It’s all in the audio.
“Mario is quite complex,” explains Kevin Satizabal. “It has so many shifting scenes and shifting elements.”
It’s not often that the original Super Mario Brothers is described as “complex.” But video games are naturally perceived very differently by sighted and Visually Impaired Players. Blind since birth, Satizabal — a Marketing and Communications Assistant at the London Royal Society for Blind People — struggled at times with Mario’s level structure, yet still managed to enjoy Nintendo’s perennial side-scrolling platformer in his formative years.
“Each level had its own theme and those were integral to me knowing what was coming up next.”
Have you ever tried playing a video game blindfolded? It’s obviously not easy, and is a task that requires more than your average amount of determination and perseverance to succeed. But success doesn’t hinge solely on well-refined mental traits — certain design techniques can help the process. Sound cues, directional prompts, and binaural indicators on the development end are but a few tangible considerations which can assist blind players in enjoying standard video games.
In other words, the strength and depth of a game’s sound design can be the difference between a blind (or blindfolded) run being achievable, or downright impossible.
Don’t Look – Listen
“The first level requires a lot of jumping, collecting coins and if you picked up a star you could zoom to the end of the level,” recalls Satizabal of his time in level 1-1. “A lot of that was done by listening out for musical cues when you collect certain things. When you found a coin there’d be a bell-like ‘ting’, when you would jump there’d be a rising pitch, and when you’d get a star there’d be really fast-paced music. I basically used those cues to be able to play the game.
“The cues became part of the background theme and vice versa. Each level had its own theme and those were integral to me knowing what was coming up next. It definitely was an enjoyable experience, although it was challenging. I think I was experiencing it in a very different way to how someone would experience it visually. Sometimes things were a little more hit and miss if maybe I would’ve been able to play it with sight. Nonetheless, it was still really enjoyable. The fact that I liked the music and the cues made it really good fun to play.”
There are some quite astounding — and entirely inspirational — tales of blind gamers tackling games primarily designed for sighted players. After all, video games are in essence visual experiences — the term ‘video’ in itself an obvious implication — yet there are countless stories of visually impaired players defying the odds and completing games which aren’t designed with their physical restrictions in mind.
Take the story of Terry Garrett — an engineering graduate of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs — who, working alongside NASA, plans to be the first blind person to enter space. His video game career has seen him finish both Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, and the sprawling Zelda: Ocarina of Time, painstakingly navigating his way around these game worlds by ear. Relying on but a few simple aids along the way — such as user-written online walkthroughs which detail each world on paper, thus allowing him to visualise the world’s surroundings — Garrett has successfully traversed both Hyrule and Rupture Farms. It’s hard to imagine just how demanding this process must be.
Another visually impaired gamer challenging perceived conventions is Brandon Cole who, like Satizabal, also enjoyed Mario’s debut on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but at first from a very different perspective. Born with a rare type of eye cancer named Retinoblastoma, Cole underwent surgery at just two months old. Fortunately, the procedure successfully eradicated his cancer, but unfortunately cost him his vision in the process. Five years later and Cole would have his first experience playing a video game after being offered the chance to play Super Mario on his older brother’s coveted NES console.
“…it was a case of trial and error – I learned when to start moving, how many steps to take before dropping into a crawl…”
“Video games were something I’d dismissed,” says Cole. “I fully expected to play for a few seconds, fail, and move on with my life. My brother started the game and told me to hit some buttons. So I hit some buttons and from my perception I was completing levels super fast, breaking bricks, saving princesses — all that stuff. We got through the entire game this way — the entire game — and then, once it was all over he dropped the punchline which of course was that he’d handed me the unplugged second player controller, allowing me to press whatever I wanted, whilst he cruised on through the game.”
Cole explains how crushed he was by this realisation, but that it upset something within that would ultimately push him forward throughout his life. He decided there and then that he’d beat a game in its entirety on his own — without his brother or anyone else’s help. Cole went back to Super Mario and completed level one after hours upon hours of failure. Years later he bested Killer Instinct after learning scores of combos — an accolade he heralded to his mother who, although failing to really understand video games, shared Cole’s enthusiasm nonetheless.
“I spent time learning all the sound effects in the game,” says Cole. “Every character in the game has their own voice, so I learned who the characters were. I learned all the button combinations for the moves by listening to the sounds they each made. I learned combos because that’s how a blind person learns a fighting game — that’s how it’s done. When I finally beat the game, I ran up the stairs to tell my mum, who is 100% not interested in video games — not even a little bit. I told her this great thing that I’d done and she, to her credit, politely came downstairs, looked at the credits screen of Killer Instinct, and politely oh-ed and ah-ed in amazement. Thinking back on it, I totally know that she didn’t get the significance of it.”
Perhaps better still, Cole went on to apply his unwavering fortitude and steadfast desire to Konami’s complex stealth ‘em up Metal Gear Solid. Do you remember the large hangar room on the basement floor of the interior warehouse near the beginning of the game? The one which leads to the showdown with a tank-operating Vulcan Raven out in the snow? That’s right — the room with the all those bloody lasers, which, if set off, led to Snake being locked inside and gassed to death? I certainly do. Forcing Snake to demonstrate his contortionist skills was damned hard.
“I did it over and over and over again, and finally I truly, honestly made it…”
After 30-40 attempts Cole could’ve given up — after all, this section felled many a sighted player — and no one would have faulted him. But he didn’t. He got through it.
“My stepdad was playing through Metal Gear Solid and I was listening to him playing it. There’s a room where there are criss-crossing infrared beams which don’t just sit there — they go up and down all the while crisscrossing the entire room. If you break one, the doors shut and you die. So he gets frustrated with it, he says, ‘I’m done for now, I’m not playing anymore’ and throws down the controller. I say, ‘Let me try it. Just because’. He says okay and leaves the room not expecting success in this — which makes sense, why would you?
“Although we’re talking PSOne where there are far more audio cues, infrared beams don’t make sounds. Again it was a case of trial and error — I learned when to start moving, how many steps to take before dropping into a crawl, how many crawl movements to make, when to pop back up to take more steps. I did it over and over and over again, and finally I truly, honestly made it to the other side of that room outside to the next area. I had to learn it in steps because every time I failed I knew I’d did it right up to a certain point. I’d then try something else — pausing a little bit longer before moving again, or taking another step forward before dropping into a crawl, for example.”