I recently became excited about the prospect of games for non-sighted people. This came after playing a couple of LD26 games that involved elements of non-sighted play. These were Conversion, and You Must Escape, and they succeed in being about accessibility without being accessible.
I wrote about You Must Escape as a separate post.
Conversion is a 1st (or possibly 3rd) person shooter that relies on none of the visual cues FPS players have been trained to use. The screen is black at all times, except when messages concerning the state of the environment are displayed, these being “you bumped into a wall!” or “there is something soft and wet at your feet”. The rest of the game information is conveyed with audio cues, such as a dripping noise, your own heartbeat, or a gunshot. These effects are presented using positional audio, so that the player wearing headphones can effectively navigate to the source of a sound by positioning it directly in front of them and moving forward (you should really skip this bit and just play the damn game, that would be easier).
Audio cues used in the game are gritty and emotional: water dripping in an empty room, a scratching noise, and a heartbeat are all very visceral. When I heard the gunshot noise for the first time I literally leapt from my chair. After that I kept my tongue tucked behind my teeth in anticipation of more punishing audio to come. Conversion is an excellent and effective game, and it was well received during LD26.
The game introduces a sighted audience to elements of the world perceived by non-sighted people; its title is a reference to a kind of neurological disorder that can cause blindness. That having been said, Conversion is not playable by non-sighted gamers, and this feels like an ironic and tragic oversight. Despite @spiridios‘ claim that “You cannot see, so you must complete the game using only your sense of hearing and sense of touch”, Conversion actually relies on the gamer’s sense of sight as well since it conveys certain spatial information in written messages. I want my review to remain positive, because Conversion really is a great game, but I also can’t shy away from what I see as a glaring and embarrassing truth: a sighted gamer made a game about being blind, without considering whether blind people would be able to play it too.
Conversion really does shine as an innovative indie title, but it is not interesting as a proof of concept. There are already fully 3D first-person-shooters made by and for non-sighted gamers. If you sit down and give them a whirl as a sighted player… all I can say is that you will be stunned. Games like Shades of Doom and Swamp are engineered to be complete, accessible FPS experiences — an indie made for a game jam just can’t compete. I took some time to play SOD as part of writing this post: it was extremely challenging for me to make any headway at all, but by all accounts this game broke ground. I haven’t tried Swamp, but Jason Johnson’s review got me pretty excited. These are the proof of concept games that could be considered landmarks in some way. Conversion is not them.
Conversion is something that those games aren’t. I found the soundscape of Shades of Doom crowded and obnoxious. It was easy to navigate, with lots more beeps and audio cues, but it wasn’t beautiful. SOD and Swamp are games that were made to be played. Conversion, on the other hand, was tight and personal; it was made to be experienced. In particular it was made to be exprienced by a group of sighted gamers, and to them it really was unique and new. This is well and good, but consider what was lost: Conversion could have been such a perfect experience to share with non-sighted gamers, if only it didn’t rely on sight.
There is a nice bridge to be built here, and the cost of construction is extremely low.