just was not enough. That was the true end of my 3D audio expedition, though for the sake of playing the game blind, it really ended when I reached the platforming bit.

So let’s go back to that wall, and talk about the things the Platinum Headset’s 3D audio feature doesn’t do. As I said, it’s not perfect. Distance seems to be an issue, as although it can project certain sounds to what seems to be very far away, it seems as though there’s some kind of threshold there. If something is very far in front of you, the 3D audio may project it to sound like it’s very, very far in front of you. However, once it reaches a certain point nearer you, the sound puts it seemingly right in front. I suspect this was part of my aiming problem, though again that’s difficult to verify. My evidence for this is that the call from my companion in the beginning just seemed to be in the virtual surround field, but the agonized call of someone who saw me accidentally plunge to my death off a rooftop seemed remarkably far away.

The other thing it doesn’t do, though it makes sense as technology just isn’t quite there yet, is echo properly. There is a term that, to my knowledge, was coined by Stevie Wonder. That term is sound shadows. It is a name for the way you can hear how sound reflects off of objects around you if you listen, and it’s something a blind person uses all the time. Ever see a blind person round a corner without having touched the wall with hand or cane, and wondered how they did it? That’s how. We have trained ourselves to hear sound reflect off of the wall next to us. When that disappears, we know that wall has ended. We can use this same technique to gauge a person’s height, as obviously surrounding sound reflects off of people too. But in 3D game audio, this does not exist.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find this to be surprising. A system like the one that would be required to create this effect would be massive. Every single object, person, and wall would have to have their own pocket of sound-blocking that follows them around. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, as true, binaural 3D recorded audio actually DOES simulate sound shadows. Listen to the 3D audio dramatization of Stephen King’s The Mist, and if you know what to listen for, you’ll know what I mean.

Because of these things, though, I was unable to tell both how far away I was from the wall I had to take cover against, let alone that there was a wall there to begin with. Had I been able to hear the sound shadows of objects around me, or the way my own jumps echoed off of those objects, I may have been able to intuit where my next platform was. I could still be wrong, and that might not always be enough as you could be jumping a great distance sometimes, but I think all this needs to be said. And hey, as difficult as I understand this would be, it’s never a bad idea to give audio designers something to strive for in the future.

In short, “it’ll sound like you’re really there” is very difficult to sell to a blind person, but again, please please don’t misunderstand, this was still a pretty great experience. I strongly believe that 3D audio could be one of the keys to blind accessibility of video games, and this was still enough to encourage that belief. In other words, it’s a great start, and I’m OK with that… For now.

Now, this is also a review of the Platinum Headset itself, and I think I’ve covered its many positives, so before I go, I must mention the one and only negative I have found. This negative technically isn’t about the physical headset. Rather, it’s about the Headset Companion app for PS4. This app, most unfortunately indeed, is completely inaccessible to the blind. Though the PS4 now possesses text to speech capability, and though that ability extends to 1 of their built-in apps as of this writing, (TV and Video if you’re curious), it does not work in the Headset Companion. Why does this matter? It matters because developers have programmed presets for their games, which can only be downloaded with this app, and those presets change the way those games sound to exactly what the developers wanted them to sound like. To a blind person who cares very, very much about game audio, this is a huge deal, and a huge disappointment that we cannot use it.

But, as most accessibility disappointments do, this only makes me want to strive harder for accessibility, so I will. I will focus on all the positives for now, (the headset is truly great, and hey, I got past the bit with the boat in Uncharted 4), and I will do what I can to make those negatives go away. I’m not going to give this thing a review score, as it’s also a bit of a blog post, but no matter what you came here for, I hope you got something out of it. Thanks very much for reading, game on, and continue to be awesome!