We tend to talk about games as very visual experiences because, for most, they are. But, for some, there are more important things than framerates and 4K resolutions - namely, actually being able to play games in the first place. I spoke to Sightless Kombat, an accessibility consultant and "gamer without sight", who told me how far games still have to come before they're fully accessible for players like him.
So, how on earth does someone with no sight play games? The answer is a lot less complicated than you might think.
The first thing you need to know about Sightless Kombat is that he can't see - at all.
I first spotted him on an official Sea Of Thieves stream a few weeks back. During the stream, himself and a crewmate demonstrated the many workarounds they use to help him to find his way around the game - the most creative of which was having said crewmate play an instrument so he could follow the sound.
Sightless Kombat started streaming to show gamers who do have sight how it works when someone doesn't. He's worked with a few game studios now as a consultant on accessibility features, and recently helped with the audio description for one of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs: Legion trailers. But when it comes to Sea Of Thieves, he tells me he first played the game at E3 in 2017.
"I walked up to the developers and said, 'Hey, I want to play Sea of Thieves, what can I do as a gamer without sight?' It was a very odd moment, because they basically just turned around and said, 'Well, you could always steer the ship,'" he says.
"I couldn't help but laugh, because it sounded absolutely ridiculous."
But, as you can see from the Twitch clip above, it's not quite so ridiculous as it sounds. Sightless Kombat regularly takes up the role of helmsman while playing Sea Of Thieves. With crewmates to help him get to the helm, and someone giving him callouts where to turn, it's not such a complicated task. When you turn the wheel in Sea Of Thieves, the game will make your controller rumble when it's at its central position, which acts as a good guide for Sightless Kombat to know how far to turn. Similarly, SK is able to find his way around a ship with his crew providing directions while he's holding his compass, which causes a slight rumble when you take steps holding it.
It's not all about finding creative ways to play without visuals, though. To their credit, Rare have added some brilliant accessibility features to the pirate sandbox that help people like Sightless Kombat massively. Menu narration, which they added back in the Anniversary update last year, means SK can play without someone needing to read every piece of text to him. The game also recently added emote narration, so if a pirate is doing a daft dance or gesture in front of him, Sea Of Thieves will let him know.
Unfortunately, despite these handy features, Sea Of Thieves is one of many games that he still needs assistance with.
"We haven't gotten to the point yet where I can go off, find treasure, and come back to my crew," he says. "I can't even extract my pet cat from the pet chest, which is frustrating. If I want to do that, I need help, and then there's no point because it would just take up too much time."
A bigger problem with a game like this is the PvP. SK tends to need to avoid other player ships, because there's no way for him to easily face off against other players.
"If I could aim reasonably well with audio cues and haptics, and effectively make the same shot that the enemy was gonna try and make on me, then that would be a whole different story," he says.
It's the sort of thing a lot of games overlook accessibility wise, and I'm curious if there are others Sea Of Thieves could learn from. He tells me one of the best games for this style of aiming is the zombiethon PlayStation exclusive, The Last Of Us 2.
"Even though that's a single player, fairly linear experience, the haptics and aiming in The Last Of Us 2 would be great in other games," he says. "Sound cues tell you what part of an enemy's body you're aiming at. Even with a bow and arrow at ridiculous range, I can tell if I'm lining up a headshot or a body shot."
This, paired with strong auto-aim and specific audio cues allows Sightless Kombat to navigate battles by himself, without needing a co-pilot playing alongside him. While auto-aim wouldn't be completely fair in a PvP scenario, for PvE it's pretty essential. A quick look at TLOU2's website shows just how many modifiers there are to make it an easier experience for those who need it. "Easier" is perhaps the wrong word for this, though, because accessibility modifiers aren't like simply lowering a difficulty setting
"I like games where you have these modifiers to make it more enjoyable because sometimes games are challenging, but for not the right reasons," SK says.
We talk about how the Soulsborne games are a prime example of this. They have a reputation for being difficult (not to get into that whole argument) but for Sightless Kombat, they're difficult for the wrong reasons. There's no screen reading, poor audio cues and certainly no easy mode to speak of - SK tells me he wouldn't want an easier time than anyone else anyway, accessibility modifiers aren't just for giving players an easy ride.
"I would love to play Bloodborne or Dark Souls without needing any sort of assistance. That's the message I want to give to developers. Regardless of any disability, we should be able to play the game start to finish on the highest difficulty, with like, the most ridiculous settings turned on. The only game I've played that compares to those is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and that was only because I had sighted assistance," he says.
"I would love to be able to go through something like Doom on ultra nightmare, or whatever the highest difficulty is, and be able to say, 'It took me hours of trying, but I did it completely without needing any assistance'. The Last of Us 2 is the only game I've had anything close to that happen yet."
Important accessibility options like UI and menu narration are missed out in a lot of games. Sightless Kombat tells me it's important to think about these features as more than just that, though.
"Sometimes it's not just directly what you would describe as accessibility features or accessibility options. Sometimes it's about designing the game in a way that it's going to give that important information anyway," he says.
Uncharted: Lost Legacy (another PlayStation exclusive), for example, lets you find little treasure collectibles around the game. These give tiny audio queues and even vague haptics when you're near them, making them easier to find. In Horizon Zero Dawn, when the big robo-beasties get close, you experience rumble in a gamepad or controller, too. These are small things that are sometimes just put in for the sake of immersion, but massively help players like Sightless Kombat as well.
For the vast majority of games, sightless players need some sort of sighted assistance. SK tells me he uses all sorts of tech that revolves around having a second player simultaneously have control of the game with him.
"Say we're playing Horizon Zero Dawn trying to shoot something running away from us. I can keep the bow aimed and drawn, ready to take the shot when we need to, while my co-pilot could be moving the camera and helping traverse any geometry that's in the way."
This can be done with tech like the Titan Two, a device you can connect multiple controllers to, allowing two players to have control over a game at the same time. 2020 hasn't been kind for people when it comes to gaming locally, however - that's where the software Parsec comes in.
"It's an application that can be used to remote control PCs, but I use it so that the person assisting me can feed controller inputs via Parsec to my PC, which transfers from my PC to the Titan Two, then from there I can also use that with my console," he explains.
It basically gives the second player an internet-enabled controller (which technically allows people to play console games via a PC, too). It's not perfect, SK tells me. As with any sort of streamed game, there can be lag, and unfortunately Parsec can be tricky to set up with screen readers as well. He says it's worth it, though. Using software like this, he's played through Hellblade, Gears Of War 5, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, and loads more with someone using a second controller to act as his eyes.
But why go to all that effort? Because video games are fun, regardless of how you play them.
"I've had people say,' They're called video games for a reason.' 'Get a new hobby.' Why are you doing this, it's a waste of time.' Some have even said, 'I work with blind people, they don't play video games, it's not the done thing.' Which is always a funny one," he says.
"But it's my hobby, the same as many other gamers. The thing I say to them is, 'If you wake up tomorrow and have no sight, wouldn't you want to be able to keep gaming?'"
While games are a visual experience for most people, it's a disservice to the medium to reduce them to just that. For those without sight, there's still brilliant sound design, fun gameplay and great stories to play through, and it's important that everyone who wants to experience those things can do so on their own terms