Community Spotlight - SightlessKombat

Accessibility consultant, streamer and Pirate Legend – we catch up with this indomitable gamer!

While many pirates perform fantastical feats across the seas, some take it to the next level by encompassing that which we as pirates hold most dear: the Pirate Code. One such pirate is accessibility consultant SightlessKombat, who works to help ensure games can be enjoyed by everyone – and as a gamer without sight who recently hit Pirate Legend, we feel he’s not only well-placed to talk about this but more than worthy of having the Community Spotlight pointed in his direction!

[Q]: Can you tell us a little about what got you into gaming?

[A]: Before I answer that, I’d like to clarify something: I use the term ‘gamer without sight’ (GWS) as ‘legal blindness’, often just shortened to being ‘blind’, can and often does include usable and/or residual vision, which I’ve never had. In short, I’ve never had any sight whatsoever.

That being said, I’ve been gaming for longer than I can remember. My earliest memories are of PC games like Fighter Pilot where, instead of knowing what the buttons do, I’d more often than not end up nosediving a plane into literally unseen territory. Of course, this was all before I knew how things like screen readers (pieces of software that turn on-screen text, controls and other elements into synthesised speech when labelled correctly and allow me to respond to, let’s say, forum threads for example) work.

I then discovered audio-only games (i.e. games designed specifically for ‘blind gamers’), which are primarily based on sound alone, then graduated to console titles as that’s what friends were playing and could relate to. I’ve been playing combinations of these ever since, though I primarily stick to console and mainstream titles.

[Q]: Were you a Rare fan before Sea of Thieves? Do you have any favourite Rare games?

[A]: I’d heard of Rare’s games before Sea of Thieves. I think I even played one or two of their Kinect offerings. However, my closest familiarity with their work is arguably through Killer Instinct and the subsequent reboot launch title for the Xbox One in 2013 (which I began playing a couple of years after it launched).

It’s a shame I’ve never been able to experience the company’s prolific back catalogue of titles without sighted assistance, especially considering how iconic they are and their unique gameplay and audio design choices, but that’s a whole other point of discussion.

[Q]: What other games are you currently playing? Any favourites?

[A]: I tend not to make lists of ‘favourite games’, as those can change from moment to moment. I’m also one of those people who has multiple games on the go at once, but not because I don’t want to sit down and finish one at a time to completion; it’s because the vast majority of games require sighted assistance as they don’t have enough accessibility, regardless of platform.

With assistance, I’ve just finished Control and am on my way to getting the Platinum in Marvel’s Spider-Man as well. I’ve also been going through Dead Space 2 which I’ve really enjoyed so far after some of my frustrations with the original game (which I also played on stream) were either adjusted or not present.

Between those games and original The Last Of Us, I’ve of course been playing Sea of Thieves with a regular crew as part of being an Xbox Ambassadors Play Host, as well as Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 5, to name just a few. What games I spend my time in depend on their accessibility, as well as how fun I find the game even without the features I need and whether I can find people who are up to join me on my adventures.

The scope for wild adventure on the Sea of Thieves is part of what draws new pirates in.

[Q]: What brought you over to Sea of Thieves and its community?

[A]: My Sea of Thieves journey really began at E3 2017, with a great opportunity to chat to a few of the Rare team who were in attendance. I thought I’d ask a question along the lines of “so what can I do in this game as a gamer without sight?”. One of the devs looked at me and, after thinking for a moment, said “well… you could always steer the ship?”

Given that I hadn’t seen the game in action at this point other than maybe the announcement trailer, my reflex reaction was just to laugh as it did sound kind of ridiculous, but I was definitely interested to see how things would work out.

It turned out that steering a ship wasn’t as laughable as you might think, considering even then haptics on the wheel were a core part of the game. This meant that, to an extent, I could actually contribute to a team game, which was something I’d not been able to do previously.

As much as I may have not known what I was doing and probably confused a few people in that initial voyage (where we sailed between at least two ships having a giant battle of their own making), we all cracked up on realising that one of our crew had inadvertently navigated us with the map upside down and drunk all the grog as well.

[Q]: Congratulations on recently becoming Pirate Legend! How did you find the journey and how long did it take?

[A]: The journey took me just over three-and-a-half years (as I’d been playing since day one of retail), but only off and on as finding crews who were available regularly and knew how to play alongside me (i.e. knowing my strengths and limitations) was difficult.

Having to explain to players that no, I wasn’t trolling and that yes, I have absolutely no sight whatsoever was at times, a wearing and frustrating process, but it also had potential to be a rewarding one as people then began to understand just how things worked from a perspective that they didn’t necessarily even know existed.

The journey was long and arduous, but was definitely filled with fantastic and entertaining moments too. To all the crews and individual pirates who assisted me on my journey to Pirate Legend, including some of the Sea of Thieves dev team who I had the privilege of joining on a stream once, thank you so much.

I should also give a shout out to Shaysters, another Pirate Legend who is also a gamer without sight. We were actually going for Pirate Legend at the same time, but I was fortunate enough to get there first. It was a great, friendly rivalry and I’m glad that there are multiple gamers without sight in the ranks as proof that with the right people and accessibility elements, games like this can allow you to go far if you put time and effort in.

As for what’s next? I’m going to try and get my Hunter’s Call level up to 50, which will probably take a while, but will definitely be a relaxing grind and something I can mostly do myself; the actual catching fish part, that is.

As is customary, the crew rocked the purple when SightlessKombat got to Pirate Legend.

[Q]: How do you find sea battles in Sea of Thieves, taking on Flameheart and his fleet and other world events?

[A]: Given that I’m primarily a helmsman (during ship-to-ship encounters), I don’t end up doing much of the ‘taking on’, that’s the job of my crew. If there were greater accessibility allowing me to navigate the ship (making it easier to traverse without getting stuck on geometry, for instance) and aim (making sure that I know where to aim without having to wait for callouts from my crew), then I may take more of a role in that side of things.

It’s pretty much the same across the board for world events. I either end up running below decks or navigating my crew out of tight spots via the wheel, but that’s all part of the team dynamic. As much as I may want to fight and can’t, the cinematic audio presentation and scoring really add to the events’ massive scale, which I definitely enjoy.

[Q]: Are there any older games that you would love to see accessibility added to, or anything you would love to experience as a player that you haven’t been able to so far?

[A]: Given that accessibility costs more to retrofit than it does to implement at the start of development, I really don’t think many older games will get accessibility added to them (aside from maybe remasters). That being said, there are so many that if I were to list them, we’d be here for hours.

Even titles like the original Halo and Gears trilogies, Call of Duty, Star Wars titles, Forza, sports games, the list goes on. With the remastering trend seemingly showing no signs of stopping, developers could definitely incorporate accessibility into those experiences even if they never had them in the first place. After all, what’s better than having old fans playing your remaster? Everyone being able to play it thanks to new additions that can allow as many people to enjoy it as possible, including gamers without sight.

Taking charge at the helm is SightlessKombat’s usual spot.

[Q]: As an accessibility consultant, you’re a big believer in “when everybody plays, we all win”. Can you give us some examples of where you’ve helped games reach a higher accessibility potential?

[A]: I’ve consulted with numerous studios, developers, publishers and other clients around the world to provide insight and share my perspective, with one of my proudest moments in recent memory being when I was invited by The Coalition to work on the Navigation Ping for Escape Mode in Gears 5 (Escape Ping for short).

Given that I’d played Escape but needed sighted assistance to get anywhere, being able to foresee a time where I could play that mode without it was amazing. What really struck me though was the surprise and gratification on the faces of fellow GWS after the feature hit retail, when they could do most things for themselves in a mode that was previously off-limits.

It’s the same thing with Sea of Thieves. As much as it doesn’t have enough accessibility yet for a gamer without sight to be totally independent, with a great crew at your back you can definitely feel like part of an effective team. Showing pirates like Shaysters how to fish and encouraging them to do so, then hearing great stories of ridiculous things that happened during their Voyages, is so heart-warming for me. I only hope increasing accessibility provides more and more agency and opportunities for pirates without sight including myself to carve their own way on the waves like everyone else.

Outside of any direct work on particular games, I’ve also been encouraging as many people as possible to include alternative text on all their social media items. For companies, this could be things like images posted within articles and marketing, so that everyone (even if you’re using a screen reader) will know what’s shown in these visually important pieces of content. Additionally, I’ve been discussing the possibilities of audio description with numerous people, as being able to tell what’s going on during trailers, cutscenes and videos is crucial to allowing everyone to get the same experience whether they can see or not.

Finally, showcasing my experiences has been a great outlet for me, being able to not just play through and praise games, but also show or say what they could do better, sometimes with developers being on stream and taking notes directly from watching me and asking questions.

“When everybody plays, we all win.”

[Q]: Thinking back, are there any standout moments for you in Sea of Thieves since you started playing?

[A]: The time I caught my first fish? Honestly, when someone said, “you could try fishing”, I was sceptical but thought “why not?”. I then got the hang of it and after a few points where the line snapped on geometry to my disappointment, I managed to catch one and was really pleased to find that it was a consistently doable activity without needing assistance once I was lined up.

Sailing through Thieves’ Haven without getting a scratch on our ship was also a highlight (I think me and the crew at the time even took screenshots as proof that we managed it).

Taking down a Skeleton Fleet as a crew of three during the final days of my quest for Pirate Legend, which took a while, was so satisfying when we survived. It was not just by luck but competent teamwork, even though I’d only met one of the pirates a day or so prior via the Looking For Group feature.

[Q]: What are your favourite additions to Sea of Thieves over the past year?

[A]: Any that allow me to play the game with less sighted assistance and more agency! Simplification aside, compass narration, while it might seem like a small element, has already changed how my crew and I navigate not just the ship, but my pirate around it. Being able to say “now turn and face south” instead of “left a bit, right a bit… stop”, makes things so much smoother.

[Q]: What are your greatest achievements in a game, Sea of Thieves or otherwise?

[A]: I can think of a few off the top of my head, of course not including attaining the rank of Pirate Legend in Sea of Thieves, which was definitely an achievement too.

Beating The Last of Us Part II (in separate runs) on both Grounded and Permadeath, thus earning all the trophies in the game as of the time of writing. I don’t know of any other gamers without sight who’ve done both, though I believe I may have motivated a few to try it, which is great.

God of War is a tough game, as I found through earning the Platinum for it. But taking on all the optional Valkyrie bosses (with sighted assistance in the form of callouts and very minimal inputs using Parsec, a piece of software to give a sighted player simultaneous control of my game through hardware called the Titan 2), was an experience like no other. The final optional boss in particular is notoriously challenging. The fact that my sighted remote co-pilot only needed to use about four or five inputs solely to keep me locked on to my enemy and could just sit back and watch felt brilliant when we finally claimed the victory.

On the Xbox side of things, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Halo 5 Medusa, a map and mode set designed to be played completely via audio only (even if it does need sighted assistance to set up). Putting that together with so many sighted co-forgers and play testers was not only a great learning experience but has been a useful educational tool for sighted players to begin to understand how important sound is (as everyone plays blindfolded).

Finally, beating Ken Lobb (one of the creators of the Killer Instinct franchise) at the rebooted game in two separate in-person sets was a great achievement for me, but also a great test of my skills. Though I won both sets, it was by no means easy.

I can’t wait until more games give me enough agency to undertake more challenges like these without needing any sighted assistance and succeed at them.

SightlessKombat’s next quest? Reach rank 50 with The Hunter’s Call!

[Q]: If you had to choose a pirate and ship name, what would they be?

[A]: Captain Silverbeard of the Seaward Shadow.

[Q]: What kind of other hobbies do you enjoy outside of gaming?

[A]: I enjoy listening to and playing music, as well as socialising (including through sports and art projects, some of the latter allowing my gaming influences to bleed through as well). As a part of better immersing myself in games and movies, I also end up collecting merchandise ranging from figures to replicas of items, amongst others. Needless to say, Sea of Thieves is a part of this collection too, if only to a small extent at the moment.

[Q]: Share a fun fact about yourself. Anything is fair game!

[A]: A while ago on holiday, I was asked if I’d like to steer a ship. When I accepted, the 200 or so passengers were promptly informed that a “blind man” was at the helm, then to add insult to injury, they started playing the theme from Titanic. Needless to say this didn’t inspire much confidence in me, nor in my fellow passengers. The good news? I took the helm without issue and no hands were lost among the crew or anyone else!

And that concludes our latest Community Spotlight! Thank you so much to SightlessKombat for taking the time to talk to us. You can catch him three days a week over on Twitch and on his YouTube channel. For more information on how SightlessKombat is contributing to the world of gaming and accessibility, or if you have any questions, check out his website and Twitter.

If you’re eager to hear more from our community, you can check out our previous Community Spotlights or browse our regularly updated Community Hub. Until next time!