Can bass add an extra dimension for the deaf gamer?
Deaf gamers really can get the rough end of the stick when it comes to software titles over the last eight years or so. The advent of the sound card, and more importantly the beginning of it's widespread use, has seen the accessibility of games for deaf gamers go from 100% down to almost 0% in some cases. Of course sound cards are not the sole reason. CD-ROM drives meant that games designers suddenly went from having 1.44MB to 650MB to store their games on and this had a catastrophic effect on games for deaf gamers.
If we look at the adventure game genre we can see what damage these technical innovations have done. Let's take The Secret of Monkey Island. When this game first came out there was no way speech could be implemented into the game as it was released on floppy disk. All dialogue, information etc. was in text. The text was big, easy to read and placed next to the characters who were conversing. Deaf gamers enjoyed Monkey Island in exactly the same way as a hearing person could enjoy it. If you look a modern day adventure game like Schizm for example it doesn't contain any text dialogue at all. Everything is spoken and for a deaf gamer it is just pointless and the only enjoyment you will gain from it is if you manage to obtain a refund. The problem exists in most genres but we have mentioned the adventure genre as it was one that was always thought to be suitable for deaf gamers and this is not now the case. Thankfully LucasArts, for one, have continued to use subtitles (although it was unusual that Grim Fandango had to be patched to have subtitles in the cutscenes) but over the years the use of subtitles has become the exception more than the rule.
It is somewhat clinical to say that deaf gamers simply miss out on just the verbal information. Music, ambient sound effects etc. are all there for a hearing gamer. Playing a FPS game such as Unreal Tournament, Quake III and Jedi Outcast has many disadvantages for deaf gamer. Let's say we're playing Jedi Outcast and we come to a door that is locked. A hearing gamer gets to listen for enemy presence behind the door. He/She might be able to hear Stormtroopers on the other side and in doing so, prepares themselves for the inevitable attack. Of course a deaf gamer will be oblivious to this and walk straight into an attack unprepared. Games shouldn't have the same disadvantages as real life for a deaf person. There are ways and methods that could be used to make everyone equal, something that's an uphill struggle in the real world, in games playing. What if a visual icon appeared to indicate nearby enemies. This is a simple solution and yet it is hardly ever used. One other such method could be using bass to give tactile feedback to the gamer in order to suggest danger for example.
We have begun to look at bass as a method of tactile feedback ever since Eponine did her review of Morrowind a couple of weeks ago now. This is what Eponine had to say about Morrowind's suitability for deaf gamers:
There are some issues for deaf gamers though. There are three main cut scenes, one at the beginning of the game, one important one in the middle of the main quest and one at the end of the main quest that are inexplicably not subtitled. This is very disappointing. There are two other major annoyances. First, there is a music cue that you are in danger that is not represented in subtitle mode at all. Secondly if an enemy comes up behind you and takes a swing and misses there is no visual indication that you are under attack. Luckily there are workarounds for both of these: The background music and danger music are easily replaceable, I was able to swap the normal music with a silent MP3 and the danger music with an MP3 of low rumbling that I can feel through a subwoofer at my feet. To make sure I know when an enemy is attacking me from behind I always use the 3rd person view when travelling. One other small annoyance is that the subtitles give no indication of which character is speaking. Walking through a crowd can be very confusing with no clue of who said what. It would have been easy to put the character names in the subtitles or colour code each characters' speech.
The section in blue text describes how Eponine managed to combat some of the problems through use of her own initiative. To counter the problem of attacks from behind she used the third person view but rather more interesting is her solution to the problem of being notified of an enemy presence. ' I was able to swap the normal music with a silent MP3 and the danger music with an MP3 of low rumbling that I can feel through a subwoofer at my feet.' Eponine implemented a low rumbling MP3 so that her subwoofer could give a strong tactile feedback whenever danger was present. This is a method which is used to some degree in certain console games through force feedback. Smash Court Tennis (PS2) for example, uses a pulsating beat when you get to matchpoint in order to rouse tension and it works very nicely. When it comes to PC titles though, force feedback is not an option because most gamers still don't have force feedback devices and as most PC titles are controlled by mouse and keyboard this is still going to be a problem anyway. Feedback though bass vibrations are an option though.
Videologic ZXR-500 5.1
Thanks to the good people at Pure Digital (formerly known as Videologic) we have been supplied with the ZXR-500 5.1 channel speaker system for the very purpose of looking at how useful bass can be for a deaf gamer. Previously, like most gamers, we didn't have a subwoofer and without the help of Videologic we wouldn't have been able to look at the effect of bass in games. Now I know that some of you may think a 5.1 speaker system is a little bit of an overkill for a deaf gamer but this speaker set has one big advantage over many others. Unlike other affordable speaker sets, you can independently control the volumes for front, rear, central satellites and, what we are really concerned about, the subwoofer. It is possible to use just the subwoofer on it's own which is very handy for our needs.
Videologic have always been well liked for the solid construction and performance of their subwoofers and the ZXR-500 subwoofer is certainly no exception to this. The beautifully designed silver unit boasts an output of 25 RMS and two tuned bass ports. Even at full volume there appears to be no distortion from the unit, which is very impressive indeed especially when you consider at this price (£79.99) most subwoofers will distort when they go above three quarters of their volume, or even less.
For this review we set the ZXR-500 up and connected them to our Sonic Fury sound card. If you look at the picture below of the control panel for the Sonic Fury you can see that we selected the 6 speaker (5.1) option and enabled the virtual 5.1 option. We found that this gave far superior bass performance to any other option. You'll also notice that you can adjust the power of the bass. If you value your relationship with the neighbours don't turn this up full otherwise they'll bounce out of their seats whilst you're playing. The manual fully explains how to setup up the ZXR-500 system.
Of course it would be impossible to backtrack and look at all the games we have reviewed so I'll just mention a couple for the purpose of this article.
Train Simulator (Microsoft)
Whilst this game had subtitles and captions it could still benefit from that something extra. We're very pleased to tell you that the sensation of the train moving along the track was excellently relayed through the subwoofer. Even with the volume at a respectable level and your feet placed on the floor, at a reasonable distance away from the subwoofer, the bass feedback was amazing. The sensation increased and decreased with the speed the train was travelling at, which was very pleasing. This is one title where bass definitely improves the ambience of the game for the deaf gamer.
You would have expected a motorbike game to have provided superb feedback through the subwoofer. Alas it was not so and only when the bike reached top speed, or went over a rumble strip, could you really feel anything. Definitely a missed opportunity.
Flight Simulator 2002 (Microsoft)
Like Train Simulator the sensations that come through the subwoofer are truly amazing. The graduations in the aircraft's speed could easily be felt through the subwoofer, even with your feet on the floor at a distance from the subwoofer. The variation in the bass vibrations were truly stunning and if you are a Flight Simulator fanatic then a good subwoofer comes very highly recommended.
Whilst the bass variation and graduation with the engine speed was not as sharp as in Flight Simulator or Train Simulator it was still worthwhile. Overall the vibrations felt a little subdued and it was disappointing to not feel anything when going over a rumble strip. However there were greater bass vibrations when other cars were near you, which is good.
of Wonders II (Take 2 Interactive)
OK so it's a turn-based strategy game and a bit of an unusual choice but the music in the game had such a fantastic base line that I thought it was worth a mention as I found the bass vibrations gave an enjoyable beat. It didn't really add any depth to the gameplay but in a game like this how could it?
Surprisingly bass has a lot to offer the deaf gamer. Of course it all depends on how well bass has been used for the game in question. Flight Simulator and Train Simulator are brilliant examples of what can be done with bass and when used with a quality subwoofer such as the one that comes with the very affordable ZXR-500 set, the vibration feedback is very worthwhile indeed. Bass can indeed add an extra dimension to a game for deaf gamers and games developers should look at this option when designing a game. Catering for a deaf gamer is not simply about subtitles and captions. Having an idea of the game's plot is one thing, being able to feel the atmosphere of a game is something else and a goal that needs to be realised.
We would like to say a very special thanks to David Harold at Pure Digital for providing the ZXR-500 speaker set and making this article (and future comments on bass in games) possible.