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!

Playing Differently: Minecraft Story Mode

Greetings, folks! What I have to discuss with you today is something that, even I must admit, the title of this blog doesn’t do justice to. Still, I think it is the right title, because it brings to bear the ultimate moral of this particular post, which we will get to later. Now then, if you’re blind, please make sure you are sitting down, because what I am about to inform you of is insane. Also to be clear, when I say insane, I mean it in a good way. Let’s begin. Prepare yourselves.

Not long ago, I wrote a blog about Telltale Games, and how difficult they are to muddle through if you’re blind. Being forced to wander with little to no queues, desperately trying to find the next thing you need to click on, struggling with quicktime events until finally you get them right… It’s hard, but it’s possible with patience.

I also wrote a blog about audio description, a battle that Netflix is winning pretty solidly as they have tons of audio described content available, with more being added all the time. It’s worth mentioning that since that blog was written, they’ve smashed down a few more barricades by really doubling down on audio description for the content they’re licensing. Tons more movies and shows have appeared with an audio description option. Netflix easily remains the king in this area.

Now you might be asking yourself, why did I choose to remind you of those 2 particular previous blogs? I chose to do this because both of the things I just mentioned have collided in an amazing way! A way you will not believe, and a way that, as far as I know, nobody expected. Here’s the short and shocking version. Minecraft Storymode, the quite popular game from Telltale games, is on Netflix, it’s playable, and it’s audio described!!!

OK, have you recovered yet? Well allow me to keep going. Netflix introduced the idea of choice-based adventure videos onto their platform some time ago with Puss and Book, Trapped in an Epic Tale. This was an adventure geared toward young audiences that allowed you to choose which path our cartoon kitty hero took through a magical book. If you’re wondering, yes, I played it… For research. In any case, Netflix said back then that they would gauge whether they continued to release stuff like this on how well this one did. It must have done well, because now we have Minecraft Story Mode!

Basically, the Netflix version of Minecraft Story Mode breaks down the gameplay of the console and PC editions of the game into simple choices. What would be quicktime events in the game itself are completed automatically, and appear as nothing more than part of the story. You would never know you were supposed to press X there. Yet you are left with all the important choices. How will you treat your friends? How will you get out of this jam? Will you be bold, or choose the safer route? Even the most basic choice of all, will your character be male or female? It’s all up to you.

And make no mistake here, your choices do matter. For those who may not have played or listened to a Telltale game before, even your male or female choice matters, as it affects which voice actor plays your character. Yes, there are visual differences too of course, but I mention the voice actor thing as this news is primarily geared toward the blind. Anyway, aside from that, the decisions you make do affect the game, just as they did in the original versions. Choices are retained, and yes, this even holds true across episodes of the season! Netflix magic in action, folks.

Now, let’s talk about actually playing this thing as a blind person. First, let me stress again that it is audio described. This is, needless to say, something the original games did not do, and in my opinion, it adds a new layer for us. The audio description is pretty seamless, and mostly holds up as your choices change things. The describer uses the correct pronoun, for instance, depending on whether you have chosen a male or female hero. You might encounter an instance or 2 when something is repeated after you make a choice, but that is to be expected given the constraints Netflix has to work under to make this work. It doesn’t actually all flow seamlessly like a video game would as you make choices, and sometimes the cuts are detectable. If a scene which was influenced by your previous choices is about to play, you can usually detect when the switch happens. Nevertheless it is very quick, and Netflix has done all they can to make it as seamless as possible.

Now I do have to say that making choices isn’t perfect. Much, much better than the video game version, but still a bit problematic in one sense. I played this using the iPhone app, and the choice buttons that appear on screen, while they can be seen by voiceover and thus used by the blind, are unlabeled from Voiceover’s perspective. Voiceover simply refers to them as “button.” Never fear, though. All is not lost. I was able to figure out certain things that may help you in your journey. Let’s talk about those.

Most of the time, these buttons appear near the bottom of the screen, one on the left, and one on the right. There are instances where this changes, but if you’re worried you’re not finding a button fast enough, you can use voiceover flick gestures to locate them, and press the left or right one accordingly based on which direction you’re flicking.

How do we know what those buttons do? Well, I figured out things that help answer that question as well. I have not yet played the entire journey this way, but so far, certain patterns seem to hold. First, when dealing with conversations between people, the left button seems to hold to a positive response, while the right is a negative one. When making major decisions, the left button tends to hold toward the first option that was presented by the characters, and the right will be the second. When approaching a situation that may involve risk, the left button tends toward the safer route, while the right button goes for the bolder choice. When presented with a decision that implies a yes or no answer, the left button is yes, the right is no. I won’t spoil anything here for those who haven’t played, so it will be up to you to figure out which of these situations you’re in. You may make some mistakes, and hopefully if future releases are planned, Netflix can come up with a way to label these buttons for us, but I think if you follow these basic rules, you’ll mostly achieve what you want to achieve. There are things that break from this formula, like the ability to choose where to look while in a large forest, (no choice is necessarily braver or safer than the others), but I believe this will still help.

Next up, how do you know when to make a choice? This does get a little tricky. As I said before, Netflix did their best to make this as seamless as possible. The drawback to this is that sometimes people will still be talking, or the audio describer will still be describing during the time when you’re supposed to be deciding something. So here are a couple more rules to follow. If a character is asking your character a question, and the pauses between their statements increase in length, you can almost guarantee that you’re supposed to make a choice at that point. The statements they’re making are intended as filler while you’re making your decision, which is why those pauses between them exist. Time to look for those buttons. Second, if 2 characters are arguing, and you haven’t automatically interjected something in a while, you may wish to check for those buttons again, as you may be able to offer your own opinion. Third, if all action seems to have stopped, leaving only music, your character is probably preparing to take some action or other, and it’s time to check for those buttons. And fourth, a nonissue really. Sometimes you actually are prompted directly to make a choice. This happens in the earlier portions of the game, the easiest example being the male or female choice. Male is on the left, female on the right.

One final note. Sadly, it seems that Minecraft Story Mode Season 2 is not yet available. Nevertheless, Season 1 is a long and fantastic adventure, and while it helps, you don’t actually need to know everything about Minecraft to play. It is my hope that Netflix plans on releasing season 2, and that they further the refinement of this new platform. Maybe some won’t see things my way, but I see staggering potential for the blind when it comes to experiencing stories like this. For now, you can go play Minecraft Story Mode immediately as long as you have a Netflix subscriptions. I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I hope what I’ve learned trying this out helps you craft your own story. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

I Think I’d Play That: Suspension of Uncertainty

Here’s a question for all you sighted readers out there. Have you ever looked at a game, maybe via a trailer, or maybe even actual gameplay, and thought “Hmm. I might like to play that game, but I’m not sure.” Have you had a situation where you remain undecided until the very moment you play the game? I ask you to consider that feeling for a second, and then apply it to a situation in which a game someone may wish to try is inaccessible to them. Pretty lousy, huh? Well, let’s talk about it.

The inspiration for this blog came from a conversation about, of all things, Fortnite. I know that, in its current form, Fortnite is inaccessible to the blind. I can listen to others play it, though, and have done so, but during this conversation I’ve mentioned, I realized something. Even though I’ve listened to many, many Fortnite matches, I am even now unsure if I would like the game even if I could play it. I was intrigued by this feeling, and decided to consider it more deeply.

On the one hand, I personally am a very story-driven gamer. I love a game with a narrative I can sink my teeth into. Fortnite has almost none of that. This is an automatic turnoff. It would, I should think, be very difficult for me to get into a game that doesn’t have one of my favorite aspects of gaming. Yet, I enjoy games like Feer, a game I blogged about previously, and offered tremendous praise to. So… Maybe it wouldn’t matter after all?

Looking at Fortnite’s positives, though, it’s tremendously popular for a reason. It has loads and loads of ever-changing challenges to complete, it has lots of unlockables and game mechanics, and it even has world events that chane aspects of the game. All this sounds great. It sounds like it would really hook me, and enable me to get past the things it doesn’t have. All that on top of an ability to play the game with my friends would admittedly be pretty awesome.

This is where it gets unique, though. For me, for us blind gamers, that’s where the consideration ends. Not only can we not play Fortnite, but we don’t have a Fortnite equivalent that we can play either. So this wonderment I feel, this question of whether I would get into it if I could play it or not, will never have an answer, or rather, won’t have one until some very drastic things happen in the world of accessible gaming. Minecraft is another case like this, where I’m not sure if I’d end up liking it or not.

Again, there isn’t really a message here, save for the constant push to further the cause of accessibility. I was just stricken by how intriguing our position as gamers is sometimes. Our gaming palates aren’t even fully formed, as blind accessibility hasn’t broken into some genres just yet. It’s an interesting thought, and that’s really the only point I had. I hope all this has interested you in some way as well, and I thank you for reading my ramblings. As always, continue to be awesome!