Growing up, I always assumed that the idea of a visual imagination was something people exaggerated, or did not mean to be taken literally. Imagine a red truck, imagine your house, imagine a beach. I always sort of assumed people were asking me to conceptualise what I knew about those concepts. Think words about the attributes those images must have, remember the facts about that hypothetical that you know must be true. I didn’t think I was actually meant to be seeing something pretend, in my head, as an image, that did not exist.

I have a neurological condition known as aphantasia. Jane, who edits Access-Ability, has the condition too. Basically, aphantasia is a condition where a person lacks a visual imagination, otherwise known as a mind’s eye. Around 1% of the global population suffers from the condition, making it a lot more common than most people realise.

Basically, if I tell you I am imagining something, I am not actually remembering it visually, I’m trying to guess at it’s attributes by remembering words about it, and trying to fill in the blanks as I go. I can’t imagine my girlfriend’s face, but I can tell you she has pink hair, shaved at the back and sides, often worn in a small ponytail. I can’t see that in my head, but I know that information if I try to remember it. I have dreams, but when I am awake, I cannot conjure visual images on command.

So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk a little bit about Aphantasia as a condition, some of the ways the condition can impact playing video games, and ways that game developers can make their games more accessible to players without a strong, or existent, visual imagination.

When it comes to gaming with aphantasia, the things that people find difficult will vary depending on the kinds of coping mechanisms they have developed to adapt to the condition, so during this video I am largely going to focus on my own experiences lacking a visual imagination, and the things that I find difficult or challenging in games.

In video games with big sprawling maps containing lots of winding paths and roads, I often struggle to mentally picture a route from where I am, to where I am going. If I’ve made a journey a lot of times before I can remember how to reflexively make the journey, but if it’s a new route I can’t picture it ahead of time.

If the video game I am playing offers a map, I can reference that map and see a route to my destination, but often within a few seconds of closing the map I am back to being lost. Once I am not looking at the map, I struggle to create a mental picture of what I was just looking at, or where along the route I am.

Usually in games with static maps, I have to handle this by looking at the map, and telling myself the next few verbal instructions and trying to recall those. I can’t visualise the route, but I can remember “left, right, skip, skip, right” as a set of turns if needed.

Video games with mini maps, objective markers, and placeable map pins really help in this regard, as I can reference them every few seconds if needed to see where I need to head next, rather than needing to recall that visual imagination.

A great example of an open world game that I found easy to navigate was Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which allows players to pop down a marker on the map of where they would like to go. The game then overlays a route onto the map, as well as a mini map on the main game screen. Players can then reference the minimap, be shown exactly the route to take to get there, without needing to try and guess at the route due to lack of visual imagination.

In games like Among Us, where a key part of the interrogation step is being able to describe your precise actions during gameplay to assert your innocence to other players, I typically need to play with a copy of the game map on another screen near me as I play. Having a visual reference point makes it much easier to remember where I went, and when, and describe it back, which I struggle to do without being able to visually imagine the map while it is closed.

One of my favourite games of 2020, that I really struggled to play due to aphantasia was Carrion. It’s a game in which you play a giant meat tentacle monster trying to violently escape from a scientific facility. I loved the plot and moment to moment gameplay, however, the game contained no kind of map at all, and only a very vague objective marker which could tell you the direction of an objective as the crow flies, but not how to get there through the game’s winding and complex map.

What made Carrion particularly difficult to play is that I wasn’t ever going through an area enough times to build up a reflex for my journey, and the map was also non linear. There were frequent teleportation spots that would jump the player around the facility. Even when I found how a new area and an old one connected, I couldn’t then build a mental picture of how the map as a whole now looked. Without seeing an overview of the whole picture, I couldn’t imagine how things connected together.

I understand that in Carrion the idea was probably that a huge giant monster wouldn’t carry around a map the way a human might, they’d be more interested in wildly bashing their way to freedom, but the lack of any kind of visual reference provided by the game made navigating unassisted nearly impossible.

I ended up needing to find a crowdsourced map made by fans online, and struggle to recognise frequently where I was within it.

So, when it comes to gaming without a visual imagination, maps are a particularly common sticking point for me. I understand some games are about their exploration, but I know personally I will always struggle to navigate a game where I cannot reference a map somewhere along the way. However, there are other areas of gaming impacted by aphantasia, which also impact my enjoyment of genres I otherwise like.

While I absolutely love detective mystery visual novel style games, such as Ace Attorney or Danganronpa, one aspect of them that I often struggle with in the moment is remembering and visualising any clues which were delivered primarily visually. If I am expected to remember what a crime scene looked like, I struggle to imagine the image of the scene, which can cause issues.

I appreciate when games in these kinds of genres give me as the player the ability to, mid way through the case, check all my evidence at my leisure. Ideally, if they provide me photos of the crime scene I can look at again, that tends to be very helpful.

Additionally, while I know some players of these games find flashbacks or lengthy verbal descriptions of things the player can simply see in the scene irritating, I find them very useful. Any chance to either look at the visual information again, or to memorise someone’s words about an event, make it much easier for me to find the answers the game is looking for.

Also, games, please give me a glossary of people’s names and faces. If you mention a name, let me bring up a picture of their face, so I can see who you are talking about. So many times in games i find myself having to google characters during conversations, only to instantly recognise them. I just couldn’t picture their face while you were discussing them.

Additionally, if your game contains puzzles where the solution is an image located elsewhere in the game, make sure you support the player taking screenshots of your software. I know it’s not super common, but some Switch games don’t allow for screenshot captures, and when those games also have puzzles where you need to remember and later imagine an image you saw, I am just going to get stuck and have to go find paper to draw things myself.

Lastly, I find it really useful when games allow me as a player to back out of actions, if I realise I have not correctly visualised my position within the scene. Ikenfell is an indie RPG about solving a mystery at a magic school, where every character, and each of their attacks, have a set range of effectiveness around them. The game allows me to place my character, select an attack, then see the area the attack will hit. If i am incorrectly placed, I can back out of the attack, reposition my character, and try again. I don’t need to imagine the move’s effective range, it is laid out before me.

I’ve learned to cope living with aphantasia by working around it. I can remember words and attributes, so I make do where I can using those in place of a visual imagination. But games don’t need to go too far out of their way to be more accessible to players like myself, and many of the things that would help me game are things that the average player won’t even consider are accessibility settings.

Providing a well thought through map that the player doesn’t need to pause to reference, letting players pause and reference information they have not seen visually for a while, letting players see visual information about their moves, then back out if they pictured things wrong, having a glossary of names and faces, and making sure you don’t block screenshots being taken are all features the average player will appreciate, or just not notice, but they make a really big difference to players like myself who struggle to imagine images in their head.

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