Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil 6: Surviving Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Game Accessibility Conference 2017

I am extremely excited and happy to announce that I will be a speaker at the Game Accessibility Conference being held in San Francisco in 2017. The conference takes place on February 27, and will cover game accessibility of all types. While I will speak on behalf of the blind gamers out there, there will be representation for many other disabilities as well, from the gamers themselves to the developers who have taken steps to make their games more accessible. Find out more at www.gaconf.com and, if you’re able to, maybe consider attending. If you’re reading this and you’re in the game industry, we absolutely encourage you to attend, because game accessibility is important, and making sure the widest audience possible can play your game should be important. I look forward to February, and hope to meet some of you there.