Accessibility in games has become a major focus for developers as gaming has grown into the dominant form of entertainment across the world. Play any AAA game made in the past several years and you're likely to discover an entire variety of accessibility options designed to make the game as inclusive as possible to disabled players.
Overwatch, for example, offers customizable color blind controls to help players that struggle with distinguishing between different colors in the UI, as well as recently added subtitles that can display critical information for the hearing impaired. Apex Legends, which released just this past February, takes audio accessibility a step further with text-to-speech and speech-to-text for in-game chat and "Accessible chat features" which converts visual and auditory information in the game into either text or voice narration, allowing more players within a wide range of visual and auditory disablement to more comfortably play the game.
All of these features and options are designed to help players with disabilities engage with a product created for the unimpaired. In other words, these are games for sighted people with a few added features for the non-sighted. These are much-needed and highly appreciated features and while it's a good thing that the industry is finally taking care of gamers with disabilities, accessibility options can really only go so far.
It might surprise you to know that there is a growing market of games created for (and often by) blind gamers. These games typically have have no visual component whatsoever, and use mechanics and control schemes that are more natural to the way that visually impaired people experience the world. Audio games, as they're aptly called, are bringing puzzle, rpg, strategy, and first person shooter experiences to a group of gamers that have been overlooked for decades. Unsurprisingly, these players are looking for high quality, polished, immersive experience in games just like everyone else.
Audio Games Past And Present
Before graphical technology reached the consumer market in the mid 1980s, electronic gaming generally offered comparative experiences for both seeing and visually impaired gamers alike. Games like Atari's Touch Me arcade cabinet, which would go on to inspire the Milton Bradley handheld audio game Simon, could be played and enjoyed by blind gamers without losing much of complete experience, if any at all. Similarly, text adventures and interactive fiction on DOS could be enjoyed equally by visually disabled players using text-to-speech, in fact text adventures are still one of the genres most enjoyed by blind gamers today.
Shortly thereafter, with the advent of 3D technology, the market moved towards higher and higher standards of graphical fidelity and visually impaired players were more or less left behind. In time, amateur game developers began creating games specifically made for non-sighted gamers using audio narration and feedback from sound to orient players in the game and direct them on how to play. These audio games have increased in quality and sophistication recently as developers, many of whom are blind themselves, have gained new tools with which to create games catered to the visually impaired audience.
Many of these games use binaural audio to to help position players in a three-dimensional space. Some, like the freeware game Swamp by Aprone, uses an array of stationary beacons around the world that can be pinged in order to help the player judge distance from an objective, as well as eight directional radars (short range and long range) that players can use to echolocate. Echolocation is a skill many low-vision people use to move around in real life, and the virtual approximation comes very naturally to them.
Advancements In Accessible Gaming
Earlier this year, Ebon Sky Studios began demonstrating their game engine Sable at trade shows around the world. Sable is unique in that it is created specifically for visually impaired designers to make their own audio games. While still in the prototyping phase, the engine will open the doors to new ideas and hopefully big advancements in the audio game space. The engine requires no prior coding experience yet has all the tools developers need to create audio-only RPGs.
The big guys are taking this market seriously now, too. Microsoft opened a new research division last year called the Inclusive Tech Lab aimed a forwarding the advancement of gaming of all types of disabled players. The labs represents a partnership between Microsoft and a group of organizations that support people and gamers with disabilities, including Able Games, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Craig Hospital, Special Effect, and Warfighter Engaged. All of these organizations are driven to create fully realized experiences for disabled players and Microsoft is bringing a great deal of resources to the table.
Bringing Audio Gaming To The Mainstream
TheGamer recently had the opportunity to connect 1-on-1 with the founder of a Canadian studio called Falling Squirrel that is currently developing an audio-only game designed to be fully enjoyed by both sighted and non-sighted gamers. The game, called The Vale, is truly the first of it's kind and (hopefully) the start of an emerging trend to create holistic, unified experiences that connect with disabled and non-disabled players alike.
The Vale is a first-person, story driven game that uses binaural audio and thoughtfully designed control to provide adventure, exploration, and combat to players without any visual component at all. Falling Squirrel brought the game to the blind community during testing to make sure they were crafting an experience that would appeal to all players, and consistently engaged with visually impaired consults and play-testers as the game continued to grow.
In the coming weeks, TheGamer will be providing a variety of coverage about Falling Squirrel and The Vale, as well as further insights into the world of audio gaming. It is a fascinating, and unfortunately overlooked side of our shared gaming community that is now finally getting the attention it deserves.