Gaming In The Dark

As games are becoming increasingly complex we take for granted that playing them is a visual treat and an experience that involves most of our senses, but what about those who can’t experience this? We’re all so busy being sucked into beautiful and in-depth new worlds that we often forget about those who would do anything for a peek at an RPG or the ability to headshot their way through the latest shooter.  At the close of 2008, there were 153,000 people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK. A friend of mine, Paul, used to be an avid console gamer and could even give me a run for my money on some games… until he became blind. After many years of living game free and admitting it was certainly something he missed in his day-to-day life he managed to get into games for the blind, known as audio games. What could be done for those without sight? How would it differ to what we’re used to? How limited are the options? My head filled with questions that needed to be answered so off I went on a search to find out what was out there for the avid blind gamer.

Obviously there are different degrees of blindness, but with such a varied number of conditions how can developers get it right for everyone? Many games such as Final Fantasy XI can be patched to make them accessible to those with limited sight but for those without any significant sight capabilities there are now a few more options springing up. The main challenge seems to be tracking down a sensible source in order to obtain these games, and it was the discovery of that opened the door for many. The site provides a whole library of games for the visually impaired, ranging from Solitaire to Shades of Doom (yep, it’s a Doom-style FPS if you can believe it!). Amongst its downloads it even has the first mainstream conversion game, which is a patch to aid a full version of Quake to be played by the blind by adding in sound effects and speech in order to allow navigation.

Both a plus side for the demographic involved and a downside for the developers is that there is currently little to no money to be made in audio games, so most games are currently free. So, whilst blind gamers seem to be wanting ever more complex games so they can catch up to the rest of us, most of the developing is done part time by people as a hobby. A bizarre hobby it may seem but it is due to surrounding influences of blind friends, family or in some cases, even themselves. Yet in the main part it is fully sighted people, wanting to make a difference with their coding, who are creating these games.

I couldn’t very well write about audio games without having played some myself as, after all, it really is impossible to imagine playing anything more complex than Pong without any graphics. Some of the games I experimented with did have limited graphics for the partially sighted, but some provided none at all so I decided to play all of them whilst wearing a blindfold. The list of games available appeared baffling at first, but unfortunately so many turned out to be clones of very basic Spectrum games with a few extra sound effects. Worried that this was all there was out there I continued my search and I did find some gems to test whether or not I had true gaming skills!

Deep in the world of audio gaming. Note the blank screen!
Deep in the world of audio gaming. Note the blank screen!

So blindfold on, headphones on and off I went. As most of the games involve sounds travelling from left to right etc. to allow you to “hear” your movements and those of your enemies, a good pair of headphones is essential unless you have an amazing surround sound setup. After examining the list I decided good ole Freecell would be an easy start… and this was my first mistake.

Although card games may be incredibly simple for the sighted, the button used to read out the cards in the stack was used so often it ended up being my main control! This quickly became a memory game rather than cards. With the only thing progressing quickly being my headache I soon decided to pass on that! Lesson the first: Just because it’s easy sighted does not mean the translation is easy. So onwards and upwards; the good old classic Dark Destroyer (ahem, *coughs* Space Invaders). Could this beloved favourite win me over and teach me how to play blind? With my headphones on I could hear the ships approaching from left and right and my movement was easy to detect. Not only was this a very good introduction to audio games with simple gameplay, but it was fun. A lot of fun! After thrashing Paul on my first go (a competition that is still going on, and will be for the forseeable future) I was feeling very proud of myself, but was I ready to take it to the next step?

A game we all know how to play...

A game we all know how to play but could you play with only this to guide you?

[audio:|titles=Dark Destroyer]

And what is the next step, you ask? Well, the next step comes in the form of an RPG in the style of the early Final Fantasy games. Currently in Beta, Entombed is really looking to stretch what is thought of as possible in the audio gaming world. With the usual classes, jobs, extra characters and missions we have become so accustomed to it currently seems like the most in-depth purpose built audio game out there. For those of us new to gaming in the dark there is a handy button in order to help navigation through the dungeon (it will tell you how to get to the nearest unexplored space) but much to my surprise, with very little practice I was managing to maneouvre around dungeons by listening only to the wind whistling through the corridors. When the story is told, it’s just like reading a book and you start thinking, “Who needs graphics, when I have an imagination like this?”. With the fight commands spoken when you select them I was surprised to see that this was a stumbling block for me. I will even admit to a hissy fit or two when I died a few dungeons in. Paul, who has completed the game numerous times now, reliably informs me that this is a failure on my part and not the game’s… hmm, we’ll see.

Unsure of the process involved in creating a game like Entombed, I went behind the scenes and interviewed Jason Allen, the entire machine behind the game. Though fully sighted himself, the visually impaired members of his family encouraged Jason to turn his skills to audio games. Having originally looked at writing a card game, Jason realised just how little choice there was available and decided instead to make Entombed. The development process means Jason is obviously well-adept at navigating the Entombed world and random dungeons are used in newly built areas to test for flaws and navigational issues.With the lack of variety available Jason says, “I knew I’d have something completely unique by combining the rogue-like genre with a traditional RPG”.

It got me thinking about how much we rely on our hearing whilst playing regular games. We all know that you can’t rely on eyesight alone in shooters these days, but has gaming secretly been honing our hearing without us even realising? It is a great credit to the developers of audio games that they are so accessible to people without a great deal of practice. Let’s face it, there would be much disappointment if blind gamers believed they could game again only to find hurdles in the way. Whilst there will be seasoned gamers out there who have lost their sight, there will also always be people who have decided to game having never played a game before losing their sight, and it is for these people that the learning curve must be similar to the games we’re used to – complex enough for the hardened gamer yet easy to jump into for the n00b.

So what do blind gamers make of the developments? Not surprisingly it can be a big shock as a console gamer to try and adapt to audio games. With audio games being such a hidden community it can take dedication and time just to find the right games in the first place! Simple games may lead the way in adapting to relying on your hearing but it is easy to be put off by these, as these really are no replacement for console games. However, new game genres are now appearing with most things covered in console gaming now also emerging in the audio games world. It is worth bearing in mind that visual impairment has actually brought a lot of people into the gaming world. With computers being an essential tool for the blind (software such as the screen reader, Jaws) it is often an extension of relying on the computer that leads some to game. One aspect that has possibly been ignored over the years is that it is not just visually impaired people that benefit from audio games. Those with graphics too can be a useful step for those with literacy issues or learning difficulties and this idea would drastically expand those who could benefit from audio games making it a more worthwhile market for developers.

“I think this area of gaming is extremely important, but it’s ignored by mainstream game makers. The community is small, absolutely, but I think it could be expanded if there was more awareness of these types of games. The limiting factor is the community size right now” – Jason Allen (Driftwood Audio Entertainment).

Audio Quake is a fantastic example of what can be achieved. It is not a game in itself, but a free patch for a normal copy of Quake which makes it accessible. With dedicated blind servers this really shows how easily developers could be making their games available to a wider market. Whilst it’s not a large market share it is definitely an ignored group who are crying out for something to make them feel like a regular gamer. For Paul, Entombed was the game that had him rushing back from work to play, something he remembers from his Final Fantasy days; “It felt like a normal game, not just an audio game. That’s what they’ve got to try for.” Those of us old enough will remember text based RPGs and it is this style of game that is easy to convert. Even if you think back to Final Fantasy VII there is really very little that, with a voice over, could not be transposed to an audio game format. Though progression of audio games is slower than that of mainstream games, mainly due to financial or time difficulties, any audio game that sparks interest and shows that visually impaired players can still be gamers is definitely something to be applauded.

monkey business

Well, after dipping my toe in the audio gaming pool I will admit I went running back to my consoles with arms open wide (or at least wide enough to hold a 360 pad) but it was definitely an experience that was worthwhile. It really seemed impossible to me that a FPS could be played with no graphics and only through playing these games can you really understand. It is worth thinking back and trying to imagine how hard it was to pick up the skills required when you first played a game. Indeed, it may be no harder to pick up audio games than video games, but as I was on the Spectrum as a toddler I honestly couldn’t tell you! So I’m back to my consoles – the graphics seem shiny and new again, the sound less detailed than I had previously noticed but armed with my new super-hearing and appreciation for my sight I’m a more dangerous weapon than ever before… but every now and then, a game of Dark Destroyer can still hit the spot. Do you fancy your chances?







2 responses to “Gaming In The Dark”

  1. Markatansky avatar

    I had always wondered how the blind could be included in the gaming scene, so this article was pretty insightful. Nice one. 😀

    On that note, RPGs that are conversation heavy – such as Dragon Age or Mass Effect – could possibly be adapted for blind players by using a similar vocal input method to EndWar, couldn’t they? They’d maybe need to convert the games to a more suitable turn-based design to account for the player having an overwhelming amount of commands to issue at once.

  2. Dave G avatar
    Dave G

    Fascinating and thought provoking article. I’m already itching to get back to my console and appreciate what I do have access to…but I’m also tempted to try and get this piece in the hands of the big developer and see what they have to say on the matter.

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