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Breaking deaf stereotypes and normalizing sign language through gaming

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The last decade has seen many advancements in video game accessibility. From hardware like the Xbox Adaptive Controller to legislation that requires all communication options in online multiplayer to be as accessible as possible to freely available in-depth development guidelines for interested developers, games have never been more inclusive to disabled players. As the 2010s come to a close, a game called Deafverse is trying to reach another milestone by becoming the first fully American Sign Language (ASL)-accessible game.

Developed through the National Deaf Center (NDC) in Austin, Texas, Deafverse is a browser-based ongoing-narrative adventure about navigating the world as a deaf teenager. Designed first and foremost (but not exclusively) for classroom use, the game seeks to educate and enlighten players about deaf culture through collaborative play and discussion. Players learn about the real-life challenges of deafness in a safe and sincere way designed by and for the deaf community.

Deriving inspiration from choose-your-own-adventure books and games, Deafverse merges aspects of point-and-click sci-fi and fantasy stories from the 1980s and ’90s with contemporary standards for accessibility to make something that is as educational as it is engaging.

Telling our own stories

“In deaf culture, we have a very strong culture of telling our own community stories,” Kent Turner, Gaming Coordinator at the National Deaf Center, told Ars Technica. “We love to share stories, and it’s a very small community, and our language is unique to us. So I wanted to develop a game that really incorporated those values of deaf culture.”

Turner, a former teacher with a master’s degree in game-based learning, derived much of Deafverse‘s design from his experience “gamifying” his classroom. There, he used a points system akin to Dungeons & Dragons to reward students for completing homework, doing well in class, and so on.

Deafverse marries that idea with a story-centered approach akin to King’s Quest and The Secret of Monkey Island. Players face common hurdles among the deaf community—like requesting an interpreter or just speaking up for themselves in a tough situation—and examine the issues involved through branching conversations and intuitive puzzles.

“‘Choose your own adventure’ is a model of storytelling that, historically, has been text-based, and American Sign Language isn’t really deliverable, so to speak, over text,” Turner said. “So, we have an actor who uses sign language and narrates the story and events using ASL. It also provides the text version as well, for those [who are] not fluent in sign language. We also have audio voiceover as another accessibility feature, and that really overlaps with the gaming features of picking your own adventure and figuring out what happens next in the story.”

Empowerment is the central focus—encouraging players to make their own choices and learn from the consequences. Even if things go sideways, the game creates an opportunity to discuss the hows and whys of what happened with other players, playing into the word-of-mouth storytelling that’s at the foundation of deaf community.

Modeling the real deaf experience

Deafverse went through a range of beta tests conducted through partnered schools before the first episode, about self-advocacy, became publicly available in September 2019. Built and rebuilt based on student feedback, the game is now effectively in its third iteration, and its increased interactive elements and animations make the universe feel immersive.

“In terms of building and designing the game with different layers of gaming concepts, we got some inspiration from stories like The Matrix,” Turner explains. “You know, plugging into and experiencing things in that world, but then you have to to come out and come back into the real world. So that’s given us some ideas about how to build out into the future.”

Enlarge / It’s like taking the red pill, just without all the side effects like waking into a dystopian wasteland ruled by machines.

Although Deafverse is primarily designed for deaf teenagers of high school age (in service of the NDC’s primary goal of supporting deaf young people’s transition into active employment), much of its subject matter is useful for anyone who wants to learn about deafness. Using federal funding through the NDC, the Deafverse development team was able to cast a wide net for research on ways deaf young people are and are not succeeding after their teen years. The findings, Turner says, were cross-checked against a set list of broad learning outcomes to create a game that teaches lessons while still being true-to-life.

But Deafverse is also about connecting to those who may feel isolated. Pop culture’s rare, usually inaccurate depictions of deafness are often not of much help in that regard.

“My two favorite examples are, first, people who can’t sign or they use a different version of sign language that we can’t understand,” William Albright, Senior Software Engineer on Deafverse, said of some common “deafness in pop culture” tropes. “And then, when a deaf character is chatting with other people in a movie, and the person is hearing and they speak back to the deaf person. It’s not what really happens in our life. If we can’t hear them, if a hearing person speaks to me, I sort of shut down and run away because it’s not that easy for me to engage with them as they often show in a movie or a TV show.”

As a way of addressing these issues, Deafverse is serving as a benchmark of sorts for overall accessibility within the games industry. While standards are much better than they were, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, not least in basic aspects like uniformity among subtitling and options available. Making Deafverse has involved incorporating as many variations of sign language as possible, so anyone who speaks it at any level can use it.

“We didn’t want to use American Sign Language the entire time because we didn’t want people to feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t sign like so-and-so,’ or ‘I don’t sign at all, I can’t play,'” Albright said. “We want them to feel like they have options of accessibility and we’ve really tried to keep that key. When advertising the game, if you look at the video, it does look like it’s only for kids who were born and raised in the deaf community, went to a deaf school, and only sign language their whole life. So we try to counter that by really emphasizing that it’s accessible to all hearing levels and all different types of diverse deaf people within our community.”

Breaking through with students and teachers

Although games are becoming more and more common within a school setting (major releases like Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed having specific versions available for teaching), there’s still a looming skepticism toward their wider usage in education. Deafverse, however, has been met with open arms by teachers relieved to have such a wide-ranging resource. Students, meanwhile, have almost uniformly reported a growth in confidence in surveys conducted after playing the game. More than that, there are also small but valuable knock-on effects for players, like understanding proper signing etiquette by following the narrator.

A cyber-suit isn't necessary to play <em>Deafverse</em>, but it doesn't hurt, either.
Enlarge / A cyber-suit isn’t necessary to play Deafverse, but it doesn’t hurt, either.

“I’m continually surprised at how positive people are receiving Deafverse,” Turner said. “I mean, we get so many positive comments about how great it is… The teachers are really able to take it and run with it, and often students will play Deafverse on their own.”

With the first episode of Deafverse a success, a total of four more episodes have been planned, each tackling one of the NDC’s “pre-employment transitional services”. The second, due sometime in 2020, will tackle entering the workplace; it will look at interviewing and resume writing while building on the communication “soft skills” from the first episode.

Developers are currently ironing out remaining minor issues with the engine and getting the upcoming achievement systems for tracking progress ready for roll out. In the long term, the team hopes to be able to make the jump to mobile and deepen the branching storylines that can make Deafverse feel so dynamic.

“Right now, the story is told through very basic ‘if’ and ‘then’ statements,” Turner explained. “It’s pretty basic, as we have it. We do want to add some more features like conditional branching… so when a player makes a decision here it’ll impact something later down in the story again.”

“The branching increase[s] the value for players, who can play it repeatedly and have all kinds of different things happen because of one choice,” Albright added. “The game [currently] feels more linear: you make one decision and it will tell you to keep navigating down the same road road. So we are planning to branch out and give people different results, so not everybody comes to the same conclusion at the end.”

“We’re looking forward to providing that versatile experience for our players as we move through the development.”

Special thanks to interpreter Amanda Katz who was an immense help in translating many of the interviews in this piece from sign language.

Listing image by National Deaf Center

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The Callisto Protocol review: A relentless horror spectacle

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Enlarge / Hello, gorgeous.

In the survival-horror genre, building tension and ramping up a sense of dread is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP coming from the creators of Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol homes in on that creeping sense of unease as it forces you to confront its many grotesque threats head-on. When playing The Callisto Protocol, I always felt on edge, even during moments when I could have let my guard down.

The game takes some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Dead Space and puts its own spin on a more visceral type of horror experience. That said, The Callisto Protocol‘s influences and genre are abundantly clear, and it occasionally falls back on familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, relentless poise as an unnerving yet still thrilling survival-horror game.

Welcome to Black Iron Prison

You play as Jacob Lee (Transformers’ Josh Duhamel), a far-future freelance cargo hauler with a murky past who crash lands on Jupiter’s titular frozen moon. After getting abducted by the ruthless head of security, Captain Ferris (Days Gone’s Sam Witwer), Jacob finds himself trapped in the mysterious and inhumane Black Iron Prison.

Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates nearly everyone inside, turning them into ravenous monsters called Biophages. Launching an escape with other prisoners, including the enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara), Jacob delves deep into Black Iron Prison and the moon’s lower depths to uncover what happened and make it out alive.

Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism to The Callisto Protocol’s story and visuals. This is hard sci-fi through and through, in the vein of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon or John Carpenter’s The Thing (or the original Dead Space series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it straight with its unsettling vision of a future gone awry, which provides a rich environment to play in. Aside from rare one-liners, there’s not much levity, which keeps with the game’s bleak narrative and atmosphere.

Remember to breathe.
Enlarge / Remember to breathe.

As a cinematic, story-driven game, The Callisto Protocol keeps its pace and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal as he’s ferried to different encounters and events in a mostly linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and more in-depth cinematics, you’re always viewing events from Jacob’s perspective. The performances from the main cast do an effective job of selling the plot’s sense of urgency and dark tone. While the story largely keeps its twists subdued and doesn’t venture far from its initial premise by the end of its 12-plus-hour campaign, it still succeeds as a solid vehicle for an intense and brutal horror game.

What truly sells The Callisto Protocol and its setting are the fantastic visuals and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at establishing mood, with small details combining together into the most impressive and effective survival-horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is especially evident in the gruesome design of the Biophages, as well as the numerous, wince-inducing death scenes.

When the visuals and sound design all work in concert, it creates a stark sense of dread and unease that sticks with you to the end. One section had me explore the depths of the prison while the power was fluctuating, creating moments of darkness for the enemies to move around unseen. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were put me on edge. It was an unnerving section that really showcased the craft of the game’s impressive presentation.

While Black Iron Prison is slightly similar to the USG Ishimura from Dead Space, the setting comes into its own once the game’s scope expands, showcasing fantastic views of the outside frozen lunarscape and the darker depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pacing cut down on backtracking. That said, there are still moments where you can venture off and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some intriguing clues and audio logs about Black Iron Prison history and what came before.

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The Mandalorian season 3 has been delayed—but only a little

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Enlarge / A promotional image for the third season of The Mandalorian.

After months of silence about it, Disney has finally revealed the premiere date of the third season of its first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. The new season will premiere on March 1, 2023.

That’s just a little bit later than what Disney said to expect the last time it made an announcement; the release window was announced to be February 2023 in a tweet in May.

Minor premiere date slipping aside, it’s been quite a time since the previous season in either case. The second season premiered back in October 2020. That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s been more than two years since we last spent time with the show’s two central characters, Mando and Grogu.

That’s because both appeared prominently in The Book of Boba Fett, a limited series that ran from December 2021 through February 2022. In fact, they were so prominent in part of that show that we called it The Mandalorian season 2.5 when we reviewed it.

Expect them to be the main focus of The Mandalorian season three when it premieres March 1, though; that point is driven home by the promotional image shown above and by the plot threads that carry over from The Book of Boba Fett and prior seasons of The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian received generally positive reviews when it premiered—a stark contrast to the divided responses to most of the recent Star Wars movies. Thus far, the various TV series have been helmed by a different creative team than the movies. Accomplished director Jon Favreau and Star Wars animated series veteran Dave Filoni seem to have done a better job satisfying fans than some of the other directors, producers, and writers of the films.

Disney sought to spin off several additional live-action Star Wars shows from the series, several of which stem from characters who had guest roles in the second season, including the first live-action rendition of Ahsoka Tano from the popular Clone Wars animated series.

Not all of Disney’s now-numerous live-action Star Wars series are Mandalorian spinoffs, though. Earlier this year, Disney+ ran a limited series focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi that took place between the prequel films and the original trilogy. The same goes for the thriller Andor, which just finished its first season to widespread critical acclaim.

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Nintendo apologizes for Pokémon performance problems, promises “improvements”

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Enlarge / Portrait of the author learning that some of the Pokémon Scarlet and Violet performance problems might be fixed.

Andrew Cunningham

Our review of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet mentioned some of the game’s pervasive performance issues, and we weren’t the only ones. Even more mainstream outlets like The Guardian and CNN noted the games’ performance problems. Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team, known for its in-depth analyses of game performance, called the games “comprehensive technical failures,” also calling attention to their blurry and poorly tiled textures and “low-geometry” environments.

Players have noticed plenty of other problems, too; these include a bug that allowed players to run twice as fast by connecting two controllers to the Switch, bizarre animations and clipping problems, Pokémon that blast off into the sky like Team Rocket, and some evidence that online battles were using the same probability seed for every match, making it easier for attentive players to make low-accuracy moves hit 100 percent of the time. I captured a screenshot of a Hoppip that was casting three shadows simultaneously (though it’s possible the Paldea region has three suns that I just don’t know about).

I'm no scientist, but I don't think this is how lighting works.
Enlarge / I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is how lighting works.

Andrew Cunningham

Nintendo released a 1.1.0 update for both Pokémon games today that includes “select bug fixes” (though the company didn’t specify which). But alongside that mostly routine post-launch update came a less-routine acknowledgment of the performance problems and a suggestion that the company would provide fixes.

“We are aware that players may encounter issues that affect the games’ performance. Our goal is always to give players a positive experience with our games, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement reads. “We take the feedback from players seriously and are working on improvements to the games.”

Notably, “tak[ing] feedback from players seriously” and “working on improvements” don’t amount to a promise that every single dropped frame and ugly texture is going to be fixed. But like Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet will likely enjoy a decent amount of post-release support, including functional updates like Pokémon Home compatibility and substantial new DLC content. This should hopefully justify the time and money needed to make noticeable performance improvements, even though the games as they currently exist have still managed to be the fastest-selling titles Nintendo has ever released.

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