Leaning IN: Game Trailers and Blind Gamers

Occasionally, I get asked what I get out of a game trailer. The answer is a complicated one, so what better way to discuss it than in a blog? Well, I suppose I could do a highly-edited video where I narrate over a series of shots of me in random locations, but… Nah, we’re just gonna go with the blog. I hope some game industry folks read this one, because I personally believe notes can be taken from it. With that, let’s go.

Game trailers are an interesting beast. We blind gamers don’t hate them, but there a few beats a game trailer has to hit before we can truly appreciate them. Let’s highlight those things by talking about the worst kind of game trailer for a blind person. It’s pretty simple, really. If the audio of a trailer primarily consists of music, it’s a bad trailer for us. Luckily for you, I am prepared to provide examples. Say hello to the resident evil 7 announcement trailer, found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YetHMnhnhM

We can take a couple things from this trailer. The ambience of rain pelting a roof is gloomy, the length of time the character takes to answer the phone is suspicious, and the way he says “She’s back,” is ominous. After that, guess what? We’re done. The trailer fades into music, and while the song is creepy and contains some discordant audio samples, we are told literally nothing. Even when it’s all over, we don’t even know what game we just watched a trailer for. The character, and thus his voice, are unfamiliar to us, so we have no association whatsoever. This trailer, which got loads of hype afterward, is actually useless to us.

There are many trailers like that. EA, sadly, is often guilty of trailers without meaningful audio. Now, though, let’s climb the ladder a bit. I introduce you to, and link you to, the E32018 Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXaogHDLosI

This trailer is better. Why? Because we have narration. We have a story to follow that the trailer is telling us. If we’ve been paying attention, we probably even know what game this trailer is for, as it literally mentioned the year 2077. There are sound effects in the background, and while we have no idea if those are actual gameplay sounds, we can determine that some pretty cool stuf is happening. And yeah, OK, the music is bumpin. Still, it could be argued that we don’t know enough. While we’re getting a feel for the game’s tone thanks to that narrator, we don’t actually know what’s going on visually. I remember how cool people were saying this trailer looked after it dropped, talking about the blades that come out of your wrists and such, and I was just like, “Huh? Wow, that’s cool.” The talk after is the first I knew of it. So this trailer was better, yes, but it generated curiosity more than it generated hype. “Oh man, this sounds cool. I wonder what’s happening? What does that sound mean?” And so on.

Now it’s time to show a trailer that can definitely generate hype, even for a blind gamer. The third rung of our trailer ladder. I now give you the E3 2018 Last of Us 2 Gameplay Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btmN-bWwv0A

Now this is one to talk about, folks. There’s no narration here, so at first there is some confusion. But keep listening, and you soon hear the familiar voice of Elly, one of the stars of the Last of Us Part 1, and this game’s protagonist. Suddenly, you know just what game this is. So you listen harder, trying to glean what information you can, and boy oh boy is there a lot to glean. Even the party here sounds full of people, their voices coming from all around, showing you how good this game’s audio will be. That is then bolstered as we move further into the trailer, where we get to hear Elly sneaking about and stealthily taking out her foes. The audio hear is a marvel, showing off positioning and echo effects, and excellent use of character breaths and sound effects. There are times when I questioned whether what we were hearing was gameplay, only to realize it was thanks to the return of a couple sound effects from the first game. This trailer is mindblowing, and despite having no narration, does its job of generating hype for the game. I have watched this trailer multiple times myself, because there is so much to pick up from its audio. This is a good trailer.

There is of course, a glaring problem with this trailer, however. I knew what it was for both because I recognized Elly’s voice, but even before that, because I recognized the song that was playing as part of Sony’s interesting presentation of the trailer when it was being shown live at E3. The Last of Us main theme was played live before the trailer was shown, and it’s a theme I am familiar with, as my fiancé has played the first game twice. However, had I not possessed that information, had I not recognized that theme or that voice, I would probably still love the trailer, but have no idea at all what game it was for. In this way, its lack of narration is still a problem. But don’t worry, there is one more rung on this ladder.

We now come to the reason I decided to write this article. The very trailer that cemented in my head what I wanted this article to be. And, interestingly enough, we do this by going back to a game we’ve already talked about, Cyberpunk 2077. Beware, if you click the link below, and haven’t seen this gameplay trailer yet, you’re going to be sucked in for 48 straight minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjF9GgrY9c0

Seriously, folks, I just did the search to find that trailer, clicked the link so I could get that address to paste in here, and was still tempted to watch it again myself. This trailer has everything, even if you’re blind. Right off the bat, about 20 seconds in, the narrator, (yes the whole thing is narrated), directly introduces the game. There is no question of what we’re watching here. As we move forward, the narrator remains a solid reference point for events occurring in the trailer, keeping us in the know about what’s going on, or what mechanic is being shown. With nearly complete knowledge and understanding of the gameplay we’re hearing, we can then proceed to admire the audio. We can listen to how every dialog choice doesn’t seem to break the flow. How everything just smoothly moves like a cutscene despite all of it being gameplay. We can imagine what an entire, huge open-world RPG will be like if it’s all as good as this demo, and we can struggle to contain that awesomeness in our heads. It is a real struggle, let me tell you. Even in this day and age, I find it difficult to imagine a 100+ hour game, assuming this reaches the scale of the Witcher 3, that maintains this level of awesomeness.

Anyway, the point is that this trailer’s amazing. It uses narration to guide us while giving us a healthy dose of actual gameplay. It’s essentially perfect for us. Now, I’m not saying all trailers need to be 48 minutes, but this type of trailer, with these specific qualities, works wonders to excite us about a game. Before, I was just curious. Now, I’m completely sold. This is one of those games I will ache for, though I know I won’t be able to play it. It’s a happy sad feeling all at once.

So take note, trailer people. You can show us your game in a trailer too, just give us audio. Honestly, it’s actually sort of baffling when you encounter trailers like the RE7 announcement, as a lot of developers are coming to understand that audio is as important as graphics. It’s as though the people who decide what’s in a trailer are still behind. All of this could probably be fixed with audio described versions of game trailers, but I don’t think the industry has reached that level quite yet. I really, really hope you’ve found this blog intriguing, and thanks as always for reading it. Continue to be awesome!

Shenmue: A Quiet Revolution

Shenmue is an intriguing series, and possibly a bigger deal in the game industry than you realize. You couldn’t be blamed for not thinking so, as it actually did quite poorly upon its initial release. The sad reason for this is that the Sega Dreamcast, the console upon which Shenmue was originally released, was up against some stiff competition at the time, and wasn’t ultimately fairing that well. Nevertheless, Shenmue remains one of those landmark moments in gaming. Let’s talk a little about why.

Though both Shenmue 1 and Shenmue 2 have relatively poor audio quality, bad voice acting, and from what I’ve heard, subpar graphics, the games achieved things that, though uncommon back then, are very, very common today. Shenmue was, for instance, the very first game to coin the term QTE, or Quicktime Event. These are defined as events that flow like a cutscene, but have moments where you must press a button within a certain time limit to succeed. Failing to press the button would result in something unfortunate happening, all the way up to the possibility of your character’s death. These things are ridiculously common today, and are in fact the basis for entire games in some cases. Look at Telltale and their library of games. Look at David Cage’s games, such as the recent Detroit: Become Human. That’s almost literally how the gameplay of those games works, and it all began with this little Dreamcast phenomenon.

Also, as hard as this might be to believe in this day and age, open world exploration games were also uncommon back in the day. The idea that you can explore the entirety of the game’s world, enter nearly every building, and interact with every citizen was astounding in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It’s more the norm these days, but this kind of freedom blew the minds of Shenmue’s fanbase back then. Even now, playing its rereleased versions, it seems pretty impressive to me. The fact that you can ask any of the game’s many, many characters about the person or thing you’re currently looking for, and even if it’s not helpful, most of them have a unique response to the question, is quite amazing even by today’s standards. While most games today will allow you to have a unique conversation with their characters, it’s often specific to one event or place, but in Shenmue, you can focus everyone’s attention on your goal. Neat stuff.

I believe Shenmue and Shenmue 2 were part of a quiet revolution in what could be expected from a game. They may not have done well in terms of sales, but I believe the industry saw the accomplishments they made, and improved upon them over time. I believe Shenmue is the reason some other games exist today, and I think it deserves a lot of credit for that.

We now have Shenmue 3 on the horizon, due to be released in August of 2019. My thoughts on Shenmue 3 are a bit different. I do not expect Shenmue 3 to innovate as 1 and 2 did. I expect that Shenmue 3 is more about fan service, about continuing Rio Hazuki’s story, than it is about innovation. Keep in mind that this is a game funded by Kickstarter, and isn’t being made on a super high budget in comparison to many games today. Also keep in mind what it’ll be up against in the open world scene. You know, that massive open world RPG called Cyberpunk 2077? Based on the recent footage that was revealed, and the explanations that went along with that footage, I don’t think Shenmue 3 will stand up to Cyberpunk 2077 as a comparison. I believe Shenmue would get pummeled in that instance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since its predecessors were at least partially responsible for Cyberpunk’s open structure, but it is an interesting observation of how things have changed in the game industry.

Nevertheless, I do think Shenmue 3 will be good. I think it’ll be fun, and I think it’ll be a worthy conclusion to Rio Hazuki’s story. And hey, maybe I’ll be completely wrong and it’ll blow all of our minds with its crazy new ideas. Eitehr way, I’m still looking forward to it. Shenmue’s beginning was and is a great one, and I’m glad it found a new home on modern consoles. It is deserving of its legacy and its following. If you, dear reader, haven’t checked it out yet, give it a look or a listen. You might be surprised. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Commentary: The Most Undocumented Accessibility Feature

Continuing the sports theme from my previous blog about MLB, today I want to talk about commentary. These days it is a standard part of any sports game, and has been since the N64 era, but today we’re going to talk about what it is in the context of blind gaming. That’s right, kids, it’s an accessibility feature. “What?” the sighted readers gasp. “It is? But… But how? It wasn’t made just for the blind!” True, but it serves that purpose for us. Let’s discuss.

One of the primary themes I use when discussing the challenge of blind accessibility with game developers is information. In most cases, blind accessibility involves figuring out what information we don’t have, and then figuring out how we’re going to get it. That is a simplistic explanation, but I think the principle holds up pretty well most times. While, to the sighted player, commetary is just a part of the presentation that makes their sports game more immersive, to us it is a source of information. Think of all the things commetary tells you these days. In Football and Baseball, it gives you a real understanding of how a play is going. Yes, that’s what play-by-play commentary is supposed to do, but the point is just that it does so, and it is a feature that can be turned off.

Play-by-play aside, commentary in newer sports titles takes it a step further, giving us access to information we simply didn’t have in the old days, like player and team stats. How cool is it to get an audio rundown of how a player is doing so far this year, or how they did last year, or find out what the team’s schedule is for the next week? Trust me, if you can’t see it, it’s pretty freaking cool.

Unfortunately, not all commentary is good commentary. The WWE2K series, for example, has managed to do something truly amazing. They have actually managed to make their commentary worse with every passing year. Do you know which game has better, more helpful commentary than, let’s say, WWE2K18? I’ll tell you. WWF Warzone for the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 has better commentary. It’s completely true.

The problem here is that 2K chose to focus the commentary on the side banter that sometimes happens during a wrestling match rather than the actual wrestling. What comments are made about the match are simplistic and unhelpful, like “Oh that was a great strike there.” If I’m not the one playing, or if I’m involved in a match with several wrestlers in the ring at once, I have no idea who threw this great strike, or who just did that incredible reversal… Sometimes I don’t even know who performed a finishing move, because they only say something like, “And there it is!” There it is indeed.

The banter itself is not necessarily the issue. I don’t actually dislike the banter, as it really is a part of wrestling’s presentation. The commentary is so focused on that, though, that there is no discussion of the actual moves, or of the wrestlers’ progress beyond the existence of rivalries, or their most recent win or loss.

The reason that Warzone, or its sequel Attitude have better commentary is because it is focused inward on the match currently taking place. They talk about the moves, they talk when someone is out on their feet, they have loads of responses to in-match events. These are games from 1997 or so, but I’d take their commentary any day.

The thing is, it’s appalling that the WWE2K series has such bad commentary. Last year, 2K went on and on about the auditory overhaul the game was getting. They also said the game would now be using the commentary engine from the NBA2K series. There is exactly 0 evidence that this was actually done. If you’re reading this, and are unfamiliar with either of these game franchises, do me a favor. Take a second and look for a gameplay video of NBA2K18. Listen to that commentary. Listen to how it flows in almost a natural way, and how sometimes small audio files are combined to form whole sentences. When listing some stats, for instance, they’ll have a basic sentence structure, filled in with the correct numbers for that player’s actual stats. All of this flows seamlessly as if it were one. You actually have to be listening for the breaks, or you won’t even notice them. Listen to that. Then find a gameplay video of WWE2K18, and listen to that mess. If you’ve done that, please comment and tell me if you believe WWE2K is using the same backend commentary system, because I sure don’t.

Ultimately, this article is not about wrestling games, though I think they served very well to demonstrate the point. This article is about commentary in general, and why it is so important to us blind gamers. Good commentary is so often overlooked by critics. Almost every sports game review I’ve watched just criticizes the commentary of any sports game, even the ones with amazing commentary, saying it’s repetitive. Of course it’s repetitive. The announcers who did the voiceover work to create the commentary for these games only spent a finite number of hours recording that commentary, and thus could only create a finite number of total responses. Game critics seem to think that commentary should be done live by the real announcers in realtime for every single game that is being played by a human being. It’s a ridiculous argument.

It doesn’t matter that we occasionally hear the same messages over and over again. In a game with good commentary, (MLB: The Show is another example of this), the important thing is that the messages are there in the first place. They give us much of the information we need, and thus, by the very existence of commentary, sports games become more accessible. As always, feel free to comment here or on Twitter or Facebook with any feedback you have, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

MLB: Road Away from the Show

Regarded as perhaps the best baseball simulation ever created, MLB the Show is held up high every year for its continued improvements on what is already a fantastic product. That is, unless you’re a blind gamer. If you are, you may think just about the opposite these days. The reason I want to discuss MLB: The Show, though, is because it’s an interesting case. The games in the franchise used to be very, very accessible, but seemingly year over year, their accessibility for blind gamers has steadily decreased. Let’s discuss.

Basically, what it ultimately comes down to is that MLB: The Show has perfectly simulated itself right out of blind accessibility. It’s very, very difficult to fault the game for becoming less accessible over the years, because the major reason for that is that it has become more realistic. The sounds of an incoming pitch, formerly a tremendous help, are now much quieter, because they would be in real life. There are new mechanics for bat positioning to get the perfect swing, and with those come insane amounts of math the game does when you swing the bat to determine just how the ball is hit and what happens as a result. This of course means that you should try to use these precise swinging mechanics, which of course means you must know exactly how the ball is coming at you… I think you get the idea.

Certain other features, like the guess pitch feature, have been toned down, at least where audio is concerned. The indication we had guessed correctly used to be much more apparent than it has recently become. Pitch speed, again realistically, has become a lot more variable. Back in the days of MLB2006, we could just time the speed of just about any pitch and be right most of the time. Now speeds vary drastically depending on pitch and pitcher both, which lead us to use the guess pitch feature and always guess fastball. This way if you were right, you would know to swing quickly. Now even that workaround works less often.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There are still helpful features. I admit the last MLB the show game I played was MLB2016, but I believe the Autofielding feature is still there. The absence of this feature would make the game all but unplayable without major accessibility changes. Basically this meant that if the ball was hit, your players would automatically go chasing after it and make the catch if they could. This didn’t function as an automatic win, because player stats could affect their success, but it is a wonderful help to the blind. The commentary of MLB The Show, as well, has always been spectacular.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I get it. I understand completely that MLB: The Show continues to be a wonderful franchise year after year, with every game garnering ridiculous amounts of critical success for its realism and attention to detail. The loss of the things that made the game playable make sense, as they were never specifically features designed for us. I will also say that I sincerely appreciate the fact that the MLB team has worked hard on accessibility for other types of disabilities. It is my understanding that people with motor impairments can play MLB: The Show with just 1 button. That is a wonderful, awesome thing, for which they deserve the praise they’ve received.

Still, I can’t help but wish I could get back into playing MLB: The Show again. I still love the sport of Baseball. I would love to pick up the latest edition and discover that its playability had actually increased. Perhaps someday, as I continue to pursue the dream of helping to make games accessible to the blind, I will be able to convince our friends at Sony San Diego to give it a shot. If that ever happens, I’ll gladly take a brand new ride on the road to the Show.

Thanks for reading. As always, your feedback and support are appreciated. I’m not just writing these things for myself. Keep smiling, and continue to be awesome!

Resident Evil 6: Surviving Blind

Resident Evil 6 is an interesting beast. It is an example I have used in multiple conversations when discussing the phenomenon I call accidental accessibility. The reason for this is that its accessibility is very clearly so accidental as to almost be hilarious. In fact, in presentations, I have even made jokes about it. Still, the fact that it’s there is awesome, and since this blog exclusively covers awesome things, we’re going to talk about it.

First up, I should mention its menus. While they will require memorization or a menu guide, they do not wrap. Or more accurately, they do wrap, but in the perfect way for a blind person. I equate them to the menus of the Xbox360, which don’t wrap if you’re holding the arrow key up or down and reach the top or bottom, but do wrap if you then release the arrow and press it again. This is the perfect way to do something like this, because it means that we can always locate the top or bottom of a menu, but can still get to an option we know is in the opposite area quickly if we need to. It’s a nice touch.

Second, we need to cover an option in the game’s settings, which causes the game to automatically perform some of the mor simplistic Quicktime events automatically. There are keywords here, those being some, and simplistic. This means that there are a plethora of the game’s quicktime sequences that are not covered here. Those will have to be learned, and in some cases struggled through, but this helps.

Now we get to the game itself. This is where things get crazy. The primary reason Resident Evil 6 is accessible is an interesting design choice the developers made. There is a button you can press to bring up a view of the area map, with an arrow pointing you toward your objective. That in itself doesn’t sound very useful. The thing is, as the arrow points toward your objective, it also snaps the camera in that direction. And as it turns out, movement in this game is dependent on where the camera is pointing. Therefore, if you hold down the map button, and press the thumbstick forward, you will casually saunter toward your objective.

I say that you casually saunter because of the drawback of playing the game this way. This is the part that makes it clear the fact that this works is an accident. You see, visually on screen when you press the map button, the character looks down at their PDA as if the map were located there. While they are doing this, they cannot move quickly. You the player are not meant to hold the button constantly. You are meant to take a look at where the arrow and camera are pointing, and move on. Not us blind gamers, though. Also, there is no actual pathfinding in place for movement like this, so we tend to get stuck on tables and stairs and protruding objects of any kind, but a quick back up, move off to the side, try again tactic usually fixes this.

Now here’s an accidental accessibility feature that’s kind of going to suck if you don’t have access to a handy sighted person. The game is a bit more fast-paced if you are doing co-op with a sighted individual, and here’s why. During the game, whether or not you’re playing Co-op, pressing the circle or B button orients the camera, and thus you, onto your co-op partner. When playing alone, the partner doesn’t do anything without you, so they’ll never be ahead of where you are. But if you bring in a sighted friend to lead the charge, you can hold circle as you would hold the map button, and your character will follow theirs step for step. It’s pretty awesome.

Now as I’m sure you know, Resident Evil is about zombies. Resident Evil 6 in particular, having strayed from the franchise’s survival horror roots, is more about killing them in all sorts of fun ways. The good news here, though, is that shooting zombies in this game is not only possible for the blind, but very, very fun. Firstly, the surround sound in RE6 is good enough that, if you’re wearing a surround sound headset or have a good system, you can orient pretty well on zombies nearby, and take them out. Even if you don’t have a setup like that, though, every character has a move called a quickshot, which is an autoaimed shot at your nearest target. It does take some of your stamina meter to use, but it’s a good way to start when a hoard is coming at you.

Even executing awesome melee attacks is possible. You can use surround sound to orient and then charge your enemies, dealing some quick damage with a melee combo, and you can even execute counter attacks if you’re fast enough. Every enemy has a well-defined attack sound, which includes a setup for their swing at you. Some are quicker than others of course, but they’ve all got one, and if you can press the melee button just as the attack is coming, you’ll execute an awesome counter. If you become amazing at this, it will actually serve you if you try out the game’s mercenaries mode, which adds 5 seconds to your remaining time for every counter you execute.

Now let’s be clear on this. There are still accessibility issues with this game. Some of the quicktime events not covered by that feature I mentioned earlier are quite tough, relying on precisely pressing a button when a meter is full, or a cursor is in the right spot. No items in the game make any kind of ambient noise, so while we might be able to get to our objective, we miss a million things along the way, including ammo which is of course quite valuable. Finally, there are entire sequences in that game that are nearly impossible if you’re blind, such as a moment where you have to shoot churchbells which of course don’t make a noise until you shoot them, or a moment where you have to line up your gun’s laser site with a reflective disc so the beam reflects the correct way. These are obvious problems which you will likely need assistance to pass, but in spite of them I still have to recommend this game. The playable parts of it outweigh the nonplayable ones, it’s fun and fast-paced at times even though you’re stuck walking slow, and at least on the PS4, you can recruit any willing sighted individual that also has a PS4 to help, as they can take control with Shareplay.

Resident Evil 6 remains a prime example of accidental accessibility. It was not loved by critics, it was not loved by classic Resident Evil fans, but I can honestly say that it remains one of my favorite console games today. If you can look past its deviation from traditional Resident Evil, it has a solid story, excellent voice acting and production values, amazing audio design, and yes, we can basically play it. As always, feel free to contact me with any additional questions you might have after reading this, and thanks for being awesome!