IGC on Gaming: June 4, 2017

Informed Access

The July, 2017 issue of Game Informer magazine has a special feature on gaming accessibility. I was interviewed for the piece by the very generous Javy Gwaltney. Mega thanks to him and Game Informer (and my good friend Ian Hamilton for recommending me to GI for the piece) for the opportunity. I was given an advanced copy of the feature and was very happy how it came out.

My stance on accessibility often surprises people. Being a gamer with epilepsy is tough, and sometimes missing out on a game because it’s a risk for my condition can be demoralizing. But, I’ve always strongly advocated that a developer’s creative vision has to come before anyone’s accessibility needs. Once that vision has been met, accessibility options can then be added in a way that doesn’t compromise it. A lot of times people don’t understand why that’s important. Isn’t playing any version of the game enough?

No. It’s really not.

I have the perfect analogy to prove this. When I was twelve years old, long before I developed epilepsy, I had the rare privilege of riding Space Mountain at Disneyland with the lights on and the special effects turned off. For those that don’t know, Space Mountain is an indoor roller coaster with the gimmick being that you can’t see the track in front of you. The actual ride itself is fairly tame as far as rollercoasters go. Relatively slow. No inversions. It’s sort of neat to see how well-used the space the coaster is set in is, but otherwise it’s kinda boring. The thrill of Space Mountain is entirely dependent on the darkness and the special effects.

The sense of speed with the lights on is almost non-existent. It leaves one of the most thrilling experiences in the park a toothless bore. For some games, the types of accessibility features needed for specific medical conditions can completely alter the intent of the developer. I’ve often wondered why some disabled gamers would want to play a stripped-down version of a game that doesn’t remotely reflect the developer’s vision.

I have epilepsy now. I’ll probably never be able to ride Space Mountain again (insert Ric Flair joke here). Disneyland actually does accommodate multiple disabilities. They can help people in wheelchairs or other mobility-related conditions to have access to most of the rides in the park. Some rides have features for the hearing-impaired. But, when it comes to Space Mountain, Disney can do nothing for my specific condition, epilepsy, except make the ride experience worse. Now here’s my question: wouldn’t I just be making more problems than I need to for the people at Disney to say “I still want to ride it” when I can just ride something else? Some people say that it’s up to game developers to include accessibility features, or else. Or else.. what? If you have a disability that prevents you from playing a game, and that game can’t possibly be tooled to suit your specific needs, well I’m sorry but not everything is accessible to everyone.

Despite what haters might believe, I’ve been a diehard Golden State Warriors fan my entire life. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would play in three straight NBA Finals. How much does it suck for me that I can’t ever attend a game, see Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in person, because indoor sporting events are like epilepsy dirty-bombs with all the flashbulbs and strobey team introductions? It sucks quite badly. But the Warriors can’t ban flash photography for the other 20,000+ fans in attendance so that people like me would be able to attend. If you would even think to ask that, I’d actually consider you a bit of an asshole, ya know?

My mascot Sweetie has her game-face on.

I advocate for developers to include accessibility options. But that’s not always possible or viable. Sometimes those options would add significant time to the development cycle, which costs money. For something like survival-horror games themed around bright, flashing lights, the options I would need would completely remove the game’s atmosphere. And ultimately, even if they cover my specific triggers, which are the most common in the world, they’ve only lessened the risk for about 25% of the photosensitive-epileptic population. Nobody can possibly include features for everyone’s specific disability. If you get pissy at a developer for that, I’m sorry but you’re the asshole, not them. Ask for accessibility OPTIONS, but if they can’t be included in a way that retains the developer’s intended experience, find something else to play. Having epilepsy does not entitle me to play any game, nor does anyone who has any disability have any entitlement to demand anything of any game developer. In the immortal words of Frank Underwood, you are entitled to nothing.

Questions and Answers

I love doing these.

My amigo David Jagneaux asks: What are some of the most common, but easily avoidable, mistakes or mishandlings you see in modern indie game development?

Poorly handled difficult curves. I’ve editorialized on this before but it’s been a while.

Indie developers often forget they’re the best players at their own games. They play their own stuff over and over, get really good at it, forget that they’re making a game for everyone, and ramp up the difficulty to challenge themselves. This phenomena isn’t exclusive to indies. I was contacted by someone involved in the production of the original NES Battletoads who told me that game’s notorious difficulty spike was a result of that very issue.

The solution is simple: do whatever you need to do to get third-party testers. Do NOT offer them help playing your game. Just sit down, shut up, and watch. Offering them solutions defeats the point unless you plan on including a clone of yourself with every copy you sell at retail.

Runner-up is spongy enemies or busy-work design. Don’t mistake sponginess for difficulty. There’s no reason why a first boss in a platformer should take 20+ hits to kill. It’s padding. Inadequate checkpoint systems, lack of saving, forcing players to start full stages over, etc. There’s more to a game’s pace than level-design, and stuff like I mentioned kills the flow of a game.

Guacamelee! is probably the worst offender I’ve played in terms of busy-work combat. It could have, SHOULD HAVE, been one of the best indies I’ve played. Good level-layout, inventive story, fun upgrades. It’s everything you want in a Metroidvania. But the combat is a spongy, cheap, aggravating chore. It turned what should have been an all-time indie great into a frustrating slog.

Gorkon666 asks “All time favorite horror game?

Horror games are sort of a tricky thing with me. I was one of those kids whose parents didn’t allow her to play M rated games as a kid, afraid that they would turn me into a foul-mouthed, blood-thirsty psychopath. The results speak for themselves. By time I was old enough to play such games, I had epilepsy, which is about as compatible with horror as Pixy Stix are for a diabetic.

If Resident Evil 4 counts as horror, that would be it. If not, Eternal Darkness. I haven’t gotten to play stuff like Five Nights at Freddy’s or the Fatal Frame games and probably never will get to.

@DJ_Link asks “Can you name one or more things that games try to borrow from older games as nostalgia/homage but doesn’t suit well nowadays?

Lives systems are kind of pointless, and always have been for home video games. They make sense for games that cost a quarter-per-play at the arcades. At home, they’re busy-work sinks at best.

Rabite890 asks “What series (any company or system) is the most abused and which is the most neglected?

Most Abused: Sonic The Hedgehog, obviously. Hell, I’ve done my share of it myself with my Sonic CD and Sonic 4 reviews. I didn’t grow up in the Sonic era, when the games were revolutionary and 2D platformers ruled the day, so I can’t play them in the same context they were cherished under. If I had grown up when Genesis was new, I’m sure I would have enjoyed Sonic. I know this is probably true because ten-year-old me liked Sonic Adventure and 12-year-old me liked Sonic Advance. 20+ year old me? Not so much. Sonic’s last gasp of relevance was when he was announced as a tackling dummy in Smash Bros. Brawl, but really, has there been a consistently worse 3D platform series than Sonic’s games? Maybe the character’s speed-gimmick doesn’t lend itself to good 3D platforming, but actually I think the second stage of Sonic Adventure shows there is something resembling potential there. Sega really ought to pull a Tomb Raider and give the franchise’s 3D reins to someone with an inspired idea, and the 2D reins to an indie developer like Image & Form that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Probably doesn’t help that they keep remaking the same game over and over. Nintendo does that too but at least the games they remake were good to begin with.

Most Neglected: I have never played a Punch-Out game I didn’t love. So why the fuck are there only three? Now granted, Punch-Out is a series based entirely around punching ethnic stereotypes in the face. We now live in an era where college students scream profanities at their professors for suggesting that Pocahontas Halloween costumes aren’t necessarily racist. Shit like Great Tiger or Piston Honda is not going to fly in 2017.

If only there was a solution. I mean, in theory Nintendo could remove all the possibly offensive ethnic caricatures and replace them with their iconic franchise mascots (the most famous of which is a possibly offensive ethnic caricature but hey, I’m going somewhere with this). This would actually make the Punch-Out!! concept much more desirable if Little Mac was facing Link or Kirby in a boxing match instead of Disco Kid or Mr. Sandman. But Nintendo obviously isn’t going to release a game based around their cash cows beating the living shit out of each other so that idea is a non-starter.

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Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode I

My intent here had originally been to review both parts of Sonic 4.  However, after slogging through Episode I and encountering the single most boring final boss in the history of video games, I don’t think I have the strength in me to even try it.  It doesn’t help that most people are telling me that some of the stuff I will be complaining about below got fixed, yet the game is still worse.  How is that even possible?  It’s like unclogging a toilet by blowing up the building and calling it a job well done.

Long time readers probably expected me to hate Sonic 4 before I even started it.  Whether it was my hate-article against Sega, my review of Sonic CD, or the fact that my Twitter picture was typically me figuring out different ways to torture and kill a stuffed Sonic The Hedgehog doll, I think the message is clear: fuck Sonic.  By the way, I would have kept up with the Sonic killings, but wood-chippers are shockingly expensive and there’s a bullshit 7-day waiting period on flame-throwers.  To me, the franchise represents everything wrong with gaming: generic character with committee-designed personality that’s best viewed through nostalgia goggles.  Sonic is the gaming equivalent of Poochie.  Every attempt at modernizing Sonic has failed, with fans rightfully bitching that they suck and they just want an old-fashioned 2D Sonic game.  The only problem is, those old-fashioned 2D Sonic games weren’t really all that good to begin with.  As a child, they were neat for you because they pushed new technology and did stuff games hadn’t done to that point.  Today?  They don’t hold up, and neither do attempts at recreating the magic.  Stuff like Sonic Colors and Sonic 4 continue to get lambasted.  And whenever something with Sonic that is borderline not shitty comes along, like Sonic Generations, fanboys treat it like Jesus just emerged from his tomb.  You guys are easier to please than my dog, and all I have to do to make her happy is throw her a teeny piece of pizza crust.

I honestly don’t even think the graphics look that good.

I had only played the demo of Sonic 4 Episode 1 (which ought to have been subtitled The Phantom Appeal) when it came out back in 2010 and I honestly thought it was just a remake of one of the earlier Genesis games.  Can you blame me?  Same stupid opening level, same enemies, same rings, same abilities, same loops, and same power-ups.  I imagine anyone with just a passing interest in Sonic would think this was just a graphical upgrade of an existing title.  The full game’s other worlds include a casino, an underwater temple, and an industrial zone.  I mean come on, Sega!  This is like trying to rob your own home.

Everything bad about Sonic games is also here.  Same cheap ass enemy placement, same “gotcha!” level design, and every single thing people never liked in Sonic games to begin with.  I have never once met a person who said they enjoyed the water stages in Sonic The Hedgehog.  I’m sure there might be one or two stragglers out there who insist they’re brilliant, just like I’m sure that there’s one or two people out there who genuinely enjoy squirting wasabi up their nostrils, but it doesn’t mean anyone else would want to do it.  The water levels here are particularly painful because of how bad the controls are.  Sonic runs like he’s wearing concrete shoes, so building up speed becomes an issue.  Once you actually get some momentum going, good luck stopping when you need to.  I tried holding back on one of those accelerators just to see how long it would take me to stop and go back to it.  I had to press the left directional button nearly 100 times to get there.  Granted, nobody is going to play the game like that, but when you design a game around something that is moving fast and then punish people playing it the way it is intended, you’re a colossal asshole.

Of course, things are totally the opposite in the water stages.  They give you a game where you’re supposed to run fast, then submerge the character in maple syrup.  It becomes so slow and clunky that I honestly wonder if they keep putting these fucking stages in these games hoping that fans will start taking their own lives in protest.  I’m telling you, I think I’m on to something here.  There are parts in the industrial stages where you have to outrun a giant, um, not sure what it is besides a hunk of metal, and if you die you go back to a check point.  From there, you have about two seconds to run up a series of slopes or risk dying.  The problem is, you’re not given the ability to build up the required speed to get up them.  I had to spin-dash up one, hope to stop, do it again, hope to stop again, and then do it one more time.  Once you get past that, you basically just have to hold forward and wait for the game to start playing itself for you like every Sonic game seems to do.  Once again, I took a running count.  Not sure how accurate it is because I think I might have accidentally counted a couple of sections twice after dying, but regardless, I counted 77 times where I could advance forward in a level without pushing anything.  That’s over the course of only twelve stages.   Whether it’s bouncing off springs, rolling through tubes, or running past accelerators, Sonic games sure have a hard-on for not letting you play them.  As I pointed out in my last review, Sonic was originally designed by Sega to be Mario for idiots, but game design like this strikes me as Sega having outright contempt for its own fan base.  Are you getting the message Sega is sending you, Sonic fans?  THEY HATE YOU!  What do you think they were trying to tell you with all those 3D Sonics?  They weren’t fucking Valentines!

Come on! They didn’t even change the first boss from the first Sonic game! Short of knocking you out with chloroform and shitting in your mouth, what else can they do to show you they don’t like you anymore?

I pressed forward and eventually got to the last boss.  Well actually, before you fight it, the game ends with a boss rush.  I guess Robotnik felt that all those previous attempts at murdering Sonic with various contraptions that often failed within twenty seconds were worth a second look.  Once you dispatch them, you’re placed against one final, giant robot.  At first, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  It was slow.  It was easy to attack.  So I started to bonk it.  And then I kept bonking it.  It would fly up in the air, crash down, and I would keep bonking it.  After EIGHTEEN coma-inducing bonks, the boss finally entered its second phase.  It takes eighteen hits to get there!  Mind you, this thing doesn’t put up anything resembling a real fight.  It just sort of lumbers around, waiting for you to smack it.  In the second phase, you can’t attack its body directly, so you have to wait for it to fire one of its arms at you.  Once you avoid it, it floats downwards, and you have to bonk it back to the robot to stun-lock it.  Of course, the game is kind of fickle about when something constitutes “hitting it” versus “getting hit by it.”  The arms have spikes on the bottom, so I would wait until I could attack it at a downward angle, hitting the top of the arm and thus avoiding becoming a Sonic Skewer.  This worked, oh, about half the time.  The other half the time, I would do a lock-on attack directly to the top of the glove and still die.  Grrrrrrrrrr.

Once you die, you get to go back to the 18 bonks before reaching the second phase and hoping like hell your lock-on attack doesn’t crap out on you, forcing another restart.  Well, on one such attempt, luck was on my side, because I had kept all three rings I got at the checkpoint, I had gotten to phase two, and I was able to successfully attack the boss another dozen or so times.  I’m not sure how many shots are actually required to kill it.  Possibly it’s some hypothetical number, like a quajillion, but I won’t know because the game had one final dick move supreme to pull off on me.  You have exactly ten minutes to beat every stage, including in boss battles.  I had eaten up about four minutes getting to the last encounter, and another three minutes getting to phase two of the final boss.  Well, as it turns out, the last boss has random attack patterns, only one of which opens itself up to attack.  After getting a bunch of hits on it, with about two minutes and change left until time expired, the game flipped me the bird and never again did that one attack I needed it to do.  You have got to be fucking kidding me.  Time expired, life lost, back to the start of the fight, cuss words screamed, controller thrown, power off, and Sonic 4 and go fuck itself.

“Dear Sega, less water stages in Sonic games please.” “Did you say more water stages?” “No, less. Preferably none. Nobody likes them.” “More water stages it is!”

And that is when it hit me: the guys Sega stuck this project with hated making it as much as I hated playing it.  They just didn’t care.  That’s the only explanation I can think of for sticking such a tediously boring boss at the end yet another redundant Sonic game.  Maybe this was their attempt at killing the franchise once and for all.  Maybe this was their attempt at trying to avoid drawing the Sonic assignments any further.  Maybe they were outright trying to get fired.  Whatever the explanation is, Sonic 4 Episode 1 is one of the worst pieces of shit I have ever played.  But the games sell, so they’ll keep making them.  I bought this one and I just bought Episode II, so I’m part of the problem.  Excuse me, I need to go flog myself now.

Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Part I was developed by Sega

I honestly don’t remember how much I paid for this.  I think it was like $1 at Christmas on PlayStation Network or something like that.   Quite frankly, I can’t justify spending any amount on this game.  

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