The First of Us: My Journey in The Last of Us 2 Blind Accessibility

“We’ve gotta talk to this guy,” said Emelia Schatz from the front row. I was on stage at the Game Accessibility Conference 2017, and though at the time I didn’t know Emelia, or EM for short, I soon would. I at least suspected who she represented, as the topic I had just been discussing was the Last of Us. I was talking about games I couldn’t play, but wished I could. I spoke of how I would give anything to play The Last of Us, and how it was a physical ache when I couldn’t play a game. That is when the infamous line was uttered, and as small a thing as it was, it’s a thing I will never forget.

They did indeed “talk to this guy,” and that conversation, which contained a bit where I told them how I would love to play a game for my sighted fiancé instead of her having to play it for me, started what would become a fantastic and beautiful working relationship. I didn’t know it then, but my pathway was set, and I had already started walking down it.

There’s a lot that I can’t say about my experience working with Naughty Dog. What I can say, though, is that it was unlike anything I could have expected. From the moment I stepped into the Naughty Dog studios for the first time, I felt welcomed. I felt like I belonged there. And that was before I knew for sure that I would really be working with them. This was just a conversation. This was my attempt to sell myself to this studio. I knew it was a huge opportunity, but it was on me to make it work. Could I do it?

Well yeah, I guess I did. I ended up working on the Last of Us 2 for 3 years, both in and out of the studio. My brain never stopped. I was always coming up with things. Things I simply had to get to the team as quickly as possible! I would often write emails that were both really long, but also really frantic, full of walls of text about how we should look into trying this or that thing. From the moment I started, I was all in. I was passionately pursuing this idea that we COULD make this work. I wouldn’t allow us to be stopped. This was going to be the one! I’m doing this!

But I was never alone. First, the passion and dedication of the Naughty Dog team themselves was unbelievable. They were just as all in as I was. I would often speak to them encouragingly, both in person and in emails, and I did this at first because I thought I had to. I thought it was on me to keep them on the accessibility train, encouraging them at every turn so they wouldn’t give up and say “Nope, all this is too much. Can’t do it. Done.” I was THAT terrified at first. But after a while, I started to see that they really, really did want to do this. I saw that I had already won. I saw that there was no turning back for them either. I kept encouraging them after this, but more just because I was saying what I felt, not because I was worried they’d just stop.

Secondly, this game would not be as accessible as it is right now if it hadn’t been for Misty, my wonderful fiancé. Working on a game like this from a blind accessibility perspective was difficult, and it was difficult for the same reason that playing it will be difficult for some blind people for a while. A game like this requires a tremendous mental shift. This is not your audio games, developed by only a few people. This is a huge, huge game, developed by a very large team. Because of this, this game contains massive levels, tremendous amounts of verticality, different ways to get into places, multiple options and approaches for each encounter, an insane number of mechanics and systems, and so on and so on.

I was not immune to needing this shift, and Misty was the one who helped me get there. Most audio games, for instance, require you to kill basically every enemy you encounter. You grow up on audio games and some playable mainstream games, you get used to that idea. But even having watched a zillion playthroughs of the first game, somehow it didn’t stick in my head that I didn’t need to kill everything, and that there were other options I could try for. That’s where Misty came in. Well, that, and keeping me focused on talking to the team instead of just playing the game the whole time. Her input was truly invaluable in helping shape this experience.

So, in case you didn’t know, we did it. 3 years of intense work, and the Last of Us 2 has achieved total blind accessibility. It is my utterly tremendous honor to be a part of that, and not just because it is THIS game. Not even because I longed to play the Last of Us at GAConf all those years ago. The Last of Us 2 is going to stand forever as the first huge, triple A game to embrace and fully support blind accessibility, and I will always, always be able to say that I helped make that happen. That I am in fact largely responsible for that happening. Of course, this game breaks down more barriers than blindness, providing accessibility for tons of disabilities, and for that I look to my other consultants. Steve Saylor, Paul Lane, James Wrath, and even folks I never met like Morgan Baker. All of us did this together. We became a team, and we made something that will be recognized for years to come. And let me tell you something, dear readers. I’m not stopping anytime soon. The Last of Us part 2 is not the last of anything. It is, in fact, the first.

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!