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!

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!

Echoes from Levia: Echoes From my Mind

There is a game out there for IOS called Echoes From Levia: Soulbound. It is an audio game, made so it can be played by the totally blind. I have recently completed this game, and I have what may be some unique impressions of it that I wish to discuss. Impressions that are, at least, very different from those of my friends. Let’s get into it.

Firstly, I’m going to be completely, perhaps brutally honest. There is a lot wrong with Echoes from Levia: Soulbound. The game controls extremely poorly, feeling unresponsive most of the time, and slow and clunky the rest of the time. There isn’t a moment in the game where this isn’t plain. Movement is slow, and combat which should be, honestly, extremely simple, may not work out that way because of the game’s tendency to fail to recognize your input. Since you can only take a few hits, this just makes the game all the more frustrating.

On top of that, the voice acting is almost universally bad. When it isn’t, when a voice actor demonstrates their talent, they are hampered by poor dialog writing and direction. The editing, too, is a problem, as weird decisions made during editing completely take away any emersion. If several characters are supposed to speak at the same time, say while raising a toast and saying “Cheers,” they are never allowed to do so. Instead, each individual voice plays about a third of a second apart, making the whole thing sound like a seriously coordinated sitcom bit. It is, well, it’s cringeworthy.

It seems clear that Echoes from Levia: Soulbound was inspired by A Blind Legend, which is a game that plays similarly, but does literally everything better. Movement is not clunky, combat while still simplistic is actually fun and responsive, and the story, writing, and voice acting are all decent, though still not great. A Blind Legend is a good audio game that, given its 4 star rating on IOS, I would say did pretty well, and it seems Echoes from Levia is attempting to capitalize on its success.

Now here’s where things get interesting. I am aware that I have been quite harsh with Echoes of Levia, and I think that, given its pricetag, it’s worthy of that criticism. After all, even Frequency Missing is a better game, with better gameplay and voice acting, and it’s free. However, I still believe Echoes from Levia should be acknowledged for its attempt to iterate on games of this type. Yes, it is a bad game, but it did try some new things as well. For instance, when you’re walking through a city in Echoes from Levia, you’ll come across little cut scenes that feature random townspeople discussing events, or in some cases being a part of them on the side. These aren’t side quests or anything, just additional plot development which, I’m pretty sure, you can miss if you choose not to approach them. A Blind Legend, meanwhile, stays very linear and focused on the task at hand. It works well enough for that story, but there are some areas where A Blind Legend could have benefited from a side jaunt or 2. A Blind Legend never really asks you to explore, Echoes does try to do that.

Second, Echoes from Levia contains some pretty neat puzzle segments, requiring you to move carefully with very little room for error in order to find the solution. These are the game’s high point in my opinion, and again A Blind Legend’s focus on story progression and combat means these don’t really exist as much. It’s another touch that makes Echoes stand out, and deserves at least some acknowledgement.

So Echoes critics, I hear you. I am ultimately one of you. However, iteration doesn’t happen without developers willing to take risks and try new things, and I think Echoes at least achieves that. If the good things about Echoes can be applied to a game that plays, and is written as good as or better than A Blind Legend, we’ll have a fantastic product on our hands. I hope you found something to take away from this blog, and as always, I thank you for reading. Continue to be awesome!

Nothing Sharper than ASharp

Recently, one of my viewers pointed out that, if I was going to shower so much love on Choice of Games, I should also give praise to another developer who makes games where choices are impactful. That developer is Asharp, the folks behind the incredible King of Dragon Pass, and more recently, 6 ages. These are very, very different games than the Choice of Games and Hosted Games libraries, but they achieve the same goal for the player. They make you feel invested in your choices. You live to regret, or take pride in the decisions you’ve made, which may take a long, long time to reveal their true implications. I’ll explain why as best I can.

Both games, King of Dragon Pass and 6 ages, are strategy games. They are games of clan management. You have to build your clan into a respectable one by doing all sorts of things. Everything from forming trade routes with other clans to raiding your enemies to calling in favors from clans who owe you one. While doing all this, you must keep your clan happy, decide whether or not to listen to the advice of your advisors, and do what you can to achieve your clan’s goals. As this all goes on, you will have encounters that can help or hinder your progress. Sometimes encounters with other clans, sometimes with outside parties. Depending on the aspects of your clan the encounter calls into question, which can be many, many things including the perception of your clan amongst the others, the encounters can go several ways, regardless of whether you think the decision you ultimately make is a good one. And the best part is, the situation may not end on that one encounter. This is where time comes into question.

You must keep your clan surviving and hopefully thriving for years within the game, and possibly even decades. The decisions you make even early on, even those in the encounters you find, can affect you years, even decades later. You might get a positive outcome for one encounter, and be quite proud of yourself, only to discover a couple of years later that your choice lead to some negative consequences as well, for you or perhaps for a clan that was once a friend of yours. It may require you to rebuild either your own home, or relations with those you may have hurt. You never know, and that’s the beauty of the game. You can do the best you can, but you will still encounter hardship. You may have to make difficult decisions, and you may not realize you made one until you see the fallout. Both games are brilliantly executed in this way, and I love them for it.

Now, I’m going to be flat out honest with you. I am personally not good at these games. I’ve never had a super strategic mind, and the nuances of managing an entire clan tend to escape me a bit. I’m currently playing a game of 6 ages on the easiest level, and my clan’s in trouble. My food is low, I don’t have enough warriors, and they’re stressed out. In spite of all that, though, I’m going to keep fighting, because that’s kind of what the game is about. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a way to make it through. Maybe some chance encounter will give me just what I need. You never know in these games.

It’s hard to put into words what this game has accomplished. There is so much to these games, and so many considerations that are made as you play, yet they have managed to squeeze all that into a beautiful, understandable and playable package. These games are, for that reason, and for the power in every move you make, works of genius. Maybe I’m not good at them, but I love them all the same. Thanks so much for reading, folks, and as always, continue to be awesome!

Fear FEER: A Review of FEER: Running Blind

FEER is a new game for the blind out for IOS, and I want to warn you all, the title is apt. Not because the game itself is particularly scary, but because the unstoppable addiction that will grip you once you begin playing is very, very scary indeed. FEER is a game that I can only equate to audio games like Super Egghunt, but even that isn’t quite apt. Allow me to explain.

In FEER, you are in a post-apocolyptic world, and are one of the last vestages of humanity. You’ve heard that premis before, but there’s more. You head out believing you can save the world by collecting the light from fairies, who have made their presence known since the apocalypse. Perhaps if you collect enough of them, you can save this accursed world! Except, not really. The thing is, FEER falls into a game genre called Endless Runner. Yeah, your quest is doomed from the start. Something’s going to get you eventually, but it’s the in-between that matters. Actualy it can even be the dying that matters, but I’ll get to that.

On the surface, FEER’s gameplay is really, really simplistic. You run automatically, dodge zombies by swiping left or right between 3 lanes, just keeping them out of the center, gather light by running through the fairies’ positions, (indicated by a musical phrase), collect powerups like weapons to actually kill the zombies, light doublers which do exactly that, shields to protect you from them, and boosters to speed you along and make you temporarily invincible. You swipe up to jump over zombie hands that grasp at you from the mass graves that dot the landscape, and swipe down to slide under the ravens who have, for some reason, decided that zombies are cool and that they should, instead of eating all the dead flesh around them, peck out your eyes instead. It’s whatever. It’s not the story that matters. The point is, the basic gameplay is just that. That’s all of it.

But then, you see, 2 factors come into play. First, you run faster as time goes on, which is great except it leaves you with shorter and shorter reaction times. Jump quick, swipe fast, because you will get grabbed by something. And second, the game actually has a mission and quest structure. By completing quests, you can gain levels. For every level you gain, your score is multiplied by that level’s number. The quests are just the right mix of things to keep you playing. Fiendishly simple in some cases, and just hard enough that you want to work at it in others. I have seen enough of the quest types to love the variety, and to answer the question I had when I first saw quests. I wondered if there would be quests involving you collecting no light, and indeed there are. It’s fantastic and too much fun.

If you cannot see how those things combine to make a small, but supremely addictive game, you may not have played an addictive game before. Why do you think I’m writing this blog? I just started playing yesterday! But but… I’m ranked 13 in the world as of this writing! Must… Be… Number 1…

Seriously though, check the game out for yourself. It’s only $1.99 for the first 1000 people who purchase it, which apparently hasn’t happened yet. Give it a go, just do so prepared to be absorbed. That about does it for this blog. Whew! Now I can play more! Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!