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Games For The Blind: One Developer's Quest to Make AAA Games for the Visually Impaired

James Brightman

Games For The Blind: One Developer's Quest to Make AAA Games for the Visually Impaired

David Evans of Falling Squirrel wants the visually impaired community to feel included. His upcoming game, The Vale, is an attempt to get blind and sighted gamers playing together. (Photo: GameDaily)

James Brightman,Tue, 16 Jul 2019 21:38:00

Have you ever tried to play a video game with your eyes closed? For most of us, it would be an impossible task. And yet, there are blind gamers who have been able to master certain titles, such as Capcom’s Street Fighter V, based purely on the audio cues the game provides. 

David Evans, founder of St. Catharines, Ontario-based Falling Squirrel, would like to see more game developers think about accessibility from a visual impairment standpoint. While inclusivity is becoming more and more important to the games industry, the fact is that very few games are made with considerations for the visually impaired. Evans is aiming to change that with his upcoming audio-based adventure, The Vale, scheduled to release by the end of August.

I drove across the border into Canada to meet with Evans and demo The Vale. This game is not some lifelong mission for Evans. He does not have blind family. And he’s not doing this for altruistic reasons, he told me. Evans’ initial motivation was actually fairly pragmatic.

Evans, who has a background in film and TV and also worked for six years at now-defunct AAA studio Silicon Knights, explained that he spent most of his time working on cinematics that he thought should be woven into the gameplay. He went on to create a pinball title, called Rollers of the Realm, where the pinballs have personalities and the story unfolds as the game is played. 

“Then, I had this idea, probably about four years ago, where I wanted to focus my attention and narrative even more, and I said, ‘Well, why not make a game that has no visuals?’ I've been an art director but that only is because I feel like I have an eye to maybe tell a good artist, who's already really good, how they might want to think about things from a content and context standpoint, but I don't draw, I don't 3D model, I don't do any of that stuff. I also don't program. So I thought, ‘Well if I do an all audio game, I can very cheaply play with narrative, because I direct voice actors and things like that. So that's where that started. 

“There was no altruistic [motive]. I just wanted to do this. I thought it would be novel and I got all excited about it, but I right away said, ‘Oh, I should go talk to the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind).”

What Evans discovered is that a large percentage of the visually impaired community is starving for games. Whether or not a person can see what’s on a screen, it’s in our nature as human beings to want to play. Evans realized that this was a completely underserved market. 

“There's an appetite to being included in everything,” he noted. “And when you have an industry that's bigger than film and music combined… that you are not included in, that's something that concerns people in a community.

So, they are very aware of this, even if they don't play games, but then there's a huge number of people in the community that don't even look at games because they assume it's not for them. And then there's another chunk of the community that play sighted games. Unbelievably, they've done speed runs of Zelda using audio cues.”

Evans acknowledges that his pursuit of the gaming crowd within the visually impaired community is “not terribly romantic,” but it “speaks to the way people should think about business.”

“All of a sudden I realize that I am giving a group of people something that at least I'm good at,” he said. 

CNIB’s Martin Courcelles became a consultant for Falling Squirrel, opening Evans’ game up to an entire community for play testing. 

“There was a group of younger people that came in that had played games before they lost their sight, [and] they lost their sight over their teen years. They were very excited about this idea,” Evans said. “And then there was a number of people like Martin who had been mostly blind since birth, who have been into tech from the very beginning, been into games from the very beginning, and games were a lot more accessible back then. So the main thing they were able to do is give me, first of all, an idea of the cross section in this community.”

As one of the only games being made with the blind in mind, Evans does feel a certain amount of pressure. He doesn’t want to let the community down. He doesn’t want to offend anyone either.

“I sort of ran the narrative by [Martin] to make sure I was doing it [right], and the one thing that came back from these play tests and understanding this community is, there are some tropes that I've walked into as a sighted developer. I felt it was important to make the main character visually impaired. I really thought of it as an in for me.

“So it's like, I want sighted people to be playing this experience and understand it, and the first thing was like, ‘Oh, you can do that, we'll play the game, but everyone does that. Let's not make the character defined by their blindness, make sure that they're a well rounded character outside of that.’”

The Vale is considered an action adventure with RPG elements, and features the usual interactions from the genre, including combat, exploration and dialogue. The game was almost entirely funded by Canadian government grants and Evans made sure to use a part of the budget to hire professional voice actors. This element is important to any game nowadays but even more so for a title based solely on its audio experience. 

As a sighted gamer who’s used to relying on visual tutorials, it took me a few minutes to adjust to the completely aural demo. The only visuals a sighted person will notice apart from the title screen are some particles that float around in the darkness. The game utilizes positional audio through headphones so that you can hear whether an enemy attack is coming from your left, your right or straight ahead of you. Likewise, you can hear voices from all around you as you traverse the village. After a couple attempts, I had mastered using the Xbox controller’s analog sticks to attack, parry or block sword attacks. It was on a beginner setting and can ramp up in difficulty quite quickly with multiple enemies coming from different directions, axes being hurled that you have to deflect, and more. 

Ironically, the audio technology that Evans is leveraging comes from one of the most visually immersive platforms you could think of: virtual reality.

“I didn't make any plug-ins or engines or anything to make this happen. I'm using Oculus' 3D Spatializer... There are other games that have been around for a while using binaural audio, but they were writing their own stuff. But now it's relatively easy to develop, because of VR, all these packages have spatialized audio,” he explained.

Although The Vale is an audio-based game, Evans still often refers to it as a video game. 

“Mechanically, to be honest, it's not that different,” he said. “It's using all the different things you would expect in terms of making combat exciting, or exploration interesting. All those things do have analogs in audio that it really does feel the same. Then it's really about the delivery, which is a little bit different, the pace is a little bit different… the experience is very intimate. [With] this binaural audio space, when somebody comes up and whispers in your ear, it's like that ASMR response. It feels like someone's right there.”

Evans would actually be interested in bringing the game into VR, even though it has no real visual element. The head-tracking controls would be worth it to improve the experience, he said.

“When you're swinging a sword around, if you're triangulating where the thing is by turning your head slightly, rather than having tank controls moving around, where you're like, ‘How much did I turn?’ We've made it work, but it's like, yeah, this game would work much better in VR, in terms of intuitive controls,” he noted.

If Sony or Oculus did express some interest, however, Evans said he’d also be somewhat cynical about the reasoning. Companies today find themselves jumping on the advocacy bandwagon because it’s the “in” thing to do, he remarked.

“I think it's important to acknowledge that we do get a lot of traction in places because of the advocacy aspect,” Evans said. “I don't know if it matters where people are coming from, if they're doing things. So if Sony, for example, wanted to do something with this project for the novelty of it, not for the people that are mostly buying their hardware, but at the same time if this makes this game accessible, this could be something [worth considering]. Even though not a lot of visually impaired people are buying consoles, a lot of their friends have consoles. And to feel [included], like you have something you can play in that console [matters].”

Aside from his goal of wanting to give the visually impaired community a game that they can really sink their teeth into, Evans is hopeful that other game developers can look at some of the mechanics he’s putting into The Vale and get inspired to make their own titles more accessible in general. 

“I don't know if it could lead to ports of stuff that has [lots of audio]. Think of all this content in The Witcher, the content in Skyrim, or something. A huge amount of money goes into the voiceover and the music. Is there a way to take that content and deliver it, using slightly different mechanics to make it fully accessible?” Evans pondered.

He referenced story-only modes in games and certain mechanics that sort of automate certain actions to put the emphasis back in the narrative.

“In Uncharted, basically every time you pull the trigger, it's an instant headshot. Simple thing they did, and it makes it impossible to lose these fights. So the question is, is there something like that, that could be employed, hopefully that has a little bit more mechanical depth, maybe demonstrated in the game I make, that allows you to jump these gaps in combat, make it feel like the combat happened, and then you're getting into the narrative and you get the choice and the narrative and all that sort of stuff?” he continued. 

I asked Evans if he thinks game creators have a moral responsibility to make games as accessible as they can be. That’s easier said than done, of course, but he did agree that developers should at the very least be doing the easy things that enhance accessibility without extra costs or tons of additional development time.

“When it's easy, it probably should be done,” he said. “So, hearing impaired individuals who want to understand what's happening in a story, having a TRC (technical requirements checklist) that requires everything to be subtitled in various languages, I mean, that makes sense. It's relatively easy to do. 

“The assumption I think in the industry is that visually impaired accessibility is hard. So then, I mean, cynically I guess you're picturing people sitting around going, ‘How big is the market?’ You know, ‘Is this worth it?’ Because they think it's going to be really hard. And so the first thing I would say is... I would like to see developers look at the easy things they can do.”

Options for the color blind or to make some “outrageously small fonts” in games larger are low-cost no-brainers that any developer should look at, he said. Key bindings can be an easy option that can make a huge difference, too.

“We had a programmer on Rollers of the Realm who just out of best practices set up an unbelievable setup for key binding,” he recalled. “And we had a review from a woman who has a physical impairment, and she was just raving about how amazing this game is. She goes, ‘I could never play any pinball games.’ And I'm like, ‘I had nothing to do with this.’ This was one employee, due diligence, best practices, did it right, and we all benefited from that. And so that's the kind of stuff I'd like to see people do.” 

Evans said that the sense he gets from the development community is that some fear that there could be blowback for making certain changes for accessibility and inclusivity. 

“I think there are fears that developers have that they'll go halfway [with a feature] and then end up sitting out in the middle where nobody else is. Arguments like this come up all the time. Like, why weren't there women in FIFA for so long? Well, they said, when we did it, we wanted to get it right. And, I'm like, ‘Okay, I kind of get that,’ and by the way, when they did do it, they did it really well, and I had to appreciate that. But that was probably six years overdue for them doing it. So, there's that fear of making the attempt and failing when you can just sit back and do what you're good at, and not worry about it.”

Evans also advises that developers seek out consultation if they can’t think of all the easy things they can do to enhance accessibility. “People might just point out some easy things you could do, and maybe you can't market it right away as being accessible, but you might open up, you know, just the baby steps towards that,” he said.

Launching a game for the visually impaired community is another challenge that Evans has had to look into. When The Vale releases next month, it’ll be on Steam to start, but Evans also learned from the blind community that Steam is notorious for poor accessibility. 

“Most websites in fact, it's pretty standard, to be accessible now, and I wish I had a better answer for why [Steam isn’t], because I've just been told it's not,” he noted. “If I do not feel like Steam does something amazing in the next month, we'll probably put it out DRM free.”

Steam does serve is purpose, however, as that’s where Evans expects sighted gamers who are curious about the novelty or who wish to play with visually impaired people will likely purchase The Vale. He said he’s also considering Epic Games Store and others for the future. 

Evans would love for The Vale to be a title that opens the doors to the visually impaired market. While his motive may not have been purely altruistic, you can be that the visually impaired community is grateful for his efforts. As blind pro gamer Sven van Wege told Vice in 2017, “Blind people want to play the same games as ordinary souls."