Playing roguelikes when you can’t see

For most of us, traditional roguelikes are intrinsically inaccessible. They’re notoriously difficult, their design is complicated and often opaque, they can have more hotkeys than there are keys on the keyboard, and their ASCII-based visuals mean that it’s often unclear what’s happening on the screen. It’s these exact qualities, however, that ironically make roguelikes accessible and even appealing to blind or low-sight players.

Moritz Wolfart, who lives in Germany, has been blind since birth. He started playing games at age 10, when his older brother brought home a copy of the first Prince of Persia. His brother narrated the events for him, and together they made each decision in the game. “When we were playing, we were talking. All the time. We were telling stupid stories about the characters or the enemies. We also wrote songs!” Throughout his life, Moritz has played games with sighted friends gathered around a screen. While playing Oblivion, he was “the brain in the background who says ‘HEY, HE SOLD THE BEST SWORD.’”

While Moritz had fun playing games with his friends, he also wanted to be able to play them independently. As a blind player, options are limited. Audio games designed specifically for low or no sight players often rely on text-based storytelling, which does not lend itself to replayability. Moritz was looking for a chance to get into what he calls “the complex RPG stuff.” He wanted to manage an inventory, select the best weapons, make tactical assessments, deal with difficult enemies – the same decisions he’d always made with the help of his friends. A year ago, Moritz discovered a game that fit the bill. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup was as punishing, complicated, and deep as he could ever hope for, and he could play it with a screen reader.

Roguelikes have something that games like Skyrim and The Witcher lack – an ASCII interface. The visuals are unimportant, almost an afterthought. Sighted players must learn how to see through them, and use their imaginations to fill in the % signs and capital Bs as carrion and beetles. For many, this barrier is too high, but Moritz has never lacked imagination. For him, ASCII interfaces are a foot in the door, because they can be read aloud by screen readers – and he can picture the rest.

Niall Hartnett introduced Moritz to Crawl through a post on Audiogames.net. A Canadian who now lives in Japan, Niall has been playing roguelikes using screen readers since he found NetHack at age ten. Since then, he’s poured endless hours into Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM).

I’ve decided that everyone who uses a screen reader at high speeds is a master hacker who can hear the matrix. Imagine a robotic voice ten times faster than normal human speech: “space vertical bar PC cursor f list f f f period f f p l q … wowthismakesyoufeelgreat, wowthismakesyoufeelgreat, youfeelcharismatic more…” I’ve listened to this recording from NetHack fifty times and I still can’t tell what the voice is saying. Seriously, listen to the first twelve seconds. I can’t even imagine the superhuman feat of parsing this gibberish into actionable information.

Each player has their own way of approaching the unique problems with playing roguelikes that they can’t see. Niall used the “look around” function (l in ADOM, : in Nethack, x in Crawl) to move the cursor from square to square, slowly creating a picture in his head of rooms, hallways, pets, and enemies. He’d then make a series of decisions, like a general on a battlefield, and move in bursts. Kill the iguana, run from the gnome lord, wait in the doorway for the pet cat to steal items from the shopkeeper. Afterwards he’d stop once more, press the look key, survey his surroundings, and make a new plan. Repeat. It was fun, but also time-consuming and sometimes tedious.

Some players are lucky enough to have a braille display, which can read a single line of text at a time using a tactile interface. These machines are very expensive, and often require government grants to acquire. None of the people I talked to owned one, but Niall was familiar with their benefits and unexpected challenges. Braille displays are helpful in many ways, but the language only has eight dots available in each character. This system makes everyday letters and numbers quick to interpret, but doesn’t work as well with special symbols used heavily in roguelikes. The ‘%’ sign requires two characters, for instance, as do ‘/’, ‘(‘, and other common ASCII characters. It’s difficult to keep your bearings in a game where letters and numbers simulate an environment, because the spacing on the display does not mimic the spacing on the screen.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has a few unique features that make it much easier for blind and low-sight players like Moritz and Niall, and allow for faster play. The most important of these, a feature that is shared by Brogue, is the auto-explore function. By pressing ‘o’, players can automatically send their character to the nearest unexplored space, stopping as soon as they spot an enemy. Auto-explore abstracts the level layouts and creates a distinct way of experiencing the game. Add in ‘>’ and ‘< ’ for finding and moving to stairs on a level and ctrl-f for finding and moving to any object that has been dropped or left on the ground, and Moritz can play each level as a string of encounters and decisions, ignoring the map. ‘Ctrl-x’ lists all monsters and features in sight, allowing for quick assessments of danger levels, and ‘Tab’ auto-fights nearby enemies, making trivial encounters much faster. Only when the situation is dangerous does Moritz have to pause so he can fight more carefully. Ranged weapons and wands are more efficient than melee attacks for this, because when he evokes a wand or aims with a ranged weapon, he can choose from a list of targets. This allows him to kill the most dangerous enemies first without actually knowing what monster is to his left or right. He’s able to engage with complex combat mechanics while disregarding the layout of each level.

Some backgrounds, species, and gods make things much easier. Moritz is a fan of vampires, because they’re great for sneaking up on enemies and avoiding group fights. Summoning allies to fight for you is a huge help. Niall’s best win in Crawl was a 5-rune ascent (more than I’ve ever managed) using a demonspawn fighter who worshipped Makhleb. A lucky mutation allowed him to stack up preposterous health regeneration and brute force his way through fights he couldn’t run from.

David Ploog (dpeg), one of the most prominent Crawl developers, told me that the features like find and auto-explore were created to improve and streamline the game for everyone. The huge impact they made for blind and low-sight players was a happy accident. A month ago, Moritz emailed David with a question about the game, and since then they’ve been working together to make it even more accessible to low-sight players. David and Moritz are considering many possible changes, including an improved “what’s around me” function that incorporates distances and directions, a possible auto-flee feature, and adding sound effects for a variety of game events.

Mars Bhuntamata (pen name), a blind literature student in Thailand, tells me that “roguelikes are usually accessible when sounds are added.” She has tried several traditional roguelikes, but has bounced off them. “I often get confused when it comes to hundreds or thousands of symbols on the screen.” Instead, she’s been hooked on Brogue-SPEAK.

Brogue is a popular roguelike made by Brian Walker. Last year, a developer named LazyCat added music, sound effects, and a built-in screen-reader to create a new version of the game called Brogue-SPEAK. “I love that thing to death,” Mars told me. The sound effects are a crucial component, she says. They allow blind players to read their environment quickly. When a monster appears, it makes a unique sound, and “there are even separate sounds for shallow and murky water.”

Brogue, even for sighted players, is the ideal gateway game to traditional roguelikes. It’s much closer to Rogue than its contemporary counterparts like Crawl and ADOM – the dungeon is far smaller, there are no classes, no races, and no levels. “Items and mobs are well-described, and there’s nearly nothing you can miss even if the project isn’t fully completed.” The tooltips include detailed, integrated descriptions of everything in the dungeon, so players don’t need to spend dozens of hours reading a wiki to figure out what’s dangerous.

Moritz, however, isn’t into Brogue-SPEAK for a couple of reasons: for one, his screen reader doesn’t work well with the program (“it’s like if you had to use a triangular screen”). For another, Moritz prefers a huge, crunchy RPG over a simpler streamlined one.

More and more, developers are working to make roguelikes playable for low-sight and no-sight players. At last year’s Roguelike Celebration conference, Alexei Pepers gave an excellent talk detailing the challenges that she confronted during her efforts to make a version of NetHack more accessible for low-sight players. There have been a few roguelikes designed from the start to be accessible. Entombed, a fully audio roguelike, is the most famous of these, though it hasn’t been updated since 2010. Kerkerkruip is a text adventure roguelike that has been continuously under development since 2011. This sort of design is still young, and there are many problems yet to solved, but the possibilities are exciting.

Sighted players are used to games that heavily rely on visual feedback. Whenever I show an ASCII game to a friend who hasn’t played one before, they ask me the same thing: “how can you even tell what’s going on?” ASCII games forgo detailed visuals in favor of under-the-hood complexity, and for most players, this is part of what makes them so difficult. The world is hidden in layers of menus and a screen-full of symbols. All traditional roguelike players learn, in a small way, to play more like blind players – we learn to visualize the world that we cannot see. Instead of a purple ampersand in a mess of periods and dashes, we see Dispater, the demon prince, summoned into Gehennom, the underworld of NetHack. The visual paucity of roguelikes makes them daunting for sighted players, but for others, ASCII art is what makes them playable at all.

It takes a lot of practice for anyone to competently play a roguelike, but it takes exponentially more work for blind or low-sight players. Niall told me that “a lot of blind people get really into one thing, and will work at it for a long time.” For some dedicated players who thirst for tactically rich game experiences, this one thing has been roguelikes. And for all of us, developing mastery is part of the fun.

If you’re a developer of a roguelike or another game that you’d like to make more accessible to low-sight players, write a post on AudioGames.net or email me at kent@kentsuther.land to get in touch with a dedicated community of eager testers.

I’d like to thank David Ploog for introducing me to Moritz, and giving me this article idea when I talked to him last month, Alexei Pepers for her talk on blind accessibility in roguelikes, the people over at Roguelike Radio for their useful episode on designing for the visually impaired, the nice folks at AudioGames.net, and everyone else who talked to me along the way.

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39 Comments

  1. Bobcat says:

    I’ve never played a traditional roguelike and they intimidate me.

    But it’s articles like this that keep me coming to RPS. Great read!

    • steamhare says:

      Although they tend to be unforgivingly difficult, the good ones are very accessible and easy to start, especially with a tile set. If you want to get an idea: link to crawl.develz.org is a decent jump point.

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      Waltorious says:

      Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which steamhare linked for you, is my favorite roguelike, but as mentioned in the article Brogue is a great choice for players who haven’t tried roguelikes before. It’s also fantastic.

      For something a little different, with more of a focus on the world and a narrative within it, I highly recommend Caves of Qud, which is currently in Steam Early Access. Unfortunately, unlike the others, it’s not free. But it’s worth the price of admission in my opinion.

      • Milesaru says:

        I concur. You can actually play Caves for free in ASCII but sure, for the nice flashy version, you do indeed have to pay. Totally worth it though.

  2. Catterbatter says:

    What a fantastic article!

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      It is a very good article, it’s just a shame there isn’t an audible version of it!

      • Catterbatter says:

        Or alt text on the images? Not 100% since I’m on mobile. But the linked podcast covers some of the same territory and is also really interesting. I think this is my favorite RPS piece in a while.

  3. Aetylus says:

    This is fascinating. The mental processing to convert a string of spoken text to a mental map is astounding. I find it annoying enough that I have to mod in a more legible font for CK2 to I can read that properly.

    What would be great would be if someone took the classic roguelike and built it from the start for accessibility. For instance the tile-by-tile moving must create an enormous amount of noise, yet offers little benefit in the way of tactics. Room-by-room moving with text descriptions would be a mile better “You moved south east. You are now in a room with a well, slime on the floor, two doors and five munchkins armed with spears” etc. Given most rogue-likes are generated as rooms and then converted into tiles the mechanics should already exist.

    Similarly things like the auto-explore and auto-target functions in TOME must help enormously.

    And combat where the tactical challenge is derived by selecting abilities and counters rather than spatial positioning would also help accessibility.

    • DarrenGrey says:

      Kerkerkruip is somewhat as you describe with different rooms. It’s designed with blind players in mind.

      • FlowState says:

        Darren, not to take away from the subject of the article, 8 just want to thank you for Roguelike Radio. The insights on game design, rapid game development, and thinking outside the box have helped immeasurably in my game making. Thank you.

    • gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

      Yeah. The ability to read all that in one’s mind by hearing it is simply astounding!

  4. aliksy says:

    This is really interesting. Thanks for posting it.

    Always glad to see more crawl stone soup. It’s my favorite roguelike by far.

  5. KDR_11k says:

    Maybe I should recommend that to my coworker then. Though you say Braille has only six dots but both the screen reader in the picture and the one he’s using have 8 dots per character. Is that bottom row really just for displaying the cursor?

    For spacing issues my thought would be to make every spot on the map two spaces wide and if it’s a single-space character then just pad with an empty space.

    • Kent Sutherland says:

      Good catch! I hadn’t noticed that the braille on that display was eight dots. Traditional braille is six dots. We updated the piece to eight in order to match the image. I just checked with Niall, and he thinks that the two additional dots might indicate the position of the cursor.

      • KDR_11k says:

        Hm, I think making those only show the cursor would be a bit overkill, increasing the dot count by a third just for that? Also while I know these things often break (there seem to be dozens of “dead pixels” on my coworker’s display) and the default position for the dots is up your picture has two characters with an active dot in that lower line which seems to me like they do encode additional character information, I doubt they’re just dead pixels. The cursor flashes both bottom dots up and down.

        Ah well, easiest would be to ask my coworker but he’s on vacation. And I doubt the details really matter that much…

        EDIT: There seem to be standards for eight-dot Braille too, I guess that’s what that’s for.

    • smashclayaudio says:

      Braille has gone through a lot of changes, especially lately, but from how I understand it, 8-dot systems were created to include more science, math, programming, and shorthand symbols. Not sure how many 8-dot symbols are used in Unified English Braille though.

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    Drib says:

    Why on earth is a brail attachment like that thing expensive enough that you’d need a government grant?

    Anyway, neat article! I would have imagined any videogame would have been difficult to just this side of impossible to play for a blind person. It’s amazing people can put together a string of letters from a screenreader into a coherent mental map.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Low production numbers plus a lot of moving parts. Those dots are piezo-electric rods and there’s 8 per character, usually around 80 characters on the device. Each character doubles as a button that moves the cursor to that position. These things need special software and I guess the market isn’t huge (plus the price means that once you buy one you’ll not be in the market for another for a looooong time). Plus if you can get medical insurance or governments to cover the costs then there’s an incentive to charge even more…

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      MajorLag says:

      The human brain is actually pretty remarkable in its ability to remap itself to handle things like this. Spoken language itself cannot be parsed by computers very well yet, but our brains manage it easily, even accounting for accents, various auditory properties of the place you’re in, accents, and languages.

      Probably a lot could be done to make it easier though.

  7. TrenchFoot says:

    Excellent article. I think of two main reasons:

    1. Making suitable games more accessible to low-sight and blind people is the right thing to do; it is also a smart business decision, as the demographics of game players will start to reach into those ages where vision problems are more common.

    2. There’s a quote from “The Big Bang Theory”: “It (the game Zork) runs on the world’s most powerful graphics chip: imagination.” For sighted people, learning ASCII-graphics games exercises parts of our brains that may not otherwise get much of a work out.

  8. spacejunkk says:

    Really interesting, thanks for covering this.

  9. caff says:

    Brilliant article. This is inspirational – how amazing would it be to have more games that were blind-friendly?

    There are some brilliant charities out there helping less abled people play games – it’s well worth seeing (and donating) to the amazing work they do. Special Effect is one such: link to youtube.com

  10. Massenstein says:

    Most (if not all? I’m not sure) MUDs also put great emphasis on being screenreader-friendly. One I frequented, DiscworldMUD, had also a playerclub dedicated to helping visually impaired players.

  11. gammafunk says:

    “Conjuration, which summons allies to fight for you, is a huge help.”

    I think this is a typo. Was the author trying to talk about the Summonings school? Spells in Conjurations school don’t create allies that fight for you (with the exception of Spellforged Servitor); those spells do direct damage.

    • Kent Sutherland says:

      Not a typo, just a mistake haha. Conjurations is the spell school for summoning allies in the Elder Scrolls games; that’s probably where I got mixed up. I’ll send in a fix, thanks Gamma. Keep fighting the good fight against elf lickers.

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      Waltorious says:

      It really confused me that, in Dungeon Crawl, the Conjurations school actually means “attack magic”. Fireballs and lightning bolts and whatnot are apparently Conjurations. I suppose they are, technically, conjured out of the air, but so are other spells in the game like the one that forms armor made of ice – yet that is a Charms spell (the school related to buffs) rather than a Conjuration. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

      I’m glad I got over that, though, because playing a high-level Conjurer in Dungeon Crawl is awesome. Getting to high level is another matter…

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    sbrn10 says:

    Just wanted to chime in and agree: fascinating article.

  13. Gomer_Pyle says:

    Very interesting article!

  14. alexeipepers says:

    Thanks a lot for the shoutout! This is a very excellent article that nicely covers the whole situation and how it’s both impressive how much dedication visually impaired players have to enjoying these types of games, and also how some more effort on the part of game developers could make things a lot better. The Nethack team has actually made some improvements based on my work, so things are even getting better in that case, I’m very optimistic. Thank you for writing it, I’m so glad for this information to get out to more people!

  15. MadZab says:

    I’ve always been super-impressed by people playing roguelikes with a screen reader. I myself have made a roguelike that has a purely text-driven interface, describing the situation rather than ASCIIing a map. Visually impaired players were one of the groups of players I hoped would like it but it wasn’t really designed for them all the way (my descriptions are assuming the main character can somehow see in the cave – despite it being dark but that’s a whole different story). Choose Your Own CaveVenture did turn out to be rather difficult but I still play it from time to time.

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    MajorLag says:

    It seems like there’s a couple of solutions that could make this a lot easier, both are a bit ambitious though:

    A) A tactile screen. Not a braille pad, where it’s specifically designed for text and is one line and all that, but something like this: link to tinyurl.com [It’s one of those 3D pin-point sculpture thingies], only about a foot square and all the pins are individually controlled by the computer. You’d be able to pile a ton of information on there because you could (potentially) vary the height of each “pixel” (pinsel?). For instance, you could tell by the height that a character was rendered which subtype it was, sort of like how we use color to convey that information now.

    B) Make it less like a screen reader and more like its own language. A series of tones that represent the information about the tiles. Human brains are good at parsing complicated sounds for information already, it’s primarily how we communicate, so it’s possible this would actually be much easier than encapsulating that information one layer deeper like a screen reader does.

    • KDR_11k says:

      There are many projects attempting to build a 2D tactile display like that but it’s hard. I’ve heard of attempts like plastic forming bubbles and such but apparently they’re too soft to properly work in practice. Just making those screen reader devices bigger is hard since the pin with its movement mechanism is L-shaped so their feet must be stacked in one direction. With only four lines of dots that’s not too high but it seems that the device would have to be about as tall as the display area is high.

      • FeepingCreature says:

        It seems like it would be easier to go the other way around and build a fine tactile dot matrix into the fingertip(s?) of a glove together with high-frequency position tracking so you can represent a large virtual tactile surface.

  17. Eleven says:

    Talking of games for disable people, I was really impressed with Nier: Automata, which included several ‘auto plugin’ features in its easy mode that will automatically perform tricky actions for you. This means players can adapt the game to their level of physical dexterity. It’s not perfect, but there’s a review on Steam of a guy with one hand who is really enjoying the game because these features exist.

  18. phanatic62 says:

    Very interesting article, thanks for writing about this subject.

    Also: there’s a Roguelike Podcast?! I mean, of course there is. But how could I not have known about this? Now I have 134 episodes to burn through while still trying to catch up on my regular listening.

  19. April March says:

    Excellent article. I’d heard long ago that blind players were capable of playing roguelikes and often wondered idly about how they played. I did imagine if their screen reader just rattled off the contents as “dash dash dash at o o o o” and I’m quite amazed to learn that it indeed does!

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    alison says:

    This is a very interesting article, thanks.

  21. SuperTim says:

    I haven’t read such a fascinating article for a while, thanks.