Updated: Mar 30, 2020
When Super Mario 64 was released in 1996, it was one of the first big budget accessible games, completely by chance. The music plays continuously, and every action has an audio cue, which makes it perfect for vision impaired gamers. In this blog post I am going to look at some of the innovations and advancements made in audio-games, and why I believe this is an important market.
In 2010, the British Game studio, Somethin’ Else created a game called Papa Sangre. This game differs from others because it is entirely audio-based. It proved to be popular with vision impaired players and shows that accessibility is something worth investigating in the games industry. The game went on to win ‘Most Innovative Game’ at the Mobile Gaming Awards in March 2011.
On Somthin’ Else’s website, they describe their work:
Going beyond touch and sight, we combined the iphone’s accelerometer functionality and our own binaural audio technology to create an entire world through sound that produced an immersive (and scary) playing experience that would challenge serious games.
According to the RNIB:
Over two million people in the UK live with sight loss, that’s around one person in 30.
In 2014, around 350,000 of those were registered with their local authority as blind or partially sighted.
It is predicted that by 2030 the number of people with sight loss in the UK will rise to over 2,700,000 and by 2050 will double to nearly four million.
This is a large section of people, for whom audio-based games offer a chance to participate fully with games and gaming. On 13 July 2006, Nintendo announced it was launching a series of audio games called Sound Voyager. This was released in Japan and uses sound cues to aid the gamer to initiate certain actions, such as change lanes in a car driving game (https://uk.ign.com/games/bit-generations-sound-voyager).
These types of game rely on sound design and music in order to not simply immerse the player, but also provide information about the gameplay, such as whether you have collected objects, or are about to crash into another car.
Binaural recording seems to be a technique which is widely used in audio-games. In Papa Sangre 2 (released 31 October 2013) binaural recordings are utilised as you play a horror game with no graphics, only audio, to guide you through a garden in order to free the soul of the one most precious to you. The game is played on an iPhone and uses the VoiceOver function of the iPhone.
From 26th August to 5th September 2016, the RNIB held Audiogame Jam. Sixteen entries were received, each group had to design a game during the event which was accessible to vision impaired players (https://www.rnib.org.uk/rnibconnect/technology/audiogames-and-playing-videogames-without-sight). This shows that there is a market for audio-games, and that with understanding and creativity, audio-games can be just as fun and engaging as their non-accessible counterparts.
In 2018, a game was developed called CPRforBlind, which taught life saving techniques to people with vision impairments Rodriguez, A et al 2018. The players go through a series of mini games and learn CPR skills. Accessibility is not only useful for entertainment, but for important lifesaving skills.
Typically, the general public have viewed audio-games to be for vision impaired people only, not realising that audio games can be just as fun and immersive as normal games. Games are constantly evolving and using audio only to play a game seems to be an interesting way to expand the gaming world. Generally, developers working on audio games tend to work on mobile platforms, or PCs.
On 7th April 2016, the French game developer, Dowino, created a game called A Blind Legend. You follow a blind knight, who is aided by his daughter as they go on adventures. This is an action-adventure game with no graphics and uses binaural recording in order to guide the player through the story. I believe what Dowino have done with A Blind Knight is offer a game which pushes the idea of what a video game is. Most people assume that a game requires high quality graphics in order to be popular, whereas A Blind Knight proves that a game can be successful, original and engaging with no graphics at all. Reviews of the game on Steam are mostly positive, and the game is played and enjoyed by sighted and non-sighted people.
Accessibility in the AAA market
AAA games studios tend to lag behind the indie market in terms of accessibility. This is changing over time, with many games having colour-blind options, font sizing options and subtitles being par of the course. Ross Minor is registered blind and is also a competent Mortal Kombat player and regularly posts videos on YouTube of himself playing the game. He takes part in competitions against sighted players, and wins.
Mortal Kombat X also has an accessibility patch which means that players receive audio cues when they are near an interactable object. The game is also fully subtitled and offers remappable controls for people with fine motor problems. This is a step in the right direction and means that a larger audience can play the game. With Mortal Kombat 11 due for release in 2019, it will be interesting to see if they have improved upon their accessibility (menus and tutorials being seemingly overlooked previously).
The Unity Engine offers the UIAP system on their marketplace which allows the user interface to become accessible to vision impaired players. This is a step in the right direction and shows that developers are engaging with vision impaired players.
The video streaming service, Netflix, is also proving to be popular with vision impaired users, especially as they have just launched Minecraft Storymode, which has been fully audio described, a feature which was not available in its original iteration by developers, Telltale Games. This opens up a popular game to a new audience, and shows the possibility of Netflix possibly moving into the games market, or at the very least, the crossover of TV and games.
In conclusion, I believe audio games are a sub-group of video games which truly push the idea of innovation, and what sound in games can achieve if it is given the chance. I also believe that further development of accessibility features in games generally can only have positive benefits for everyone, and if undertaken in an innovative and creative manner, such as A Blind Knight, will capture an audience of sighted and non-sighted people.
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/13/video-games-that-let-blind-people-play (accessed 10 Dec 2018)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28757186 (accessed 10 Dec 2018)
2018 Unique Experiences for Real Gamers (accessed 10 Dec. 18) (https://www.somethinelse.com/projects/gaming-for-gamers-audio-games/)
Bit Generations Part 2 (accessed 10 Dec. 18) (https://uk.ign.com/games/bit-generations-sound-voyager).
2018 How Many People in the UK Have Sight Loss? https://help.rnib.org.uk/help/newly-diagnosed-registration/registering-sight-loss/statistics#content (accessed 10 Dec. 18).
20 December 2016, Audiogames, Audiogame Jam and playing videogames without sight https://www.rnib.org.uk/rnibconnect/technology/audiogames-and-playing-videogames-without-sight (accessed 10 December 2018).
https://store.steampowered.com/app/437530/A_Blind_Legend/ (accessed 11 December 2018)
Playing Differently: Minecraft Storymode (accessed 11 Dec. 18) http://www.brandoncole.net/
Bargerhuff, ME, Cowan, H, Oliveira, F, Quek, F and Fang, B 1st November 2010 ‘Haptic Glove Technology: Skill Development Through Video Game Play’ Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Real-time sensory substitution to enable players who are blind to play video games using whole body gestures, Tony Morelli and Eelke Folmer, Entertainment Computing Volume 5, Issue 1, January 2014, Pages 83-90
Rodriguez, A, Boada, I, Thio-Henestrosa, Sbert M CPRforblind: A video game to introduce cardiopulmonary resuscitation protocol to blind people 16 July 2018 British Journal of Educational Journal.