Silent Protagonists and Blind Gamers

Before we really get into this, I want to point out that this isn’t specifically a blind accessibility thing. This particular blog is my own opinion, colored by the perspective I have as a blind gamer. It is entirely possible that other blind gamers have a different opinion on this subject, and that opinion is quite valid. That said, I want to discuss my thoughts on silent protagonists in games, and why I personally don’t like them much.

To be clear, I understand the reasoning behind the silent protagonist. Not giving your character a voice is a way of asking the gamer to project themselves onto the character, voice and all. There is a certain amount of sense to that, but as with most things in video games, it’s quite a bit different when you’re blind.

When a sighted person plays a game with a silent protagonist, they still have a reference for that character. They still have physical form within the game world, which the player can view. In most cases silent protagonists are more about projecting personality than physical appearance. Even in a situation where they’re both, such as a first person shooter like Doom, the sighted person still has something to look at. In doom’s case, it’s the character’s gun, and the red mist that appears if you’re very hurt, an effect used to indicate your eyes are bleeding. With a blind person, this is all gone.

For me, a game with a silent protagonist feels false. I end up feeling like the story is lacking a depth it could achieve if only the character could have actual conversations. While the story is told to the sighted in facial expressions, body language, sword flourishes, and so on, I hear sound effects, and just want more. It is as if I was handed a blank canvas and told to paint a character onto it, but wasn’t given any paint to use. That may not be the greatest metaphor, but it’s the best I could come up with to describe how it feels.

On the other hand, protagonists who speak, who lend their own personalities to a game, are some of my favorite characters. Tidas from Final Fantasy X is a little whiny, but passionate and, when it comes down to it, a stalwart warrior. Joel from the Last of Us is complex and deeply wounded, with motivations based on his life experience. I love these characters and many many more, because I can fully connect with them. I hear the trepidation in their voice as they make the decision to do something they don’t’ want to do. I hear the resolve as they come to realize that they must do something difficult for the greater good. These are general examples, but I think they make the point. I like getting immersed in a story the game is telling me. When there is player choice, I certainly do try to project myself into making that choice, or make it based on how I feel the character would given the way their personality has developed over the course of the game, but I’m OK with that character belonging to the game at the end of the day. Tell me a good story with good characters, and you’ve got me.

Again, this is entirely my opinion, but my hope is that it gives you some perspective on one way a blind gamer might think, and inspire discussion. Before I go, though, I will ad one thing. There are exactly 2 games where a silent protagonist is great, and those happen to be both of the modern Southpark games. The reason this works, though, is because they used the silent protagonist trope specifically to make fun of it, and I can laugh along with everyone else at that. As always, let me know what you guys think, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

Listen to my Story: How I Came to Play and Love Final Fantasy X

When I first heard the glorious music, sound effects, and yes, voice acting of Final Fantasy X, it was on my brother’s Playstation 2, which was most definitely his and not ours and we were not to even think about touching it without his permission. Anyway, I heard him begin the game, and at first was, believe it or not, unimpressed. The voice acting was cool, sure, but I knew from the second that first full motion video played that the game had to be ridiculously short. It just had to be. That was always the tradeoff with games that used FMV, right?

Obviously, I was very, very wrong. I was used to the way things used to be, and Final Fantasy X, though not a launch title, was fairly early in the PS2 era. I quickly learned that the game was actually quite long indeed, and get this, it had a bunch of those little FMV’s too! Now I was officially impressed, but I still kind of dismissed it. After all, I had never been able to play a full RPG before, so why should I be able to now? Even with voice acting, it just wouldn’t be enough, would it?

I remember that I actually tried the demo first. Back in the days of demo discs, I used to receive one per month, and would always mess around with them. I had success with the demo, but even then, I thought it was just a one off. The demo is fairly short, and mostly just demonstrates combat with very little to worry about otherwise. I wasn’t quite there yet.

It was actually my brother, the very person who got me into video games in the first place, who suggested that I try Final Fantasy X. “You should start your own game!” he said one day after a particularly difficult battle. I scoffed at the idea, but by this point in my life I had already done some pretty cool stuff in games, so I figured I’d at least try. And so, one fine morning, I started playing Final Fantasy X, and did not stop for many, many hours. Turns out it was pretty playable after all.

Make no mistake. Final Fantasy X requires a lot of patience if you’re blind. In the first many, many hour session I played, I didn’t get as far as a sighted person might in the same amount of hours. The facts are that the game isn’t designed with us in mind, so we have to take some things into account. We still can’t actually see where we’re going, so we have to be willing to wander a bit until we can find our destination. We also can’t see items or people in the world, so it behooves us to basically mash the X button as we wander in order to find people or items and interact with them. It’s kind of a silly system, but ultimately it works.

The good news for us is that there is no jumping of any sort. This means that there is never a platform we need to jump to, and thus we know that, wherever our destination is, it’s on the ground we’re standing on. It’s hard to explain why this is important, but consider this. If the option to jump even exists, it’s reasonable to expect that you have to use it in some circumstances. If, like us, you cannot see the platform you must jump to in order to proceed, how would you know when to jump? Even if you just jumped around the whole time, you may not even realize you’re on a new level than you were before, and may keep jumping right off of it. In short, with games that aren’t designed to be played by the blind, the less jumping the better.

Here’s another piece of good news. Combat menus in Final Fantasy X don’t wrap. This means they can be memorized, and even used to determine whose turn it currently is. For example, when the game begins, Tiad the main character only has 2 options in his combat menu: attack and item. Aurin, however, has 3 options, because he possesses a magical ability called armor break. Using this small difference, we can tell if it’s Tidas’s turn, or Aurin’s. The combat menus of all characters will grow as they level up and gain new abilities, but that just means we need to pay attention to when our party members learn new tricks. It’s pretty awesome, and enables us to use essentially the same strategies anyone else would in combat.

Speaking of leveling, though, that’s one of the problem areas of Final Fantasy X. Yes, the game can be played if you’re blind, but with 2 exceptions. One is the leveling system called the sphere grid, and the other is certain sections of the game called the cloisters of trials, which are unskippable and in some cases quite complex.

Back to leveling, though. The way the sphere grid works seems simple enough. As you fight, you gain sphere levels, which enable you to move an equal number of squares on the sphere grid. You also earn spheres, which are used to unlock sphere grid nodes, which ar what actually increase your stats. You might be thinking, “well, can’t you just muddle your way through it and level up a bunch of stuff?” And sadly, the answer is no. You see, as long as you have the sphere levels for it, you are not limited in movement. What I mean by this is that you’re just as able to move backwards as forward, and if you cross certain paths, you will end up in the abilities of your other party members. This latter can be useful in the late game, but is certainly not ideal when you’re just starting out. And, because the sphere grid is full of complex pathways, we couldn’t reliably know which way we’re going, which nodes we’re heading to, or whether we’re just going backwards.

The cloisters are trouble for a different reason. They are all puzzles involving the removal of certain spheres, (notice a theme?) from one spot, and placing them in the correct other spot. We can certainly remove and slot these spheres, but remember we don’t actually have a reference for where we’re going. We could remove a sphere, wander around for a bit, find an empty sphere slot and slap it in, only to then realize we placed it right back in the slot we took it from. And that’s only one problem. We also have no idea which sphere we removed, as there are several different types, some unique to the particular cloister you’re in. Think I’m done? Nope. You also sometimes have to push pedestals into very specific locations, or away from locations they’re blocking, and so on. It’s kind of a nightmare for a blind person.

Aside from that, though, the game is quite playable. We are even helped out by the roads in the game, which are essentially straight in most cases. Crazy, right? There’s another unplayable bit called Blitzball, but it is fortunately not necessary to succeed at Blitzball to complete the game. It is necessary to play it once, but you don’t actually have to win. Certainly I would like to be able to play Blitzball, but part of playing games like this, games that nobody expected a blind person to play in the first place, is acceptance of an inability to do certain things in those games. Always, always try hard, but be ready to accept that some things just might not work.

I’m sure there are some little things I forgot. The playability of that game is kind of like the playability of Diablo 3. So many little things combine to allow us to play it as much as we can. I am proud to say I have beaten the game, and I have my brother to thank once again for steering me toward something great. The funny thing about that particular incident, though, is that he never did that before or since. Aside from that and the practical joke that got me started, he has never tried to get me to try something. It sort of makes me wonder what inspired him that time. In any case, I hope this has enlightened some of you fine folks. I am of course willing to answer any questions I can, so please discuss and ask and share. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!