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.

My Perception of Perception: A Rant and Review from a Blind Gamer

I never thought the day would come when I would regret backing something on Kickstarter, but it has finally arrived. I do not back Kickstarter projects very often, because I have little enough money that I have to make decisions on how to spend it. However, if I really believe in a project, I will take that leap. Such was the case with Perception by the Deep End Games. Allow me to explain what got me hooked.

Perception is a game in which you control a totally blind character named Cassie as she explores a mysterious house. It’s a survival-horror style game, made by developers who have done work on games like Bioshock. Now guys, just looking at it like that, it sounds utterly amazing. I was totally in.

Then, over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and finally getting a chance to try the game myself once it was released, I have learned the awful truth. The game is, in fact, an insult to the blind on not just 1, but 2 completely different levels. Let us discuss.

First, let’s talk accessibility. After all, you would think that, if you’re playing as a blind character, then a blind person would be able to play the game, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, the 2 primary focuses of the Kickstarter campaign were the voice actress for the main character, (and yeah, she’s pretty good), and the visuals. That’s right. Look, ladies and gentlemen, upon these visuals which, if the character were actually blind, would not exist. Aren’t they gorgeous? Isn’t the art style, like, so super cool?

Now, OK. If I force myself, I can get past the visuals being there. It’s a sighted world, and we want them to get some enjoyment out of this game. Sighted people like graphics, therefore we need goodlooking graphics. But then, I’m yanked backward because… The developers should want EVERYONE to enjoy this game, right? Should the blind not be invited to hold Cassie up as their own video game icon?

Apparently not, because I promise you, I guarantee you they barely tried at all when it comes to making their game blind accessible. Oh yeah, it was brought up during the campaign, and they addressed it pretty early on. Their answer was, quite honestly, pretty disgusting. This isn’t word for word, but they said something like, ‘Well, we tried, but we just can’t find an engine that will work for us.”

So what that tells me is that The Deep End Games was basically looking for a magical win button. Some piece of code they could just plop into their game, and boom! It’s accessible just like that! I feel like they googled “Blind Accessibility Engine,” and when they didn’t find anything, they said “Oh well, we tried.” I do not believe for one second that they consulted with a single blind gamer to discuss how the game might be made accessible. They certainly didn’t consult with me, and I’m a pretty good resource for this kind of thing. And maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong, but hey, perception is everything, right guys?

Here’s the worst part, folks. There are building blocks for blind accessibility in that game. Yeah, that’s right, they actually did a couple things correctly which, had those things been expanded upon, may have made the game accessible to us. For instance, Cassie’s 6th sense ability can be used to point you toward your next goal. It works very much like Resident Evil 6’s accidental accessibility where it shows you your objective, and points the camera at it, making forward movement then lead you in the right direction. Of course, this feature only mocks us, because it is taken away from you several times, asking you to “explore to find your next goal.” We also run up against the Resident Evil 6 problem of getting stuck a lot, but the point is that it sometimes helps, but not as much as it could.

The second thing they did right is that the audio recordings you can find have ambient environmental noise before you find them. The sound is like that of a running tape in a tape recorder. You can hear these from decently far away, though, so finding them is still difficult. Also, the “memories” you can interact with, or more accurately, things that trigger memories, have ambient ghost whispering noises that play until you find them. The problem here, though, is that the whispers are infrequent, so if you miss one, you may be wandering for a bit until you hear it again.

And third, the ironically funniest of them all, Cassie’s phone is almost completely accessible! Why? Because it has to be. Once again, they did not do well at passing her off as a real blind person, which we’ll get to later, but they would have failed utterly had Cassie’s phone not been equipped with Text to Speech. So yeah, I can listen to her text and voice messages, I could read a note if I had found one as she uses her phone to scan it, and I can listen to her… Oh wait! Look! Another glaring problem! Yes, most of her phone is accessible, but the text to speech does not read the items in her music collection. Sure is lucky she only has like 3 or 4 songs, instead of the hundreds and thousands most people do today. Whew!

The point that I’m making here is this. Everything that might be considered an attempt at accessibility was done in a half-hearted manner, and maybe most of it wasn’t even done for that reason at all. The developers never really tried, or even cared all that much about accessibility. But putting accessibility aside for a second, let’s get to part 2 of this rant. The second reason this game is an insult to the blind.

A message to the Deep End Games. Blindness does not work the way you think it does, or the way you desperately want it to work so you can justify your game mechanics. The game begins insulting the blind during its insanely short tutorial. “Sound is how we see,” says Cassie’s teacher, who is apparently a super knowledgeable blind person himself. Well actually, Mr. Teacher, that is not completely accurate. Sound is only one component. Turns out we have 3 other senses that we also use, all of them working together to compensate for a lack of vision.

The insult continues as you learn how this apparently works. First, we hear the sound of a fan, and the teacher asks what it is. It should be noted that the audio design takes a hit here, as the fan was not on before the teacher asks what the sound is, and when it does utrn on, it is just there, at full strength, rather than spinning up the way a fan would. Anyway, Cassie identifies the sound as a fan, making no other observations about it than that. Yeah, I actually made one. To me, it sounds like a fan with a small piece of paper or plastic caught in the blade. I made that observation without even tapping my cane! Let’s talk about that, though.

The teacher asks Cassie what’s in front of the fan. Apparently the only way Cassie can figure this out is to tap her cane. Yeah, the only way. She is in fact instructed to do this by her fully grown, very knowledgeable blind teacher. She does, and just like magic, she knows there’s a coffee mug in front of the fan! Wow! Now, maybe her cane actually hit the mug, which ya know, would risk knocking it over and possibly breaking it, but let’s say it did. I can’t verify that, being blind and all. But then why, if the mug was in cane-striking distance, would she not just reach out and find it that way? The whole thing is completely ridiculous and wrong, and sets up the game mechanic they’re trying to demonstrate to feel like an insult everytime you use it.

So here it is. Here’s the conclusion to all this. Perception is a terrible game that could have been great. Had any actual effort been put forth to make it accessible, it could have been a game that brought the blind and sighted together in a cool survival horror experience. And in this time, where video game accessibility is actually starting to become an accepted and widely-discussed part of game development, it is a shame this was not done. It is an enormous, enormous missed opportunity. The ntire game comes off as an attempt to cash in on a new survival horror idea without considering the immense possibilities that could lead to, and then tries to pat itself on the back for taking a couple real world inspirations. (Be My Eyes is used in the game, and it is a real app for the blind). I am finding it difficult to truly express my anger and disappointment with this title, and I worry that it will actually become a step back for the blind, making people who play it think we just swing our canes around everywhere like bumbling idiots. (It is actually possible to walk around and unknowingly break small things during the game). I understand this rant may unpopularize me with some, but I feel it needs to be said for the sake of the blind community.

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 is Happening

The feeling going into the first ever Game Accessibility Conference was a positive one, yet I can honestly say that I still wasn’t completely sure what to expect. How was this going to go? Would people really listen? Would they care? Those are harsh questions, but given the difficulty of making our wish for accessibility known in the past, they were legitimate ones. After all, I was once sent a form letter by THQ in response to some requests I made about their Smackdown wrestling games. The letter thanked me for my appreciation of their stunning graphics. Yeah, seriously.

This conference, though, was not that. It was so much more. For my general readership, keep in mind that this conference was about gaming with all types of disabilities. Blindness, deafness, those who require one-switch controls, even discussions about using VR while in a wheelchair. And the best part is, the conference was full of those who not only listened, not only cared, but kept an open mind, and looked to be inspired. I feel that everyone there wanted to know exactly how they could help make this work, and those who already knew were more than willing to impart that knowledge. I cannot describe how that made me feel.

The world is beginning to change. Accessibility is now understood to a far greater extent, and disabled communities all over the world are beginning to be recognized as gamers, just like everyone else. Of course, there are those who have advocated for disabled gamers for years, such as the Ablegamers foundation, but this conference represents a whole new level of recognition, acceptance, and willingness to find solutions, in my opinion.

I’m happy to report that my speech, which centered of course on video gaming from a blind gamer’s perspective, was extremely well-received, and that I was approached by many, many people afterward to talk about the possibility of blind accessibility for them. That, ladies and gentlemen, felt great. Even when I was at GDC in 2014, even though I was pretty well received there, and even though I got a lot of compliments, I also got quite a bit of negativity when I began approaching developers about accessibility. Few attempts were made to actually discuss solutions, and I was often just turned down, with the assumption that it was not possible. Not the case at all with this conference, not once.

I am writing this blog with a very specific purpose in mind. I do not want to repeat what I said in my presentation, as that will be available for all to watch. Instead, I am writing this as a followup to the conference, and as reassurance to all of my readers that all of this is real, things are really happening, and people do want to help make those things happen. It is not going to be instantaneous, but we are further along than we’ve ever been, and based on discussions I have now had, I know that we are going to keep moving forward. Games should really be for everybody, and I’ve never believed more strongly that they will be. And furthermore, I want to assure all those who read this that I will always do whatever I can to help this process along. This conference has only increased my passion for games, and I look forward to similar events in the coming years.