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!

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.

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.

The Platinum Wireless Headset and 3D Audio: My Uncharted Adventure

When I first heard that the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset would support not only 7.1 surround sound, but true 3D audio, I knew I had to check it out. The potential for 3D audio in video games, especially for the blind, is staggering, and I wanted to see if playstation could make it a reality. What follows is a general review of the headset itself, along with my experience with its 3D audio feature in Uncharted 4.

I liked the feel of the headset as soon as I pulled it from its padded box. It’s not too heavy, with large ear cups to ensure the best sound possible, and even before you actually wear it, the feel of the padding lets you know it’ll be comfortable. This impression was proven accurate when I put it on for the first time. It is comfortable, and light enough while on your head that you don’t feel weighed down by a bulky piece of equipment. I was already looking forward to this.

The controls turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate, and to use. Though each control is the same shape, they are all well-separated from one another, and each is tactily different. The mute button for the microphone, for instance, is a little more inset than the rest of the buttons. The The power switch, which doubles as your switch for presets, has a couple of obvious bumps on it. And all of the controls, except for the switch that activates or deactivates virtual surround, are on the left side, making it even less confusing.

In case you manage to acquire one of these headsets, and you’re one of my primary audience, let’s go through what you’ll find starting from the bottom of the left earpiece. Nearest the bottom is a 3.5 MM jack, used with the supplied patch cable to plug the headset into any standard headphone jack. Next to that, the USB Mini port, used to charge it. Then, in order, heading to the top, we have the master volume buttons, the mute button, the power/presets switch, and the game audio/chat audio balance buttons. Down tilts the balance toward chat audio, up tilts it toward game audio. And as mentioned, the only thing you’ve got on the right is the switch for virtual surround. Up is on, down is off, though you’ll hardly need me to tell you that once you hear it.

And speaking of the sound, it’s fantastic. Sure, the first game I played was Mortal Kombat X, as anyone who follows my Youtube channel can probably guess, and that game doesn’t represent the height of surround sound, but still, it sounded great. Every hit sounded more impactful because of the bass that headset pumps out, and the surround sound did lend itself a little to the 2D fighting environment. When I tossed my opponent across the screen, I felt like I had done so. That game has great audio, and the Platinum headset made it sound even better.

And still on the topic of sound, I should mention for the visually impaired that the headset does possess some identifiable beeps and boops when you interact with it. Mute the mic and you get one beep, unmute it and you get a lower tone beep. More beeps when you press the volume and balance buttons, and some helpful power and connected tones when you flip the switch. The whole thing is very easy to use, just gotta make sure that dongle’s plugged in, and you’re off.

Now, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time for my take on the 3D audio supported by the Platinum Headset. As of this writing, the only game that supports the headset’s 3D audio feature is Uncharted 4. Well, I haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to someone play the other Uncharted games, (and unfortunately they aren’t accessible to the blind), but I still had to try it. So, with the help of my fantastic fiance to enable some of Uncharted 4’s famous accessibility features, (not actually intended for the blind but helpful nonetheless), I fired it up.

Let’s get the big statement out of the way first. The 3D audio works. You really can hear things above and below you, and all around you. Even in 7.1 surround, sounds tend to emanate from specific places. The 3D audio seems to really put sound all around you, which is awesome.

However, I have to say that, as awesome as it is, and as helpful as I believe it will be in games, it isn’t perfect. Initially, we had the aim setting set to toggle, which is an accessibility option that allows you to press a button once to activate aiming mode, and press it again to turn it off. While set to this mode, I attempted to locate my enemies after having presumably toggled the aiming mode on, and could not do so, even when audio told me they had to be right in front of me. I am not sure why this is, and it could even be that, as a blind gamer, there are fundamentals of shooting in a game that I don’t understand. Regardless, aiming worked a thousand times better when we switched it back to Hold, where you hold a button to aim instead. The aim assist snapped to each target for me, and I was able to take them out.

Stepping back in time a bit, though, I want to talk a bit more about the 3D audio, and how it did help me. In the beginning, you have to swim a little to locate your companion, who is working on your damaged boat. Because he calls to you at first, I was able to orient on his position. Then, by listening for the sounds of his work, I was able to find him. This in itself says a lot for the potential for 3D audio. In a truly immersive environment, and it seems with perhaps just a little in-game help, who knows what we’ll be able to do? I’ll tell ya this, even being blind, the sound of our enemies’ boat approaching from the far left, and stopping right in front of us as our companion frantically works behind us was appropriately ominous.

Flashing forward again, once we got aiming working, I was able to take out our enemies. Then, through some rather typical blind person trial and error gameplay, I was able to start the boat we leave on, (I believe it’s actually the opposition’s boat though I could be wrong), and drive away. The 3D audio didn’t really take part here, I just tried to turn regularly in hopes of avoiding objects. Left a little, then right a little, and so on. Then, something happens, (no spoilers here), that moves you to the next part of the game. Unfortunately, this is where my journey ended.

The next part of the game involves a significant amount of platforming, which even 3D audio could not help with in the slightest. After all, regular platforms, rooftops in this case I believe, don’t make noise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly stubborn. I tried. I tried a lot. But it was not to be.

Not wanting to be done testing the awesome 3D audio feature, I got a little help through that bit, and moved onto the next, which involved stealth. This didn’t work out much better, as it took a bunch of questions for me to figure out what I was supposed to do here. I finally figured out how to take cover against a wall that is next to you the whole time, (more on that later), and got through the first section of that. After that, though, I could progress no further without being seen. The audio just was not enough. That was the true end of my 3D audio expedition, though for the sake of playing the game blind, it really ended when I reached the platforming bit.

So let’s go back to that wall, and talk about the things the Platinum Headset’s 3D audio feature doesn’t do. As I said, it’s not perfect. Distance seems to be an issue, as although it can project certain sounds to what seems to be very far away, it seems as though there’s some kind of threshold there. If something is very far in front of you, the 3D audio may project it to sound like it’s very, very far in front of you. However, once it reaches a certain point nearer you, the sound puts it seemingly right in front. I suspect this was part of my aiming problem, though again that’s difficult to verify. My evidence for this is that the call from my companion in the beginning just seemed to be in the virtual surround field, but the agonized call of someone who saw me accidentally plunge to my death off a rooftop seemed remarkably far away.

The other thing it doesn’t do, though it makes sense as technology just isn’t quite there yet, is echo properly. There is a term that, to my knowledge, was coined by Stevie Wonder. That term is sound shadows. It is a name for the way you can hear how sound reflects off of objects around you if you listen, and it’s something a blind person uses all the time. Ever see a blind person round a corner without having touched the wall with hand or cane, and wondered how they did it? That’s how. We have trained ourselves to hear sound reflect off of the wall next to us. When that disappears, we know that wall has ended. We can use this same technique to gauge a person’s height, as obviously surrounding sound reflects off of people too. But in 3D game audio, this does not exist.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find this to be surprising. A system like the one that would be required to create this effect would be massive. Every single object, person, and wall would have to have their own pocket of sound-blocking that follows them around. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, as true, binaural 3D recorded audio actually DOES simulate sound shadows. Listen to the 3D audio dramatization of Stephen King’s The Mist, and if you know what to listen for, you’ll know what I mean.

Because of these things, though, I was unable to tell both how far away I was from the wall I had to take cover against, let alone that there was a wall there to begin with. Had I been able to hear the sound shadows of objects around me, or the way my own jumps echoed off of those objects, I may have been able to intuit where my next platform was. I could still be wrong, and that might not always be enough as you could be jumping a great distance sometimes, but I think all this needs to be said. And hey, as difficult as I understand this would be, it’s never a bad idea to give audio designers something to strive for in the future.

In short, “it’ll sound like you’re really there” is very difficult to sell to a blind person, but again, please please don’t misunderstand, this was still a pretty great experience. I strongly believe that 3D audio could be one of the keys to blind accessibility of video games, and this was still enough to encourage that belief. In other words, it’s a great start, and I’m OK with that… For now.

Now, this is also a review of the Platinum Headset itself, and I think I’ve covered its many positives, so before I go, I must mention the one and only negative I have found. This negative technically isn’t about the physical headset. Rather, it’s about the Headset Companion app for PS4. This app, most unfortunately indeed, is completely inaccessible to the blind. Though the PS4 now possesses text to speech capability, and though that ability extends to 1 of their built-in apps as of this writing, (TV and Video if you’re curious), it does not work in the Headset Companion. Why does this matter? It matters because developers have programmed presets for their games, which can only be downloaded with this app, and those presets change the way those games sound to exactly what the developers wanted them to sound like. To a blind person who cares very, very much about game audio, this is a huge deal, and a huge disappointment that we cannot use it.

But, as most accessibility disappointments do, this only makes me want to strive harder for accessibility, so I will. I will focus on all the positives for now, (the headset is truly great, and hey, I got past the bit with the boat in Uncharted 4), and I will do what I can to make those negatives go away. I’m not going to give this thing a review score, as it’s also a bit of a blog post, but no matter what you came here for, I hope you got something out of it. Thanks very much for reading, game on, and continue to be awesome!