This article is part of Vision Week, our exploration of eyeballs and videogames celebrating our collaboration with Warby Parker. Grab a pair of limited edition Kill Screen glasses here: warbyparker.com/kill-screen
Broadcasters on Twitch and YouTube often call their first playthrough of a particular game a “blind run.” In general, this means that they’ve never beaten the title before and would prefer to complete it without any help from viewers or walkthroughs. For those with impaired vision or blindness, however, the term takes on a new meaning entirely. Back in January, a let’s-player named Terry Garrett beat The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) after five years of dedicated study—and play—proving that there’s plenty more to the experience of gaming than just manipulating a camera and looking for the next thing you’re supposed to shoot at.
In fact, recent advancements in videogame audio align nicely with some of the ideas Garrett posed to Wired several years ago. While the simulated combat of first-person shooters like Halo are too chaotic and overwhelming for Garrett, he says games that use “as many sounds as possible” are more likely to be accessible to the blind. So the new paradigm of binaural audio and “surround sound” that’s come about through high-end gaming headphones and VR headsets is likely to offer blind gamers more options for choosing games.
Games that use “as many sounds as possible” are more likely to be accessible to the blind.
In a Q&A on his YouTube channel, Garrett offers some insight into the difficulties inherent in playing a sprawling adventure title like Zelda. While sighted players might glimpse a hidden chest, puzzle out the best way to get to it, and then see the item inside upon opening it, a blind player is left guessing—is it a Deku Nut? A dungeon key? Bombs? A Deku Stick? Without the help of a sighted friend or a live audience, blind players’ inventories remain a mystery. Having questioned other players and consulted walkthroughs before setting out to master the game, Garrett recalls that the hardest challenge was not conquering the fan-favorite Water Temple but rather finishing the “diving game” in Zora’s Domain. The diving game is a tricky timed challenge in which the player dives from a high cliff into a pool of water and has to fish for the game’s currency—Rupees—before the clock runs out.
“That little game . . . takes me forever,” says Garrett. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. Like, I swim around, dive, and hope I hit a Rupee. And of course, the more you collect, the less there is to collect, so the harder it gets. I think when I did that video, it took two hours of recording and ended up being like one minute in the video. So that tells you how long that part actually takes.”
Not all games are as sight-oriented as Ocarina of Time, though.
Carlos Vasquez, a blind Mortal Kombat competitor, remembers being struck by the terror of losing his gaming hobby along with his eyesight. But, to his surprise, he soon discovered that the audio cues he’d once taken for granted were actually a means to keep playing. “I decided to go back and start paying attention more to my hearing and kind of realizing, ‘Hey, this game actually emphasizes every single hit as you play!’ ” he told Polygon in 2014. Eventually, Vasquez got skilled enough at his new method of play that he began making waves at the international fighting-game tournament Evo.
“I don’t want my blindness to be just another gimmick,” he added. “Because like I told all the competitors [at Evo], if you’re playing against me, don’t play at your worst or hold back just because I’m blind. Play at your best; I don’t care if I get owned, if I get beat 100 percent. But the fact that you take me seriously is the best feeling ever, because you’re letting me know that I could be a threat if allowed.”
Activists like Vasquez and charities like AbleGamers are working hard to make sure players with visual impairment have the same opportunities as everyone else to play and compete—and that starts with game creators who are, hopefully, willing both to listen and to incorporate their feedback into a titles’ accessibility features.
The audio cues he’d once taken for granted were actually a means to keep playing.
Sightless Kombat, a blind Killer Instinct (2013) player who’s done well playing competitively online with Xbox Live, has a great video commentary on YouTube explaining how he uses the game’s audio settings to calibrate it for playing while blind. He also recalls how, as a big fan of the first iteration of the title from 1994, he took to the creator’s online forums with suggestions for how it might be improved for the visually impaired in future content updates. To his delight, he found that his comments not only went heard but were patched directly into the game’s audio in future versions.
Speaking with Eurogamer, Sightless suggests that “games could definitely do more to be playable by the visually impaired.” He recalls playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection when he was informed by a fellow player that it had an auto-centering feature—your gun’s sight is repositioned to the center of the screen when you walk forward. “This, along with several other accessibility suggestions I can think of for the series, could make Halo the most accessibility-oriented mainstream shooter franchise,” Sightless said. He urges other game creators to engage with those among the blind who already play mainstream titles when conducting user research and testing, challenging the popular notion that the visually impaired aren’t already playing and enjoying games like Killer Instinct.
Header photo by Jonathan Sutak.