Angel Raphael

How to talk about videogames (if you’re blind)

One of the first things that people notice when they flip on their consoles are the catchy intro sequences; the flashy animations of the screen. Videogames have a quantified area around them that’s visual. After all, so many game elements are conveyed through visual means, such as objective markers and collectables.

Usually, in a videogame review, these visual references will pop up. Pixels will be examined, judgments will be passed on art direction and the success of animated bodies. I, however, don’t review visuals at all. I have to look to different aspects of a videogame to make up for this absence.

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I am not totally blind but I am still unable to see most visual data, no matter how close I may sit to the TV. I was born prematurely in 1989, and this lead to my lungs not developing properly. Weighing in at a mere six ounces, the medical team who helped deliver me had to make a stark decision: Place me in an incubator and save my life with possible after-effects, or let my life dwindle into a memory. They chose to save my life and put me in an incubator. I am assuming that’s what caused the blindness. Ever since I was a month old, I have lived with one good eye that has a visual acuity of 20/200 even with corrective tools, and tunnel vision, which means I have to portray a new kind of bobblehead every time I want to talk to three different people standing near me. Because I’m legally blind, I consider the long red-and-white cane I carry around to be a necessity when going out of my apartment.

SO MANY GAME ELEMENTS ARE CONVEYED THROUGH VISUAL MEANS

My vision can be an advantage, however. In the Halo games, I am often the best sniper among my party. The scope resembles how I see things every day, so I am able to strut around the arena, shooting people with prompt agility and precision (occasionally running into walls). My focus with scopes is stellar—hence, I find sniping to be a stroll in the park, as if birds were singing to my step.

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In lieu of a game’s visual tellings, in the reviews of videogames I write for various websites, I focus on other components more critically than others would, components that are elevated in their presence as they more wholly inform the experience for me. I specifically examine factors that can help tie up the strand that I am missing. The music, does it compliment the story? Can you increase the font sizes in menus? Do I have the option to enable a colorblind mode? Is the crosshair used to aim my weapon easily visible? All of these questions are separate elements that any applicable videogame should offer to players whether they have a disability or not. Yet this rarely happens.

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Many bad examples of accessibility can be found throughout gaming history. Those that swing the other way are few in number and it’s for that reason they are worth celebrating. For instance, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) on the original Xbox is among the best RPGs for disabled players due to a number of design aspects that would be unremarkable to most. There being an icon that hovers around any interactive element is one of these. Someone with a motor disability could move the cursor on the Xbox controller to a character across the room, hit A, and the character will walk over and interact with them, all using a single button. If a player has a visual impairment, like me, they can look up to the top-left corner of the screen to see a very readable description of whatever interactive element they are focused on. There are also a dozen combat styles to consider in the game. This is easily managed by having the game pause every round, letting you set attacks ahead of time. The pressure of urgent action is removed. Once your moves are set, you can then watch it all play out with a press of the X button, while also having the option to pause with the white button. It’s small considerations like those that end up being so simple but can make a videogame inclusive to everyone. Not to mention that Knights of the Old Republic also has easy-to-read captionsblue text on a black background. That detail, especially, made me feel included in the game’s audience.

It’s true that videogames have tried to become more accessible over the years by providing more ways to customize their experience. But the reality is videogames still have too few accessibility options. And so while I want to tell people what games they might enjoy in my reviews, my primary concern always has to be with telling readers what’s accessible and why it’s accessible. This is made ever more harder as lots of games have promising accessibility features yet can still prove difficult to play for a number of people. An example of this type of game is the Call of Duty series. Infinity Ward has a controller layout for Call of Duty that helps me due to my cerebral palsy. It toggles aim rather than requiring continuously holding the trigger for aiming. Unfortunately, the crosshair is so small and indistinctive that it’s very difficult for me to see, so I can’t tell if I am aiming on target.

THE REALITY IS THAT VIDEO GAMES STILL HAVE TOO FEW ACCESSIBILITY OPTIONS

One of the many other problems I find in playing games is text being the size of an ant. It’s an issue that baffles me especially with the prevalence of 60-inch TVs these days. You’d think that, by now, minuscule details such as menu text would be well-considered across all games. But take Forza Motorsport 5 (2013) as example. The text size varies quite a bit, with major heading text being fairly large and in all caps, and then the message boxes using a very small typeface. These types of oversights are frustrating discoveries every time I start a new game. Another example is the mini-map in Grand Theft Auto V (2013) which, for people with a significant visual impairment, can be very hard to see. It’s small as it is, then it has even smaller indicators that aren’t always clear, and then the final kick in the pants is not having the option to enlarge the icons or move the map to an easier-to-see location.

To combat the challenges that most videogames present me with I’ve developed different ways to experience them.  Easiest of which is sitting close to the TV. I sometimes also use a rapid-fire PS4 controller when there are mandatory quick time events. Then there is sound. Sound is an element all on its own that I can judge without visuals. It’s so wonderful. When I play, a headset has the effect of sitting me down in the world of Sora and his friends, or placing me behind the wheel of a dashing car, or maybe sucking me into the granular details of a BioShock (2007) landscape.

Kingdom Hearts

The easiest games for me to play are those with vibrant, clear, and bright areas, such as Kingdom Hearts (2002). Or those with one-button maneuvers so I am not struggling with my cerebral palsy to do a quick-time eventStar Wars: Republic Commando (2005) is good for this. Games that have a lot of spoken feedback, such as Portal (2007), or turn-based combat, such as Final Fantasy X (2001) also work well for me. All of this I have had to discover for myself over many years of experimenting.

But it’s not always a lengthy process. Sometimes a game clicks with me as if it were made to cater to my abilities. BloodRayne (2002) is one I remember well for this reason. I was able to adapt to the Aura Sense (a vampire-enhanced vision) quicker than any of my full-sighted buddies. I usually inverted the visuals to a high contrast settingwhite text on blackwhen looking at any digital display, if the option was available. But using Aura Sense, Rayne blitzed through Louisiana and the future locations without any fumbling around on my part. Shocked exclamations leapt from their lips as I creatively used a mix of Aura Vision and regular vision to find an unexpected space of mastery within this game. It was a thrill, especially when my friends were asking for me to aid them through the more difficult parts that their own sight simply could not grasp.

Angel Raphael image via Wikimedia Commons