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Due to its text-based nature and multi-platform support, interactive fiction has the potential to play an important and unique role within the community of visually impaired gamers. Through the use of screen readers and self-voicing interpreters, the genre already provides audio gamers with an enjoyable and challenging form of entertainment. But it is recognised that the form has even greater potential.
Restricting this potential, to some extent, is the issue of accessibility. Features, platforms and individual games haven’t always been developed with a view to providing consistently high levels of accessibility.
Arguably, this has resulted in a decline in the genre’s popularity with audio gamers; a trend that could easily be reversed, providing a sustainable market for future IF development.
The following information hopes to simply provide a new framework for discussions on improving VI accessibility with regards to writing and releasing interactive fiction. It focuses on the practical implications, with a view to outlining a number of simple and effective suggestions for IF authors.
The rest of this document is divided into the following sections:
1. Practical implications
3. Recommended reading
5. Personal thanks
1. Practical implications
The following are suggestions with regards to writing more accessible interactive fiction.
Considering accessibility issues in the planning stages of a game is the ideal situation. Trying to make a game accessible after it is written is far less successful, particularly if the final game design mechanics specifically rely on features such as text formatting or use of the status bar, which are difficult to create workarounds for.
Authors should consider incorporating accessibility into their game design documents. This way it becomes an integral part of the development cycle.
Screen readers attempt to approximate natural speech by incorporating rules about grammar with known phrases, words and punctuation. Any word or collection of keystrokes that don’t match something known can cause the speech synthesiser to stumble, output ‘garbage’ or, in extremely rare cases, crash the program.
Games should avoid using too many made-up words or names. An audio gamer with a quality screen reader can select a word and make an addition to their screen reader’s dictionary (usually by creating a phonetic substitute), but having to do this more than once or twice in a game is often considered inconvenient and destroys immersion.
Incorporating ASCII art, or the repeated use of a particular symbol to create a visual representation should be totally avoided. In these instances, each symbol is read out by the player’s screen reader. For example, a line made up of 40 underline symbols will be read as ‘underline underline underline underline underline’ etcetera, and ASCII art will be read as a jumble of words, such as ‘asterix greaterthan asterix asterix’ etcetera, with no way for the player to understand the image it is attempting to represent. Glitching and crashing ‘computer speak’ within narrative should also be avoided, or used sparringly.
Furthermore, italics, capitals and bolded words or sentences are not spoken any differently to those without any adornment, so the use of these as a means of emphasis is not advised if the meaning of the sentence is not discernable from unadorned text.
Question marks and exclamation marks will change the intonation of the screen reader’s voice, so these can be used to best effect. The correct use of commas, semi-colons and full stops will also help provide appropriate pauses in the transcription of the text.
Visual descriptions are only one small part of experiencing a location or an item. Authors should consider all of the senses. Describing the way something feels in the player character’s hand, what it smells like, how it tastes, or what it sounds like all contribute to the experience.
It’s not uncommon for blind and visually impaired persons to reference what they read or hear with things they’ve physically encountered, or with events and actions that are widely understood or easily experienced. Framing an action or puzzle within a well known precept or context increases the player’s ability to interact with the game.
1.4 Tropes and narrative.
Puzzles that depend on sources of light have little meaning to audio gamers. A flashlight to a blind person is a reasonably ineffectual baton with a switch. Being told, “You’re in a room. It’s pitch dark and you can’t see a thing,” is often simply a daily experience.
Similarly, puzzles or actions that depend on an assumption of sight or the ability to perceive the spatial placement of objects as images are likely to cause problems.
It is important, however, that authors don’t overcompensate and try to become politically correct. Audio gamers, by and large, are not bothered by actions such as “LOOK” or phrases such as “See you later”, commonly using them in their own conversations, and it can be irritating when authors attempt to create ‘blind friendly’ worlds that omit such mainstream language.
1.5 Complexity and size.
Regardless of whether a player is sighted or not, the complexity and size of an interactive fiction can be prohibitive. Extensive note taking and mapping can be a deterrant to playing. Authors should consider the rationale of making any game overly complex for complexity’s sake. The use of similar or identical room names for a large number of locations is also not recommended.
1.6 Extensions and the user interface.
Using extensions or coding to alter the user interface can cause problems for audio gamers. Any text which is updated every turn is, by default, sent to the screen reader with no interpretation of how to read it.
Furthermore, the user prompt is read out by a screen reader as “greater than”. This means it is possible for an audio gamer to have something similar to “the winding path exits n e ne moves two greater than” spoken, in addition to any new narrative, every time they enter a command.
To that end, any use of status lines containing information is not recommended, as are graphical additions to the user interface.
To remove the status line, Emily Short’s Inform 7 extension Status Line Removal is recommended. Link here: http://inform7.com/extensions/Emily%20Short/Status%20Line%20Removal/index.html
To solve the “greater than” problem, some audio gamers have expressed interest in changing the command prompt (“>”). The phrase “Your command…” tested well with screen readers and gave a good understanding to new players that it was their turn to enter a command.
Finally, help menus could also be improved. Rather than place the information outside of the gameplay and on a separate page of text, authors should be encouraged to build-in commands that can bring up succinct and pertinent sections of information.
Authors should consider creating a website or web page for their game that is accessible. All the text should be clear and unambiguous, and all the links to the game files should be correct and easily accessed within the body text. Providing a link to each file, rather than using zipped archives, reduces possible complications. Give each a filename that clearly indicates what the file is.
Be careful when creating download links. Even a incorrectly capitalised letter will prevent a download and present an error message, causing potential confusion.
For more information on creating an accessible web page, visit the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. Link: http://www.w3.org/WAI/gettingstarted/Overview.html.
Providing clear and detailed information about a particular game is beneficial for all players. This should include: the name of the game, who authored it, a blurb, and a more detailed summary with information about the game. Worthwhile details to include in the summary are: genre, estimated play length, difficulty (beginner, intermediate, or advanced), major mechanics, whether it’s story-driven or puzzle-based, and a list of possible accessibility issues (if any). Details on how to contact the author are also helpful, should privacy not be an issue.
Providing additional documentation is also very important in making a game accessible. Due to its often complex nature, some audio gamers won’t play an interactive fiction game without having a walkthrough on hand.
As with all documentation, authors should ensure the walkthrough is clearly written and does not include images or unusual formatting. Authors should assume that a player is lost or stuck in their game and needs to quickly and easily find where they are. Can they do that with the walkthrough? Are they able to use a ‘control’ or ‘command F’ text search to quickly find their location, or details about a particular item?
When an author is putting their game out for beta testing, or similar, they should consider asking an audio gamer to be part of the test group. If the author doesn’t personally know any audio gamers, discussion lists such as Audyssey (www.audyssey.org) are great places to find volunteers and assistance. Many audio gamers will have a unique take on an author’s game, particularly in the areas of pacing, narrative, puzzle complexity and logic.
An author can consider doing some self-testing by playing through their game using a screen reader or self-voicing interpreter such as WinFrotz TTS.
If an author is creating a ‘feelie’ for their game, it would be worth considering creating text-only documents or audio files as opposed to something visual.
Some ideas for text-only feelies include: the Last Will and Testament of a particular character; a page out of a book; a letter from one character to another; an instruction leaflet.
Some ideas for audio files include: radio advertisements for a product that features in the game; a theme song, soundtrack or mix-tape selection to listen to while playing; a conversation between two characters; an encoded message.
Physical objects that can be held are also a great idea, although usually postage, etcetera prohibits such items.
Sometimes a direct quote conveys an idea much better than any attempt to paraphrase or condense the information. The following are selected quotes from email conversations with audio gamers and from relevant books or documents.
Each quote begins with the primary topic as a heading, followed by the quote, then a byline referencing the source.
The role of interactive fiction:
“I think interactive fiction could and should have a bigger role in the blind community. The people who grew up in the eighties like me know about it and advocate it, but most blind people today know as little of interactive fiction as their sighted peers, at least so goes my experience. I think the text environment has a lot of potential in training, mobility for example.”
Using a walkthrough:
“I’m mostly a SF and fantasy reader with some classic mystery thrown in. I don’t like modern mysteries because of too much violence and strong language. I’m more interested in solving a mental puzzle which the old mysteries were known for. Perhaps that’s what drew me to IF. However, when I read a mystery novel, I can usually solve it, but I’m terrible at solving IF puzzles. I have no problem admitting that I cheat. I don’t even start a game unless I have a walkthrough. I play IF for the story aspects more than the puzzles.”
“I don’t map and never have. I can usually keep track of everything in my head. Sometimes I get lost, but it’s rare. No, I won’t do mazes and I don’t like them. If I encounter a maze and I have no walkthrough, I quit. The best thing that happened in IF was elimination of the maze in modern games. Unless there are endless rooms with identical descriptions, I almost always manage…
Some people use tactile graph paper. I’m not one because it’s a pain and it’s expensive.”
Screen readers and interactive fiction:
“If there’s ASCII art, it’s just read as a series of meaningless symbols. It can be frustrating when there is actual text next to the art. The screen reader itself only passes text from the screen to the synth. Each synth pronounces things differently and they all make mistakes. It doesn’t do well when words are run together, like site names. It really can’t pronounce most foreign language words, especially French. That’s an issue with the synth though, not the screen reader. There are foreign language synths for Spanish, Italian, French, German and others.
Where I do have a problem is with the interpreters themselves, not usually the games. In DOS and Linux, it’s no problem, but I really haven’t found a good solution in Windows and I’m not alone. Any GLK interpreter is useless in Windows with speech. The TADS2 interpreter was pretty good, I don’t know about others. Frotz for Windows is useless as well. Unfortunately, I’m not a programmer so I can’t offer specifics on how to make Windows interpreters more accessible. The best suggestion I can offer is look at TADS2 and see how it does things.”
Why play interactive fiction?
“Most gaming opens worlds for people. Interacting with characters and role-playing a career or life that they do not have in the real world allows people to imagine themselves in certain situations, or challenges the person to make certain decisions. It is that aspect of gaming, along with the writing, descriptions of scenes and the possibility of interacting with characters that make interactive fiction so special. As a blind person, most mainstream role-playing games are unplayable. Interactive fiction is then the bridge that allows me as a blind person, who also would like to participate in the joys of relaxing with a role-playing computer game, to step into an imaginary world.”
Ari Damoulakis, from the article ‘A Blind Man’s Take on Interactive Fiction’
How interactive fiction changes people:
“To the authors of Interactive Fiction, I would like to say this: thanks for not letting the newer, flashier style of gaming put you off from keeping the wonderful pastime of text-based IF alive, even though a single descriptive photo or picture does say more than 1000 words, and it is easier and quicker to deduce details. Thanks for the wonderful puzzles which carry on trying to twist and smash my brain, and, above all, thanks for the brilliant descriptive writing which you use that opens up so many worlds, scenarios, locations and events. Interactive fiction has taught me not to just concentrate on the ‘larger’ description of things, but has also trained me to take an interest in and ask people about finer details when someone describes places or objects to me, even in real life.”
Ari Damoulakis, from the article ‘A Blind Man’s Take on Interactive Fiction’
Creativity and interactive fiction:
“I think IF is a wonderful resource for artistically-minded blind people to sketch situations and paint wonderful ideas. A blind person who learns to write IF will have a wonderful paint brush or camera!”
Ari Damoulakis, from the article ‘A Blind Man’s Take on Interactive Fiction’
Playing IF games:
“I’ve played many IF games at various points, since I’m very much a fan of exploration and plot in games, though I will freely confess that the riddle style puzzles in many IF titles tend to stump me.”
Changing names in games:
“Most screen readers have an exception dictionary that allows you to change how the screen reader speaks this or that word. For example, the name ‘Cerberus’ is supposed to be spoken with a hard c, but Orca speaks it with a soft c. I can open up Orca’s exception dictionary and do something like this.
Cerberus = ker-ber-us
That would instantly create an exception so that everytime Orca sees the name “Cerberus” it would speak it with a hard c sound instead of a soft c sound. You can do this with just about any word, name, etc. and that’s how we get by with oddball names that the screen reader wouldn’t necessarily speak correctly.”
Accessibility and platforms:
“To my way of thinking Linux offers huge financial savings for anyone, and more importantly to the blind. It is no secret that here in the USA over 80% of the blind are unemployed, on fixed incomes, and Linux is a much better alternative from a financial perspective. The fact of the matter is if it weren’t for government agencies pitching in to help pay for software like Jaws the average blind American couldn’t afford it. Many are lucky enough to just keep up with their SMAs, and occasionally purchase the next Windows upgrade.”
Winfrotz TTS: are its built-in features helpful?
“Yes, some of the features such as cutting [short the] speech can be helpful, however others are less so. I find WinFrotz TTS useful for instantaneous reading of text which is printed to the screen, rather than me having to physically move [my screen reader]‘s focus around to read the latest entry. Though, quite often I will keep [my screen reader] running at the same time as WinFrotz TTS so that I can perform more minute reading tasks, for example, finding the name of a given object.
In WinFrotz TTS however, I can significantly improve the situation by removing extraneous clutter from the screen. For instance, turning the header flag off and also turning off fast scrolling, since this seems to interfere with the speech. It’s also a good idea to try and get as much on a single screen as possible to avoid shenanigans with scrolling the screen downwards.”
“Since the > symbol is a result of the Inform compiler, I do not believe you can change it to something else. If you could, that would be interesting to consider.”
How WinFrotz interacts with voices:
“Microsoft Windows comes with a technology called the Microsoft Speech API or Sapi for short. Sapi is an API that is used to create and control a number of Sapi compatible voices. Unlike a screen reader, Sapi is only there for speaking text sent to it by a program. It has no screen reader abilities in of itself. So just think of Sapi as the computer’s voice if you will.
So what WinFrotz TTS does, is it copies the text on the screen and sends it to Sapi to be spoken. Since [the program doesn’t allow] you to review the screen, speak applications outside the WinFrotz TTS environment, etcetera, therefore it is not in fact a screen reader. We call this kind of program self-voicing because it speaks the stuff related to it via Sapi 5, but doesn’t provide the same abilities as a screen reader.”
Using WinFrotz TTS:
“Personally, I find WinFrotz TTS invaluable for playing inform style adventures because it automatically speaks the text on the screen as well as a few other things. Running [the standard version of] WinFrotz by itself with a screen reader also means I have to do a fair amount of reviewing the screen and looking around for the last prompt etc. That gets old real quick. Winfrotz TTS is better because it takes a lot of effort out of playing text adventures.”
Additional text within WinFrotz:
“[Additional text popping up in status lines within games] is a problem with Winfrotz TTS. As long as you use Winfrotz TTS there isn’t much you can do but to put up with it. If Winfrotz TTS had the features of a real screen reader you could set the punctuation level to full, most, some, or none, and disable the speaking of some symbols like the underline symbol. In this case you can’t. The only alternative is to use WinFrotz with a real screen reader like NVDA or something.
Now, you want to know something really annoying? Try a game that has a lot of text art. Now, that will drive you up the wall. Since we can’t see it and we are hearing a mindless string of letters, numbers, and symbols it is beyond insane.”
How interactive fiction is perceived:
“Interactive fiction has somewhat faded from centre stage over the years since I started Audyssey Magazine. Audio arcade games have given us less cerebral alternatives as graphics did for the sighted. Another problem has been that interactive fiction has become harder to properly access. In the days of DOS, I could use my screen-reader to review text and the current move would automatically be read out loud. WinFrotz TTS only offers us a partial solution. The current move is read aloud but one cannot review it as you could with a screen-reader. Also, the hints and help menus don’t work very well at all since the current option isn’t tracked or announced. This makes getting into the games harder for newcomers.
We either need an interpreter which lets modern screen-readers work with the same facility that they let us access web pages, or a self-voicing interpreter which essentially lets us review text and everything like a screen-reader would.
At the moment, we have neither. David Kinder says it’s because of how text is sent to the screen so that it looks better. He indicated to me that he was too busy to work on a better solution for us.
The current version of his Windows Frotz does have the ability to read text as it is output, but is like WinFrotz TTS in that it doesn’t let one review the text properly or deal with the help menus well.”
Improving WinFrotz TTS:
“In terms of adding features, punctuation muting would be a must. I would also like to see more refined reading commands. Currently, only the latest text to the screen is spoken, it would be nice to be able to review specific turns of the game, eg by pressing a shortcut, say ctrl minus to speak the previous turn and ctrl plus for the next.
It would also be nice to have a find-and-spell specific word or name feature, since that’s one of the things I often have to use [my screen reader] for.
The mud client, VIP Mud, which outputs to certain screen reading programs and also uses Sapi has some exceptional built in methods for text review, and it’s these sorts of things which it would be nice to see in a self voicing IF interpreter.”
“I bet some people bag on the IF archive’s simple directory layout, but it works very well for the blind! Simple works best. I’d argue this principle holds true for the sighted, as well, but the blind experience it more directly.”
Playing interactive fiction on the iPhone:
“Honestly, until you [told me about it] I had no idea I could.
Frotz works awesomely! Very accessible. Zork on the iPhone!”
How do you choose what game to play?
“[Recommendations], descriptions, interesting looking titles, the blurb at the beginning [of the game], if it wins an award…”
Gamebooks and interactive fiction:
“I don’t know how popular gamebooks are with the genral VI gaming comunity but I personally love them. Gamebooks are more story driven than most games, and since it is all text/html based the author has to get descriptive about a certain scene he or she wants to convey to the reader. It gives far more detail about the scene than an audio only game can. For example, imagine a passsage like this:
‘You are walking down a long and narrow passage. You can hear the sound of dripping water off in the distance, and the air smells fowel and damp. Suddenly, you stop at a large stone door. Weird markings cover the door with runes and symbols you have never seen before. You lean closer to take a look at the door. In the torch light you see a marking of a handprint.’
This is what makes interactive fiction, gamebooks, etcetera so interesting for me. Although, I write audio games there is no way I can give all that information in an audio only invironment. Sure I can have the stone door, the sound of dripping water, but there is no way to set the mood or tell someone what it smells like. In a gamebook or interactive fiction type game I can describe in detail all the runes and markings on the door. In an audio action adventure like Mysteries of the Ancients I’d have to create some kind of examaine command to give out all that detail, and that would be far more work than just writing it down [as you would] in a gamebook or interactive fiction.”
“As to text gamebooks, [I’m referring to] games based on the style of the old game book series of the 1980′s and early 90′s. Things like, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf and Fabled Lands.
These are similar to interactive fiction in that they provide a second person narrative, but rather than having a complex program and parser to handle progression, they use a system of turning to various pages of text (or with some of the online ones, clicking links), to make choices. Often, they also feature an abilities and stats system similar to a tabletop role playing game and have turn-based combat.
By limiting the choice of player actions, I find it far easier to concentrate upon the story and world, rather than get stuck behind some overly complex puzzle.
Traditionally, series like Fighting Fantasy have been slightly pulp fantasy in genre-big swords and big explosions—however, with people now writing game books online, there are some more subtle works available and works in different genres.”
Gamebooks versus interactive fiction:
“Gamebooks are nice for a number of reasons, not the least of which is, if done correctly, like written in a format such as HTML, they are universally accessible. If I’m running Linux I can open a gamebook written in html with Firefox. If I’m a Windows user I can access it using internet Explorer or Firefox. If I’m running Mac OS I can use Safari to read the same content. Far too many games aren’t that accessible or that portable accross platforms.”
3. Recommended Reading
The following books are recommended for wider reading.
‘Wake,’ book one of the WWW trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer.
A science fiction novel with a blind girl as the lead protagonist.
‘The Story of my Life,’ by Helen Keller.
The ‘autobiographical’ story of deafblind American author, Helen Keller.
The following list is a selection of related websites. Each listing includes the name of the web site, its URL and a description of its primary function. The list is in alphabetical order.
Assistive Gaming Interactive Fiction page
An blog post on accessible interactive fiction for newcomers.
A catalogue of audio games to download and play.
Audio Games’ Resource Page
A wealth of articles, transcripts and documents relating to accessibility gaming.
An audio gamers mailing list.
The website of a research project that focuses on the accessibility of electronic games for gamers with disabilities.
Web site for accessible games made by Jim Kitchen.
An accessible game development company. Includes useful links to other accessible gaming sites.
USA Games Interactive
Audio gaming site for the company USA Games Interactive.
5. Personal thanks
I’m truly indebted to a number of people who gave up their time to help me compile this information. They put up with my constant stumbling, ignorant questions and random epiphanies; and through it all they were nothing short of friendly, patient and generous.
Special thanks in particular go to Thomas Ward, Dark, Tony Baechler, Austin Seraphin and Michael Feir.
Additional thanks to Jacob Kruger, Shaun Everiss, Hayden Presley, Ari Damoulakis, Muhammed Deniz, Sky Mundell, Alfredo, Ben, Jim Kitchen, Yohandy, Phil Vlasak, Richard Claridge, Zachary Kline, and all of the members of the Audyssey audio gamers mailing list.
Finally, two special mentions.
The first goes to Jason Scott, creator of the outstanding Get Lamp documentary, which features a number of audio gamers.
The second goes to all the incredibly talented programmers and authors who create the tools we use and the games we play. We live in your playground.
This information was compiled by Drew Taylor on November 18, 2010.
Content may be used freely, so long as all material is accurately attributed to the relevant individual, author or source, and is used within a similar context and with the same spirit.