Video games conjure up the images of keyboards, controllers, and — most importantly — big screens. But not everyone has the luxury to engage in such a visual medium. Enter audio games, the electronic games specifically designed to have sound-reliant gameplay. Created with the visually impaired in mind, it is a niche market that is slowly growing more popular.
Here’s a little history on how these games popped up:
The first ‘audio games’
In 1972, Atari released an arcade game called Touch Me. It was a puzzle game that tested the player’s eidetic memory by lighting up part of the screen when a musical note chimed. The game would play a number of sounds and the player would repeat that combination back, with the game adding an additional note each round, sort of like a more fun version of a hearing test you might get at a doctor’s office. Even though the Atari arcade game, followed by the handheld version in 1978, didn’t gain quite the success they wanted, Ralph Baer and Howard Morrison decided to update the system, with better execution. That lead them to develop Simon.
Simon had four colored buttons, each with a different sound. It was fun-looking, bright, and the sounds weren’t as grating as the Atari version. The game was extremely popular in the 70s and 80s, and is still seen in pop culture today. This type of gameplay didn’t stop there, though. Another hit game after Simon became a household object: Bop-It. Different sounds and look, same game.
All of these games rely on reacting to different noises by mashing on associated buttons. While these weren’t designed specifically for the blind, they were accessible to those with visual impairments, and they were “audio games.”
Text-based and Interactive Fiction
These PC games were quite popular in the 1980s due to their low processing power and use of text to describe the story and gameplay of the game. Usually, the player writes the text in themselves for their turn or they choose from a variety of options. Those that are blind or visually impaired are able to play these options with text-to-speech (TTS), where a computerized voice reads the text on the screen for the user.
These games are still being made today. They are quite popular with college students and beginner programmers because they are a great introduction to learning to code and program.
Unfortunately, when 3D games like Myst and Final Fantasy started to gain popularity, the visual aspect of games became the forefront of the experience, which meant that hard-of-sight users were left behind to continue playing the older, less dynamic text-based adventure games.
Game accessibility now
It wasn’t until around the 2000s that game designers thought to use an all-audio gameplay, using binaural recording to fully immerse the player. This means that the sound will imitate the position of the source. If a dog is barking to your left, the sound will be on the left and the footsteps of the animal will shift depending on its orientation. The system is meant to give players a kind of three dimensional experience that couldn’t be realized through visually reliant video games.
Unfortunately, despite the potential for a strictly audio-based game that a lot of designers are experimenting with, there aren’t many options, especially not for gaming consoles. One of the only exceptions was a game developed by WARP, a Japanese video game company. This game was designed specifically with blind users in mind. The creator, former musician Kenji Eno, received mail from some of the blind community that enjoyed his previous games because of the music and sound effects. He ended up talking directly to some of his fans and decided to make a game that would be exactly the same for all players, no matter what impairment they or may not have. So while he didn’t make any breakthroughs in gameplay, the only interaction in the game being a few prompts that enabled the player to choose between options for the narrative, but it was a step in the right direction in creating more options for the blind.
Right now, there are only mobile and PC games. The video above is for a mobile game called A Blind Legend, which was developed by French company DOWiNO. Funded by Ulule, it’s now available via iTunes and Google Play Store and follows a blind swordsman that is trying to track down his wife with his daughter who also acts as his guide. Her voice is what leads your character through the world and the sound effects of the enemies determine which direction to flash your sword.
There are other games like this one, some that follow disgruntled Christmas elves fed up with their jobs and others that plop the player into survival/horror landscapes, but it’s still a small market; the market hasn’t yet expanded beyond a few creative teams coming out with a free mobile games and five dollar PC games. A team from the UK even tried to release their game called Three Monkeys, an audio game that they collaborated on with a number of blind test-gamers that had positive reactions to the demo. The game didn’t make their budget, so they weren’t able to finish.
Hopefully in the future there will be more options for blind gamers, and even more options for anybody that wants to experience something to which they are not accustomed. Gaming is evolving and expanding. Transitioning to an experimental medium that provides a new and unique gaming impression isn’t an outrageous suggestion, especially considering the shift to virtual reality, so maybe later the medium will gain a little popularity and will gather more of a budget and we may see – or, more accurately, hear – more options for more inclusive games.