A Cheater’s Path to Accessibility

Hey folks, it’s me again, your blind accessibility dude. As you know, one of the things I do is talk about how we play games that aren’t necessarily intended to be accessible for us. Well, mostly back in the old days, one answer to that question was a quite fun and interesting one. That answer, ladies and gentlemen, is cheat codes!

When I was a young boy in the 90’s, I had a computer, and very few games which were given to me by a friend of our family. Two of those games were Doom, and Doom2. At first, I didn’t really se these as playable, though I had been messing around with many console games by that point. At first I thought it was the shooting, but that notion was dispelled once I learned that, in those older games at least, you only had to be facing your enemy to fire upon them. The real reason turned out to be the exploration, and in a couple cases, the traps. The blind had no points of reference in Doom 1 or 2. No footstep sounds, no indication of where walls or doors were unless you happened to press the spacebar at the right time, and so on.

I almost abandoned all hope, but then I discovered a mystical, magical solution. Cheat codes! With these, I could have it all! I could wield every weapon in the game, I could walk through those annoying walls that blocked my path, and I could be invincible to my enemies! And if I could not locate the exit to a level, no problem. One quick code, and it was onto the next. Using this newfound knowledge, I rampaged through the demon hoards, laughing at my enemies as they expired before my tremendous might.

So I know what some of you may be thinking, and I get it. Technically, if I used cheat codes, I wasn’t really “playing” the game the way it was intended to be played, and argueably I wasn’t really completing levels either since I could jump around. You are correct, but consider these things. Firstly, accessibility of games wasn’t really a consideration back then. There was no real hope that Doom or Doom 2 would be made more accessible to the blind. Therefore, rather than not play it at all, I did so in such a way that I found lots and lots and lots of enjoyment in it. Given the circumstances, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Secondly, I would argue that, in some cases, making a game accessible sometimes requires us to play it in a way it may not originally have been intended. Of course, the ultimate goal is always to preserve as much of the game as possible, adding accessibility while maintaining the developer’s vision, but still, changes must be made. Cheat codes, at the time, represented ways to change a game to make it more playable in cases where it wasn’t already. I repeated my Doom strategy several times on games like Duke Nukem 3d, Blood, and so on, and had great fun with all of them.

Another great example of cheat code use to get enjoyment out of a game I cannot necessarily play to its fullest is Grand Theft Auto. Oh I Thoroughly enjoyed it when my friends played the GTA games for me, allowing me to hear the story, but I longed to get into the action in some way. Imagine my elation when I learned what cheat codes existed in those games. Imagine my delight when I learned I could summon a tank.

Yes, that is where that’s right. My enjoyment of GTA3, Vice City, and San Andreas all came from getting the greatest weapons, lots of ammo, and a tank, then causing mayhem. Call it a stress reliever, call it a disturbing peak into my young mind, call it what you want, but I LOVED it. I couldn’t do much else, but man oh man I could spend hours laughing as police cars attempted to ram my tank and exploded on impact. It was just something in a video game that made me feel awesome for a little while. I promise I am not a psycho.

Cheat codes these days are a little less prevalent. There are still some games that have them, but they were once far, far more common. We’re also in an age, though, where accessibility is being taken more seriously, so I’m not all that worried about it. The point here is that, among other things like fighting games and surprising gaming accomplishments, cheat codes were also part of my gateway into gaming, and I would say they were just as important a part as all the others. They taught me that there was more than one way to enjoy a game, and I think that’s part of the reason I tend to think outside the box when it comes to accessibility ideas. The influence is real, and I’m proud to acknowledge it. As always, thanks so much for reading, and of course feel free to give your feedback however you like. 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!