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!

is Fortnite Leading the Way Into the Future?

Today, February 2, 2019, an event took place in Fortnite. This time, though, it wasn’t one of their typical world and story events. This time it was, no joke, a live concert. But to me, it was so much more. What I witnessed when I witnessed this event was incredible potential. So incredible that I had to write about it, and believe me I never expected to write about Fortnite.

The concert was incredible. About 20 minutes beforehand, a mode called Showtime appeared in the game, wherein the circle stayed in Pleasant Park, the location of the concert stage, and gave everyone a countdown timer to get there, which was of course counting down to the concert itself. Marshmallow, the performing artist, even did a mic check beforehand. Sounds like such a small thing, but that clued me in to how epic this was going to be. Once that counter finally hit 0, everyone automatically became weaponless, and the show began.

Now you might think the show was nothing more than some piped in music, no kills, and people doing Fortnite dances, but you would be wrong. Yes, the music played, and everyone began to dance, but then it got crazier. Remember, this is all in a video game, so they can do more than just throw lasers at you. As the first beat dropped after the intro and the big pyro exploded, it bounced all the characters that were present up into the air. Later, just as the lyrics of the current song were “we can fly,” that’s exactly what happened to everyone. Suddenly everyone was flying, looking down at the spectacle beneath them. As the show went on, the DJ activated his mic, asking everyone to squad up and show off their favorite emotes. I see through this portion, as it’s highly unlikely he was watching anyone in particular in reality, since the concert was taking place in likely thousands of matches at once. Still, it’s the fact that the show was more than just music and light that I’m getting at here. I can’t even play Fortnite, but hearing the reaction of my fiancé as she experienced this event was truly an incredible moment.

That’s how we now get to the point of this blog. Now that I’ve witnessed it, I am boggled by the fact that technology like this isn’t being leveraged in tons of other ways. We are in a digital age, an internet age, and there are so many insane applications for this kind of thing! I understand that not everyone has amazing internet, but those who are playing a game that requires at least decent internet probably have the decent internet they need to play it. So how about leveraging this kind of tech to create things in MMO’s? Why must most games have precise, controlled world events that are always the same, just triggered by the developer at different times, when they could be doing just about anything? Why not use this technology to make the player feel even more a part of the game world than they already do?

Come on, devs! Wanna hype some big space military operation? Have your players head to a briefing location, and host a live briefing there like in Ernest Cline’s Armada. Live streamed dialog of some authority figure explaining what must be done, screens showing targets and operational concerns, all of it. I will no longer buy the idea that that cannot be done, because we have just witnessed it. And while you’re at it, devs, change your game world live like Fortnite does. Don’t just make a video and call it done, make actual changes. Don’t be scared, and don’t apologize for it. People might not like it, but they’ll be able to talk about how they were there for it.

Community is a powerful thing. Games recognize that to a certain extent, but how much more could emersion be increased if things like this are fully embraced? The craziest thing here is that Fortnite, of all games, appears to be the first. This game that started as such a small thing with a tacked on Battle Royale mode is now leading the way in interactive live events? Playstation Home tried to do things like this, true, but never took it to the level Fortnite has, and also never actually functioned all that well either. It’s incredible, and I hope people are taking notes. I’m certainly thinking other performers could find a way to use this, but like my previous Armada example, that’s really only the beginning here. Let me know what you guys think of all this, and where you think we’re going in the future. As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Final Fantasy X: Journey toward a Community

When I started my Final Fantasy X Playthrough, I really only had one goal in mind. That goal was to do what I usually do, and use the game to demonstrate what the blind are willing to go through to game, and what made the game playable in the first place. That was its only intent. What I didn’t expect, though, is what happened, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Even as I write this, I am still mulling over my feelings now that it has concluded, and that is a good thing in a lot of ways. I will now attempt to put this all down as best I can. Here’s hoping I do a decent job.

The things I began playing the game to do actually happened almost right away. I wanted to demonstrate the patience required to play the game blind, so I did by allowing myself to wander until I found my next objective, or the next item I needed, in the beginning. I wanted to demonstrate the bits that aren’t so accessible, and I did that by talking about the sphere grid, and the cloisters of trials. I showed the world how the combat system was very accessible, since every attack from every monster sounded different, and combat menus could be memorized to determine whose turn it currently was. After all this, the accessibility demonstration portion was basically over, aside from questions that came from newcomers now and again. I had effectively done the job I set out to do with this game. As it happened, though, I wasn’t done just yet.

I have had a long history with Final Fantasy X. I have, in fact, beaten the game twice before, utilizing help from the sighted only in the parts where it is absolutely required to proceed. So, as I was demonstrating all these things to my viewers, I was drawn to play it again. I was committed to sticking it out, and at first, content to just beat the main game, the same thing I had done before, on stream. I figured it’d be a pretty neat idea. But then, something I didn’t expect started to happen.

Gradually, as the playthrough went on, its identity began to change. Except for those previously-mentioned newcomers, I didn’t have to explain anything anymore. My viewers made 3 things very clear to me. They got it, they respected it, and they wanted to help. Before I knew it, people were pointing me in the right direction for our next objective, or shouting for me to stop because I had just walked past that save point and they didn’t want me to miss it. At first, while I appreciated these gestures, it didn’t quite hit me what was happening. I admit I took them as temporary kindnesses, and didn’t intend to ask for or expect more help than what I absolutely needed help with.

The thing is, the level of connection people had to the playthrough, and the level of assistance they offered, kept increasing. It started to click with me that this was something special, and so I eventually put up the idea of doing all the endgame content I had never been able to do on my own so long as the viewership was willing to continue to help me in the ways that they had. Not only did they agree, they agreed immediately. They were completely into the idea, and wanted to help see it through. And that, if you ask me, is when the real journey began.

The Final Fantasy X playthrough had become a collaborative event. It had morphed from being a thing I was doing to make a point or 2, into a thing that all of us were doing together. Now, people weren’t just telling me where that save point was, or which way I should start walking to get into a new area. Now they were telling me how many dark matter I had, where I could find that monster in the monster arena, and how I as a blind person could play the necessary mini game required to get a few ultimate weapons. To continue to put some perspective on the level of caring and collaboration that existed here, one viewer had started trying to think of a way to build a servo mechanism that would attach to a webcam, and automatically press the X button when lightning flashed in the Thunder Planes, just because he wanted me to be able to complete an in-game challenge related to an ultimate weapon. Those who were knowledgeable about Final Fantasy X were giving me tips on how to farm things easier, and suggestions about ways to fight monsters, and start building my stats for the endgame. If a suggestion created any kind of accessibility trouble for me, we discussed it, and I think a lot of enlightenment came out of those talks.

This attitude toward the playthrough continued, and grew with my audience. Every now and then, someone new would take interest, and more often than not, become a part of the community that was being built around this. It was incredible. The viewers were getting eager just as I was getting eager. Everyone wanted to reach those end game bosses, Nemysis and Penance. That was the goal now, you see. Not just to beat the game, but to beat all its toughest bosses as well.

And so we pushed on. We farmed things, we chatted as I did some grinding for levels, we tested ourselves against other difficult monsters and optional bosses like the Dark Aeons. There were highs and there were lows. Every time another really difficult opponent was defeated, we all cheered and celebrated. But when we found out that, in order to even successfully hit Dark Yojimbo, we needed to increase the party’s luck stat, something I had been basically ignoring up to that point, we groaned a little. No matter what, though, we pushed on.

And so it was this continued until January 21 of 2019. That was the day when both Penance, the biggest toughest boss of the game, was defeated. We then wrapped up the main story, and enjoyed the end together. All the while, the collaboration never stopped. I was running short on time, so one of my viewers, the same one with the crazy webcam idea, hopped into a convenient PS4 shareplay, and walked me to the final confrontation with Sin, the final story boss. I then took control back to finish the job.

I am moved by what this has become. As I said, I’ve beaten the main story of the game before, but never has it meant so much to me as it did this time. As one particular viewer stated, this was the very definition of an odyssey. It was an adventure that all of us participated in, and finished together. Even those who couldn’t help directly, who showed up to check progress or to watch for a while, were part of this event. Furthermore, this event has spawned future plans as well. Now that I truly know the insane support system I have behind me, I’ve decided to dedicate part of my channel to a series I’m calling Let’s play Together, where we attempt to do more collaborations like this. Next up will be the highly-acclaimed JRPG Persona 5, which we have technically already begun. I cannot wait to see what becomes of that playthrough.

I know I am lucky to have found those I have. People who care about me and my content, and who embrace what I’m trying to do. In their way, they are helping me do it. They are amazing, and I couldn’t ask for a better group. I said at the end of the playthrough that, as much as they’ve given me, I hope I have given them something too, whether that’s just entertainment, or enlightenment some of them may not have had before about blind gamers. Maybe, just maybe, seeing this level of caring and collaboration will inspire someone in a way I cannot predict. For now, this event stands as something I will always remember, and a true foundation of my Twitch community.

Muddy Waters Aren’t Always Bad Things

Over the course of many blogs here, I have described many ways in which the blind play games, and ways in which they get the things the mainstream games out there aren’t yet providing them. However, I woefully neglected to mention one particular facet of blind gaming existence, and thanks to inspiration from a few of my followers, inspiration they may not have known they were providing, I am going to correct that. Let’s talk about Muds!

In this context, mud stands for Multi-user dungeon. A simplified description of what this means would be an MMO that is completely text-based. no graphics, no sound unless someone codes a sound pack, which happens sometimes and can be quite cool, but is certainly not required. It’s all about the writing, and all about interacting with a world in a way similar to the clasic text adventures of old, with varying degrees of difference depending on the mud you’re playing. In even shorter terms, it is the blind person’s current answer to MMORPG’s, and it’s hard to argue with. It’s presented in a format both blind and sighted can appreciate if the sighted among them can handle games without graphics. I spoke a bit on that in my Choice of Games Love letter. Muds can be just as dynamic, just as social, and just as feature-filled as any MMO. In some ways, they actually have even more freedom.

You know those MMO’s that let you build a house? Well that’s all well and good, but when you’re building a house in an MMO, you are limited by the available assets and materials in the game. However, most Muds will allow you to write your own description for every room of something you build, meaning it really is all yours. You’re limited by your own imagination, unless of course the mud enforces some basic guidelines. No lightsaber collection in a medeval fantasy, for instance. Still, it feels pretty good to construct something, even if it’s in a Mud and even if you’re imagining a large portion of it, for yourself. I imagine it is a similar sense of accomplishment to that of reaching the same goal in an MMO.

I won’t speak too much more on the mechanics of muds, because they are far, far too varied. Yes, you might think a genre like this would be dying out in this day and age, and certainly Muds don’t host player bases of millions like World of Warcraft or the Old Republic, but there are still hundreds, yes hundreds of them, and some are going relatively strong in comparison to others. The inspiration for this article, in fact, was that a brand new Mud, one boasting a complete RPG-length storyline, side quests, and full MMO features, just went live. It’s called Starmourn, and i haven’t tried it myself, but I feel like I probably will. The thought of that storyline draws me like a moth to a flame. I love narrative.

As I always say, though, this is not justification for not making games, even MMO’s, accessible. We still want to experience the things everyone else is experiencing. We want the grand scale, the production values, the voice acitng, the incredible audio in some cases… We want those things. Muds are great, and they serve a fantastic purpose, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be held to a standard. Let’s play muds. Let’s play a lot of them, and enjoy them, but all the while keep striving for improvement in accessibility. I dream of a world in which we don’t have to entice the sighted away from their graphics because we’re all playing the same games. I believe that can and will happen, but for now, muds.

Seriously, you should try one. Try the new one I’ve just told you about, Starmourn, or try my old haunt, New Moon. Try a mud based on the Discworld franchise, or the Final Fantasy one. All those and much, much more are available. There are tons of worlds to explore and interact with, even though it’s all text. There is fun to be had, there are people to meet and conquer giant bosses with, it’s all there, down in the mud.

I know this blog is kind of short, but I think it says what needs to be said, and sheds light on another tool we blind gamers use to get what we’re craving. As always, I’m happy to continue the discussion via my Twitter, by email, or even in the comments of this very post. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

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!