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!

Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Blind Gamer’s Battle with the Mighty Sephiroth from Kingdom Hearts 1

Featured here is my first ever gameplay video. I made this in an effort to show the world the lengths the blind will go to to play what we can of the video games we love. I’ve been a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series since its beginning, and though I can’t play the full game, it turns out I can take part in battles. This particular battle is one of the toughest, if not the toughest in the game, and I face him on Proud mode, the game’s hardest difficulty. Take a look, or a listen, to what I can do!