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!

Twitch: Another Day, Another Fight

Hey everyone, it’s rant time! Today’s topic, the gameplay streaming service known as Twitch. “But Brandon,” I hear you say. “You use Twitch yourself!” I do, because certain aspects of Twitch make it the best option for what I am doing. However, that does not mean it is free from all judgement, and ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to judge.

We of the disabled community are fighting inaccessibility all the time. Sometimes we fight it where we work. Sometimes we fight it when we go out. Sometimes we fight it in video games, as I do. It feels like all day, every day, we’re fighting society’s refusal to simply accommodate us. If that sounds like whining to you, you’re probably not disabled, and have no idea how honest I am being right now. Regardless of what you might think, access to everything should be a wright for all. Inaccessibility is more than a lack of access, it’s a lack of freedom to do things and experience things others can. It is wrong.

I have been working to correct assumptions, and right wrongs where I can where video games are concerned. Video games have been my focus because I have always loved them, and as a result I’m passionate about playing them. Long story short, this brings me to where I am today, attempting to educate and entertain with my gameplay analysis and discussions about accessibility and whatnot. Wouldn’t it figure, though, that one of the tools I use to do this, (this is where we come back to Twitch), is now partially inaccessible?

The worst part of this situation is that there used to be no problem. Even up until a couple weeks ago, the ability to edit info on Twitch videos, and then export them to Youtube was perfectly accessible. Oh sure there had been problems before that while the new site was in beta, but it seemed as though all had been fixed. I actually thought that perhaps my concerns had been listened to and addressed. I was wrong.

Everything was fine the first couple days after I started doing this full time. I was delighted with how things were going. Then, somewhere, some switch got flipped, or some process was altered, and everything changed. Suddenly, attempting to export my video pulled up a page that a screenreader can’t even read. Even using additional tactics such as Optical Character Recognition wasn’t enough to get an idea of where I should be clicking. Overnight, this functionality has become totally inaccessible to the blind.

As before, I attempted to get a response from Twitch’s support account on Twitter, @twitchsupport. I had heard they really do answer requests. But just as before, I got no response. My supposedly more highly-valued affiliate status doesn’t seem to matter much to them, because addressing accessibility concerns is, as it is for many companies I’ve learned over the years, too big a task. Or, if anything, it is something that is placed on the back burner, and I mean the one in the way, way back, which is covered in dust from disuse.

So how have I overcome this issue? Well, for the moment, I have actually recruited a friend of mine. This friend has graciously agreed to, with my permission, log into my Twitch account every day, and export the relevant videos. Is that not the dumbest and most unnecessary thing you’ve heard all day? It’s necessity. It’s responding to Twitch ignoring the problem. It’s doing what I have to do to make something out of this. I do it because I want people to see these videos and learn from some, and be entertained by all. This work matters to me. It’s just a shame I have to take such measures in order to do it.

I’m not expecting a miracle to spring forth from this blog. This is, as advertised, a rant. I would love to see change. I would love for this to result in a conversation with the Twitch development team. Believe me, it’s a conversation I would love to have. But I’m going to leave you with this. Consider, for a moment, what it means that I don’t expect anything. It is, unfortunately, still a general expectation that people will not listen or care, and that’s a sad state of affairs. At any rate, I’m done for now. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

My Perception of Perception: A Rant and Review from a Blind Gamer

I never thought the day would come when I would regret backing something on Kickstarter, but it has finally arrived. I do not back Kickstarter projects very often, because I have little enough money that I have to make decisions on how to spend it. However, if I really believe in a project, I will take that leap. Such was the case with Perception by the Deep End Games. Allow me to explain what got me hooked.

Perception is a game in which you control a totally blind character named Cassie as she explores a mysterious house. It’s a survival-horror style game, made by developers who have done work on games like Bioshock. Now guys, just looking at it like that, it sounds utterly amazing. I was totally in.

Then, over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and finally getting a chance to try the game myself once it was released, I have learned the awful truth. The game is, in fact, an insult to the blind on not just 1, but 2 completely different levels. Let us discuss.

First, let’s talk accessibility. After all, you would think that, if you’re playing as a blind character, then a blind person would be able to play the game, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, the 2 primary focuses of the Kickstarter campaign were the voice actress for the main character, (and yeah, she’s pretty good), and the visuals. That’s right. Look, ladies and gentlemen, upon these visuals which, if the character were actually blind, would not exist. Aren’t they gorgeous? Isn’t the art style, like, so super cool?

Now, OK. If I force myself, I can get past the visuals being there. It’s a sighted world, and we want them to get some enjoyment out of this game. Sighted people like graphics, therefore we need goodlooking graphics. But then, I’m yanked backward because… The developers should want EVERYONE to enjoy this game, right? Should the blind not be invited to hold Cassie up as their own video game icon?

Apparently not, because I promise you, I guarantee you they barely tried at all when it comes to making their game blind accessible. Oh yeah, it was brought up during the campaign, and they addressed it pretty early on. Their answer was, quite honestly, pretty disgusting. This isn’t word for word, but they said something like, ‘Well, we tried, but we just can’t find an engine that will work for us.”

So what that tells me is that The Deep End Games was basically looking for a magical win button. Some piece of code they could just plop into their game, and boom! It’s accessible just like that! I feel like they googled “Blind Accessibility Engine,” and when they didn’t find anything, they said “Oh well, we tried.” I do not believe for one second that they consulted with a single blind gamer to discuss how the game might be made accessible. They certainly didn’t consult with me, and I’m a pretty good resource for this kind of thing. And maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong, but hey, perception is everything, right guys?

Here’s the worst part, folks. There are building blocks for blind accessibility in that game. Yeah, that’s right, they actually did a couple things correctly which, had those things been expanded upon, may have made the game accessible to us. For instance, Cassie’s 6th sense ability can be used to point you toward your next goal. It works very much like Resident Evil 6’s accidental accessibility where it shows you your objective, and points the camera at it, making forward movement then lead you in the right direction. Of course, this feature only mocks us, because it is taken away from you several times, asking you to “explore to find your next goal.” We also run up against the Resident Evil 6 problem of getting stuck a lot, but the point is that it sometimes helps, but not as much as it could.

The second thing they did right is that the audio recordings you can find have ambient environmental noise before you find them. The sound is like that of a running tape in a tape recorder. You can hear these from decently far away, though, so finding them is still difficult. Also, the “memories” you can interact with, or more accurately, things that trigger memories, have ambient ghost whispering noises that play until you find them. The problem here, though, is that the whispers are infrequent, so if you miss one, you may be wandering for a bit until you hear it again.

And third, the ironically funniest of them all, Cassie’s phone is almost completely accessible! Why? Because it has to be. Once again, they did not do well at passing her off as a real blind person, which we’ll get to later, but they would have failed utterly had Cassie’s phone not been equipped with Text to Speech. So yeah, I can listen to her text and voice messages, I could read a note if I had found one as she uses her phone to scan it, and I can listen to her… Oh wait! Look! Another glaring problem! Yes, most of her phone is accessible, but the text to speech does not read the items in her music collection. Sure is lucky she only has like 3 or 4 songs, instead of the hundreds and thousands most people do today. Whew!

The point that I’m making here is this. Everything that might be considered an attempt at accessibility was done in a half-hearted manner, and maybe most of it wasn’t even done for that reason at all. The developers never really tried, or even cared all that much about accessibility. But putting accessibility aside for a second, let’s get to part 2 of this rant. The second reason this game is an insult to the blind.

A message to the Deep End Games. Blindness does not work the way you think it does, or the way you desperately want it to work so you can justify your game mechanics. The game begins insulting the blind during its insanely short tutorial. “Sound is how we see,” says Cassie’s teacher, who is apparently a super knowledgeable blind person himself. Well actually, Mr. Teacher, that is not completely accurate. Sound is only one component. Turns out we have 3 other senses that we also use, all of them working together to compensate for a lack of vision.

The insult continues as you learn how this apparently works. First, we hear the sound of a fan, and the teacher asks what it is. It should be noted that the audio design takes a hit here, as the fan was not on before the teacher asks what the sound is, and when it does utrn on, it is just there, at full strength, rather than spinning up the way a fan would. Anyway, Cassie identifies the sound as a fan, making no other observations about it than that. Yeah, I actually made one. To me, it sounds like a fan with a small piece of paper or plastic caught in the blade. I made that observation without even tapping my cane! Let’s talk about that, though.

The teacher asks Cassie what’s in front of the fan. Apparently the only way Cassie can figure this out is to tap her cane. Yeah, the only way. She is in fact instructed to do this by her fully grown, very knowledgeable blind teacher. She does, and just like magic, she knows there’s a coffee mug in front of the fan! Wow! Now, maybe her cane actually hit the mug, which ya know, would risk knocking it over and possibly breaking it, but let’s say it did. I can’t verify that, being blind and all. But then why, if the mug was in cane-striking distance, would she not just reach out and find it that way? The whole thing is completely ridiculous and wrong, and sets up the game mechanic they’re trying to demonstrate to feel like an insult everytime you use it.

So here it is. Here’s the conclusion to all this. Perception is a terrible game that could have been great. Had any actual effort been put forth to make it accessible, it could have been a game that brought the blind and sighted together in a cool survival horror experience. And in this time, where video game accessibility is actually starting to become an accepted and widely-discussed part of game development, it is a shame this was not done. It is an enormous, enormous missed opportunity. The ntire game comes off as an attempt to cash in on a new survival horror idea without considering the immense possibilities that could lead to, and then tries to pat itself on the back for taking a couple real world inspirations. (Be My Eyes is used in the game, and it is a real app for the blind). I am finding it difficult to truly express my anger and disappointment with this title, and I worry that it will actually become a step back for the blind, making people who play it think we just swing our canes around everywhere like bumbling idiots. (It is actually possible to walk around and unknowingly break small things during the game). I understand this rant may unpopularize me with some, but I feel it needs to be said for the sake of the blind community.

Game Accessibility Talk from #GAConf live now!

Hey folks!
I’m happy to report that my talk at the Game Accessibility Conference, the first ever Game Accessibility Conference, is now live. This talk proved to be extremely important, as I am, no kidding, still feeling its fallout today. Listen as I discuss blind game accessibility with a bunch of industry folks, and maybe, just maybe, entertain them a little bit along the way. You can watch the video below.

Game Accessibility is Happening

The feeling going into the first ever Game Accessibility Conference was a positive one, yet I can honestly say that I still wasn’t completely sure what to expect. How was this going to go? Would people really listen? Would they care? Those are harsh questions, but given the difficulty of making our wish for accessibility known in the past, they were legitimate ones. After all, I was once sent a form letter by THQ in response to some requests I made about their Smackdown wrestling games. The letter thanked me for my appreciation of their stunning graphics. Yeah, seriously.

This conference, though, was not that. It was so much more. For my general readership, keep in mind that this conference was about gaming with all types of disabilities. Blindness, deafness, those who require one-switch controls, even discussions about using VR while in a wheelchair. And the best part is, the conference was full of those who not only listened, not only cared, but kept an open mind, and looked to be inspired. I feel that everyone there wanted to know exactly how they could help make this work, and those who already knew were more than willing to impart that knowledge. I cannot describe how that made me feel.

The world is beginning to change. Accessibility is now understood to a far greater extent, and disabled communities all over the world are beginning to be recognized as gamers, just like everyone else. Of course, there are those who have advocated for disabled gamers for years, such as the Ablegamers foundation, but this conference represents a whole new level of recognition, acceptance, and willingness to find solutions, in my opinion.

I’m happy to report that my speech, which centered of course on video gaming from a blind gamer’s perspective, was extremely well-received, and that I was approached by many, many people afterward to talk about the possibility of blind accessibility for them. That, ladies and gentlemen, felt great. Even when I was at GDC in 2014, even though I was pretty well received there, and even though I got a lot of compliments, I also got quite a bit of negativity when I began approaching developers about accessibility. Few attempts were made to actually discuss solutions, and I was often just turned down, with the assumption that it was not possible. Not the case at all with this conference, not once.

I am writing this blog with a very specific purpose in mind. I do not want to repeat what I said in my presentation, as that will be available for all to watch. Instead, I am writing this as a followup to the conference, and as reassurance to all of my readers that all of this is real, things are really happening, and people do want to help make those things happen. It is not going to be instantaneous, but we are further along than we’ve ever been, and based on discussions I have now had, I know that we are going to keep moving forward. Games should really be for everybody, and I’ve never believed more strongly that they will be. And furthermore, I want to assure all those who read this that I will always do whatever I can to help this process along. This conference has only increased my passion for games, and I look forward to similar events in the coming years.