Gaming Blind in Virtual Reality

Alright guys, let’s talk about VR. Yeah, you heard me correctly. VR, or virtual reality, isn’t necessarily something you’d associate with totally blind gaming, even if you’ve heard me talk about games, or read any of my previous work. VR is a concept that is just too out there, right? It’s just… Just too visual, right? Well, I’ve spent a couple days taking a deep dive into VR thanks to the Playstation VR, and I’m going to do my best to answer those inquisitive thoughts you may or may not be thinking. Let’s get virtual!

First, let’s talk setup, as that’s the first thing you must do, both when you power up the VR for the first time, and upon the start of every game. This part of VR, unfortunately, is a pretty major stumbling block. At least in the case of the Playstation VR unit, there is no way to configure the device without sighted assistance. The Playstation 4’s text to speech feature does not read the configuration screens, and even if it did, it is essentially impossible to be certain the camera’s view is centered correctly without being able to see the screen.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t even cover individual games. As I said earlier, each game has to be calibrated separately, and each calibration is unique, because each game is looking for something different. Some of them only track your head. Others track your head and 1 or 2 controllers, all of which must be calibrated. This is a major problem for the totally blind like myself, but not necessarily an impossible one. Audio is a powerful tool, and I believe it could be used effectively to help the totally blind calibrate individual games, and even the VR itself. Perhaps a sound could play from the area the VR currently perceives as the center. That, along with talking configuration screens, would help us to adjust things properly. There are even a couple examples of semiaccessible calibration in a couple games, but I’ll get to those later. Don’t worry, we’re not nearly done yet.

Let us now put setup aside for a bit, and talk games, starting with my first Playstation VR experience, Farpoint. Farpoint is an action adventure game where you explore a distant planet searching for your lost comrades, and fighting enemies along the way. I had the privilege of trying this particular game using the super awesome Farpoint gun controller. I mention this because one of the things I learned very quickly is that I did NOT know how to hold a gun. I sometimes held it too low, forcing my aim to the ground, I sometimes held it right but aimed too high… It was something I had to get used to.

Another thing I had to learn is how to pretend to look at things because, you know, I don’t. I was quickly informed that I often looked up instead of straight on. I can’t really explain why I did this except to say that it felt straight on enough to me at the time. I just needed a little adjustment there, and all was well.

It needs to be said, though, that turning your head to face a sound you hear, which you can do thanks to the positional audio used in VR games along with head tracking, feels very natural to me. Once I got past my tendency to look up, I had little trouble “looking” over at things. In fact, the positional audio is so awesome that I was able to locate the first data point I had to scan, as it emits a sound. None of the other scan points do this, though, which makes me slightly sad. Still, even this little bit of success felt like a breakthrough.

Now, as mentioned, there are enemies in this game. Enemies which you must dispatch with great haste, or be murdered by. Guess what? I was actually able to dispatch several of these. Why? Because of the VR’s controller tracking, and again, positional audio. If you’re reading this, and you’re also totally blind, I ask you to stop and consider this for a second. We struggle with modern day shooters because most of the time we don’t actually know where we are aiming. We can throw the right thumbstick around and hope for the best, but we don’t actually know. However, when you’re holding a controller that is being tracked by a camera, and you hear a sound in a particular direction, when you swivel your controller in that direction and fire off some shots, and the sounds of those shots come from the spot you’re aiming at, aiming in a shooter becomes a real possibility. You heard it here first. VR actually helps when the game is a shooter. Believe it or not, more on that later.

So, with some navigational help from my sighted fiancé, (there’s no way for the blind to tell when they’re stuck up against a rock, or where the rocks are so they don’t get stuck), I proceeded for quite some time, finding new holograms to scan and view, and killing more pesky bugs. As an additional note, when your scanner is active, its sound changes when you’re moving it over one of these holograms. This, too, was extremely helpful. Alas, I did eventually hit a wall when I had to face some very evil creatures that spit a horrible substance at you. It is extremely painful if it hits you, and it gets difficult to dodge when there are a lot of them. The preferred execution method for these baddies is rockets, which I mostly just killed myself with thanks to the aforementioned rocks. One should not fire a rocket when one is directly up against a rock. Just saying.

And so, this is where my journey with Farpoint ended, but I had no regrets. It was a productive journey indeed. It was one that lasted for longer than it would have had the game not been VR, of that I am sure. Now that gives you something to ponder, doesn’t it?

Speaking of pondering, I tried another game called Headmaster! Get it? Pondering… you ponder with your brain which is… Oh never mind. Anyway, this game had one of the examples of semiaccessible calibration. Why? Because a friendly announcer voice actually told you to look left, and look right to calibrate. That, friends, is how easy it can be sometimes. This game, you see, is controlled entirely with your head.

The idea is a VR soccer headball simulator. You are at an academy that specifically trains you how to head the ball. A simple concept on the surface, but apparently you move onto practicing with fireballs and such. Keep in mind this was only the demo. Still, I didn’t find the game particularly playable for the blind, head-only gameplay or no. While you can hear the balls being launched your way, it is difficult to really follow their angle. There is audio of the incoming ball just before it reaches you, but it doesn’t seem to exactly correlate to its angle of approach. If there were more of that audio, if it was made to be insanely precise, and perhaps if it was made louder, that alone could make this game totally playable. That is one game that would, I think, require very little help to achieve total accessibility.

Now, to round out this piece, I will discuss the VR game I had the most success with of all I tried. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gents, because this one is going to shock you. The game I had the most success with, the game in which I actually finished the demo level without any assistance once it had started… Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Yes. Remember what I said earlier about shooters? Well this one’s on rails, rollercoaster rails specifically, but it’s still a shooter. Allow me to explain what happened, and why this worked.

First, this game is the other reason I mentioned semiaccesible calibration. Calibrating the move controllers, (you need 2 for this game), was not really accessible, and it’s something I had to get help with. However, before the first level starts, you are treated to a unique way to calibrate head tracking. You hear a woman crying from your right. Look over there, you hear a sound, and she’s on your left, singing part of a song. Look left, and she moves back to your right, singing the follow-up to that part. Look back right, and you’re done. I admit I didn’t know the purpose of this initially, and wasn’t sure how exactly to deal with this crying woman I was hearing, I intuitively looked over there after a while and discovered what I was supposed to do by accident, which is still pretty clever.

Remember when I said I’d talk more about shooting things later as well? This is why. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood has EXCELLENT positional 3D audio. I’m going to say this because I must. Its positional 3D audio is better even than Farpoint’s, which as I have said was good enough to get me a solid chunk of gameplay time. It’s awesome. Not only does it sound like things pass you by as you roll past them, not only can you hear things behind you and all around you, but there seems to be some audio indication of distance as well, which is super neat! And yes, there are things that I missed. There are moments when you’re supposed to duck, and the couple I missed didn’t have sounds associated with them that I could tell, so I was thoroughly bonked in the head. Furthermore, there are little secret things you’re supposed to shoot, but these also make no sound. Make these things sound sources, make the calibration and menus accessible, and I’ve got this game.

As I said, I finished the demo level. And no, I didn’t just get lucky and cruise through, I definitely shot things. You can hear your bullets puncturing your targets in that game, so while I can’t say necessarily that I scored well, or even that I shot every enemy, I can say that I definitely shot a lot of enemies, and ultimately succeeded. Trust me, it felt amazing. Slinging around 2 move controllers, aiming at the roaring, sometimes laughing targets, and actually hitting them when I fired felt really, really amazing. It was an incredible, unbelievable success in my experimentation.

I tried several other games as well, all of which were on the demo disc that came with the Playstation VR. I had varying degrees of success, but the ones I have highlighted here are the ones I feel I took the most from. I tried the London Heist portion of Playstation VR Worlds, for example, in which your move controllers become your hands, right down to picking things up and putting them down, but due to the lack of audible instruction, I couldn’t quite master what I was supposed to do. I tried Harmonix Music VR, but that game is entirely based on putting cool VR visuals to music. In a couple cases, the demos are just little VR experiences, like short films, that you watch rather than interact with.

Before I conclude, though, I want to give a sort of honorable mention to a game called Thumper, the demo for which is also on the VR demo disc. I’m considering this an honorable mention because Thumper doesn’t rely on its VR elements for gameplay. It can simply be played with VR for cooler visuals, or without VR for normal visuals, and is played the same in both cases. At its core, it’s a rhythm game, and guys, it’s actually completely accessible. Who would’ve thought that I would stumble upon a completely accessible, no VR required, game while browsing the VR demo disc? Not I, certainly. Of course, the menus don’t talk, but they’re a very small part of the game. As you fly through space, (I think), avoiding obstacles and shooting down bosses and so on, you hear background music with little sound effects that play along with it. These sounds literally tell you what to do, once you figure out what each one means. It’s crushingly difficult, at least for me, but it’s great fun. I could still make like 2 accessibility suggestions, but it’s still a perfectly playable game for the totally blind, and deserves some love.

Now, at last, the conclusion. Playstation VR is a fantastic Virtual Reality system on all fronts. I had my fiancé try it herself to be sure it looked amazing as well. Apparently it does. So it’s fantastic, and that’s great. Would I recommend a totally blind person buy one up right now, though? Sadly, I would not. The price tag is a heavy one, and given the fact that calibration is currently as difficult as it is, I couldn’t suggest a totally blind person get one just yet. However, I believe I have proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there is tremendous, awesome potential here. My experiences with Farpoint and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood absolutely prove that. If game developers begin considering the concept of VR for those who cannot see VR, we could seriously be in for some real wild rides, folks. I truly believe that, and will back it up to anyone who says differently. Thanks for reading. Accessibility is happening, people. Let’s keep it that way.