Sometime during the first half of last year, I came across a new video game being developed for iOS, Android, and more recently Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X (the desktop versions were not available at the time of writing so please note that this review focuses on the mobile versions only). Unlike almost every other video game, it was intended to be played using sound only, making it accessible to blind players. Furthermore, the main character in the game – and the character which the player plays as – is in fact blind, and as someone with an interest in technology, an interest in accessible software for the blind, and considerable experience with pretending to be blind in real life, I was very interested in the game and intended to play it as soon as it was released, which was supposed to be some time in October last year. It was released, I believe, on time, although it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally got round to downloading it, and only this morning did I get a chance to play the first few scenes.
I’d like to start off by saying that the game is as impressive as I was hoping it would be. The environments and game play feel incredibly realistic and immersive, and the player gets into the first-person role quite quickly. This is one game that you’ll definitely want to have plenty of time to try out.
I was surprised when I first started the game and everything was audio-only. I know it’s supposed to be accessible to blind users, but I did expect a graphical menu designed to integrate well with a screenreader; rather, the menus are all completely sound-based, with everything read out in a young female voice which I believe is also the voice of one of the characters in the game. Navigating the menu might be confusing to users who have never used a screenreader on a mobile device before – particularly the double-tap gesture to select items – but the navigation is very similar to the Talkback screenreader in Android (and, I believe, VoiceOver in iOS) and blind users will feel right at home with navigating the menus. Ironically, however, blind users will need to disable Talkback on Android as it interferes with the swipe gestures used in both the menus and the game itself; this is easy enough to do on Android and I imagine that iOS users with VoiceOver will encounter a similar problem with a similar solution. I’m surprised that this isn’t mentioned anywhere when downloading or starting the game, as it could cause great confusion and disappointment among blind users, who are a substantial portion of the userbase.
I’m going to put a warning in here and say that unfortunately, at least for Android (although I see no reason why this wouldn’t apply to iOS as well), the apparent download size is misleading. The Google Play store says that the app size is 25MB, however when you first launch the game it downloads a considerable amount of additional data. I’m not sure exactly how much it downloads, but it took rather a long time and the resulting data folder which I managed to find on my device is around 200MB in size, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re on a fairly fast and more-importantly unlimited connection – don’t try doing this over a mobile data connection unless you’re sure of your download allowance and charges.
UPDATE: It seems that, at least for Android, the app was updated on the 26th of October 2016 to include all the game content in the app package itself, making the app size in the Google Play store reflective of the actual size of the app and removing the need to download additional data when the app is first opened.
Another thing that I found disturbing at first is the mention of in-app purchases. While the iTunes app store explains what the in-app purchases are for, the Google Play store doesn’t and I was worried at first that the game would only let me play the first few scenes before insisting that I had to pay to finish the game. I absolutely hate any such kind of in-app purchase, but these ones turned out to be pretty reasonable: the player has up to 5 lives at any time, and loses a life by getting killed in fights (there might be other things that cause the player to lose a life too, but I haven’t found any yet). The player re-gains one life every 20 real-world minutes, whether they are playing or not, but can purchase additional lives through the in-app purchase. I don’t imagine waiting 20 minutes to be much of an issue – it would take less than 2 hours to regain all 5 lives – but if you’re the kind that likes to keep playing for hours on end then paying $2.99 for 20 lives doesn’t seem too unreasonable.
The game tries to create an audible 3D environment in which the player plays in first person. I was disappointed at first as the environment did not feel very immersive and I found that the 3D effect was somewhat lacking – particularly when the player’s in-game sighted guide, who follows the player and gives directions throughout the game, announced that she was behind me even though it sounded like she was in front of me. After the first two or so tutorial scenes, however, the 3D world started to feel a lot more real and I became a lot more immersed in the game – I’m not sure if there is more auditory detail past the tutorial scenes or if it just takes some time to “tune in” to the binaural audio, but either way I can’t stress well enough how impressed I am with the quality. You can really hear that you’re in a cave in the third scene, and no matter what size room you’re playing in you’ll feel like you’re really there. And the enemies really sound like they’re standing right in front of you as you fight them. Then you leave the cave and you can hear the space open up around you, and you can hear how all the sounds change as you return to the open space, and you again feel like you’re in that open space. I haven’t done extensive testing, but the game does seem to implement a degree of collision-detection as well – if you hear noise from a building in front of you, you won’t be able to walk straight through it.
Furthermore, the sounds really do allow for navigation by ear. I can easily hear where things are and I can judge where I am in relation to my surroundings by listening to the sounds around me – which brings me to my next point: the game is incredibly realistic. I had no trouble navigating the in-game world by sound alone just as I have done in the real world many times. Distances seem realistic and with the natural controls I could use all of my real-world experience of navigating without sight with little to no adjustment. I imagine that to a real blind player the game will feel completely natural; sighted players with no previous experience of blindness might struggle at first.
I also found that the element of blindness is conveyed very well. The player isn’t given abilities that greatly exceed those of a blind person, and the sighted guide was a nice touch. Following the sound of the guide’s horse (a lot of the characters ride horses in the game) is convincing, and the fighting scenes felt a lot like the scenes in Covert Affairs where Auggie gets into fights (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – it’s a spy TV series and Auggie is a main character who is blind). I found that, after a few minutes of playing, I really felt like I was blind – exactly how it is when I pretend to be blind in real life.
I can’t comment on the gameplay itself too much as I haven’t played that much of it and even if I had then I wouldn’t want to give away any spoilers, but I would like to warn potential players that the game does feature some fairly explicit violence. The game is very engaging and immersive, and that applies to the fight scenes too where you’ll literally hear your opponent thrashing away on the floor in front of you; nevertheless fighting is not at all the only focus of the game. I did also find one fairly common everyday usage of the f-word and there may be more similar language. Nevertheless these are unlikely to be an issue to most players and I imagine that the game would be suitable for pretty much any mature player.
I would highly recommend this game. I imagine that most sighted users might find the absence of any visual output disturbing, and the audio-only menus don’t help in that regard, but for anyone with an interest in blindness the game offers a very realistic experience. Blind players will enjoy the adventure played as a realistic blind character, and the binaural audio is accurate enough for a blind player to feel right at home. I imagine that this game has a somewhat limited audience, but among that audience it will be thoroughly enjoyed and highly valued.