Visualizing without seeing

Last January was the annual Awesome Games Done Quick marathon, where speed runners1 show off and explain their skills while raising money for cancer research. One of the final events of the marathon was a blindfolded speed run of the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (OoT) (basically, the first three dungeons). Yes, you read that correctly: a speed runner Runnerguy2489 was blindfolded and then played OoT.

You can watch the entire hour and a half run below. Even if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, I would encourage you to watch at least part of it.

This is a pretty amazing feat. For me, it brought up a few interesting thoughts about the design of the game (and then eventually the design of computer-based simulations more generally), some of which he discussed during his live commentary of the run.

  • He is very familiar with the game. OoT is a popular game to speed run, so this may not seem like a huge deal, but he basically memorized about an hour and a half of gameplay (and the more difficult glitches common to speed running, no less). He talked about how he had created a visual map of the game in his head that he was able to run through and visualize Link in the world at any given time.

    “See, I’m using the audio at all times. It’s like I have this picture in my mind of what I think the room looks like but then I grab that thing that bomb flower and it’s like oh wait no, it’s not exactly what I thought. It’s kind of a constant process of updating your mental image. People often ask what’s going through your mind when you’re doing this. I’m always trying to visualize the rooms.” (quotation starts at 1:23:33 in the video)

  • He was also able to do some very complicated speed running glitches – many of which depend on visually lining up specific placements of Link within the world – just by using memory and the sound cues, which means that he was able to do the regular glitches but also found new ways to set them up properly and execute them reliably. I’m sure this was a lot of work.

  • The sound design of the game is amazing and very important for this run to be successful. Since his visual cues of the game were completely hindered, Runnerguy needed to rely on the sound cues in the game to help situate himself in the world and gain feedback about progress and position. There were many times in the run where he needed absolute silence in the room in order to use very slight sound cues in the game. Luckily for him, the sound of the game was designed in a way to make a lot of it usable as positioning cues. For instance, Link sounds different when he is running/walking on grass and stone and sand. Link’s footsteps also slow down (audibly) as he approaches a wall. There are auditory cues when an enemy is hit and when specific items are equipped. And then, of course, there is Navi. Navi is Link’s companion fairy that hovers over his shoulder most of the game.
    “Hey! LISTEN!” she cries basically all of the time. As a casual player, this gets annoying really fast (it’s probably the only thing I don’t like about this game). But, importantly, Navi is cued at very specific times in the game for very specific reasons. For instance, when Link gets close to a sign that can be z-targeted, Navi will fly over to the sign to let the player know you can access it. This flying has a sound attached to it, which a blind (or blindfolded) player could use to know if they are close to or running by a particular sign or other characters or objects that they know attract Navi’s attention.

Runnerguy was inspired to learn this blindfolded run by a blind gamer that wanted to be able to play and beat the game. So, he and a few others went about writing instructions for this player to help him learn the game. And this gave Runnerguy a new challenge of doing the blindfolded speed run. He just finished a blindfolded 100% run (i.e., he ran the whole entire game, collecting all possible items while blindfolded). It took him 103 hours total to do this and required hours and hours of additional practice.

This of course made me think about designing learning environments for all learners, and especially those that are accessible to (hopefully) all students. One way of approaching this problem is through the paradigm known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This presents a set of design principles and ideas to help ensure that learning environments are accessible to lots of students and/or can be adapted in a variety of ways in order for them to be accessible to lots of students (think about for example, a simple case of using appropriate colors in visualizations so that color-blind learners can see important distinctions). The Design for All paradigm is similar and intends to design from the very beginning with the widest range of accessibility options available for every learner (or user) that uses it.

It’s possible but unlikely that the creators of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had blind (or even blindfolded speed runners) in mind when designing the game. And yet, their comprehensive design allowed for a wide range of users to experience the game.

All of this made me think of some really interesting simulations for the visually impaired that I heard about last year. Simulations are really useful ways of understanding data and phenomena, especially in science, but they are typically totally visually intensive and not accessible by those that are visually impaired. There are developers and researchers looking into ways to make simulations accessible sonically for both visually and non-visually impaired learners2. I hope this trend continues, to think about alternative ways of engaging all students in high-quality instructional materials and experiences.

I was also reminded of the “sonic tennis” from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest3, probably my most favorite book ever. In the novel, which focuses on a tennis academy, there is brief mention of blind tennis players using tennis balls that emit some kind of noise so that they can hear where the ball is and play with seeing players.

In this area of interest there is also an early episode of the new podcast Invisibilia (from NPR, created by folks who worked on This American Life and Radiolab). The episode is called “Batman” and it’s mostly about Daniel Kish who is blind and uses echolocation to “see” the world around him, just like bats. It is a super fascinating use of sound and audio feedback to navigate. The phenomenon is also supported by neuro-research that shows evidence that he and others like him are actually seeing some kind of image using echolocation. So cool.

  1. For more information on video game speed running, see my earlier post on Zelda speed runs 
  2. One example from the research literature is Levy & Lahav (2011)
  3. I would be remiss in not including a footnote in a mention of DFW. Infinite Jest is amazing and if you think you might want to read it, I would suggest checking out the Infinite Summer group for a reasonable reading schedule and discussions/posts about the book. 

Author: cynthiadangelo

I am a researcher, working on educational games, science education, and data visualization. I like photography, soccer, traveling, and teaching my dog new tricks.

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