Audio-only game Grail to the Thief puts a blind-accessible spin on old-school adventures
By Richard Moss
April 30, 2014
Games that are accessible to the blind are few and far between, and – aside from a handful of stellar exceptions like Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre series on iOS – those that do exist tend to be amateurish at best. But a recently-funded Kickstarter project (which still has a few days to go) aims to rectify the problem. Grail to the Thief harks back to classic adventure games like Zork, Day of the Tentacle, and Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except that instead of text-only descriptions of twisty little passages and the like, it presents the entire game through audio.
Its creators, For All to Play, call it "an interactive audio adventure," with inspiration drawn from old BBC radio dramas as well as the more obvious sources. "We're trying to give the player enough information through sound alone," says producer Elias Aoude, "so that they can imagine exactly what's taking place at any given moment and react appropriately." You could think of it as being like a text adventure game wrapped around a radio play. You have to choose from lists of options of what to say, where to go, or what to do.
As is the norm in the genre, you'll spend much of your time solving puzzles. These will be in the spirit of the 1993 LucasArts classic Day of the Tentacle, Aoude tells Gizmag. "It’s mainly the idea that 'you have to do A before B, so you can bring item B to guy C, and then guy C will blow up D so you can run to E and save the princess'," he says. "It’s simple, but effective."
Grail to the Thief takes much the same comedic tone of an old-school LucasArts adventure, too, with a silly story about a thief who travels through time to the world of Arthurian legend in search of the Holy Grail. You can get a sense of the gameplay in this video.
It's designed specifically to be playable for blind people, without the need for a screen reader barking out monotone computer-synthesized speech. Screen readers are essential to computer accessibility, designer Anthony Russo says, but "because the blind hear these screen readers so often in their everyday lives, they associate them with work, not play." Grail to the Thief's voiceovers and sound effects will be done professionally, unlike the vast majority of existing audio games (most of which are available at community portal AudioGames.net).
The game was conceived by Russo, who interviewed a number of kids at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts as part of a research paper on using existing technology to make video games that are accessible to visually-impaired people. It was this that gave him the insight into the frustrations of using a screen reader to play games, and it also helped him realize that visually-impaired players have difficulty typing in long commands.
While Grail to the Thief's creators are going out of their way to ensure that the game is completely accessible to the blind, it's intended to be for everyone – disabled or not. You can see the dialogue and narration printed on screen, and the conversation tree will be a welcome change to anyone familiar with the odd conventions and stilted syntax of traditional text adventures – where guessing the right verbs and nouns to use can be a puzzle in itself. "[Grail to the Thief players] can simply choose from a list of commands and focus on enjoying the story," Aoude says, "rather than struggling with trying to learn what commands the game does and does not understand."
You can play a short prototype version in your web browser right now to get a feel for the style and tone, although both the user interface and some of the audio recordings are placeholder assets. The interface will be significantly reworked for the final game, too, following feedback from sighted players who complained that the black text on a white background hurt their eyes.
We don't have long to wait for the full release. Grail to the Thief is slated to debut in August on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, with potential mobile ports to follow if a US$10,000 stretch goal is met.
Check out the pitch video below for more details.