Topic: Mainstream Games for Low-Vision: Examples, Tips and Hacks (long)
I'm a legally blind computer enthusiast, hobby musician and programmer from Finland and just found this sight and ´forum. I do have a tiny bit of vision left in my left eye which has been, however, good enough for playing loads of computer games ment for the sighted over the years. The truth be told I haven't actively played much within recent years but did so as a kid and find I still enjoy especially deathmatch or co-op style multi-player games. This post is here partially to introduce me on the list, relate numerous game examples and chat about accessibility and so on. I'd love to hear other people's opinions and work-arounds as well as tips on other games I might try. Here we go:
First of all, games have had quite a drastic effect in my life in general. Here are a few examples. Though I had picked up some individual letters at school and in other places, games tought me how to read text for the sighted. In particular, the 1988 Grandprix Circuit by Accolade was one of the games I happened to play back in primary school. AS I got tired of asking sighted folks to read me the results listing, I started looking at the screen and over a period of time of which I only hav vague memories, eventually learned to read enough bits and pieces to know which driver is which. The font in that game was big enough for me to read real close to the screen, even on those old 15 inch crts.
a more fundamental effect had to do with actually starting to use my sight for computing. As I grew up reading braille having learned how the sighted read broadened my access to games, electronic texts, magnification and eventually Guis like Windows. I do use screen readers these days, though, as reading for me magnified is many times slower.
Lastly regarding the social effects of gaming, the fact that I had a PC early on and could, all be it tediously, play many of the same games that the sighted could made me part of the lot at school. I mostly made friends with what one might call geekish guys you know people who are into gaming, science fiction, role playing and other such things rather than say sports, which I wanted to do but my sight wasn't much good for say football. OF course, this is a somewhat grose simplification in both directions, and games certainly weren't the only factor, but you do get the idea.
Which reminds me, I browsed through the section on games for sight impaired folks and was surprised to find that partially sighted people weren't considered in detail. It would be very nice if the focus could be widened to cover us partially sighted players as well: including somewhat accessible mainstream game lists, ways to make games accessibleuniversal options. Of course the range of vision impairements is simply staggering, but I'm sure some common guidelines, generalizations or estimates of accessibility could be drawn. For more info on what I see and what not, by the way, including some gaming related stuff, you can go here:
To facilitate some of this in a sort of case study fashion and encourage discussion with other low-vision gamers, here are some descriptions of games I can and cannot play well arranged by genre with tips included.
Some puzzle games are accessible to me, though the degree vaeries. One common problem with board games like chess or reversi is getting the big picture, if you can see an item or two at a time, though as there's usually no time limit, this is a problem that can be overcome. Another sub-genre are games that do have time and require action but which don't require you to see an awful many objects at once. Tetris is probably the canonical example here, I particularly enjoy Microsoft's implementation for Win 3.1 which runs in XP fine. IN Tetris the blocks are big and different from each other and there's a bit of time to look around. Though as my field of vision is very narrow and resolution so bad that i have to get very close to the screen itself, it does mean I can see a very small portion at once at a detail level good enough for playing. If I can get as close to the screen as physically possible, which gives me the highest detail level, I can read Arial black Bold 24 pt at 1024x768 x 17 inches, though I can barely make out the text.
In Tettris all this means I'l have to turn my head to look down and scan a couple of the top rows to see where I can place a piece and then pan back up to move the piece around and rotate it. Given a bit of practice Tetris is very playable, though block and background luminance difference could be higher for many pieces i.e. no colors. Also extrras like block preview or stats are hard to follow in real time and require me to pause the game.
Other examples of games with strategy elements include the Scorched Earth clone Tank Wars for the PC which is very playable, and the Worms series, whose accessibility varies. IN tank wars it helps a lot if the other party is willing to make some adjustments: i.e. black background, turn on trajectories and give me a tank whose contrast is good against the background say green, yellow or white. One can also play by the speeed and direction i.e. velocity figures alone, seeing them and where you hit is good enough. The original worms had a great GUI in that the text in menus was huge. Worms 2 also had a Windows:ish GUI that worked with screen readers decently but they spoiled that in Armageddon and later. In worms minimizing the background detail helps a lot, as does picking weapons via f-keys rather than the tiny menu. One curious example of where I need the other sighted players help are worm names. They are so small that I can hardly read them and telling apart sides based on color isn't very easy either, because though I can see some stark hue differences the difference in luminance between those colors isn't very good. As an odd work-around, I've started prefixing or appending certain strings to the end of my worm names such as numbres. I can then tell based on them that this name which starts out with some thing that looks like some number and a period must be part of my team. Crude I know, but there's more than one way to do it or TIMTOWTDI if you will.
One of my all time favorite genres are driving games. From an accessibility point of view, they are easy as the road is a static, relatively large unchanging entity at the middle of the screen, the dashboard doesn't usually need examining in detail hearing and feel work well enough, and you don't always have to see very far in the horizon if curves have some indication such as in F1 tracks. Games I'm able to play well include the first two Geoff Grammmond games for the PC, Lotus 3 (an arcade:ish racer ported from the Amiga), Test Drives 1 to 3 and the ancient but classic Stunts AKA 4D Sports Driving and the original Need for Speed (DOS version). Factors that mmake any newer games pretty hard include: low contrast due to shadows as in Grammonds GP4, small GUI text in most formula and rally games and highly detailed road textures say Colin McRae Rally and later. In Colin MCrRae, for example., night time and forrest passages tend to get the better of me. In many games, lowering graphics detail such as killing smoke, skid marks and other artifacts do help somewhat but often not quite enough.
Another favorite genre for me are 1 on 1 fighting games. Once again part of the appeal is that the characters are very big and you don't have to see in detail what they are actually doing to counter and perform special moves, fatalities and whatever. This comes from someone whose completed the first two MK games and One Must falll 2097, which are good examples of the genre, though arguably Street Fighter was first and might be a better game. Well beat em up does have its share of problems.
As with so many other genres, going 3D killed accessibility for me. A simple zoom-out effect as in Killer Instinct (MAME version) is bad enough and the truely 3D playfield in many newer titles makes me lose to even sighted newbies. IN 2D games, i've discovered that as I can only see with my left eye, I fight slightly better if I'm player 1 on the left. Another observation is that contrast does matter, in One Must Fall 2097, for instance, the power plant is a better map than the stadium or arena in terms of accessibility, because the latter has much worse contrast against most robots. A sighted penpal of mine from the States thought cellshading might solve some of the accessibility problems but that doesn't work for me. At least in the games I've tried the 3D tricks and zooming those games still employ far outweigh the benefits of a more cartoony and simplistic look.
Yet another genre I enjoy immensly are scrolling platformer games. I can play quite a number of the early ones stuff like Commander Keen, emulated Super Mario and Megaman games on the 8-bit Nintendo, Jazz Jackrabbit and oh yes one of my all time favorites the original Prince of persia games 1 and 2. In many of these games the character you are controlling is pretty big as are the platforms and or enemies. Prince makes a very good example of that. Sword fighting in it would be a problem for me but you can almost continuously parry and advance in a way that let's you win fights without having to actually see and react to the exact moment the guard is striking at you. This is one of the few cases in which poor Ai means good accessibility, I think. Again I have pretty big issues with many of the newer games even in the 90s. Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo would be playable if it didn't have fancy backgrounds. The issue for me is that I cannot figure out in detail which parts of the screen are objects I can colide with i.e. they clip, and which are in the background layer. In some games, emulation is a nice work-around. Emulators let you turn off individual graphics layers, which may make some games that used to be virtually unplayable, at least somewhat accessible. Another example are sadly the 3D Mario and Zelda games, they'd require much more sight than I do have.
Speaking of scrolling Shoot em up games, they've always been somewhat problematic to me. Even in cases that hav good contrast say Xenon 2 for the PC or Gradius for the 8-bit Nintendo, I do poorly. Games with more elaborate graphics and perhaps 3D are of course, worse. I've analyzed things a litle and the trouble seems to be that one would have to be able to see a large playing field around the ship in detail, to be able to dodge the bullets and other projectiles in time. There are exceptions, however, such as galaga the Nintendo version or galactic Battle for the PC. Here the trick is that the movement of the ship is very restricted and you can generally deal with some particular enemy one at a time. This is not the best strategy and doesn't always work but gets the job done, as they say.
I'd like to say a word on adventure and strategy games. I don't see graphics well enough in most adventures and too small text size is one cronic issue they share with most strategy games, which also suffer from the geting the big picture syndrome. There are some work-arounds, however. In Star Trek 25th Aniversary, the magnification program magic for DOS does seem to suppport the 2x zoom in it automagically, great. I Wonder why that is, that is which VGA modes are supported like that? I do know UFO Enemy Unknown works magnified, too . Which reminds me, I wonder if any of the Master of Orion games might be playable with magnification? at least the DOS games aren't an I've never gotten a chance of trying out Moo2 with my magnifier's direct draw compatibility mode in Windows.
Bac to adventures, without so much of the visuals, though. In some elaborately described games, clicking on objects whose function I cannot get in detail does work and can be fun, although that's a slow method of playing and traversing object descriptions like that is virtually never explicitly supported in-game. I didn't use to like text adventures much myself but after reading up on Inform and playing games like Photopia or Emily Short creations such as Galatea got me hooked far better than Zorks ever did. As a gamer in addition to story driven stuff, I appear to enjoy works that exploit the specialties of interactive fiction as a medium.
Another odd genre I'd liek to mention are music games in which you'll have to play in rhythm. As I play the piano and am an analog synth buff, I find the genre highly enjoyable. Quest for Fame for the PC, that virtual guitarist game in the early 90s comes to mind very first. The beauty of most such games is that you can play without seeing the rhythm track. Though I did have to rely on it quite frequently and in that game switching to 640x480 made the game big enough. In a more modern incarnation, Donkey Conga for the game cube, telling each of the drum symbols apart from each other against the background made playing pretty hard for me. SO bad that I cannot really complete the game though can manage with occasional sighted help.
Last but not least let me address 3D shooters. Based on what I've written above you might think I cannot play them but I can. Playing 3D shooters, in combination with real lief observations, of course, have made me realize how bad my sight actually is. In stead of seeing in detail that say there's a mouse sitting near this laptop, I see a vague shape and know that this kind of a blob with some fuzzy luminance and color info must be the mouse by context. The same is true of 3D shooters. I usually cannot tell how enemies look, which gun is which, in what kind of a place I am etc... in an alien 3D shooter. I do have enough sight to see walls and major objects, though items to be picked up often go unnoticed, and can tell them apart from each other. In fact I've learned to recognize some of the most common weaponry in 3D shooters though to know how they actually look would require me to examine real world objects or ask sighted folks for a description.
Speaking of explaining, a sighted friend of mine, against which I play most of my death matching and co-op in a LAN, is very good at that. He knows what I know and draws analogies to other games, series and the real world where applicable. In fact we found this site with that friend of mine and as I'm legally blind and he's got Asperger, I guess we're both intended target audience here, <grin>. Anyway, my point was that playing 3D shooters is the most fun with him as he can explain what kind of places are being encountered, how new enemies look and so on. In fact he often does that while playing himself, quite fluently, to keep me informed of what's going on.
Wolf 3D was the game that started it all for me. It's quite fun even these days with the highest difficulty, as most places are swarming with enemies, the AI seems smart in the simple environment and two shots close up willl kill you instantly. It is pretty accessible because all rooms are trapezoidal, I think, totally 2d and statically lit. Doors have good contrast from walls, objects are big and easy to spot and the status bar text like health are easy to follow. The only minor gripe I have is that some of the enemies could be easier to spot if floors were differently colored. Here we go again, with that luminance difference issue.
Doom was the next big thing to me and the first ever 3D shooter I played in LAN or rather via Null-modem cables. I still play Doom Legacy both in death mach and co-op in mods like Alien Doom.
Even in Doom, I do have to keep the lighting as high as I can and it does help if the opponent chooses an easy to distinguish skin, light colors usually work well depending on the environment. I'm also able to play Duke Nukem and the original Half-Life. Half-life is one of the greatest 3D shooters to me ever and one of the last in which I put lots of effort and completed about one third of the game. Most dynamically lit and or polygon based games are very difficult, however. Quake, Unreal and Half-Life 2 come to mind. In fact I was extremely disappointed to find out that Half-Life 2 isn't quite accessible enough. You can read up more on my HL2 experiences here:
as to what could be done to make 3D shooters more accessible, here are some ideas:
Compatibility with magnification or print screen captures is great. Half-Life 1 menus support the direct draw compatibility mode. in Aliens Vs Predator, whose Predator vision modes and Marine flares make the game manigible, the print screen key can grab screenshots of the menus. You can then paste the shots in some imaging apps and zoom in as needed. Another possibility is running the game in a window, as in Half-Life 2, to use Microsoft Magnifier or something fancieer for the menus.
Another classsic obstacle is lighting. In Doom 3 the only way to make it somewhat playable for me is to multiply the intensity of all light sources by some integer using the lightscale chaet. In Half-life 2 there's a Similar ful-bright option, though even that one is not good enough, in that the world is apparently too complex for me to follow efficiently.
Yet another obstacle is small text. Fortunately, most FPS games have pretty big main menus and though console and status bar messages aren't usually readable, they often don't have anything significant. Much worse are text messages ala Doom 3. I managed to find good descriptive text for the levels in the Doom 3 closed captioning project at:
Later on I also found a full walk-through with all the textual messages typed out in text. I imagine there could be better options, though. IF the text is just text, why not make it in a true type font and allow the user to adjust the size say via the console? As long as it is text, another possibility would be to pipe it to speech synths such as those that are SAPI 5 based. Speaking of text, most chat messages get posted in the status bar. One work-around is being in the same place and another possibility is running Skype in the backround.
Even with all of these cheats, many games often look fancier than I'd like. It would be pretty cool if someone someday would write a Direct3D or openGL driver wrapper that would use the original video card but in a mode that is more accessible and universally available in games. You could then have stuff like rendering low polycount objects, refusing to render fancy lighting while claiming to do so, mapping the colors to a simple high-contrast palette based design and so on. I'm not sure what level of control would be available but I bet something akin to killing the layers in emulators could be achieved in 3D. I wonder if game specific hacks could be developed, and new shader programs could replace the existing ones, say to highlight some object in the game. Of course such a low-vision driver in general would not have any idea of what is rendered in a particular game or app. For analogy compare to color changers and application specific support in screen readers. Could anyone more proficient with 3D graphics estimate What could be done and how useful that might be say in FPS games?
AS with desktop software and the Web I'm guessing that the three reasons why accessibility gets ignored are ignorance, unwilllingness and lakc of resources (minimal return on investment). Still the point about Half-Life 2 on this site, namely that addding closed captioning took only two weeks, is an excellent example it need not be time consuming.
Another one comes from a little Finnish uni project we did here in Oulu. It is a platformer demo that despite being 2d used a 3D engine. The official finnish site is here:
And my English page about it can be viewed at:
I did the music and most of the SFX; the latter based on sample libraries. Well, as soon as we had a crude proof of concept proto up and running I realized the game was not really playable as I didn't know what's background and what not well enough. So I asked our lead programmer if he could throw in a hack that doesn't render any of the background textures but leaves them black. Although it is something he wouldn't have never considered alone, he did that in some hours, I think, and now we have the undocumented -a switch for accessibility. it is still a bit of a hack but it does mean the game is playable to me now, great.
To conclude this mammoth thread on gaming, I'd say that despite all these major difficulties, I still greatly enjoy gaming especially against human players. And that is for me gaming with visuals. I've tried some games aimed at totally blind people and although I marvel at their accessibility and appreciate some of the game ddesign, I crave for even simplistic graphics in those games.
With kind regards Veli-Pekka Tätilä