Gamebreak: The Spectacle of Music

When you’re blind, live performances aren’t actually all that different from listening to music in a studio. There’s the crowd, of course, and we can usually detect when an artist is really singing versus using a dub track, but otherwise there is little difference. Sure, live concerts are still fun, as certain artists have a way of creating an atmosphere. The music is all around you, the crowd is going crazy, and maybe the artist throws in some chatter to get the crowd extra hyped. These things are all great, but there’s so much more that we blind folks miss all the time, and that’s what I want to talk about.

Concerts are more than just musical performances these days. They are visual spectacles as well, as artists go through frequent costume changes, lighting effects are used, stage platforms move, dancers do very specific routines to the song, and so on. All of this is generally lost on a blind audience member. We can’t even detect when the artist moves around, since we’re hearing the audio through the arena or stadium speakers. Those artists who begin their shows with visuals on a big screen with a rumble, or single long musical note in the background might not realize it, but we’re mentally skipping that part of the concert, since we cannot see it. All it is to us is an indicator that the music will be starting soon. I’m writing all this for context, and I promise I’m about to get to the point. Bear with me.

I have written many things about Netflix and their inclusion of audio description over the past few months. They’re just incredible about it. Nevertheless, last night I experienced yet another surprise. I was browsing through the catalog, looking for something new to watch after having just finished yet another amazing series, when I encountered the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour. I personally admire Taylor as an artist, and thought it was cool Netflix did something with this. Plus my fiancé actually photographed this tour when it was in Ohio, so I was doubly intrigued. I figured I might llisten to it, and genuinely didn’t expect anything more than crowds, music, and maybe Taylor occasionally talking to the audience. I was wrong.

Right from the jump, the entire event was audio described. Suddenly, all the spectacle of the show was there for me as well. The dancers who came out in military garb during “Ready For it,” the way Taylor made male dancers fall with a wave of her hand during “I Did Something Bad,” (an action that is relevant to the song itself), it was all there. Every costume change, every platform rising over the audience, and even specific mentions of fans that got some screen time, such as a fan in a carnival barker’s outfit. Finally, a concert which took me beyond the music. In a way, I was there with that crowd more than I have been at some concerts where I was physically present. It is difficult to describe, but it was a wonderful experience.

To be perfectly clear, I am aware that many theatres these days have audio description support for plays, which is also a wonderful thing, but I have not seen much mention of this being used in a big arena or stadium concert environment. I am also not saying this is the first time this has ever happened, only that this is the first instance of this I’ve seen. Netflix has once again gone above and beyond here. After all, there are still certain things that Netflix does not provide audio descriptions for, such as standup comedy specials. I grant you there wouldn’t be much to describe in that case, but hey, some comedians do use visual humor. It therefore means something to me that the extra step was taken to describe this show.

It is my sinceer hope that ideas like this are adapted into live shows more. Not just later, when they’re posted on platforms like Netflix, though that is a wonderful thing, but in the moment. If a blind person attends any kind of big live show or event, they should have some access to what’s going on. For plays, there is generally someone up in a booth describing the play live as it happens, while the blind people in the audience wear headsets to hear it. Why couldn’t this be adopted to larger events, and tours like this one? Have a live describer for concerts, and with something like, say, a wrestling event, patch us into the commentary channel. Of course, I am aware wrestling commentators talk about other things during commercial breaks, so synchronize the system somehow so we don’t hear too much. The point here is that I think it’s very doable. Sure, we have services like Aira, but the astronomical prices of that service don’t exactly make it an ideal solution. Best if the arena, and/or the concert promoter provides the service as part of the show.

For now, I hold the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour as the highest in live concert audio description. It’s basically perfect, as the descriptions are cleverly interwoven with the music so as not to step on any lyrics. We can sing along even as we take in the spectacle that is music today. I hope this article makes you think, and as always I encourage comment and discussion. Thanks so much for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Bandersnatch: A Netflix Experience

There is a lot I could say about Bandersnatch, but a lot I won’t say, because this is the kind of experience that shouldn’t be spoiled. It’s another interactive outing from Netflix, following in the footsteps of, as crazy as it sounds, Puss and Book, as well as Minecraft Storymode. This one, though, is not for the kids. This one’s for the adults, for the deep thinkers, for the tech geeks. This one is for fans of Black Mirror.

As very nearly anyone who has watched it will tell you, Black Mirror is already a fantastic series. Every episode delves into a technological possibility of some kind, and forces you to look upon its dark side. The episodes make you think, they make you speculate, they make you want to talk about them for hours with your friends, as I actually did on a podcast once. So how does Bandersnatch, being a Black Mirror episode, stack up? Well, I’m delighted to say that it stacks up perfectly with the others.

Everything you’d expect from a Black Mirror episode, you can find in Bandersnatch. There are eastereggs that point back at other Black Mirror episodes, there are thought-provoking plot developments, and different ones depending on your choices in this case. It’s a tremendous display that is worthy of the series, yet is also a completely new thing.

It is interesting to me as well how Bandersnatch manages to affect you the player. Without leaping headlong into spoiler territory, I’ll explain this by saying that typically, in choice-based games, I try to pick the things that I personally would choose, keeping my decisions as true to myself as I can. This experience managed to convince me to pick certain choices based on pure, undeniable morbid fascination. “Oh I just wonder what happens if I pick this one! Let’s find out!” I gleefully select my choice, reflecting only later on how weirdly delighted I was to do so.

As I have said, this thing is difficult to talk about, simply because I want to talk about it. I want to spill it all, all my thoughts on it, my opinions about it, and hear what others think as well. This, though, is not the place to do so. Right now, I’m just trying to convince you to press play on it if you haven’t already, and experience this for yourself. I promise it will make you think of games like this in a whole new way.

In terms of accessibility, Bandersnatch is pretty much completely accessible, especially on PC. Much like the Minecraft Story Mode experience, the buttons are all clearly labeled if you play it on PC, a fact I wasn’t aware of when I wrote that original blog. There was a small bit of trouble with one particular ending path, but it wasn’t an accessibility problem. I simply didn’t figure out the layout of certain buttons fast enough to act upon them. Perhaps with this little hint, though, you can succeed where I did not. If you’re blind, and using a screen reader, the numbers you need are below all those clickables. That is all I am going to say about it. You’ll know when you encounter the situation I am speaking of.

I think that covers, as much as I can, my thoughts and feelings about Bandersnatch. I’ve seen some folks talking about how a door has opened here, and while I personally feel it began with Minecraft Story Mode, I very much still agree. This form of interactive entertainment works. Some don’t like it when video games play this way because they want a video game. Lots of button presses, jumping, flying, aiming, shooting, fighting, what have you. But if you go into an experience knowing in advance that it’s a thing you watch, and then there happens to be interactivity, it may actually be even better received. I hope you give Bandersnatch a try, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. Thanks so much for reading, and as always, continue to be awesome!

Gamebreak: Bird Box, a Movie Review

This is the sort of blog I don’t usually do. I don’t like limiting a blog’s audience, but I need to in this case. I say to you now, please do not read this blog unless you have seen the movie Bird Box in its entirety, as this is a spoilerific review. Consider this first paragraph a recommendation to see the movie, after which you can read the rest. 😊 Bird Box affected me in a profound way, which is why I write this, but I can’t explain that without spoiling it. So warnings given, everyone ready, here goes.

Bird Box is a movie that starts with a simple, though scary premise. An indescribable something causes a large portion of Earth’s population to commit suicide. It seems to happen when the victims see something, though we’re not sure what as no victim ever survives long enough to explain. There are hints that the victims may be seeing, or somehow reliving their worst losses or greatest fears, but this is never confirmed. I liked this approach, as I agree with the Stephen King philosophy that sometimes not knowing makes it better. I was hooked from the jump when Mallory, the main character, loses her sister in this way, ensuring she can no longer ignore the problem. She makes it into a house, and here we meet most of the rest of the principle cast, save one, Olympia, who shows up later. Tension is already high as Mallory is pregnant, as is Olympia when she arrives.

All this is intercut with the present, where we see Mallory with 2 children heading somewhere on a boat. There’s a clip in the very beginning speaking of a compound where it is safe, and how the only way there is down the river. The speaker says they don’t think they’ll make it with kids, but Mallory is trying anyway. What made things so desperate? Is one of these children hers? If so, is the other one Olympia’s? Where is she then? These questions are laid out in perfect fashion. The pacing of the movie feels smooth, and you get more and more information at a very acceptable rate.

As the movie progresses, you start to learn more. When Mallory is attacked while on the boat, and in a flashback the whole crew is attacked in the supermarket, we learn that not everyone is affected the same way. The attackers don’t wear blindfolds, and seem to want the others to look, to see what they see and allow it to affect them however it will. Later still, when the oh-so-loveable Gary shows up, we learn that these are the psychos. Those who were already psychotic see whatever this thing is as beautiful, and it changes them into warriors who work in favor of this entity. Gary is, of course, one of these, and it’s his intervention that results in poor Olympia’s death, leaving Mallory to take care of both children, one of which was indeed hers, the other is indeed Olympia’s.

I’m skipping over some things here, but it’s nearly time I get to the point. By this time, Mallory is alone save for the kids and Tom, an army vet who has given her some much-needed love in this dark time. Sadly, we already know she leaves alone, and though it takes 5 years, Tom eventually meets his end dealing with a band of 5 no-blindfold people.

The radio message speaking of the compound comes before this, though, and initially Mallory did not want to go at all. Tom’s death serves as the last straw for her, and she determinedly sets out on the boat, taking us smoothly back to the present.

So far, I’ve just described a wonderful movie, but now we get into why it so profoundly affected me. Off they go, the entity tormenting them all the while, whispering, and finally even yelling at Mallory to “look! Just look!” They use the voices of the dead, including Tom’s making it all the more difficult to resist. Nevertheless they do, and finally, finally, they reach the aforementioned compound which is… Here it comes… A school for the blind.

I literally punched the air in emotional, uncontrolled joy when I got to this part, and I’ll explain why. Here is a movie that portrays blind people in a proper, acceptable manner, and it does so in the space of about 5 minutes. These are the ending scenes, so not much time is given to them, but they don’t need much. It wasn’t just that the blind were the saviors, I actually don’t mean that. In the media these days, movies, games, TV shows, disability is treated as a problem, and the disabled are treated as helpless and scared, sometimes even as comedy props. Not so here. Here, the blind did the exact same thing every other survivor did. They worked to find shelter and safety, then reached out to help others where they could. Yes, the blind would technically be immune to this creature, which is helpful, but they went above and beyond to also protect the sighted, using a huge amount of birds as warning beacons so the sighted would know when the entities were approaching.

Again, the point I’m making is not about the blind being the saviors necessarily. The point I’m making is that Bird Box portrayed us as thinking, feeling human beings, which in today’s media is an incredible feat. I was moved, and I was proud that we were being shown in a positive light. It was an experience for me akin to reading Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, which is also excellent, by the way.

Speaking of books, there is a Bird Box book, upon which this movie was based. I’m being clear that this is a review of the movie, though, as I haven’t read it yet. That’s definitely in the cards soon, however. All I can say for now is that the movie is incredible. It’s scary, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful and it’s awful, and it portrays us in a wonderful way. It inspired me so much that I simply had to write about it, something that no other movie has ever done before. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little piece, and I hope that some of you stopped reading at the beginning to go watch Bird Box. As always, I’m open to comment and discussion, but if you contact me on Twitter, please stick to DM’s or keep it spoiler free, as I would want others to experience the same flow of emotion I did. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be 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!

Gamebreak: Audio Description

Audio Description is, in my opinion, an amazing idea. It’s something that helps blind and low vision folks like myself enjoy entertainment that, in some cases, we couldn’t enjoy otherwise. You may be surprised to learn that there are blind people who hate audio description. Some prefer only to absorb what they can through context. There’s nothing wrong with that, but personally I love it, at least the first time watching something. I’d like to talk more about it in a kind of general sense. There is no specific theme or point to this other than that I want to discuss, and maybe educate folks who don’t yet know some of these things. So with that in mind, here goes!

There is an art to audio description. It’s simple to say that it’s a person in the background of a movie or show describing what’s going on. That’s true, but to do it properly takes skill. You see, audio describers do not wish to step on the toes of any dialog or sound effects that might be present in the show or movie, but at the same time they want to keep their descriptions relevant and informative so the blind person watching understands things they need to know. So, where description is necessary, they will step on sound effects before stepping on dialog. You cannot expect a heavy action scene to be audio described without some tromping on sound effects.

Knowing this, it’s interesting to listen to something audio described, and consider the details that are left out, often only for a short time. For instance, audio describers will often not tell you exactly what a person looks like immediately upon their introduction. New characters are often introduced during tumultuous times, and in those cases, there isn’t enough time to cover that. So an audio describer will instead wait until a moment where the character or characters are performing an action that is easy to describe, but takes time. An example of this would be something like, “Jessie looks out the window contemplatively. She has long, dark, luxurious hair, and smokey gray eyes. She wears awesome clothing, and awesome shoes.”

OK, so the describer wouldn’t actually say awesome clothing and awesome shoes, they’d go into full detail, but you get the idea. They use that contemplative moment, which would likely contain no dialog, to give the viewer more information than they had before. They still have to prepare for the next moments of action, but they learn to use the time they have. I don’t mean to harp on this so much, but personally I find it quite impressive.

Now the thing is, audio description actually used to be fairly uncommon, especially in the US. I remember being a kid in the 90’s, and checking out a couple audio described movies from the library. Yes, the library. You couldn’t find them at video stores, I never knew a place where you could actually purchase them, but the library had a few. A single shelf, to be exact. That’s where I first encountered audio description, and I loved it right away, but it was sure frustrating not to be able to find it on the many, many movies I watched over the years.

I’m pretty sure the UK were one of the first to get a clue when it came to audio description. As the years went by, I kept hearing from friends in the UK that TV shows had it. Then I heard that their movie channels also had it, meaning the movies I loved were being audio described, but over there and not over here. Man oh man, that was painful. I half-joked that I was going to move to the UK for that very reason. Yeah, it was only half a joke. I really wanted to, at the time.

I think it was somewhere around 2009 when the US finally started to figure out that audio description was actually kinda awesome. Some folks in the US had the right idea. Some TV networks like Fox did start supporting audio description before 2009, but I feel like 2009 was the year it really started to click. Suddenly, DVD’s featuring audio description were hitting store shelves. There weren’t many, but they were there, and I remember being shocked every time we found one. It was still in the early days then. A couple years later, iTunes released audio described versions of a few movies, all of which I believe were Disney films. Understand that these were actually separate versions of the movies, specifically made with the audio description track as the primary audio track. Separate purchases entirely.

Fast forward to today, and now I’m overrun with audio described content. iTunes got rid of that old method of providing audio description, and started adding the description audio track to the same versions of movies everyone else was buying. As of a check I did just yesterday, using the audio description project’s web site, iTunes now has a staggering 800+ audio described movies. Furthermore, they’re apparently averaging 18 new additions to their catalog of audio described movies per month. Ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome!

Just in case that’s not enough, Netflix is off and running with audio description these days. Every single Netflix original show and movie gets the audio description treatment, meaning we can fully enjoy all of their content on the day of its release right along with everyone else. To us, that’s a huge, huge deal. Amazon is also working on audio descriptions, but they have a ways to go before getting close to the amazing work Netflix has done. Netflix even goes out of their way to try and get the AD tracks for the licensed content they add every month. It’s quite awesome, and very much appreciated.

There’s even a little audio description project I’d like to give a shout out to, which you can find at youdescribe.org. The goal is to actually describe Youtube videos. Viewers can then listen to the described versions, and even request descriptions for videos that aren’t currently audio described. It’s all done by volunteers too, so anyone who is willing to help out can record an audio description for a video. Descriptions can be rated, though, to help avoid the haters who would record trollish things. It’s an awesome idea, and apparently has gained a lot of traction, as you can find quite a few videos there.

I think that about covers my current thoughts on audio description. In summary, I’m so happy with where we are with it right now. I’m overrun, yes, but that’s a wonderful, wonderful hing. Better to have too many choices than not enough. It’s a good time to be a movie fan. Thanks again for reading, guys, and continue to be awesome!