Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Magi and the Sleeping Star: On Disabilities in Video Games

I read an article on Kotaku today about The Magi and the Sleeping Star, a video game created by Adam Grantham. The game, whose website is here, follows the adventures of a young warrior/mage boy named Oz. Oz has big things to do with his life, namely rescuing his relatives from robot monsters, but he's just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The game is still in the prototype stage. Adam himself has Type 1 diabetes, and according to this NewsOK article, he's trying to "sneak-teach" people "the fundamentals of diabetes."

According to the article, in the game, players need to help Oz maintain a healthy blood-sugar level by taking insulin, eating and drinking, then waiting a required time for the doses to take effect, in order to fight the monsters. The company Adam founded, called Game Equals Life, is hoping that nonprofit organizations and pharmaceutical companies will help them take the game beyond the prototype stage.

Reading about The Magi and the Sleeping Star made me think about how people with various difficulties are shown in video games - namely characters with hearing impairments. There really just is not much out there in the same vein as The Magi and the Sleeping Star. I haven't yet played a game in which the main character has any significant handicap. Wait, I can't think of a video game I have played in which a character has any handicap whatsoever. The standard teen boy protagonist trope of RPGs features a skilled and strong main protagonist whose only failing is usually just a bit of adorable blockheadedness, like Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia. In action games the protagonist is usually strong and powerful, like Conan, Kratos, or Dante. Any weakness they have is a failing of moral character, not physical difficulty.

There is slated to be a deaf character in Half-Life 3, the third and final installment of the Half-Life trilogy of video games. He is yet to be identified but is supposed to be a minor character from the past of one of the other characters, and the game might feature sign language. It's the only game I've heard about with anything like that.

I think it would be absolutely fascinating to play a hearing-impaired character in a video game. Think of how the impairment would affect game mechanics. How would the character communicate with other people? How would players be affected playing the game?

If I were going to create a game with a hearing-impaired protagonist, I would probably have the character deafened at some point in the game, after players have gotten used to the music and certain audio cues. The music would cut out or become very quiet and the other character's voices would become silent or muffled (maybe the player would need to be very close to another character to make out what they're saying). I would of course have subtitles but I would mimic the effect by having faded subtitles that increase in opacity depending on the player's proximity to the object or person making sound. The point is to illustrate the difficulty and also how hearing loss feels.

I think it would add an entirely new dimension to game play and force players to think "outside the box," finding ways to communicate with other characters and ways to navigate the world without sound. Like The Magi and the Sleeping Star, it would add a new consideration to the game and force players to integrate the difficulty into their playing, demonstrating how hearing impaired people integrate their real-life difficulty every day.