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How to make 80-hour adventures for blind gamers | Opinion

Accessibility consultant and blind gamer Brandon Cole offers advice on how to open up your epic blockbusters to the visually impaired

There's no denying that blind game accessibility can be a tall order, as much of what we need to succeed must be built at the engine level. That said, with commitment and time, any game can be made accessible -- even giant, 80 to 100-hour monsters.

As of this writing, however, this hasn't yet been done, perhaps because developers don't know where to begin. I, a totally blind gamer and accessibility consultant, am here to provide a little insight on how even the largest, most open-world experiences can be made accessible to the totally blind.

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Brandon Cole, accessibility consultant

We begin with movement. Obviously in a giant open world, we need to be able to get around. So how do we do this? How do we reach this objective that is all the way across a giant map? Well, believe it or not, Red Dead Redemption 2 unintentionally offers one solution to this problem.

While in its cinematic camera mode, you automatically travel toward whichever waypoint you have set currently. This isn't the only way to solve this problem, but it is a smooth one. You could also use an auditory beacon that played its sound in the direction we need to go -- either constantly or when a button is pressed.

Of course, this brings up another issue: Traveling to waypoints one way or another is all well and good, but how do we set those waypoints in the first place? That is where we come to the most important part of blind accessibility, the foundation of many of the necessary features we would need: Information.

I often like to tell game developers that most blind accessibility solutions can be broken down to information. Close your eyes, and consider all the information you no longer have -- then you can begin to think about how to either provide that information or work around it.

"Close your eyes, and consider all the information you no longer have -- then you can begin to think about how to either provide it or work around it"

In this example, we need to be able to set a waypoint in order to travel to one, so we need an interactive map. This can come in many forms. You could add positional sound cues to a map screen to indicate things like important places and/or sidequests, then provide narration as to the specifics of that icon when we move over it. Clicking on the icon creates our waypoint, and we're set.

Alternatively, you could provide a version of the map that functions like a list menu, allowing us to browse through the different available locations we can travel to simply by pressing up and down to move between items. Trust me, you'll hear no complaint from the blind either way. Simply being able to do this would be enough.

That's not where our informational needs end, however. We need to be able to find even the little things in the world. We need to have the option of picking up the ammo from that table, or opening that drawer to find some cash. This is where it will become necessary to add audio cues for things that, in real life, wouldn't make sound when they weren't moving. You could even make only a few of these, organizing them by type -- a closed container, a crafting part, a weapon and so on -- then identify them via narration once we've got them.

Red Dead Redemption 2's cinematic travel shows how blind gamers could navigate a vast world, but that's only the beginning of catering to this audience

Red Dead Redemption 2's cinematic travel shows how blind gamers could navigate a vast world, but that's only the beginning of catering to this audience

Using positional sound, and some additional navigational help (automatically guiding us around non-interactive obstacles that we would just get stuck on, for instance), would allow us to truly explore our environment. You'd have to look to audio games for current examples of this, as it's not common practice yet in mainstream games.

It may also be necessary to create audio cues to identify individual buildings, so we can find and explore that house in the middle of nowhere. Also, if we're using an automatic traveling system like the one referenced earlier, we need to be able to interrupt it if we hear something interesting in passing.

I've mentioned narration a lot, and that's because narration is absolutely essential for all text elements. Every menu -- from the inventory, to the crafting menus, to the dialog choices -- should be narrated. We should have access to every item description, every lore book, every bit of text carved into the wall of an ancient temple... Everything the sighted could read, we should be able to as well. We need to be able to truly immerse ourselves in your world, just as you'd want anyone else to.

What I have provided here are the basic building blocks for making a large game accessible. Certainly there would be more involved, very much dependent on the mechanics of the individual game, but the point I want to leave with is that every single solitary bit of effort will be appreciated by the blind community.

I responded recently to a Twitter post asking whether the plethora of open-world experiences is making the idea a tired one, and my response was essentially, "Well, we don't have any." It's true. As enjoyable as the games we can play are, no experience we yet have even compares to the sprawling adventures that have become commonplace for the sighted.

We deeply, desperately want to dive into a game world and lose ourselves for hours on end, take a break, come back and do it again. We await our first of those experiences, and we hope there will be many. This can be done, and it is my hope that sooner or later it will be.

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