Audio Games: Inspiring a Mission of Accessibility

The work that I do these days has a lot of inspirations behind it. We’ve been through many of them on this blog. Today, though, I want to talk about audio games, and their influence on my way of thinking. There are hardworking developers, usually a single individual or team of 2, that make and have made audio only games for the blind, and they don’t get enough credit for their work. It’s time to give them what I can.

The inability to play a lot of video games leaves a lot of holes in our entertainment choices compared to your average sighted individual. Audio game developers sprung forth from this emptiness, seeking to fill those gaps with quality games of all types. Their motivation was to make games resembling those everyone else knew and loved which could be played by the blind. To me, though, they served as both inspiration, and proof positive that my ideas could work.

I can’t even begin to list all the inspirations for me that have come from audio games, but I can go over a few. Audio Games like GMA’s Shades of Doom showed me that shooting enemies blind was possible if you had enough audio indication of where they were. It also showed me that, with a little extra input, we could locate objects lying on the ground. It even had a few secrets for people willing to blow stuff up, which of course I was. It’s a fantastic game that I still enjoy playing today.

Another pretty sweet game called Superliam, created by L-works, taught me that even side-scrolling adventures with occasional platforming elements weren’t out of the question. A fast-paced, sometimes quite intense thrillride, Superliam’s gameplay was frenetic and fun, and I finally got to experience those super Mario moments where you accidentally jump just a little too far off a platform. Whoops!

My mind continued to expand when I played a game called Monkey Business, currently owned by Draconis Entertainment. Monkey business offered up a 3D environment filled with things to find and interact with. One particular level is actually an old western town, and is probably the best example of this. Hear the piano playing in the saloon, walk toward it, and right on into the saloon, where anything might happen next. It felt alive in a way that Shades of Doom didn’t quite replicate with its tight corridors. I personally believe, as crazy as its premis is, it holds up as one of the best audio games to date.

Remember a long time ago when I published my ideas for how a point and click adventure game could be made accessible through the use of interactive menus? Well, that idea was also inspired by audio games like Grizzly Gulch, and Chillingham, both from a developer known as Bavisoft. Sadly, as I understand it, you can no longer play Grizzly Gulch on modern systems, but I’ve heard Chillingham still works. At any rate, those games used systems like that for all of their gameplay. Navigation, inventory management, using one item with another, all of it. Honestly, even combat was sort of menu based, as targets would appear on your left, in the center, or on the right, and you used your arrow keys to switch between those 3 options. Actually, if you were insane, the hard difficulty levels of those games switched things up from 3 options to 5 during combat. It was not easy. I remember both of those games fondly, and still wish Chillingham actually got its sequel. Freakin cliffhangers.

I believe the point has been made here. Audio game developers were the original outside the box thinkers. Their desire to create, and their ingenuity allowed them to come up with amazing ideas that, as far as I’m concerned, developers can apply today. Everyone out there who is a developer of any game, and is looking to make their game blind accessible should check out some audio games. Learn how those developers got around the issues that might exist, and build off of that knowledge to make something awesome happen. These days, we’ve got zombie shooters just for us, we’ve got a card battle game, we even have a couple RPG’s like A Hero’s Call thanks to the entrepreneurship of Out of Sight Games. We’ve got all these, and more as well. You can find more information, and eeven links to these games, on www.audiogames.net

One final clarification. While audio games are, as many other things are, an essential part of the groundwork for making games accessible to the blind, they are still games produced by small teams. This is why I have said before that audio games don’t quite match the scope of today’s epic experiences. This is why the mission of accessibility holds true. You just read that there are actually a lot of audio games out there, and we love them, but we still want to play what everyone else is playing. We still want to play EVERYTHING else. Thanks all for reading, and of course, continue to be awesome!

Diablo 3: An Accessible Little Devil

Diablo 3, as you may or may not know, has been out for a long time. I mean a long, long time. Many, many years. Its PS4 release is more recent, but even that has existed for several years now. Nevertheless, for most of its existence, I never once tried to play it. Usually I am willing to try anything once, but I made the foolish mistake of dismissing it as an impossibility. “There’s nothing here that will help us,” I thought. “There’s no way we could get through this game. It’s all about the gear, and improving the gear, and leveling up, and the grind, there’s just no way.” I’m ultimately very happy to say that I was wrong.

It was my fiance’s idea, actually. She’s the one who suggested, after having played the game quite a lot herself, that I give Diablo 3 a try. We’ve lived together for some time, and she’s gotten used to my talk about accessibility, why certain games are and are not accessible to us, and what kinds of things we blind gamers are looking for. She was convinced that she had spotted things which definitely made Diablo 3 accessible. I was skeptical, but I gave it a shot, and boy was I surprised.

She had picked out a number of things. First, the movement was simplistic. You never have to jump in Diablo 3. There is 0 platforming. That’s actually an important issue. When we blind gamers are trying to figure out where to go, where and when we have to jump can really hinder our efforts. Keep in mind that we can’t actually see any platforms if they are there, so if one is required to progress, we may be stuck there until the end of time. Not so with Diablo 3.

Secondly, when you are walking along and run into a wall, the footstep sounds cease. This is also important, as many games keep that animation playing even as the character runs into a wall. We may not be able to see obstacles, but using this method, we know when we encounter one and thus need to change direction.

Third, monsters mean progress. Monsters in Diablo 3 don’t automatically respawn unless you reload the game. When they’re dead, they stay dead. So for the most part, if you’re encountering enemies, you’re probably going the right way.

Fourth, positional audio. Not only do the monsters themselves make noise in the appropriate surround sound channels, but so do dropped objects. If an item drops nearby, it actually isn’t too difficult to track the area where it dropped, and go pick it up. There can be some confusion when many, many items drop at once, which happens when you slay a rift guardian, but overall these things are extremely helpful to us.

Fifth, exits. This is something I noticed myself when I listened to her play the game, but didn’t think it was enough. Alone, it wouldn’t be, but with all these other things, the fact that entrances and exits to different areas make noise when you approach them is just another helpful addition. When you hear that hissing sound, you know that pressing X will take you somewhere else.

With these basic discoveries, I began playing Diablo 3 for PS4. Once I did, I made even more discoveries. For instance, certain world objects and items make their own ambient noise. This I found very strange, as I couldn’t really see a reason for it from a sighted gamer’s perspective. That’s not a complaint by any means, it just struck me as strange because I know Blizard didn’t consider the blind when making the game. There is a crafting component called Death’s Breath which, after it is dropped, has an ambient sound, making it easy for us to collect. The waypoint markers in each area also make a sound. If a demon Hunter class drops a century turret, that makes a sound too while it’s active, even when it’s not shooting at anything. These are really interesting sound design choices that, while nonessential for sighted gamers, are actually wonderful for us.

Next, shortcuts. Diablo 3’s story mode does an interesting thing. For context, you can use waypoints to teleport to different major map areas. In adventure mode, you have to specifically select a waypoint to teleport to once you are in the appropriate menu. Not in story mode, however. In story mode, the correct waypoint you need to proceed is automatically highlighted when you access the waypoint menu. Now that is convenience, and accessibility for us.

It goes further, though. I mentioned before that waypoints do make noise, but we figured out that you don’t actually need to find them. Like, ever. If you go to the map screen, which you can do by pressing Down on the directional pad, then press R1, you get an act map view, which is actually what the waypoint menu is. It gives you a map of the current act of the story you’re in. Once you’ve done this, if you’re playing story mode, the automatic highlighting shortcut works just as if you had clicked on the waypoint. That makes it super easy for us to progress to the next area, no matter where we are.

There are more things that I haven’t mentioned here, but I think I’ve gotten the overall point across. Diablo 3’s accessibility is not a simple thing, like Resident Evil 6’s is. It still requires lots of patience, and it requires you to pay attention. It is, however, workable if you combine all these things together. Gear and skills are still a problem at times, but if you’re really, really patient, you can actually use a free screen reader called NVDA to perform OCR, (optical character recognition), on the game with PS4 remote play. The results are generally good enough to figure out what gear you’re looking at, though sometimes the stat numbers don’t read very well. However, it works just fine if you’re trying to build a particular set, as reading the names of gear generally isn’t an issue.

There is a lot of information here, but at the same time there is a lot of room for discussion. While I’m personally happy to answer the questions of anyone who contacts me, I would also like to point you at my Youtube channel, where you can find videos of me actually demonstrating this stuff. Check out http://www.youtube.com/superblindman for that if you so desire. For now I will say that Diablo 3 is a fun, addictive game, even if you are blind. You may need or want a little help along the way, (I don’t blame you for asking a sighted person to help with gear rather than suffering through using Remote Play for instance), but I do not regret my many Diablo 3 adventures. My Paragon level 661 wizard can attest to that. Thanks for reading, everyone, and continue to be awesome!

Gaming Blind in Virtual Reality

Alright guys, let’s talk about VR. Yeah, you heard me correctly. VR, or virtual reality, isn’t necessarily something you’d associate with totally blind gaming, even if you’ve heard me talk about games, or read any of my previous work. VR is a concept that is just too out there, right? It’s just… Just too visual, right? Well, I’ve spent a couple days taking a deep dive into VR thanks to the Playstation VR, and I’m going to do my best to answer those inquisitive thoughts you may or may not be thinking. Let’s get virtual!

First, let’s talk setup, as that’s the first thing you must do, both when you power up the VR for the first time, and upon the start of every game. This part of VR, unfortunately, is a pretty major stumbling block. At least in the case of the Playstation VR unit, there is no way to configure the device without sighted assistance. The Playstation 4’s text to speech feature does not read the configuration screens, and even if it did, it is essentially impossible to be certain the camera’s view is centered correctly without being able to see the screen.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t even cover individual games. As I said earlier, each game has to be calibrated separately, and each calibration is unique, because each game is looking for something different. Some of them only track your head. Others track your head and 1 or 2 controllers, all of which must be calibrated. This is a major problem for the totally blind like myself, but not necessarily an impossible one. Audio is a powerful tool, and I believe it could be used effectively to help the totally blind calibrate individual games, and even the VR itself. Perhaps a sound could play from the area the VR currently perceives as the center. That, along with talking configuration screens, would help us to adjust things properly. There are even a couple examples of semiaccessible calibration in a couple games, but I’ll get to those later. Don’t worry, we’re not nearly done yet.

Let us now put setup aside for a bit, and talk games, starting with my first Playstation VR experience, Farpoint. Farpoint is an action adventure game where you explore a distant planet searching for your lost comrades, and fighting enemies along the way. I had the privilege of trying this particular game using the super awesome Farpoint gun controller. I mention this because one of the things I learned very quickly is that I did NOT know how to hold a gun. I sometimes held it too low, forcing my aim to the ground, I sometimes held it right but aimed too high… It was something I had to get used to.

Another thing I had to learn is how to pretend to look at things because, you know, I don’t. I was quickly informed that I often looked up instead of straight on. I can’t really explain why I did this except to say that it felt straight on enough to me at the time. I just needed a little adjustment there, and all was well.

It needs to be said, though, that turning your head to face a sound you hear, which you can do thanks to the positional audio used in VR games along with head tracking, feels very natural to me. Once I got past my tendency to look up, I had little trouble “looking” over at things. In fact, the positional audio is so awesome that I was able to locate the first data point I had to scan, as it emits a sound. None of the other scan points do this, though, which makes me slightly sad. Still, even this little bit of success felt like a breakthrough.

Now, as mentioned, there are enemies in this game. Enemies which you must dispatch with great haste, or be murdered by. Guess what? I was actually able to dispatch several of these. Why? Because of the VR’s controller tracking, and again, positional audio. If you’re reading this, and you’re also totally blind, I ask you to stop and consider this for a second. We struggle with modern day shooters because most of the time we don’t actually know where we are aiming. We can throw the right thumbstick around and hope for the best, but we don’t actually know. However, when you’re holding a controller that is being tracked by a camera, and you hear a sound in a particular direction, when you swivel your controller in that direction and fire off some shots, and the sounds of those shots come from the spot you’re aiming at, aiming in a shooter becomes a real possibility. You heard it here first. VR actually helps when the game is a shooter. Believe it or not, more on that later.

So, with some navigational help from my sighted fiancé, (there’s no way for the blind to tell when they’re stuck up against a rock, or where the rocks are so they don’t get stuck), I proceeded for quite some time, finding new holograms to scan and view, and killing more pesky bugs. As an additional note, when your scanner is active, its sound changes when you’re moving it over one of these holograms. This, too, was extremely helpful. Alas, I did eventually hit a wall when I had to face some very evil creatures that spit a horrible substance at you. It is extremely painful if it hits you, and it gets difficult to dodge when there are a lot of them. The preferred execution method for these baddies is rockets, which I mostly just killed myself with thanks to the aforementioned rocks. One should not fire a rocket when one is directly up against a rock. Just saying.

And so, this is where my journey with Farpoint ended, but I had no regrets. It was a productive journey indeed. It was one that lasted for longer than it would have had the game not been VR, of that I am sure. Now that gives you something to ponder, doesn’t it?

Speaking of pondering, I tried another game called Headmaster! Get it? Pondering… you ponder with your brain which is… Oh never mind. Anyway, this game had one of the examples of semiaccessible calibration. Why? Because a friendly announcer voice actually told you to look left, and look right to calibrate. That, friends, is how easy it can be sometimes. This game, you see, is controlled entirely with your head.

The idea is a VR soccer headball simulator. You are at an academy that specifically trains you how to head the ball. A simple concept on the surface, but apparently you move onto practicing with fireballs and such. Keep in mind this was only the demo. Still, I didn’t find the game particularly playable for the blind, head-only gameplay or no. While you can hear the balls being launched your way, it is difficult to really follow their angle. There is audio of the incoming ball just before it reaches you, but it doesn’t seem to exactly correlate to its angle of approach. If there were more of that audio, if it was made to be insanely precise, and perhaps if it was made louder, that alone could make this game totally playable. That is one game that would, I think, require very little help to achieve total accessibility.

Now, to round out this piece, I will discuss the VR game I had the most success with of all I tried. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gents, because this one is going to shock you. The game I had the most success with, the game in which I actually finished the demo level without any assistance once it had started… Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Yes. Remember what I said earlier about shooters? Well this one’s on rails, rollercoaster rails specifically, but it’s still a shooter. Allow me to explain what happened, and why this worked.

First, this game is the other reason I mentioned semiaccesible calibration. Calibrating the move controllers, (you need 2 for this game), was not really accessible, and it’s something I had to get help with. However, before the first level starts, you are treated to a unique way to calibrate head tracking. You hear a woman crying from your right. Look over there, you hear a sound, and she’s on your left, singing part of a song. Look left, and she moves back to your right, singing the follow-up to that part. Look back right, and you’re done. I admit I didn’t know the purpose of this initially, and wasn’t sure how exactly to deal with this crying woman I was hearing, I intuitively looked over there after a while and discovered what I was supposed to do by accident, which is still pretty clever.

Remember when I said I’d talk more about shooting things later as well? This is why. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood has EXCELLENT positional 3D audio. I’m going to say this because I must. Its positional 3D audio is better even than Farpoint’s, which as I have said was good enough to get me a solid chunk of gameplay time. It’s awesome. Not only does it sound like things pass you by as you roll past them, not only can you hear things behind you and all around you, but there seems to be some audio indication of distance as well, which is super neat! And yes, there are things that I missed. There are moments when you’re supposed to duck, and the couple I missed didn’t have sounds associated with them that I could tell, so I was thoroughly bonked in the head. Furthermore, there are little secret things you’re supposed to shoot, but these also make no sound. Make these things sound sources, make the calibration and menus accessible, and I’ve got this game.

As I said, I finished the demo level. And no, I didn’t just get lucky and cruise through, I definitely shot things. You can hear your bullets puncturing your targets in that game, so while I can’t say necessarily that I scored well, or even that I shot every enemy, I can say that I definitely shot a lot of enemies, and ultimately succeeded. Trust me, it felt amazing. Slinging around 2 move controllers, aiming at the roaring, sometimes laughing targets, and actually hitting them when I fired felt really, really amazing. It was an incredible, unbelievable success in my experimentation.

I tried several other games as well, all of which were on the demo disc that came with the Playstation VR. I had varying degrees of success, but the ones I have highlighted here are the ones I feel I took the most from. I tried the London Heist portion of Playstation VR Worlds, for example, in which your move controllers become your hands, right down to picking things up and putting them down, but due to the lack of audible instruction, I couldn’t quite master what I was supposed to do. I tried Harmonix Music VR, but that game is entirely based on putting cool VR visuals to music. In a couple cases, the demos are just little VR experiences, like short films, that you watch rather than interact with.

Before I conclude, though, I want to give a sort of honorable mention to a game called Thumper, the demo for which is also on the VR demo disc. I’m considering this an honorable mention because Thumper doesn’t rely on its VR elements for gameplay. It can simply be played with VR for cooler visuals, or without VR for normal visuals, and is played the same in both cases. At its core, it’s a rhythm game, and guys, it’s actually completely accessible. Who would’ve thought that I would stumble upon a completely accessible, no VR required, game while browsing the VR demo disc? Not I, certainly. Of course, the menus don’t talk, but they’re a very small part of the game. As you fly through space, (I think), avoiding obstacles and shooting down bosses and so on, you hear background music with little sound effects that play along with it. These sounds literally tell you what to do, once you figure out what each one means. It’s crushingly difficult, at least for me, but it’s great fun. I could still make like 2 accessibility suggestions, but it’s still a perfectly playable game for the totally blind, and deserves some love.

Now, at last, the conclusion. Playstation VR is a fantastic Virtual Reality system on all fronts. I had my fiancé try it herself to be sure it looked amazing as well. Apparently it does. So it’s fantastic, and that’s great. Would I recommend a totally blind person buy one up right now, though? Sadly, I would not. The price tag is a heavy one, and given the fact that calibration is currently as difficult as it is, I couldn’t suggest a totally blind person get one just yet. However, I believe I have proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there is tremendous, awesome potential here. My experiences with Farpoint and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood absolutely prove that. If game developers begin considering the concept of VR for those who cannot see VR, we could seriously be in for some real wild rides, folks. I truly believe that, and will back it up to anyone who says differently. Thanks for reading. Accessibility is happening, people. Let’s keep it that way.

The Pain of Inaccessibility

This article isn’t for my blind readers, unless they are looking for something to relate to. This article is more for those game developers out there, or folks in the industry, and is meant to bring home a point that cannot be driven home enough. It’s a point I have personally made in many speeches, and even conversations with other developers. We are gamers, and we want to game. I am not writing this seeking sympathy, as it may appear I am. I am only writing it in an attempt to bring understanding to those who may not yet see why we keep fighting for accessibility. Please keep these things in mind as you read.

At midnight on May 25, 2018, I heard a cheerful little chime through my headset. It was a notification sound that told me Detroit, Become Human was ready to start. At this, I was filled with unmistakable delight. It was here! After 5 years, Detroit was finally here! Here at last was a game I have anticipated more and more with each passing year, following all the news and the hype because I had a great deal of respect for its developer thanks to their previous games. And now, it was ready to play! With one press of a button, I could… But that’s where my excitement ends.

Moments in your mind are speedy little things. So much can be contained within them, and yet they pass in no time at all. Just as I soared with happiness at the arrival of this game I had been long-awaiting, I then drowned in frustration immediately afterward. The thing is, I knew I couldn’t play this game. I knew already that it was inaccessible to the blind.

I knew this for several reasons. First, I had done my homework. I learned that, mechanically, it functioned like Quantech Dream’s other games, meaning you moved with the left stick, and used the right stick to perform most actions. There are also moments a blind person cannot anticipate where the method of performing an action unexpectedly changes. A moment in Heavy Rain has you brushing the teeth of one of the main characters, and this is done by shaking the controller back and forth instead of using a thumbstick. There is, of course, no audio indication that we must do this.

The second reason I knew the game was inaccessible is that I tried the demo that came out the previous week. Though I did manage to get through the scene that you play out, I got what I believe is the worst possible ending. The fact is, I didn’t know what choices I was making, and didn’t know where interactable objects were. It was an investigation in which I found absolutely 0 clues. That complete disconnection from a game can hardly be called playing it, in my humble opinion. But you see, none of this is the point. This is, if you can believe it, not a rant about Detroit’s inaccessibility.

The next question you should be asking is this. If I knew the game was totally inaccessible to the blind, if I knew I couldn’t possibly play it in a million years, why did I wait up for that little notification chime? Why did I experience that rush of delight? The answer is quite simple, and yet quite complex as well. It is because I am a gamer, and because I LOVE games. I love developers who have consistently demonstrated the ability to enthrall their players with an amazing story. I LOVE great sound design. I LOVE great voice acting. I LOVE a great musical score. I loved the premis of this game when I first heard of it. I loved the commitment by Quantech Dream to go back to their roots, and make a game where the choices once again really mattered. I loved how this game sprung up from something that was just a tech demo many, many years ago. In short, I already loved everything about this game. My love of games is independent of whether or not they are accessible. That is the point.

“OK then,” you say with a small nod. “Why not just watch a playthrough? Why spend your time blogging about your frustrations when thousands of people have probably uploaded millions of videos of this game to Youtube?” You are right. I could absolutely do that. In some cases, I have. I deeply respect Let’s Players, especially those who know their audience. The problem with a Let’s Play, though, is that it will always be someone else’s experience. A game like Detroit, in my opinion, should not be experienced that way first. A game that relies as heavily on player choice as Detroit should be experienced on an individual level if possible, and in an interactive sort of way if not. And that’s where my fiance comes in.

For those who do not know her, which is some, but not all of my readership, my fiance is a wonderful but very busy woman. She’s a concert photographer, which means that when she isn’t out taking incredible shots of rock bands, she’s here editing those photos and sending them on their way. I do not begrudge her for the time this takes, and I support her every endeavor. And yet, to be perfectly, brutally honest, there is a part of me that would like to tear her away from her work and somehow force her to play Detroit. If she did, I know that she would allow me to make many of the game’s choices, thus making the experience partially mine as well as hers. This, while not ideal, (of course I’d still love to be able to play the game myself), would be acceptable.

That, however, would be a selfish act, and I am not by nature a selfish person. And so, I am left aching. I ache for a game I love but cannot play myself. I hope my fiance finds some freetime during which we both can enjoy the game. I’ve said this before, but it is sometimes nearly a physical ache. Yet, it changes nothing. I still love games, and I always will. I will love this game even if, for some crazy reason, I never get to play through it. Games are in my blood.

I’m going to reiterate again that I am not seeking pitty. Many of us blind gamers can relate to this experience, and some do not have the option of a fallback sighted person to do a playthrough with their involvement. It would be harder still for those people. As I’ve said, this article is primarily for everyone else, and is meant to illustrate the ultimate truth of the fight for accessibility. We love games, and we want to play them too.

Game Accessibility Talk from #GAConf live now!

Hey folks!
I’m happy to report that my talk at the Game Accessibility Conference, the first ever Game Accessibility Conference, is now live. This talk proved to be extremely important, as I am, no kidding, still feeling its fallout today. Listen as I discuss blind game accessibility with a bunch of industry folks, and maybe, just maybe, entertain them a little bit along the way. You can watch the video below.