Accessibility in Games: An Interview with Brandon Cole, a Gamer Who Plays Without Sight
by Alex Krefetz
Video games have grown from humble beginnings roughly thirty years ago to a multibillion industry. Millions of players around the world use consoles, mobile phones and computers to play the newest titles. The industry continues to seek out new players and markets for their games.
For some, playing games provides challenges beyond simply beating a final boss. There are many people who find games inaccessible for a variety of reasons. When developers seek to increase the accessibility of their game, both they and consumers benefit. However, the challenge of making games accessible to everyone is no easy task, and the ongoing quest for accessibility continues with both successes and failures.
Brandon Cole plays games without the use of sight. While many may think a lack of vision would make playing video games impossible, Brandon continues to speak about his experiences playing mainstream games on his blog. I had an opportunity to interview Brandon about his history gaming, some of the techniques he uses to play, and how he thinks developers can make games more acceptable in the future.
Alex: How old were you when you first started playing video games? What consoles and systems did you play on?
Brandon: I love telling this story. I started playing video games because of a horrible trick my older brother played on me when I was about six or so. I had dismissed video games entirely as something I couldn’t play, so when my brother asked me if I wanted to play Mario Brothers, I scoffed. He convinced me to try it, though, and at last I relented. He handed me a controller, fired up the NES, and the game began. Before I knew it, I was slaying monsters, collecting coins and extra lives, conquering castles, saving the Princess… Except I wasn’t. Once the entire game was complete, and I started celebrating, my brother revealed the truth. He had, in fact, handed me the second player controller, while he had started a 1-player game, and done everything. My contribution amounted to nothing at all. I was crushed, and he was delighted. He was that kind of big brother. Yet, he spawned something within me, because at that moment, I vowed that I would play games on my own, and I would win, if only to show him up.
And that’s exactly what I did. I went back to Mario Brothers for the NES, and through a bunch of trial and error, figured out what my limits were. I eventually completed the first level. That’s as far as I got, but it was enough to prove to myself that I had something, and that I really could do this. I continued trying games for the NES, experiencing both success and failure in varying doses, but never actually finishing a game. Those experiences continued until the Super Nintendo came along. My brother got one, and even though he hated it when his little brother played it, I did anyway. That’s when I discovered Killer Instinct.
“So let me get this straight. There’s a game now where all you do is fight people one after another? No worrying about figuring out how to get through a level, you just fight? Yeah, I can do this.” That’s how I first viewed fighting games, and it turned out to be the correct view to take.
I quickly figured out that I didn’t even have to worry about where my opponent was in a 2D fighting game like Killer Instinct. Your character always starts right across from your opponent, and some move or dash will get you right to them. I then started learning the individual game sounds (thankfully, the characters in KI all had individual voices unlike Mortal Kombat which I tried later), and figuring out how combos worked. Each attack had its own associated sound effect, and there was a certain rhythm to the combos that I could easily follow.
Before long, I got pretty decent at the game. Good enough, at least, that I finally, finally beat it. When the final boss fell into a pit of acid and was destroyed, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that I had really just beaten a game! Of course, I immediately ran out and told my mother, who cared nothing at all about video games, but came into the room where the and congratulated me. It didn’t matter that she didn’t care, of course. This was my moment, and I’ve never since looked back.
What tools and techniques did you utilize when playing games as a child? Do you still use these tools today?
Interestingly enough, once I started trying, it became kind of a natural thing. As a blind person, I have to use my other senses to learn things about my surroundings. It turns out this applies to games too. I have to learn what every single sound effect means, and that includes listening for things that others might not pick up on. For instance, in Kingdom Hearts series, the sound of the main character’s footsteps changes depending on which Keyblade he has equipped. Every single person I’ve told that to has been surprised to learn this, but for me it’s just something I noticed that gives me more information.
In fighting and wrestling games, even the delay between sound effects gives me information. I mentioned earlier the rhythm of Killer Instinct’s combos; that rhythm enables me to figure out which combo is being used against me, rather than just the individual moves. I bring up wrestling games because even though there are far too many moves for each of them to have their own sound effect, the sounds play in a specific sequence. The delay between them, such as a grunt followed by the sound of flesh hitting mat a few seconds later, might tell me that that character just performed a suplex, but the sound of running feet,followed by a slam sound about a half second later might suggest a running bulldog or spinebuster.
Even haptic feedback is useful in certain situations. High-action games may use too many sound effects to distinguish individual ones, but if haptic feedback is used in situations where the player gets hit, I can get my bearings. Another great example goes back to fighting games. When both characters have the same voice, and the same moves, thus the same sound effects, I rely almost completely on haptic feedback to determine what’s going on.
All these things are tools I still use, but now I’d also refer to my general knowledge about, and experience with games as another tool. There are things I know about games that will generally help get me started playing them these days. Little things like how, in most game menus, starting a new game is almost always the first option, while loading a saved game is almost always the second.
What has been the most helpful tool for playing games?
The most helpful tool has honestly been my own patience. All these things I’m describing, they don’t just happen quickly. It takes time to learn all these things, and in games more complex than fighting games, it may take a bunch of time just to get from one place to the next, but in the end it’s all worth it. Learning how to play a game, then playing successfully is a brand new reward every time.
Were there any games you were not able to experience in the way you wanted because of a lack of accessibility options from the creators?
The answer to your question is yes, but the longer answer is that most games are inaccessible. I would give so, so much to be able to play games like Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, Watchdogs and Grand Theft Auto. I’d love to traverse the Star Wars Universe in the Old Republic. I’d love to craft my own story in Dragon Age. I’d love to solve cases in Phoenix Wright. I’d love to jump from platform to platform, solving puzzles in Uncharted. I’d love to experience the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us for myself, or enjoy all the world’s time periods in Assassin’s Creed. I consider myself an avid gamer, and I’ll try to play anything at least once, as well as listen to other people play games that I cannot. However, it’s not really enough. There are so many more failures than there are successes. There are so many games that I simply cannot play on my own that it is difficult to be as obsessed with video games as I am sometimes. And yet, I soldier on.
Have there been games you decided to try based solely on comprehensive accessibility options?
I guess the answer to that question is also yes, but none of them were the mainstream types of games we’re talking about. Very, very few games that weren’t specifically made for blind people have accessibility options for the blind. Color blindness is covered in a lot of cases, and there are one-switch options (for those who can press only one button at a time), in many games today, but total blindness simply isn’t considered most of the time. There are some games I’ve tried for their accessibility, such as In the Pit for the Xbox360. It’s an audio game in which you play a blind monster that must eat prisoners the King throws into your pit. It’s a short, but fun game.
Do you play older/retro games? Have you found techniques or tools that allow you to play older games that were not designed for blind accessibility?
I played many retro games back in the day. I beat a few eventually, Killer Instinct being my first, but the strategy was always the same. There are new elements to modern games, such as positional audio, but the principal remained the same: figure out what the sounds were, and how they could be used to determine what was going on, learn the buttons, and go. A game like Punchout!! is an especially good example of a playable retro game not actually designed with the blind in mind.
How well do you think games do in portraying blind characters?
Aside from games made strictly for the blind, I cannot honestly recall a game in which a blind character is present for the most part. There is an example of a side character in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. The game throws in typical blind guy humor (he crashes into things and goes the wrong way and whatnot), but I’m OK with this as I make tons of blind jokes myself on a daily basis. I respect the entertainment value, and those things aside the character is great. He is a gang leader after all.
Are there any recently released games that you feel are very accessible to blind players? Are there recent games you feel are not accessible?
Unfortunately far more games aren’t accessible than are. As for accessible games, there are some option. Killer Instinct is back for the Xbox One, and is quite accessible. The audio nerd in me appreciates the implementation of the game’s music into the fight itself. Injustice: Gods Among us, and Skullgirls are games where the developer actually has implemented features to make them more accessible to the blind, which I absolutely appreciate.
Resident Evil 6 is almost entirely playable by the blind thanks to a design choice the developers made. They may not have done it intentionally, but it still works. In RE6, there’s a button you press to display your PDA, which shows a map of your location with an arrow pointing toward your next objective. While this isn’t useful in itself, bringing up the PDA also points the camera in the direction of the objective, and pushing the thumbstick forward always moves in the direction the camera is pointing. So basically, if I hold down the PDA button and press forward, I’ll automatically walk to the next objective. This also works with the co-op button while playing online. I can follow our co-op partner step for step just because of that. Positional audio, along with the occasional use of the auto-aiming Quick Shot feature, helps tremendously with shooting. Sound effects as each zombie is preparing to attack even allow the blind to counter properly. Yet, as lucky as all these things are, it’s clear it wasn’t made this way for the blind. That’s the way most accessibility in video games works. It’s by accident.
If you were able to advise a game development team, what advice would you give them to build a game accessible to blind players?
Well, the individual things I might ask them to do for accessibility would depend greatly on the game itself. I would have a completely different strategy in making one of Telltale’s story-based games accessible than I would for making Borderlands accessible, but both could be done. In terms of general advice, I would say this: don’t assume that you know what it’ll take to make your game accessible for the blind.
I read an article where someone from Rockstar mentioned in a presentation that it would cost another $128,000,000 to make GTA V accessible for the blind. That’s half of what it cost to make the game. I instantly thought “How do you know that? What in this crazy world do you think it would actually take to make your game playable to the blind? I have a pretty good idea what it’d take, and I know it’d take some new code, and I know it’d cost some money, sure, but $128,000,000? No way would it cost that much.” I felt, and still feel, that they pulled a large number from a hat to make accessibility seem like an impossible task.
If you want to ensure your game is accessible, work with blind people. Incorporate blind testers. Don’t just ask, then give it a shot and hope it works on release. Involve us, and we will help you. All blind gamers want to do is play just like everyone else. Let us do that, and we will sing your praises to the world. We will make sure everyone knows what you did for us. Trust me, we’re very good at that.
Are you a fan of voice-controlled tools, such as the Xbox One’s Kinect? Have improvements in voice control technology changed how you play?
I am a fan of voice control, and I do like the Kinect, but it hasn’t had much impact on how I play.. It’s almost always an aside, meant to be used along with a controller and your working eyes. The existence of voice control does not in itself make a game accessible. The reason I like the Kinect isn’t because it’s helping me play games. Instead it gives me full access to the Xbox’s menus without having to see them. The fact that I can navigate them all with my voice is indeed a huge step forward, but it only covers one aspect of using a console.
Interestingly, the best use of voice control for games that I have yet found was on the PS2. It was in a kind of unpopular game called Lifeline from Konami. It had low production values, and the main character was the only actor in the whole thing, but I loved it, and still do to this day.
The premise is that you are a guy trapped in an operating room on a space station experiencing some issues. You cannot move, but you can control things like doors. You connect with a survivor, and using your voice, you must guide her through the rooms of the station, telling her what to examine and which door to go to, as well as what to shoot in a fight. The entire game, controlled by your voice. I thought it was wonderful. I was in the process of writing a guide for it at one point, since the things you can examine aren’t actually immediately obvious. With that guide, any blind person would have been able to pick it up and play it straight through. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish it.
What games are you currently playing?
Currently, I’m playing a little bit of Killer Instinct, a little bit of Injustice, some Mortal Kombat 9, Ultra Street Fighter IV, and MLB14 The Show. I’m also playing Hyrule Warriors cooperatively with my fiancé. She does all the super important, time-sensitive stuff, but I kill things, and that’s enough for me sometimes. I’m always looking for more, though, and I impatiently await the day when I get to experience one of the epic adventures the sighted are experiencing all around me every day.