_The international week 2022 hosted by FH JOANNEUM was an interesting event. I attended Luis Daniel Martínez Álvarez workshop (#9) called “Aesthetic Echoes of Terror: Construction of the sound Atmospheres of the Uncanny Valley for Videogames and Cinema”. I tried to gather as many thoughts as possible here in this post.
I will start with a short summary of the workshop; the lecturer was Danny from Mexico, and his profession is sound design combined with storytelling – mainly scary stories. He gave us a deep dive in how and why specific sonic patterns appear frightening to us, and how to fabricate such experiences. It was a fascinating topic with even better insights, even for a person like me, which has little experience with sound design. We then went on and collectively wrote a little horror story inspired by our deepest fears; the result was “No-Scream//Nose-Cream”. It’s about a hellish clown, which steals noses while the whole world is falling into the hands of ice cream zombies. Sounds like a weird, and that’s because how it was created: We took a piece of paper, and everybody wrote one sentence and then handed the paper to the next person, to continue the story from this point. This approach created this fever dream of a story within two passes.
After that was done, we then collected a vast array of different sounds of noises in the city, grabbed a Zoom-Recorder and ventured into the city to record said noises. We spent the whole first Day in the city, listening to various sound emitters and recorded those. The goal was to generate a composition for our scary story with these sounds, and so we searched up different places with different atmospheres (like a church) and collected enough sound samples to accommodate every detail of our story.
As I mentioned before, I’m not a sound designer – although I enlisted for this specific workshop because of my previous occupations; game design and cinema enthusiast. The attentive reader might remember that I recently wrote a blog post about how some colleagues and me did an attempt on creating a horror game in unity. So, it was an easy decision for me, what workshop to attend when I read the possible options. I wanted to learn more about the soundscapes of the horror genre and how they are made, and I was not dissatisfied.
But one little hiccup which me (an interaction designer) and a colleague (a media designer) faced, was the fact that we were both a little out of our fields here. So, as we now had all our sounds together, we had to quickly learn an audio software (through an excellent crash curse by Danny) and get to composing – something none of both of us ever did. The tasks for this week were to create two compositions; one for our story and one where we did the score for a little 60 second snippet of a horror movie/series/etc of our choice.
We were both thrown into cold water in a workshop with no prior knowledge of its topics, having no clue of composing and trying to figure out baby steps in this field. Naturally, the sound designers did a task which took as nearly two Days in under 10 minutes and it the results sounded amazing. This was kind of demoralizing to be honest, but it was nice to see what can be achieved when you profile in this topic. To not be completely emotionally destroyed we settled on the taking-part-medal, and just played and experimented around with the sounds, and although our lacking skill had interesting outcomes. Although we had little to no experience, we had great fun and really enjoyed ourselves. Turns out, it’s not always about being good in something from the get-go, but it’s about committing and having fun on the way.
All in All, it was an interesting and wonderful experience and I want to commit some special words to our lecturer, Danny – a wonderful and friendly guy from Mexico who studied music and composition. He knew a great deal about his topics and had great fun in relaying all those information to us; but I think what made the week such a success for our group was his inviting and open personality. If I could rate Danny as a lecturer, I’d give him a 10/10 – it was an absolute blast.
_Horizon Forbidden West is apparently considered one of the new contenders for best Accessibility in Games for the year 2022; and since I had the opportunity to get my hands onto that game, I’d say it’s time for a little case study of my own. Also, this game runs on the same Engine which made DEATH STRANDING possible, but a different Studio. Since I kind of already evaluated this other game, I was curious how they did it, giving the fact that DEATH STRANDING didn’t do that well. When I booted it Horizon for the first time, I immediately noticed one of the big points in the main menu – ACCESSIBILITY – and I was curious, which and how good their Accessibility measures & efforts were.
I took a quick gander over their accessibility options and was generally impressed by their efforts in the first moments. Scrolling through the different modifications, I headed to the menu points I always search up every time I start a new game, to language and subtitles. Generally, am I interested in which languages (audio/video) that game is available and how the default subtitles are set up.
Straight of the bat, the default subtitles are quite hard to read – small, white, and mostly on bright backgrounds. You can though, change them quite easily to a slightly larger version with also a black background – but there is still room for improvement.
Staying with graphic settings; in the game there is a mechanic called “using the Focus”, meaning that you can press a button to enable an ‘virtual’ overlay in the game world to highlight important objects or crucial information. In this universe, the “Focus” is a little apparatus which sits on your temple (close to your ear, where all your four skull bones join) and projects some sort of augmented reality view into your sight. This is a nice concept, but poorly executed in my opinion. What it does, is it brings a pinkish overlay – which is not changeable from the get-go – to everything in the game world to show said information. In the end, it has small and hard to see icons and often it takes me more time to differentiate what is important or just pinkish noise accidently misinterpreted by my eyes as crucial data. In the first game there was this option after finishing the game to unlock new styles for said focus, so you could change the colour schemes to your liking – or to better say, needs. Such an accessibility option should not be locked away behind the barrier of ‘finishing the game’.
While talking about the functions of the game mechanic Focus, one other use of it while combat – or should I say strictly before engaging/combat, that’s what bothers me – is to plot our plan to engage and attack your enemies. You look at their walking patters, their strengths and weaknesses, the works. But this is inherently where the problem; often you are faced with a vast array of different foes, which all have different ways to be brought down efficiently. So, you often must, in the middle of stressful combat, enter the focus view to see the enemies’ weaknesses. This context info is there to make it easier for you, but ultimately it either annoys you the get a hold of this information, you struggle to get a quick glance, or it rips you completely out of the fight/immersion; because you pressed the touch bar fast enough to open your enemy database overlay menu. Now you can, in all silence and peace read everything up to your hearts content about a specific enemy, just to press the touch bar again and are maybe, quite possibly, be overwhelmed by all the action what was going on and you kind of forgot about it. Such information is just not easily available, but it should be.
Even before you even engage in a fight, often you enter the hostile premises in stealth mode – the enemies are completely oblivious to your presence. To hold up this fragile status quo, you use the environment to conceal your movements, while you close in on them to get the first strike. You sneak around in some read flora, which is conveniently sprinkled generously around the whole map – but the only way the game communicates to you, that you are now in fact considered ‘in stealth’ is through a soft and gentle rumbling of the controller while you traverse said reddish plants. There is no other visual indicator (e.g., an icon or else) except your character crouching in the bushes and some faint and distant rustling noises from the grass, which gets also easily drowned out by all the other sounds. So, now you often are not sure where you are being in stealth begins and where it ends, leading to some little hiccups in your predatory path to your victim and they may see you approaching. The way of how haptic feedback is generally used in this game is interesting and enjoyable, but for some folks it might be to much of a barrier to enjoy the game properly.
Some of the input patterns in the game can be very complex, and cannot be made easier, for example it took me quite a long time to get a grasp of their grappling hook jump boost mechanic, which needs serval factors to get a satisfying result. You need to be in reach of a grappling point, jump, smash the x-button to connect to the point, and while you are pulled towards it, start smashing the o-button to use your momentum to boost yourself to higher heights. Once I figured it out, it works quite well for me, but I can’t imagine not everyone gets that far with it. Also, while in close combat, there are several combos with varying uses to overpower you enemies – they offer some interesting telegraphing points to show you when exactly to press an attack button, but in the end, in the heat of combat it boils down to you just repeatedly smashing both attack buttons interchangeably and hoping for the best. There is room for some people to perfect this craft for sure, but some will stay on smashing level – but it also works out to have fun with the game.
But not to say they didn’t offer the opportunity to automate some input tasks; I’ve spotted the opportunity to enable the automatic deployment of your parachute while falling great hights – a welcome and handy option. It spares you from demoralisation of jumping of some cliff accidently and then loosing your progress to an untimely death caused by gravitational pull on your existence and the following impact force. Talking about loosing your progress, this is a part they got exactly right; they often and on smart points set very well designed autosaves, so your progress isn’t that lost all together. They track and keep most of your picked up items (except story items), your map discoveries and so on. While also browsing some of the settings, I even discovered another nice accessibility/quality of life option – the possibility to turn off all tinnitus sounds. For some people, the constant sound of ‘phiiiiiiiii……’ while you battle against the enormous machines with their metric ton of explosions in this game can get really tiresome, so this helps a great deal I’d say.
Lately, they even rolled out a big update to the game, adding new modes and features. Maybe, there also were some improvements to accessibility – but I got to check it out again. All in all, I’d say it there was an attempt on inclusiveness as far as I am concerned, but not as a deep dive as some other games (e.g., TLOU: PII) have already achieved.
One interesting Idea or Theory I stumbled upon while reading randomly through various accessibility reports was, that each attempt to create more immersion in games somehow keeps adding more and more barriers for others – like adding a highly sophisticated system for locating game objects through sound. A cool feature for everybody who can hear, but as soon you start to rely on this technology for you game design, it could get inaccessible for some people with hearing problems.
As a concluding insight I’d say, an opportunity for me to use all these rather specific and far spread knowledge about approaches to Universal design in Games and other coherencies in this industry would be to work as an UX/UI consultant for games. I’d see myself doing that and I am growing quite fond of that idea – but to digging deeper into this concept is for another time.
Als ein Beispiel für Spiele, welche der Krankheitsbewältigung dienen, wird im Artikel der Titel Cafe Sunday von IJsfontein genannt. Dieses VR-Videospiel wurde entwickelt, um Menschen mit Depressionen, begleitet von ihren PsychotherapeutInnen, durch bestimme Situationen zu führen. Ziel ist es, durch das Design des Spiels, in möglichst vielen Patienten Gedankenspiralen auszulösen, um diese zu erkennen und in geschützter Umgebung zu behandeln. (1)
“Die Umsetzung des in der Therapie Gelernten in die Praxis stellt dabei einen wichtigen Teil der Therapie dar.”
(Thiele-Schwerz, Sauer, 2020, S. 370)
Die Nutzung des Spiels innerhalb einer Therapiesitzung bringt gleich mehrere Vorteile mit sich: Einerseits ist es dem Patienten möglich, mit einer gewissen Distanz an bestimmte Alltagssituationen heranzugehen. Ziel einer kognitiven Verhaltenstherapie beispielsweise ist es, die eigenen, negativen Gedanken zu erkennen und langfristig durch positive Gedanken und daraus resultierende Verhaltensweisen zu ersetzen. ‘Cafe Sunday’ hilft Patienten durch diese Distanz zur virtuellen Welt die eigenen Gedanken besser zu beobachten ohne der, als gefährlich oder unangenehm empfundenen, Realität ausgesetzt zu sein. (1)
Der zweite Vorteil ist, dass die PsychotherapeutInnen die PatientInnen gezielt führen und begleiten können. So ist es ihnen möglich, die Situationen zu steuern und sie auf die Entwicklung des Patienten abzustimmen. (1)
Ein weiterer Aspekt ist, dass das Spiel sich der motivierenden Wirkung von Videospielen bedient. Wie bereits oben erwähnt, ist die Übung der gelernten Strategien essentiell für eine erfolgreiche Therapie. Das Medium bietet die Möglichkeit und ebenfalls die Anforderung, durch eigene Interaktionen das Erlebnis aktiv zu beeinflussen und zu durchleben. Diese grundsätzliche motivierende Eigenschaft von Videospielen gilt es gezielt für Health Games einzusetzen.
Es erfordert eine besondere Auseinandersetzung mit der Zielgruppe, um nicht ausschließlich ein Spiel zur Unterhaltung zu designen, sondern einen Mehrwert für die Gesundheit von Patienten zu erzielen. Im nächsten Eintrag beschäftige ich mich daher mit der Frage, welche (weiteren) Aspekte müssen für die Gestaltung eines Health Games beachtet werden?
(2) Thiele-Schwez, M.; Sauer, A. (2020). Wunderpille Games?! Mit digitalem Spiel gegen reale Krankheiten. In: Görgen, A.; Simond, S.: Krankheit in Digitalen Spielen: Interdisziplinäre Betrachtungen. Bielefeld: transcript 2020, S 367 – 386.
_We recently started a small game called DECAY in UNITY, a horror-exploration game set in an abandoned bunker facility.
_While we were hard at work building the game, we thought about implementing future, rather simple accessibility options; like making collectibles easier to see and find, adding an optional item counter to help you keep track of your needed collectibles and maybe some kind of colorblind mode (yet we weren’t sure how to implement such a feature in such a game with it making sense). But the easiest and nicest solution we came up with, besides a difficulty setting which would influence the time it would need for the game to result in a game over in certain moments, was the idea to optionally remove enemy encounters entirely from the game, so one could explore to their hearts content, since we poured a lot of love and detail into level itself, like little micro-narratives and so on. Finally, since the music can get creepy sometimes (as it should in a game like that) we considered if would be available to influence the game music, e.g., adjusting the volume or turning it off completely. Yet we are still on the fence on these topics, since we try to decide what is needed for our game to function in its core and what can be made more easily accessible.
_The thought came across my mind, how does accessibility handle in online and competitive games? In an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), how can these games accommodate accessibility features, just besides a colorblind setting or UI scaling? Turns out, there is a limit of accessibility in these games, because some issues just can’t be worked around.
Some examples, where some things can be addressed do exit though:
_Any customization, which do not add any unfair advantage to the game for some users. Like reconfiguring your controls, customizing colors or sizes of UI elements, or even change little details in the game, like in shooters, change the color of the reticle – like in APEX LEGENDS.
_Entry barriers on lower levels of play can be helpful in many games, like matchmaking of similar ranked players, say by level or skill. Yet the later, also known as SBMM (skill-based match making) often leads to more frustration than satisfaction with players due to it’s basic logic: if you play very good in some games in a row, the algorithm deems you more skillful and matches you with people which it thinks are equal to you now – yet you might have just gotten a lucky streak, and now you actually are being paired with players which are way more invested in the game and proceed to walk all over you for some rounds. Only for the algorithm to realize its misinterpretation of your skill level and putting you back to the rather less invested people – which you best again with ease and the cycle begins anew. The system might work in theory, but in the practical world its just an awful up and down rubber banding. Matching people by level often can go awry if the game allows an easy access to a new account, giving the opportunity to a frowned upon practice called ‘smurfing’. Here a player of a very high level of play creates a new account and abuses the system, which deems them as a new player, a beginner, and matches them with other – often real – beginners. This leads to the player absolutely destroying the fun for the beginners with the massive skill gap between the two parties and leaving the new one rather unsatisfied with their performance, which is immediately projected onto the game and the dissatisfaction with the game itself drives new players away.
_Other ways to lighten up entry barriers in games can be features which help players in lower levels of play but in higher levels of play turns out more than a burden and disadvantage. For example, aim assist, which helps new players acquire targets more easily by slightly adjusting their aim to stay or snap to targets can be beneficial to them, while in higher levels this slow, and less accurate method is easily bested and faster with a player manually aiming. Actually, in these high levels often the slight and trailing adjustments by the algorithm leads the players unintentionally loosing their aim on the target, because an adjustment which had to be done several milliseconds ago, which was already corrected and accounted for by the player comes way to late and results in an unwanted adjustment – ultimately losing the target for a brief moment. And this little moment can be defining in competitive gaming.
_Matchmaking isn’t a lost cause yet because players can be matched on other deciding factors. Like in GTA V, only players who chose to play with auto-aim on get paired together. Or in HALO REACH players with enabled voice communications will play together and in PUBG players who play in third person instead of first person will go against each other. This is because of a mechanic called ‘third person peeking’. If a player with third person view enabled hides behind cover, they can look over the cover with their camera, while their body stays hidden. An approaching enemy would not know that they have already been spotted, since the players camera is invisible to the enemy.
Some competitive games, which feature certain moments where a third person instead a first-person view, they activate a so called ‘anti-peek’ function – it hides every other dynamic gameobjects, which are currently not able to be seen from the point of the character which just switched to 3rd person (e.g., APEX LEGENDS when using emotes).
_To sum up, designing multiplayer games within the aspect of accessibility can be very hard, because sadly, some competitive games are made not to be easily accessible by everyone in their core, which isn’t their fault – it’s just in their nature, so to say. But every other factor besides these core mechanics, which can be made more accessible in this game is a step further and should be done without a second thought spent.
_XBOX made great efforts into the field of accessibility and implemented a wide array of software and hardware for this purpose. Like a highly sophisticated text-to-speech for system UI elements, a mono toggle of unilateral hearing loss (impairment in only one ear while the other ear is in ‘normal’ limits) and a zoom function. They also included features for real time speech-to-text and text-to-speech ingame – the tech is yet not perfect, also because its difficult to cope with the game specific terminologies and lingo, which can change rather quickly.
_I myself tried speech-to-text out of curiosity in APEX LEGENDS, cause often teammates are very hard to understand or just way too quiet to hear them, but the algorithm may hear them. But to put it shortly, speech-to-text works rather horribly. Often, it’s just an unintelligible array of random words which hardly approximate what has been said; it seems to work best with the English language, then it sometimes gets it right. Mostly. Yet does generate absurdly funny combination of sounds resulting in a fun time at least. But the technology will get better eventually and can enable hearing or sight impaired people to take part in conversations which would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
_Also, XBOX introduced the copilot mode, a simple but brilliant solution. Two controllers are connected to the same console and give the same input simultaneously – making it possible for someone else to jump in and help if it is needed. For example, a parents could help their kids getting through difficult sections, while everything else is handled by the kids themselves. Or a blind person could play a game by hearing alone, while another person helps with the walking through the level, which could only be accessible trough sight. Originally it was designed to split the controls between two separate controllers; therefore, maybe controlling one side of the controller with one limb and the other parts of the controller with some other body part, which might not reach the other side of the initial controller. This method can make highly expensive customized controllers obsolete and democratizes technology further. They also published the adaptive controller, a tool for people with various impairments to make it possible for them to customize their inputs even further to their needs.
_Back in early 2020, Mark Cerny, the lead system architect for the SONY PlayStation Company held a talk about the soon to be released PlayStation 5 console an its technological aspects and achievements. He explained how they ventured into the field of a new audio technique, the 3D audio engine TEMPEST – it makes it possible for users, to hear ingame sounds with a feeling, as if they were happening around them, by some clever tricks outsmarting our brain and the way it detects sounds. This is, shortly speaking, by measuring the time between an incoming sound signal on the one ear and the arrival on the other ear, defined by the inner distance of our ears to each other, which the brain knows inherently. So, timing sounds just with the right time between left and right headphone speakers the illusion of the sound happening in real life can be achieved.
_To get this done, they scanned several hundred peoples hearing data, there known as HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) and handpicked some of the most common ones to put it into the TEMPEST engine. He also explains that given the fact if this complex and very subjectional/individual perception – and the fact not every user can be scanned to get their personal HRTF – maybe not everyone is physically able to perceive 3D audio correctly – for some it only seems like a bit better stereo audio.
So, in the end one could say future technologies can open the doors for some, but slam the doors shut for others. Although they will try to synthesize HRTF data in the future to maybe make it able to even a wider range of people it may be locked aways for some forever.
_On a side note, MINECRAFT (MOJANG) also did some development into a highly sophisticated system for full 3D spatialization for ingame sounds as an optional feature, meaning you could determine the location of a noise emitter very accurately by hearing it alone. In the end, this system was turned down serval notches (pun intended) to it only determining, if a sound offscreen comes more from either the right or left side and indicated this with an arrow appended to the subtitles pointing in either one of these to directions. They scrapped the idea of spatial sound effects because they realized in competitive games this feature could, if turned on, help players gain an unfair advantage against other which chose not to play with it.
_The debate about the game DARK SOULS (FROMSOFTWARE) and its lack of accessibility due to a missing feature of some difficulty setting seems to never stop. But why is this a problem?
_In the previous post we talked about what makes a barrier and what makes a game? If you take away its core feature or game mechanic, which makes it unique, what also be considered as a barrier – what is left of the game? Often only the narrative.
_In the DARK SOULS series, the main game mechanic are the overwhelming odds you face as a player as you traverse the game, and the feeling of being stuck endlessly on a portion of the game only to finally overcome the impossible seeming odds and beat the boss which decimated you relentless in your last tries – only to face such a challenge very soon again. Many people though don’t get the luxury to just ‘get over it’ and due to its high skill cap and rather complex controls, many players just don’t get far enough to enjoy the game properly. They ultimately abandon the game and choose not to play it any further. Because the narrative is one of a kind, it’s a shame that this is locked aways for many players. But the game being hard is in the end, its core feature which makes it stand out and what makes it DARK SOULS; so it would be no wonder if nothing ever comes to this game in the regards of accessibility.
_Or a better question: what makes a game? And what are the basic accessible options are the basic needs for a healthy game? The key difference between games and other entertainment is, that they are by definition – inaccessible; because they need a challenge to be recognized as a ‘game’, otherwise it just would be a toy or a narrative. This challenge could easily become a barrier.
_Every game has barriers which make them what they are, what makes them fun or – what doesn’t make it fun for some. Unlike in the Web content accessibility guidelines, it’s not a simple checkmark list, it’s more like an optimization process. How much can you strip away from the game, what is necessary to keep its core design? What’s unnecessary for the game and its possibility to be enjoyed?
_There are some key accessibility errors making huge impact in a games enjoyability which occur very often which could be avoided easily, like the text size, the use of colors, fixed controls, and the reliance on solely audio. The basic solutions for these problems would be, for example, a decent default text size which is still adjustable, other signifiers like visual or haptic cues instead of only sound, remappable controls and – believe it or not – implementation of basic subtitles. Its not depending on much research and development to implement such features – only thinking of them in the very early stages of development can solve a lot of troubles later.
_Game menus are widely known for their possible complexities. In this case, its about showing the right amount of complexity at the right time to the right people. Like bundling some options into a preset and present them at the start of the game and give the users to customize these even further; because some people like the ability to change many details and configurate, others don’t and want to just jump right in. Like in TLOU:PT2, when you boot up the game for the first time, you will get the option to choose between a few presets, which could help each with different impairments. But if you choose, you can go a level deeper and customize these presets completely to your needs.
_To sum up, defining early what’s necessary and what is optional really helps in designing with accessibility in mind, and create great games.
_Many game studios made pushes into the field of accessibility and the appeal of accessibility in games is growing ever more.
_For example, back then NAUGHTY DOG made UNCHARTED 4 and supplied it with options for motor impairments, and in 2020 they released THE LAST OF US: PT.2 and with their enormous advancements in inclusion they won the award for best innovation in accessibility. There is considerable work done in the various fields of the elimination of different barriers are getting explored one after the other. Back in 2018 we mostly talked about text customization, now we’re at full-blown shader alteration by AAA-titles.
_Mark Brown does a big analysis of each year game releases and examines them in all regards of accessibility and highlights their several achievements.