Standards of Story: My Thoughts as a Blind Gamer

Over the many years I have spent both gaming and listening to others play games, a thought has occurred to me more than once. Perhaps, just perhaps, my limited ability to play video games has affected my perception of video game stories. I’m going to try to break that down for you here, and hopefully, it makes sense to someone. I think there’s merit to it, at any rate. Here we go!

Gamers today have incredibly high standards, and why shouldn’t they? They have played through and experienced some amazing stories. They’ve spent hundreds of hours completing the seemingly endless number of fully fleshed out quests in the Witcher 3. They’ve journeyed across a post-apocolyptic united States in the Last of Us. They explored a whole universe of characters and relationships in the original Mass Effect trilogy. And they even traversed the memories of a dying man in To the Moon. Stories in video games can be so, so great, and so fulfilling to experience, as these examples demonstrate.

Yet, all of these examples I’ve given have one thing in common. We blind gamers cannot play any of these games with any amount of success. I’m certainly not throwning any shade at the games themselves, but a fact is a fact. Now sure, we can listen to others enjoy those games, and in all of those examples, I’ve done just that. But the point I believe this blog is going to help drive home, a point that is very, very difficult to convey to non-disabled gamers, is that it’s not the same. Listening to or watching someone else play a game is sharing in their experience, but the experience is still theirs. You can listen to someone play a game, even a choice-driven game like Mass Effect, and sure, you will experience some of the emotional impact of that game, but still, you are missing out on one crucial element. You weren’t the one who made the choice, you weren’t the one who pressed the button. The impact for you is lessened by the fact that it was someone else who ultimately took the actions that lead to that point. You don’t feel like you’re the character, you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, because you are, no matter how much they try to include you. There’s something about the control being in your hands, and entirely your hands. Somehting about making decisions completely uninfluenced by nothing but your own mind. As I said, it’s hard to describe, and hard to convey.

I have come to believe, though, that the fact that we have not truly, fully experienced some of these incredible stories, and even the fact that we cannot in some cases, contributes to a lowering of our standards for story in games. I don’t really mean that as a bad thing. Another way to look at it is that we may tend to be more forgiving toward a story that others don’t necessarily like, whether we’re watching or listening to it, or playing it ourselves. This can result in some very positive experiences.

I recently had one of these experiences myself in Madden 19. Dismissing for a moment my many issues with the gameplay of its story mode, taking a look only at the story itself, I have this to say. Personally, I LOVE the stories in both Madden 18 and 19. Part of me knows that they are full of clichés and commonly used sports movie tropes, but that doesn’t really matter to me. Can you guess why? It’s because I get to experience them for myself. I feel like I am the characters of Devon and Colt because I play through their big moments. I do that. It’s my experience. And the thing is, there aren’t any games I can actually play that can offer me a similar or better experience. So when your personal scope is more limited, you may find appreciation where others find the same old song and dance.

But it goes further. Because my standards are different than the average gamer based on what I’ve played, they even affect my perceptions of games I can’t play. I can give some examples here as well. Mass Effect Andromida was pretty much universally panned, not just because of its animation issues, but also because people claimed it had a largely boring story. Well, though it’s a game I can’t play, I will tell you right now that I personally love what I’ve heard of Andromida’s story so far, and I genuinely look forward to my fiancé finishing it at some point. Yeah, I said it, I love that game. And guess what? Here’s another admission you average gamers probably won’t like much. I like, and can follow, the stories of Final Fantasy XIII parts 1, 2, and 3. Yes, I even like part 3. People always tell me Lightning has a wooden personality, and that the stories are terrible, but personally I don’t see it. I had a blast playing what I could of XIII, and listening to the other games in the series, playing what bits of those games I could, and all the while I enjoyed the story.

I’ve also heard many people say Final Fantasy X-2 is ridiculous. I haven’t even heard that entire game, but I’ll admit right now that I enjoyed what I have heard so far. I’m not sure if general perception of that game stops at the admittedly silly dress sphere concept, but that aside, I think the story’s quite good, and takes some rather dark turns. But here again, maybe that’s my lowered standards of story talking.

Recently, the games we are able to play, including those specifically made for us like A Hero’s Call and Manamon, as well as games modified for accessibility like Madden 19, have helped us grow as gamers in such a way that I believe our standards will eventually start to rise, and potentially equal those of the rest of the gaming community. I still imagine a future where we have a Witcher 3 equivalent, or a Mass Effect equivalent. When I listened to the gameplay trailer for Cyberpunk 2077, something I discuss at length in another blog, I ached to be able to play a game with that much story and that level of detail.

That day is not today, and may not be for many years, but until then, we do have stories to appreciate, and to love. It is as if we, the disabled community, are a couple generations behind, as standards for all gamers have certainly gone up over the years as well. So hey, no matter what we like, let’s like it with all our being, and keep fighting to get on equal ground with everyone else. Let’s just be the gamers we are, and love games, no matter what anyone else thinks. And speaking of thinking, let me know what you think of this blog. Comment, discuss, do all the things. Thanks so much for reading, and 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!

I Know Jack: My History with the You Don’t Know Jack Franchise

Back in the 90’s, there was an online magazine for the blind called the Audyssey magazine. It was our gaming magazine, and talked about audio games, text games, and even what we called mainstream or commercial games as long as they were accessible. According to that magazine, a certain game series known to party gamers as You Don’t Know Jack, was the second most accessible commercial game in existence. This was, at the time, probably true. It’s a series I grew up loving, and it is likely part of the reason for my current appreciation of modern comedy. Today, I just want to talk about it, and about my history with this amazing game series.

You Don’t Know Jack was named the second most accessible game back in the day because it was about 98% accessible. It was and is a comedy trivia game. You could play alone, or against your friends, and the game had a host who would read aloud all of the questions and answers. They would even make jokes between questions, and sometimes question-specific jokes for choosing certain wrong answers. Features like this actually got more complex as the series went on, and hosts gained the ability to criticize an individual player for getting specific answers wrong throughout a game. For instance, “Man, Player 2, you must be tone deaf or something because you got the last 2 music questions wrong. Take note, other players, now’s your chance!” That’s not a word for word quote from the game, but it’s an example of what later games did.

Anyway, the only inaccessible part of the game is, sadly, at the end. A segment called the Jack Attack leaves you with a clue, and bunches of words scrolling across the screen that you must match up with that clue, hitting your buzzer at the correct time when the right answer is present. The problem here is that nothing but the primary clue is read aloud, leaving us virtually unable to play this portion unless we decided to randomly press our buzzers and hope for the best. It ultimately didn’t detract too much, as we could still win the game if we were far enough ahead or if the other players did poorly, but it was still kind of unfair.

Fair or not, I enjoy many many hours spent playing each and every version of the game, loving the ways in which the game changed, the new question types that were added, the occasional appearance of celebrities, all of it. The first 3 volumes contained what I would say were minor changes at most, but the fourth volume, officially called You Don’t Know Jack: The Ride, was something special. For the first time, each game session was a linear episode. No longer were you able to choose your own categories, but the upshot is that it allowed the developers to do creative things, like giving each episode its own little story. The language episode, where the host gets progressively more and more drunk as the game progresses, stands out as one of the best, as he can barely read the questions toward the end.

Best of all, the whole game had an overarching story as well. This was never done again in the world of You Don’t Know Jack, but I think it was great. The story wasn’t anything to write home about really, but it did contain a couple funny plot twists, and resulted in one particularly awesome game feature. As the story progressed, the hosts of your games would actually change between those who had hosted you Don’t Know Jack games previously. This even included the host of a You Don’t Know Jack spinoff game called Headrush. It was awesome, and made for a grand experience as each host had different attitudes and entirely different commentary on your gameplay than the others. It was a lot of fun.

Things continued to progress, and there were more spinoff games as well, such as You Don’t Know Jack: Louder Faster Funnier, which is for some reason not included in the collection available on Steam. You Don’t Know Jack 5th Dimentia, essentially Volume 5, allowed for online play, but for some reason sacrificed audio quality. The humor was there, the complex in-game responses were there, (you were criticized if you happened to be using AOL at the time), but all audio quality suffered a downgrade. The game was still quite fun, however, so I didn’t complain too much about that.

You Don’t Know Jack Volume 6: The Lost Gold was, I feared, the last outing for the game. It only had 300 questions when most other games in the series had 800 to 1200 questions, it had the same low audio quality as 5th dementia, and had an uninspired and weird story about reclaiming the lost gold for some ghost pirate. I still enjoyed the questions, and found humor in them, but the game was the most meh of the bunch.

Fortunately, You Don’t Know Jack saw a revival on last generation game consoles, including 4 awesome DLC packs. This brought back the episode format, and some new features, such as the Wrong Answer of the Game, which would give you a prize for choosing the sponsored wrong answer. All this was tremendous, and audio quality was back up to standard. This was the revival I had been waiting for.

The revival continued when the You Don’t Know Jack mobile game came out. The accessibility of the app wasn’t great, but once you worked it out, this was really cool. It brought us back to the days of what used to be called the Netshow, which had new episodes coming out on a regular basis. This was like that, with a new episode coming out every week, referencing modern pop culture, or real current events in that typical You Don’t Know Jack way. Personally I wish this had lasted longer. The inaccessibility troubles were worth suffering through, in my opinion.

Fortunately, the geniuses at Jellyvision weren’t done yet. You Don’t Know Jack came back again, episodes and all, in the first Jackbox Party Pack, which allowed you to play with up to 8 players for the first time. It retained the format of the previous console releases otherwise, including the wrong answer of the game, and was awesome. It didn’t stick around for Party Packs 2, 3, and 4, but I’m happy to say that it’s about to return again in the Jackbox Party Pack 5. You Don’t Know Jack will never die!

It has been over 2 decades since the YDKJ series began, and it remains one of my favorite game franchises to this day. I wish the devs would take a shot at making that last portion of the game accessible, but though it appears this may never happen, my love for the series lives on. If you’ve never tried it before, you can get 9 of the YDKJ games in a collection on Steam, which includes the amazing YDKJ: The Ride. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to provide feedback, or leave comments, or conversate with me about this. Continue to be awesome!

Blind Gamer Logic: Why the Old Republic is Better Than WOW

Thousands, perhaps millions of people would likely linch me for the title of this blog, but the sad news is, if you’re a blind gamer, it’s true. Granted, we can’t really play either of these games, (I personally don’t count autofollowing people in WOW as playing since it leaves you unable to do anything on your own), but we can sure listen to both, and the Old Republic stands out as a better game for us to listen to on the surface. Let’s discuss why.

I’m going to start with the biggest and most obvious thing. The entirety of The Old Republic’s dialog is fully voiced by a record-setting voice cast. Even your character’s responses are voiced. In fact, conversations have a sort of flow to them, like cutscenes. This is far from perfect in the early game, as they use a lot of simple sound effects and, I assume, animations, but picks up a great deal when you get into the expansion content. Conversational cutscenes feel much more fluid, and like an animated TV show. Don’t get me wrong, though, the whole game is fun.

WOW’s dialog is, sadly, not fully voiced. Your character doesn’t have a voice at all aside from pain and death cries and a few battle-related phrases, and quest givers tend to only speak words of introduction, leaving the rest of what they have to say to you to text. I will add, though, that I’ve been told by a friend of mine that later quests in WOW are fully voiced, and that it’s only the early game that isn’t. This is somewhat reasonable, considering WOW is 14 years old, but at the same time I find it a little curious as well. Look at Diablo 3, where Blizard gave voices to characters who didn’t even need them. Every book you find in Diablo 3 is read aloud by the voice of its author, which is great, but certainly not necessary considering many of these authors are characters you never meet. If Blizard is willing to go the extra mile and get a massive voice cast, why could they not add voices to the early game characters since they constantly update WOW anyway? It’s forgiveable, but I think it is a worthy question at least.

The next reason The Old Republic is more easily digested by the blind is something I’m calling Sound Education. The thing about the Old Republic is, well, it’s a Star Wars game. If you’re listening to someone play it, you’re probably already a Star Wars fan. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you are already familiar with Star Wars sound effects, which The Old Republic uses heavily. They even use the obscure ones, like the sounds for different types of speeders and so on. There are new, game-specific sounds to learn, sure, but the barrier is much, much smaller if you know what Star Wars sounds like. The Old Republic is Star Wars through and through.

This is a luxury you simply don’t have with WOW. It is its own beast, and thus the sound for every ability, every type of equipment, all of it must be learned from scratch. This isn’t actually a problem, since we blind gamers are used to learning new sounds all the time, but the differences between the learning curves of these 2 games is worth mentioning.

Now, keep in mind that I said the Old Republic is better for us to listen to on the surface. It is, as it provides all we need in order to enjoy the experience, even if the person playing tells us very little. However, WOW’s history cannot be denied. Its world, its story has developed over years and years and years, and is thus much larger and even more filled out than that of the Old Republic. If you have someone who is willing to tell you the things you aren’t told and can’t figure out from context, if you have someone who is willing to read that unspoken dialog and carry you through the story as well, WOW could potentially turn out to be the better game for story than TOR.

That, my friends, was the inspiration for writing this blog. My fiancé has just recently started playing WOW, new character and all, and she has been reading all that lovely text. I already find myself being drawn into the history of the race we chose, (which was Blood Elf), and the specific quests that pertain to that race. This made me really think about these 2 games, and give WOW a little credit where it is certainly due. I hope you’ve found this article interesting, and I encourage you to discuss and give feedback. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

The Constant Rise of Our Standards: We are Funny Folk

This blog is not quite a gamebreak, but it is an accessibility break. I was recently struck by an interesting thought, and I wanted to blog about it. We are an interesting people. We do a lot of interesting things. In particular, and the subject of this blog, is the way we raise our standards, but also keep them in check in a way. I’ll explain what I mean.

Have you ever heard the phraise “movie quality graphics” applied to video games? I’ll bet you have, and in fact I’ll bet you’ve heard it several times over several years. You want to know how far back I heard that phraise? I heard it in a description of Mortal Kombat 1. Yes, the original Mortal Kombat, with its revolutionary use of digitized actors and such. Mortal Kombat 1, whose entire arcade imprint was only a hundred megabytes or so. Movie quality graphics.

That’s not actually me ragging on MK1, or the quality of its graphics. My point here is that we never, ever stop raising our standards. If we did, one would have to wonder exactly what movie quality graphics are these days. Follow the trail of graphically praised games, and you’ll see phraises like “movie quality graphics” or the word photorealistic used quite often. Yet, graphics keep improving. Games keep expanding, and the systems that run them keep getting more powerful.

This is what I meant, though, when I talked about how we keep our standards in check in a sense. We all know that progress is happening all the time, yet we are willing to hoist games on a pedestal that, quite honestly, many may not actually deserve. I genuinely think this is because we have a sort of maximum expectation. We believe in our hearts that a video game can only look and sound so good, so when it looks as good or sounds as good as we believe it possibly can, we hold it up to the highest height, only to bestow the exact same praise on the next game.

And speaking of sound, don’t worry, we blind folks aren’t immune to this either. I remember listening to the trailer for Mortal Kombat Deception and thinking, “Man! That sounds real!” The game didn’t sound as good as the trailer, but Mortal Kombat X, the most recent MK game, sounds far, far better than that trailer ever did. Yet still, at the time I was utterly convinced that this was it. My first reaction to hearing the fully voiced cutscenes and full motion videos of Final Fantasy X was that I was certain the game would be short, because there’s no way the PS2 can handle all that. I was glad to be wrong.

Again, I’m not trying to send a specific message with this blog. This sequence of thoughts that I’ve laid out on this page is simply something that intrigued me, and I hope it intrigues you too. We are funny folk, aren’t we? Thanks for reading, keep on gaming, and continue to be awesome!