Muddy Waters Aren’t Always Bad Things

Over the course of many blogs here, I have described many ways in which the blind play games, and ways in which they get the things the mainstream games out there aren’t yet providing them. However, I woefully neglected to mention one particular facet of blind gaming existence, and thanks to inspiration from a few of my followers, inspiration they may not have known they were providing, I am going to correct that. Let’s talk about Muds!

In this context, mud stands for Multi-user dungeon. A simplified description of what this means would be an MMO that is completely text-based. no graphics, no sound unless someone codes a sound pack, which happens sometimes and can be quite cool, but is certainly not required. It’s all about the writing, and all about interacting with a world in a way similar to the clasic text adventures of old, with varying degrees of difference depending on the mud you’re playing. In even shorter terms, it is the blind person’s current answer to MMORPG’s, and it’s hard to argue with. It’s presented in a format both blind and sighted can appreciate if the sighted among them can handle games without graphics. I spoke a bit on that in my Choice of Games Love letter. Muds can be just as dynamic, just as social, and just as feature-filled as any MMO. In some ways, they actually have even more freedom.

You know those MMO’s that let you build a house? Well that’s all well and good, but when you’re building a house in an MMO, you are limited by the available assets and materials in the game. However, most Muds will allow you to write your own description for every room of something you build, meaning it really is all yours. You’re limited by your own imagination, unless of course the mud enforces some basic guidelines. No lightsaber collection in a medeval fantasy, for instance. Still, it feels pretty good to construct something, even if it’s in a Mud and even if you’re imagining a large portion of it, for yourself. I imagine it is a similar sense of accomplishment to that of reaching the same goal in an MMO.

I won’t speak too much more on the mechanics of muds, because they are far, far too varied. Yes, you might think a genre like this would be dying out in this day and age, and certainly Muds don’t host player bases of millions like World of Warcraft or the Old Republic, but there are still hundreds, yes hundreds of them, and some are going relatively strong in comparison to others. The inspiration for this article, in fact, was that a brand new Mud, one boasting a complete RPG-length storyline, side quests, and full MMO features, just went live. It’s called Starmourn, and i haven’t tried it myself, but I feel like I probably will. The thought of that storyline draws me like a moth to a flame. I love narrative.

As I always say, though, this is not justification for not making games, even MMO’s, accessible. We still want to experience the things everyone else is experiencing. We want the grand scale, the production values, the voice acitng, the incredible audio in some cases… We want those things. Muds are great, and they serve a fantastic purpose, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be held to a standard. Let’s play muds. Let’s play a lot of them, and enjoy them, but all the while keep striving for improvement in accessibility. I dream of a world in which we don’t have to entice the sighted away from their graphics because we’re all playing the same games. I believe that can and will happen, but for now, muds.

Seriously, you should try one. Try the new one I’ve just told you about, Starmourn, or try my old haunt, New Moon. Try a mud based on the Discworld franchise, or the Final Fantasy one. All those and much, much more are available. There are tons of worlds to explore and interact with, even though it’s all text. There is fun to be had, there are people to meet and conquer giant bosses with, it’s all there, down in the mud.

I know this blog is kind of short, but I think it says what needs to be said, and sheds light on another tool we blind gamers use to get what we’re craving. As always, I’m happy to continue the discussion via my Twitter, by email, or even in the comments of this very post. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

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

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

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

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

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

Pressing Buttons: Quicktime Events and Blind Gamers

Greetings readers! Right on the heals of my Shenmue discussion, I wanted to talk about quicktime events As a refresher, quicktime events refer to those moments when you’re watching what appears to be a cutscene, but you must suddenly press a button to achieve something. Failure to press the correct button by pressing the wrong one, or not pressing it in time, results in a failure of the attempted action, which can sometimes lead to the demise of your character. How, though, do blind people deal with these moments, and what do we think of them? That’s what we’re about to talk about.

First, it’s important to note that there are basically 2 types of quicktime events. The first is one where, regardless of how many times you retry an event, or how many playthroughs of a game you do, the button you need to press never changes. These are the ones blind people are sort of OK with, because we gamers don’t typically mind memorization. If we can memorize a quicktime sequence, that becomes the bit we feel good about when going through that section of the game.

The second type is the worst for us. Quicktime events where everything changes every time cannot be memorized, so we can only rely on, pun intended here, (blind luck) to get through those moments. My first tip to game developers who intend to put quicktime events in their game is to avoid this method. Giving us the option of memorization isn’t quite an accessibility feature, but it is a nice perk.

There is another sort of quicktime event type involving directional movement along with a button, such as pointing a cursor at the proper spot before executing your button press, but that’s another can of worms I don’t think we need to open. This would, in a way, be an even worse option than the random button presses, since we have no idea where a cursor would be in that situation. Telltale does this sometimes, and it’s so, so very agrivating.

So I’ve now given you an idea of how we feel about different types of quicktime events, but let us now approach the big question. When it comes to accessibility, if we’re actually talking about a game with accessibility features implemented, what should be done about quicktime events? My answer might surprise some of you. I’ve heard a lot from developers that the answer to blind accessibility is to remove quicktime events entirely, or make them skippable. This, I tell you now, is the wrong approach. Well OK, in my opinion it is. You’re bound to hear several different opinions on the subject, but hey, another key to accessibility is options. We love options!

Anyway, personally I believe the correct approach is to treat quicktime events like the rest of the game, and make them accessible. Don’t remove them and thus remove the challenge. Don’t make us skip them and potentially miss a great part of the story. To me, those are unacceptable options, and honestly, copouts. Make us feel the intensity of those moments like anyone else. Get some voiceover of the names of each button, or use text to speech. Apply this to the quicktime event so that the button we need to press is spoken right when or right before we need to press it. Do this, and you can even keep your randomized button quicktime events, because we’ll still be properly alerted.

If you don’t want to apply a voice to the button, apply a sound. Create a sound that is different for every potential button we might have to press, and play it at the time it is needed. We can memorize those as well. The important thing, though, is just to give us as close an experience to the one a sighted person has as possible. That’s what we want. We’re not asking for easy mode.

And that’s it, I suppose. Quicktime events are an interesting mechanic, and possibly far more elaborate than some thought, but they do not have to be bad things when it comes to accessibility. I guess that’s my point. With the first type of QTE, the one where buttons are never different, (Shenmue is an example of this), we can deal. Make them accessible, and we will love them. Thanks all for reading, and as always, continue to be awesome!

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!

To the Audio Teams: The Art of Sound

Dear video game audio designers, producers, mixers, editors, engineers, technicians, quality analysts, composers, and any audio-related field I forgot to mention,
This letter from a blind gamer goes out to all of you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for most blind gamers out there when I say thank you. Thank you for putting in the time, and making the effort. Thank you for adding those little extra touches that we notice all the time. The things that a sighted player doesn’t necessarily need, but that add to the audio experience. Thank you for your own desire to make games sound as alive and vibrant as possible. Thank you for immersing yourselves in the material so the experience you create matches the story being told. Thank you for being awesome.

We blind gamers bow before you, audio teams. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. Without those little touches, in some cases, we would be further hindered in our efforts. I’ve said before that blind accessibility is all about information, and the things you guys do with audio give us that information, sometimes whether or not you’re aware of it. I commonly use the example of Kingdom Hearts, where equipping different keychains causes Saura’s footstep and attack sounds to change based on which one is equipped. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is thanks to an audio team that cared to make it so. Because of that, we can tell you by taking a few swings what we have equipped, and from there branch out into how much damage it does, what bonuses it has, and so on. The importance of these little things cannot be underestimated.

But let’s go further. Things get crazier when we consider things that have ambient sound, but don’t necessarily need to. The Death’s Breath crafting component in Diablo 3, save points and treasure spheres in Final Fantasy 13, all of these things and more are examples of necessary objects that we can now locate within a certain distance thanks to audio. Without those ambient sounds, they would just be lost to us. That’s huge! It’s so simple and easy for you audio guys to do, but it’s so, so very helpful.

But really, we’re only scratching the surface here. Let’s go even deeper, and discuss the crazy things audio teams are doing these days, like accurate surround sound positioning and even 3D audio in some cases, realistic echoes based on the objects sound is bouncing off of, (often used to indicate distance between, say, you and a companion), and even dimming of sounds that are blocked by an object such as a wall. The tremendous amount of code that must take is mindblowing, and the fact that you guys work to perfect it, to make it sound right, is inspiring. Let me just tell you now, in case you had any doubt, that it’s worth it.

Now we can’t talk about audio without talking about music. Music is a huge, huge part of creating an atmosphere in a game. I once spoke directly with Austin Wintory, and told him that the music in Journey is what really told me the story. It was true. The music in that game is powerful. It connected with me on a deep, deep level. It made me feel every emotion right along with my fiancé, who was actually the one playing it. I felt the joy of flying for the first time, I felt the rising tension as we got ever closer to our goal… It was an astounding feat of scoring for which Mr. Wintory has received much praise, but if you ask me, not enough. As I’ve said, I wasn’t even the one playing Journey, but when it was all said and done, I felt as though I had. I cannot think of another game that has achieved that effect on me personally.

That is not to say that I don’t love other game music, because I do. There’s a really old game called Stonekeep, which was one of the first games I ever owned. During one part of that game, you wander from the relatively dangerous, though not-too-difficult sewers beneath Stonekeep into the lair of a monstrous evil creature that you, at some point, must defeat in order to proceed. The brilliance of this is that the creature does not immediately attack you. It is, in fact, the music, which changes drastically and ominously the moment you step into the lair, that alerts you to be prepared if you plan on moving forward. After all, the lair itself is not large, and should you actually proceed despite the warning the music provides, then the additional warnings provided by the piles of bones in the area, you will find the beast lerking just a couple corners away. It’s a wonderful, powerful moment in the game, and for me, mostly because of the music.

There are plenty of examples of moments like that in games, but I particularly like that one. The power of music is, I think, becoming more respected these days. I feel like people are taking greater care with music, and that is very much appreciated. Look at, for instance, what Crystal Dynamics did with the first Tomb Raider reboot, scoring every single encounter differently, and using a dynamic music system to make it all flow depending on what you did. That is… That is awesome! There is just no other word for it. Even Killer Instinct for the Xbox One does awesome music tricks, picking up the background music depending on the size of the combos you’re doing. What better way to make you feel good about pulling off an amazing feat of fighting game excellence than to deliver the rousing chorus of that level’s music? It fits perfectly, and it’s also awesome.

I feel as though I could sit here and write about game audio for hours. However, I think that what it boils down to is this. Audio guys, you are our lighting. You are our graphics. You are our art. You are our atmosphere. You are our information. Sometimes, you are our story. You are essential. You are needed. And most of all, you are awesome. Thanks for reading. As always, consider supporting this content if you can, however you can, and continue to be awesome!