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39

Playing roguelikes when you can’t see

Not so inaccessible

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.’”

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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.

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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 ‘

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.”

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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.

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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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