Inside the World of Video Games for Players with Low or No Vision
By J.P. Davidson
Jordan Verner is showing me something incredible and decidedly retro: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time—published in 1998. Despite its age and jagged graphics, the game remains his all-time favourite.
Jordan’s on-screen elf hops through caverns, defeating monsters, bouncing projectiles off its little shield, but the breathtaking thing isn’t what’s happening on screen. Jordan doesn’t actually need a screen at all—he’s playing based on sound alone. Because Jordan is completely blind.
Ocarina of Time isn’t a special game made just for blind players. In fact, it isn’t very accessible at all. But when Jordan first discovered it in grade 5, he realized it had just enough “unintended accessibility features” to be semi-playable. “Surprisingly,” he says, “the game actually had stereo sound, which is coincidentally not intended as an accessibility feature at all, but it makes it much easier to be able to pinpoint something that would be moving.”
Essentially, important goals and enemies in the game happened to make sounds, so Jordan could move his character around the game world to pinpoint exactly where they were located—the same way you might locate a ringing phone by turning your head.
It only becomes clear what’s happening when Jordan slows down and demonstrates. After defeating one of the game’s bosses—a giant one-eyed spider— a glowing blue portal appears. He has to walk into it to finish the level. Jordan can’t see it and his character isn’t facing the right direction—but that doesn’t slow him down one bit. A quick swivel and he heads straight for the portal. “Get lined up…and go…this way!” The portal emits a musical tone that I can hear first in my left ear, then panning over to the right—and finally settling in the centre. On screen, Jordan is perfectly aligned with it. Unintended accessibility at work.
Challenges to overcome
Not everything is so simple, though. Jordan’s early attempts at navigating the game’s complex levels and puzzles based on sound alone proved hopeless. That meant he was stuck having sighted friends lead him through many parts of the game. Jordan wasn’t satisfied. “I wanted to be able to do the entire game,” he says, so he posted an online video of his progress so far—along with a plea for help. His post got a big response—just not the one he was looking for: “They didn’t believe for one minute that I was blind.”
Jordan’s game play just seemed too good to be the work of a blind player. The commenters turned on him immediately. “I had everything from ‘We don’t need liars on the internet’ to absolutely obscene, vulgar comments, and even threatening actions that were…rather terrifying, actually,” says Jordan.
Eventually, a few fellow Ocarina of Time fanatics who did believe Jordan stepped forward and offered to help. Working on and off for nearly two years, his online assistants produced a script that would get Jordan through every level, puzzle and maze. “It’s basically an extremely over-the-top detailed game walk-through,” he says. Jordan listens to the script using a screen-reading program, which feeds him the instructions at blazingly fast, auctioneer-like speeds.
Finally, he could play through the game he’d loved for years from start to finish. “Unbelievable! It was absolutely surreal,” says Jordan. “It felt like…well…I guess how anyone would feel if your childhood dream came true once you were an adult. It was that kind of euphoria.”
Now there are games made specifically for people with low or no vision—usually called audio games. But Jordan says that while huge story-driven games like Ocarina of Time were being released, audio games were mostly primitive arcade shooters: “You couldn’t find a shred of innovation if you tried.”
A new world
A lot has changed since 1998, though, and things do seem to be getting better—especially on mobile platforms. Critically acclaimed modern audio games such as The Nightjar, Papa Sangre II and BlindSide create immersive three-dimensional environments without graphics, using just a smart phone and a pair of headphones. BlindSide co-creator Aaron Rasmussen explains, “BlindSide is an audio-only video game. It uses the gyroscopes in your iPhone so you can sort of hold the iPhone and turn in the real world. If you hear something to your left you can just turn, and suddenly it’ll be in front of you.”
Your character wakes up blind, trying to get to safety as monsters roam around trying to eat you. It’s based on an experience Aaron had—minus the monsters, of course. “When I was in high school,” he explains, “I mixed potassium chlorate and red phosphorus on the teacher’s suggestion, but wasn’t wearing goggles. It blew up on contact and burned both my eyes and about half my face and my hair and all sorts of stuff. I went to the emergency room and woke up a day later to darkness. It was a shock.”
Aaron was blind and the doctors said he would never see again: “So I did have to learn to kind-of navigate the world as a blind person. But in the end I was only totally blind for maybe a week and I had full sight back in about a month.”
So the game was inspired by a bout of temporary blindness—does that make it a game for the blind? Aaron says he and his team were very serious about making a game that worked for both sighted and blind gamers: “Do we supply maps? No, because when I woke up blind and when I did figure out that I was in my house, I knew that map pretty well. But we decided against it because we were really serious about giving sighted players absolutely no advantage over blind players, and I feel like we were successful.”
There are games without graphics that both blind and sighted players can enjoy, but Aaron says audio games are a small market, so he doesn’t expect major developers to start creating them anytime soon. And while this new breed of audio games are fun and technically impressive, the blind gamers I spoke to are looking for games with more to them.
Zack Klein is one such gamer in Oregon. “I just feel like, when you come down to it, I’m a hardcore gamer who likes games that have a little bit more in the way of depth to them,” he says. “A lot of the current crop of audio games just don’t have that.”
Zack spends his spare time encouraging developers to make their games accessible to blind players. “The accessibility features are only useful if the developer tries to utilize them, as silly as that sounds,” he says. “iOS is a great example. There are lots of games that should or could be accessible, but aren’t—just because the tools being used are not accessible.”
Enabling certain accessibility features can be the difference between letting blind players in and locking them out. Zack has successfully lobbied game maker “A Sharp” to use the voice-over function that’s already built into iPhones and iPads. He just wishes more developers would follow its lead: “I mean, it’s the right thing to do—it’s a good thing to do—and it will make a large number of people happy for, relatively speaking, a small investment of time and resources.”
As for Jordan, the Ocarina of Time master, he’s now studying software development at Mohawk College in Ontario and has recently started work on his own audio game. He knows it won’t be easy to develop, but he’s determined. “The Ocarina of Time project did make me realize that, if I push hard enough, I have a pretty good chance of beating the odds,” he says. “Because I’m not really beating the odds, I’m just beating the stereotype.”
J.P. Davison is a Toronto-based freelance radio journalist, audio producer and podcaster. He has previously reported on gaming for people with vision restrictions for CBC.