N64 Classic ‘Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ beaten by blind gamer

This is incredible. Terry Garrett, a blind gamer, has beaten the Nintendo 64 classic “Ocarina of Time”. The man’s a gaming god.

How did he do it? First, Garrett relied heavily on the game’s soundscape to orient himself around its 3D space. He even used the venerable Zelda hookshot “as a form of echolocation,” listening for the difference between the weapon striking walls and whiffing through open air. He also relied heavily on software emulation—Garrett saves his game state every few seconds, then restores that state when experiments go awry.

Garrett’s achievement testifies to his perseverance and ingenuity; it took five years of occasional gameplay to finish the task. Few gamers have the patience to do that sort of repetitive, time-consuming work.

Nintendo also deserves credit—for putting such care into Ocarina’s soundscape. The game’s sound engine places each noise in its proper stereo location. Plus, key occurrences on-screen have discernible audio equivalents. For example, when Link chaperones Zelda through Ganondorf’s castle, Zelda’s feet make tiny, just-perceptible noises.[1]

What if every game developer took low-vision accessibility more seriously? What if game studios put the same care into their sound engines that they put into graphics and physics? What if every game’s sound design made it possible for blind gamers to play—withoutresorting to trial and error?

Imagine, for example, if your avatar’s footsteps reverberated more like real life. The sound would echo differently depending on your distance from the nearest wall, the texture of the floor, or the proximity of a deadly chasm. Just this one feature would allow a blind gamer to navigate virtual realms much like Daniel Kish explores the real world.

Games might even implement a “low-vision mode.” With this setting enabled, on-screen events would create constant, audible cues.

Take the recent Arkham Batman series as a theoretical example. How might these games sound if they were programmed with the sight-impaired gamer in mind? Each mob thug would grumble and yell incessantly; that way, the player could tell exactly where each foe stood, relative to Batman’s current position. Or, as the Batmobile motored through Gotham City, audio cues could distinguish open street intersections from adjacent buildings. That way, a gamer could hear exactly when to hit that e-brake. Finally, for less action-heavy sequences, Batman might speak his inner monologue out loud—describing the environment or the puzzle at hand in exhaustive detail.

If more game developers attended to such details, a standard “low-vision vocabulary” would solidify over time. These conventions would guide devs’ work and allow blind gamers to quickly grok new games. Game engines (e.g. Unreal, Unity) would incorporate these features, giving developers a head-start on building blind-accessible titles. Design studios might even hire blind game developers to ensure that their games met the needs of the sight-impaired.

UPDATE: Reader Ian Hamilton responded via Twitter with a series of helpful thoughts. In particular, he notes that many fighting games (e.g. ‘Mortal Kombat X’) already include audio cues that make it easier for sight-impaired gamers to compete. Ian also linked to an interesting Game Developers Conference panel on “Reaching the Visually Impaired Gamer”.

  1. ‘Ocarina of Time’ isn’t the only Nintendo 64 game whose sound effects empower the blind to play.  ↩
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Falling out of love with video games

When I was a kid, my life revolved around video games. I spent every free moment mashing buttons. When I couldn’t game—at school, on the bus, or drifting off to sleep—I dreamt about gaming. Each month, I’d pore over the latest Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine, scrutinizing each screenshot meticulously.

My childhood memories can be divided into distinct console eras. First, the NES epoch, when my brothers and I salivated over—then received—Super Mario Brothers 3. During the Sega Genesis years, I became an adrenaline junkie, addicted to Sonic the Hedgehog’s reckless speed. In high school, I graduated to the PlayStation and immersed myself in the  dense gameplay of Metal Gear Solid.

Them something changed. Somewhere along the way, I began to lose interest in video games.

Part of it was simple cost; my family sometimes struggled to pay the bills. Video games were a luxury we couldn’t afford. Even back then, single titles sold for $50-60 a pop.

But even after I started earning my own spending money, my love for games waned. In high school, girlfriends, sports, and the nascent Internet claimed my free time. 

Then came college. For many young adults (especially men), college is when gaming takes hold. Even then (in 1999), network gaming was huge. Many guys in my dorm played Madden or Halo day and night.

Meanwhile, I was overwhelmed with schoolwork: piano practice, ensemble rehearsal, papers and assigned readings. There was no time for Halo LAN parties. Besides, I was exhausted. Often, I’d leave the dorm room before seven, then not return ’til long after midnight, when both roommates had powered down the Nintendo 64 and climbed into bed. I’d stumble through the dark and collapse onto my bed. Video games had dropped off my radar entirely.

Eventually, I graduated from college, found a job, and was surprised to find myself with hours of free time every evening. I tried to recapture that teenage magic and leap back into the gaming scene, picking up where I left off. I blew through Metal Gear Solid 2 and, later, Metal Gear Solid 3.

But that was the end of my gaming renaissance. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to spend time or money on games again. Part of me still enjoyed playing, of course. But another, louder part of me despised myself for binging away a weekend. I’d feel guilty, grimy, and unhealthy by the time I dropped the controller. Eventually, I buried my PlayStation 2 beneath a pile of DVDs; it’s sat there ever since.

Since then, I’ve watched two hardware generations pass me by. I can’t justify plunking down three or four hundred dollars on a modern console. A cheaper product—say, an Apple TV with an app store—might tempt me back. I doubt it, though. At some point, it seems, my gaming addiction lost its grip over me.

I wonder… is this the normal progression—to abandon games as the demands of work and home ownership and family press in? Or am I a millennial aberration? I’d love to hear from other one-time, adolescent gamers; did you maintain your obsession into adulthood?

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Underwhelming “next-gen” graphics (and why they may be a good thing)

I’ve been underwhelmed by “next-generation” gameplay videos for the XBOX One and PlayStation 4.

Though I haven’t been an active gamer for nearly a decade, I pay attention when new consoles get released. I’m eager to see just how photo-realistic the new games can get. But this time around, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference between the first crop of next-gen games and the previous generation’s latest and greatest.[1] Maybe I’ve been out of the gaming scene too long?

Or… maybe we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to game graphics—the point where even substantial increases in processing power return less and less dramatic improvements.

This wouldn’t necessarily be bad news! I’d love to see gamemakers focus less on whiz-bang visuals and more on “under the hood” features. The games already look real. Now, make them feel real; dedicate that extra horsepower to better artificial intelligence, more responsive surroundings, more open-ended gameplay, and dynamically-generated storylines.

Some examples:

  • What if the bad guys learned your battle strategies? They “notice” that you tend to hide in A/C ducts, so they start tossing grenades into every vent.
  • Or what if you could destroy any in-game building, wall by wall, and watch the rubble crumble?
  • Or what if you could infiltrate the enemy’s headquarters any way you wished: parachute onto the roof, skulk in through the sewers, zip-line in from an adjacent skyscraper, or don a disguise and saunter through the front door?
  • Finally, what if the storyline was truly unscripted, and the game could spontaneously generate new character dialogue, responding to your decisions?

Up ’til now, games have felt static and rote; they pull the user along preset (if pretty) paths by invisible strings. But imagine if developers focused on features like these (instead of pixel-painting). Gamers would become creative agents instead of puppets. And that, more than piled-on polygons, would make games feel “next-gen”.

  1. I’ve heard that it takes a few years for developers to really unlock a console’s potential. Thus, you might not see the best graphics the PS4 or XBOX One can produce for a while. But previous console releases (e.g. going from the PS2 to the PS3) boasted dramatic visual improvements over their predecessors; I just don’t see it this time.  ↩

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Why Nintendo shouldn’t make iOS games

Apple pundits keep clamoring for Nintendo to make iOS games. The argument goes like this: Nintendo’s hardware business is circling the drain. To save itself from disaster, the Japanese gamemaker must adapt its many valuable franchises into kick-ass iPhone versions. After all, what developer wouldn’t want to leverage Apple’s thriving App Store to bolster its sagging quarterly results?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Nintendo did release its most popular games on iOS. Imagine an iPhone version of Super Mario Brothers, or Zelda on the iPad. And let’s assume that the games prove hugely successful and send the gamemaker’s profits soaring.[1] Why wouldn’t Nintendo be thrilled?

What if this isn’t (just) a profit deal? What if Nintendo has higher priorities than sheer earning potential? What if Nintendo has evaluated iOS as a gaming platform—and found it wanting?

For example, maybe Nintendo balks at the prospect of developing touchscreen-only control schemes. “Finger-paint” gaming works great for Angry Birds and Scrabble. But it fails miserably for intricate platformers like Mario and Metroid. It’s hard to envision Nintendo’s developers—so committed to quality gameplay—plastering a D-pad over their careful level design. Would the button-mashing battles of Super Smash Bros. work with no buttons? Until Apple (or some third-party partner) bundles a credible hardware controller with every iOS device, you’re asking Nintendo to compromise on user experience—to risk alienating their biggest fans.

Even if Nintendo were satisfied with the hardware, the iOS gaming ecosystem itself might turn them off. What if the microtransaction economy repulses them (as it should)? Nearly every top-grossing iOS game these days is “free to play”, demanding frequent in-app purchases to unlock the full game experience. What if Nintendo refuses to pervert its classic franchises in this way? What if they’d rather bow out gracefully than prey upon their users’ base, lizard-brain impulses? What if they’d rather go bankrupt than treat Mario as a glorified Skinner box?

No true geek wants Nintendo to operate in the red. Its loyal fans, grateful for decades of incredible games, are rooting for the gamemaker to stave off fiscal catastrophe. But the best companies—companies like Nintendo and like Apple—refuse to prioritize short-term profit margins over user experience. That’s bad for business, in the long run.

An exclusive iOS version of Mario would undoubtedly help Apple (it would permanently establish iOS as the definitive mobile gaming platform). But it’s a riskier bet for Nintendo, whose treasured franchises could quickly lose their cultural cachet.

  1. This might not be a safe assumption. Check out Lukas Mathis’ blog post, just published today.  ↩