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!

Telltale Games: Making Great Stories Frustrating

Greetings again my most humble and awesome readers. Today I want to talk about the video game developer known as Telltale games. They are known for their episodic story-based titles, which are usually attached to a license of some kind. Back to the Future, Batman, The Walking Dead, and so on. These games are played in the point and click style, and for that reason are not particularly accessible. But you see, myself and some folks like me really love story in games, which is something I’ve covered in blogs before. We love story so much that we will slog through these games regardless. Yeah, I know, we’re crazy. Let’s discuss that.

There are plenty of problems playing Telltale’s games. The most obvious is finding everything we’re supposed to click on and look at and interact with. This is very, very difficult. You can walk freely most times, but you can also move a cursor to click on things as well. So how do we get past this hurtle? Patience. Lots and lots of patience. I often play these games by frantically moving the cursor around with the right thumbstick and mashing the X button on PS4, or A button on Xbox. If I am successful, the character then autowalks to that location and interacts. This is interestingly the feature that makes me believe Telltale games could easily be made blind accessible. Regardless, we are helped slightly by the fact that, in the more recent games, you can only click on most things once. This at least means we don’t have to worry about repeatedly finding the same things over and over, though it’s still a tedious process.

Another problem, though, and some may consider this a more important problem, is dialog. Telltale’s games are heavily influenced by your dialog choices. While we can press buttons to make those choices, we have no actual idea which choice we’re making in advance. This is intensely frustrating, because as the story progresses, we just like anybody else, develop ideas of how we’d like to play the characters, but we cannot really execute those ideas. We must simply live with the choices we are not aware we’re making. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Third, we’ve got quicktime events! Certain moments in the story might require you to press the correct button at the right time to perform some important action. How do we get past these, you might ask? We guess! That’s right, we use trial and error to figure out every button, all the timing, and so on. Eventually, we can usually get through these that way, but it’s definitely not ideal. Dying over and over while just trying to pass a single portion of a game isn’t particularly fun either.

The point I’ve been trying to make with all this is that, as unfun as this can be, I’ve done it anyway. I have accepted that I won’t know which dialog choices I’m making, and that quicktime events are going to take forever. I understand that I’ll need lots of patience to find all the things in each room that I’ll need. Yet, I’ve done it anyway.I played both seasons of Telltale’s Batman like this, occasionally asking for sighted help with certain very specific parts of the game. I also played Tales from the Borderlands, which is a fun and hilarious game, like this as well. I did it because I still enjoy the stories these games tell, and I guess I don’t mind enjoying the story for the story, no matter how much longer that takes me than it would anyone else.

The other point, though, is that these games could easily be made accessible. I won’t go into detail on that here, as I’ve already written a blog which discusses the accessibility of point and click games, but it could be done. Unfortunatley, Telltale themselves have shown a lack of interest in accessibility, not just for the blind but for other types of disability as well. This is unfortunate, as they are capable of producing such great content, but for now it is what it is. It is my hope that one day, their minds change, and we all can enjoy the tales they tell equally. As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!