The First of Us: My Journey in The Last of Us 2 Blind Accessibility

“We’ve gotta talk to this guy,” said Emelia Schatz from the front row. I was on stage at the Game Accessibility Conference 2017, and though at the time I didn’t know Emelia, or EM for short, I soon would. I at least suspected who she represented, as the topic I had just been discussing was the Last of Us. I was talking about games I couldn’t play, but wished I could. I spoke of how I would give anything to play The Last of Us, and how it was a physical ache when I couldn’t play a game. That is when the infamous line was uttered, and as small a thing as it was, it’s a thing I will never forget.

They did indeed “talk to this guy,” and that conversation, which contained a bit where I told them how I would love to play a game for my sighted fiancé instead of her having to play it for me, started what would become a fantastic and beautiful working relationship. I didn’t know it then, but my pathway was set, and I had already started walking down it.

There’s a lot that I can’t say about my experience working with Naughty Dog. What I can say, though, is that it was unlike anything I could have expected. From the moment I stepped into the Naughty Dog studios for the first time, I felt welcomed. I felt like I belonged there. And that was before I knew for sure that I would really be working with them. This was just a conversation. This was my attempt to sell myself to this studio. I knew it was a huge opportunity, but it was on me to make it work. Could I do it?

Well yeah, I guess I did. I ended up working on the Last of Us 2 for 3 years, both in and out of the studio. My brain never stopped. I was always coming up with things. Things I simply had to get to the team as quickly as possible! I would often write emails that were both really long, but also really frantic, full of walls of text about how we should look into trying this or that thing. From the moment I started, I was all in. I was passionately pursuing this idea that we COULD make this work. I wouldn’t allow us to be stopped. This was going to be the one! I’m doing this!

But I was never alone. First, the passion and dedication of the Naughty Dog team themselves was unbelievable. They were just as all in as I was. I would often speak to them encouragingly, both in person and in emails, and I did this at first because I thought I had to. I thought it was on me to keep them on the accessibility train, encouraging them at every turn so they wouldn’t give up and say “Nope, all this is too much. Can’t do it. Done.” I was THAT terrified at first. But after a while, I started to see that they really, really did want to do this. I saw that I had already won. I saw that there was no turning back for them either. I kept encouraging them after this, but more just because I was saying what I felt, not because I was worried they’d just stop.

Secondly, this game would not be as accessible as it is right now if it hadn’t been for Misty, my wonderful fiancé. Working on a game like this from a blind accessibility perspective was difficult, and it was difficult for the same reason that playing it will be difficult for some blind people for a while. A game like this requires a tremendous mental shift. This is not your audio games, developed by only a few people. This is a huge, huge game, developed by a very large team. Because of this, this game contains massive levels, tremendous amounts of verticality, different ways to get into places, multiple options and approaches for each encounter, an insane number of mechanics and systems, and so on and so on.

I was not immune to needing this shift, and Misty was the one who helped me get there. Most audio games, for instance, require you to kill basically every enemy you encounter. You grow up on audio games and some playable mainstream games, you get used to that idea. But even having watched a zillion playthroughs of the first game, somehow it didn’t stick in my head that I didn’t need to kill everything, and that there were other options I could try for. That’s where Misty came in. Well, that, and keeping me focused on talking to the team instead of just playing the game the whole time. Her input was truly invaluable in helping shape this experience.

So, in case you didn’t know, we did it. 3 years of intense work, and the Last of Us 2 has achieved total blind accessibility. It is my utterly tremendous honor to be a part of that, and not just because it is THIS game. Not even because I longed to play the Last of Us at GAConf all those years ago. The Last of Us 2 is going to stand forever as the first huge, triple A game to embrace and fully support blind accessibility, and I will always, always be able to say that I helped make that happen. That I am in fact largely responsible for that happening. Of course, this game breaks down more barriers than blindness, providing accessibility for tons of disabilities, and for that I look to my other consultants. Steve Saylor, Paul Lane, James Wrath, and even folks I never met like Morgan Baker. All of us did this together. We became a team, and we made something that will be recognized for years to come. And let me tell you something, dear readers. I’m not stopping anytime soon. The Last of Us part 2 is not the last of anything. It is, in fact, the first.

The Narration Crutch

Accessibility of all types has come a long way, even since I started blogging about it. Blind accessibility, too, has undeniably gotten better since then, with more games adding menu narration and actual features that help us play. As you can tell from the title, menu narration is the specific focus of this blog post, because I am actually a bit concerned. Let’s talk about why.

So a lot of games, really quite a lot, have menu narration now. Eagle Island, Crackdown 3, the Division 2, Gears 5, even Minecraft! That’s not nearly all of them either. On one hand, this is great! It’s a huge step forward, no doubt, and absolutely provides us access that we didn’t have before. But, the specific games I’ve just mentioned here have one thing in common, and that’s where we run into my concern. Aside from the narration in these games, they are mostly otherwise inaccessible. Why is that? Well, the answer may be found in words spoken by Microsoft.

Way back when Microsoft opened up their Narrator API’s for 3rd party developers to use, they made a huge point of talking about how easy Narrator was to implement. “A couple lines of code for each area where there is text,” they said, “and you’re done.” “Wow!” thought we. “Like every game is gonna have narration now!” This isn’t true of course, and in fact some games even with narration have largely incomplete narration. This not only makes me wonder about the truth of that statement, but also makes me speculate on the idea that we have perhaps too much narration.

And now we come to my point. My concern is this. Are game developers adding narration because they believe that narration is all they need to check the blind accessibility box? I understand CVAA is part of it, but given the amount of games that don’t have narration yet, I am relatively sure that menu narration still isn’t a requirement just yet. I’m worried, though, that developers are putting all of their understanding of what blind accessibility requires into narration and going, “Awesome! We did it!” I look at games like Gears 5, which I’ve roasted in great detail before, and I see its narration efforts. It’s super broken and super inconsistent, but it is undeniably there. That, along with the 1 other feature added specifically for the blind, (the audio beacon), along with a feature the blind take advantage of, (aim assist), are the only things helping us in that game, and even then only one mode of that game. But do, or did, the Gears 5 developers think they had succeeded at blind accessibility? I know they know about blind players, as the audio beacon was originally added in Gears 4 because of a blind player. So are they sitting somewhere now and thinking “Man, we nailed it!” I hope not, and I hope those haven’t been the thoughts of any other devs either. Blind accessibility is indeed very complicated. This I shall never deny. Narration alone is not enough.

By far the best example of narration in a game that isn’t an audio game is probably Sequence Storm. The narration is essentially flawless, and a lot of effort was put into making it that way. Madden 20 comes in second, because even though its narration isn’t complete, it definitely works well in all the places it exists. In these instances, I can be assured that the developer knew just narration wasn’t enough, as both of these games have numerous other features that go along with it. That is a comfort. But still…

Look, I hope I’m wrong. Despite everything I’ve said, especially about Gears 5, I would happily jump on a plane if given the chance to work directly with them and make some accessibility magic. I want to be wrong about this. However, this has been in my head for a while, and I needed to let it out somewhere. As it happens, I haven’t posted a blog in a bit, so voila! It is done. Thanks for reading, feel free to discuss and throw me some feedback, and as always, stay awesome!

Alt-Frequencies: A Lot More Than Static

An update to this article: This game is available on Android, Windows, and Mac as well, and is accessible to the blind on Android and Windows, with an update to the Mac version coming soon as of this writing.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it another thousand times if I need to. Accessibility is happening. This is a solid fact that becomes readily apparent every time a developer takes on the task of making their game or app accessible. Every time a new experience is opened up for us because a developer wanted us to share in it as well, I am reminded again that it’s a great time to be a gamer. This was true of Alt-Frequencies, a game by Accidental Queens and Arte, and published by Plug in Digital, with a truly awesome concept behind it. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Imagine, if you will, that there existed a time loop. Imagine that bits of time keep on resetting and repeating over and over with seemingly nobody the wiser. Now, imagine what radio would be like in that scenario. That’s the first part of what Alt-Frequencies is, but with a gameplay addition that proves to be quite unique. More on that later.

You are someone unaffected by the time loop. This puts you in a unique position to affect the loop. You are not the only one, as an underground organization strives to get your attention, begging you to alter events and end the time loop for good. An intriguing story, to be sure, but how does gameplay work? That is where this game truly shines.

Earlier, I mentioned radio. This is because the radio is entirely how this game’s story is conveyed. You have access to several radio stations which you can listen to. These stations play different content every chapter, and each has their own unique flow and presentation. Each one is full of information and lore. Some of it is very important, some of it isn’t, but even the unimportant bits are presented in an authentic way that keeps you interested. More on that later as well.

Gameplay works like this. You do your very best to find bits of information that are relevant. Things that, if they got out, would change the flow of information you’re hearing on the radio. You can record clips from any radio station with a simple downward swipe, and then send them to another station by swiping left or right to that station, then swiping up to send it. DJ’s will react to your submission, even if it’s something they can’t use, and some of those reactions give you hints as to whether or not anyone else might be able to use it. If it’s something they can use, you will progress in the game, having altered that particular instance of the loop. New information might come out as a result of your interference, something you could send to another channel during the same chapter, or maybe you’ll have solved that chapter, and automatically move onto the next. That’s not all, though.

This mechanic allows for a unique way to present player choice, which the game takes full advantage of. Imagine being given the choice to send an important bit of information to one particular station or another, but only being able to send it to one. Imagine having multiple pieces of important information that you could send, but needing to choose which is more important. Both these scenarios, and more, are presented to you throughout the course of this game, and I personally love this. Here is a way to provide player choice without interrupting the flow of the game for a menu of choices, and without even necessarily being super obvious about the fact that there are choices. The potential for a thing like this is huge. I don’t necessarily think the developers went this far, but there could very easily be hidden, not at all obvious choices you could make. Some choices are hinted at, but why not toss in a surprise third option for the really clever? That doesn’t mean choices like this exist in the game, but I look at this game and I see possibilities. I can’t help it. I almost think that was part of the intent of the developer.

The only game mechanic I didn’t mention in that description is the ability to jump quickly through audio clips on a station if you know what you’re looking for, but that is basically all you need to know in order to play this deceptively complex game. What I want to talk about now, though, is presentation. In a game composed entirely of radio stations, presentation is basically the backbone. So, how’d they do?

They… did… perfectly! That is the best way I can put it. Each station has exactly the feel that station is supposed to have, and they didn’t do anything halfway. The voice acting is perfectly cast, and everything down to the microphones they use makes it all seem real. The news station, the morning show on Fresh FM, and talk radio station are extremely high-quality, complete with professional-sounding station identification bits. Meanwhile, the college radio station is, realistically, a bit lower quality, with some very basic identification and simpler presentation, because a radio station like that wouldn’t have the fancy budget. Even that, though, is something you need to take care to make sound right. If they had used the same super high audio quality on the college station that they used with, say, the news station, I may not have been as immersed. Great care was taken to ensure they got it all right, and I can’t stress enough how well they did. I got attached to these radio hosts. Ennis, who runs the talk radio show, has a genuine sort of talk radio host charisma, and while he can be a bit opinionated, that’s kind of his job. If his show were real, I’d probably listen to it because he is legitimately entertaining. The morning show hosts act like your typical quirky morning show personalities, and I liked them as well, though I think Old Bob really could tone it down just a notch. That’s not a criticism of the voice actor, though, it is the kind of thing one might think about any morning show personality who can’t approach anything without doing a silly voice. Anyway the point I’m making here is that the presentation is spot on.

Now let’s talk about bugs. Yes, unfortunately, there are a couple, though not many. I encountered one game crash when skipping through audio clips, but fortunately no progress was lost in that instance. I only found one thing that may be considered a major bug, and I will attempt to explain it without spoiling any of the story. There is a moment where you must send a very, very important piece of information to the news station. I did so, and multiple other stations including the news station reacted to it. I thought that maybe it would benefit me to then send the reaction of another station back to the news station. What happened was that the news station played the new message I had sent containing the reaction, but their reaction was still the same one from the original clip I had sent. I then experimented with this to confirm it was a bug, and sent the news station a clip of morning show host Michelle coughing. Hilariously, the news station then played this clip, but acted as though I had just send them the original clip they had reacted to. I’m not sure how a “good morning” cough conveyed that information, but apparently it did. The fix is pretty simple here I think. The news station needs to ignore incoming clips after the first one has been successfully posted. Nevertheless it’s a bug that does kind of break the magic a bit, so I’m mentioning it here. The only other issue I found involved the game’s accessibility, which is my next topic.

You might be asking why I took this long to get to the accessibility portion of the review. This was actually intentional. You see, it is important for me to highlight how quickly and easily a game can flip from being completely inaccessible to being fully accessible. Sometimes it really is the smallest things. This game was made, I believe, with Unity. By default, Unity is a completely inaccessible game engine. The Voiceover screen reader would read absolutely nothing in your standard Unity game. Think about this for a second. The in-game interface for Alt-Frequencies would likely have been accessible anyway, without modification, by the very nature of its simplicity. However, none of that would have mattered, because thanks to Unity, we wouldn’t even be able to start the game. Remember, Voiceover sees nothing in a standard Unity interface. Our stumbling block in Alt-Frequencies would be… The main menu. Crazy, isn’t it?

Fortunately, there exists an accessibility plugin for Unity, and I believe it is this that Accidental Queens and Arte took advantage of. Once they made this decision and used the plug in to implement voice over accessibility, we were off and running. So while it’s true that it may not have taken much work, as only those front menus had to be made accessible to us, that’s also not the point. Accidental Queens and Arte were willing to remove a barrier to access to allow us to experience their game. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what accessibility is.

Onto the very slight accessibility bug, though. When I finished the game, I was presented with the credits, however I didn’t know this for several moments as these were not read aloud. While I could flick through them just as I did the main menu, Voiceover didn’t read any of them except at one point where it attempted to decipher the text. Occasionally, voiceover will manage to pull some text out of what it’s trying to read, and say “possible text,” followed by whatever it manages to decipher, and this happened once, which was enough to tell me that I was supposed to be looking at the credits. While this isn’t a major issue, and what needs to be accessible certainly is, I do hope it’s fixed only because we deserve to know who to thank for this masterpiece of a game.

I think that pretty well covers it! Guys, if you’re on IOS, android, Windows, and soon Mac as well, and you haven’t tried Alt-Frequencies, do so. It is wonderfully written and performed, and has some moments that just made me smile with utter delight. One such moment was being able to listen to an ongoing event through 3 synchronized perspectives. I 100%, absolutely, completely want more from this developer, and hope they make their next game just as accessible for us. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

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!

Is Gold Gun Golden Fun?

There’s a new game in town, folks, and it’s called Gold Gun. Developed by My True Sound, it is an episodic adventure set to take place over the course of 7 episodes where you are a blind agent fighting the forces of evil inside a virtual simulation of the deep web. The first episode has been released for free to everyone, and it sounded intriguing to me, so I took some time to play it. Here are my thoughts, just for you.

Firstly, what Gold Gun is attempting to achieve here is awesome. You can tell thought has been put into making the game a fast-paced, flowing cinematic experience. Quick tilts to change direction while you’re running, and simple 2 finger taps to grab things on the run, or even to grab enemies, demonstrate the game’s intent. This is a positive thing, and I applaud the overall direction here. Unfortunately, I must sadly confess that there are a lot of negatives which I must address.

The first thing, the one that jumps right out at you, is the voice acting. Every single performance, without exception, sounds bored, and some sound completely emotionless. Any gravitas a scene should have is utterly ruined by these lackluster efforts. I understand that budget can be an issue with small developers, I really do, but if your intent is to make a cinematic experience for us to become immersed in, you need to, at the very least, improve the voice direction if not hire completely different actors. The acting is so off in some areas that I have trouble even telling what’s supposed to be going on, since no actor conveys the emotion they are supposed to convey. Tooting my own horn here a bit, but as someone with a professional video game voice acting credit, I believe I could help out here immensely, even with just my input if not my voice. No matter what, this needs to improve if people are going to be expected to buy future episodes.

Secondly, there are moments that shatter the cinematic flow I spoke of earlier. Moments where you’re following a colleague make your blind protagonist seem silly, as you stop on a dime whenever there’s a turn, and for some reason, wait for your colleague to walk several steps, sometimes 9 or 10, down the corridor, before you can even take a turn action. This is ludicrous. We blind people don’t simply stop and wait when someone we’re following starts turning. We track them, and turn right along with them. This could be handled so much better by simply starting to shift their voice and footstep sounds in a new direction as they keep conversating, and expecting us to follow the sound by tilting in that direction. It’s what we do already, and would be much more realistic.

The game is also afflicted with many immersion-breaking audio issues. When you shoot an enemy, you don’t actually know if your shot connected, as they offer no reaction whatsoever. Certain environmental audio loops have empty silence at the end, meaning you get repeated moments of about a third of a second of silence every time the sound loops. Basically there’s environmental audio, then there isn’t for a second, and then there is again. It’s incredibly jarring. The 3D audio engine seems to take a second to shift the voices of the characters as well, as often times they’ll start in the center, then snap to where they’re supposed to be. Furthermore, every character, even the ones you’re supposedly following, sounds like they’re behind you. In short, a lot of audio problems.

I want to stress again that not everything about this experience was negative. I genuinely do like the concept of the game, and I do like the way it controls. However, my ultimate conclusion is not a good one. Here it is. This build of the game should not be offered as its first episode, free or otherwise. This should be considered a concept demo, and the actual first episode should be released later, keeping the core concepts and characters, but making dramatic improvements to writing, voice acting, and audio in general. The potential for a grand cinematic story is there, but this, in its current form, is not that. Please feel free to comment and discuss if you like, and thanks for reading. As always, continue to be awesome!