Toward the end of last week, I took a few days outside of the Access-Ability offices to travel to EGX, a consumer facing video game convention taking place at the Excel Centre in London. While much of the event was focused on demo booths for small indie projects and upcoming AAA titles, one VR game caught my eye with its promises that it had been designed first and foremost to be accessible for a wide range of Autistic players.
Blinnk and the Vacuum of Space is a VR game about collecting sandwich eating gremlins with the help of a friendly robot, using a vacuum gun, before your boss arrives back and demands you provide him with the ultimate sandwich. A silly premise, but one with a surprising amount of flexibility.
Players explore the fictional Norp Corp looking for these sandwich eating gremlins, while engaging in tasks that feel very much inspired by other popular VR titles such as Job Simulator. In the level shown on the EGX show floor for example, players visit a robot repair station, and fix damaged robots while searching inside them for sandwich gremlins hidden behind and between components being removed and replaced.
Now, I want to be clear up front that much of the accessibility focused settings and content I am going to talk about with regards to this game were NOT in place in the build of the game shown off at EGX. I had some fascinating conversations with members of the development team about their plans for this title, but can ultimately only report on what they said based on faith it will materialise in the finished game. These ideas all sound promising, and like they come with the correct intentions, but this is far from a hands-on preview of how these settings will work in practice.
The game’s default visual style is deliberately minimal on bright and intense saturated colours, with settings planned to allow players who suffer with visual sensory sensitivity to change any colours they struggle with seeing, as well as changing vibrancy and saturation as needed.
Similarly, for autistic players with auditory sensitivity, the game will include a series of sliders designed to allow for granular control of specific sound effects, so that any known sensory trigger noises can be avoided during play.
However, if you’re playing the game and get caught off guard by something sensory that is causing problems regardless, and you need to get some momentary respite, the game will feature an SOS button on one of the player’s arms, positioned somewhat like a watch. At any time the player can press this button to be transported to a sensory minimal void without penalty, pressing the button again when ready to return to the game.
While the only level shown off in the EGX demo for the game centred around repairing robots while searching for gremlins, other levels are planned which will apparently explore topics many autistic people may find difficult sensory experiences, such as having a haircut or going to the dentist, in welcoming any lighthearted approaches, but these levels will always be able to be skipped.
The game will also apparently feature no fail states, with no punishments given for a player taking a long time to progress, or even so much as criticism for choosing to simply play around in the space ignoring the objectives.
Autism is obviously a spectrum condition, and to design a video game to be accessible by a wide range of autistic players is an ambitious target to aim for. When simply wearing a VR helmet itself might be a sensory challenge, designing a game within that headset to minimise potential overstimulation triggers is an admirable aim, but whether or not it works will ultimately be down to the execution.
Blinnk and the Vacuum of Space seems pretty promising and is definitely a game I’ll be keeping my eyes on, but right now simply too much of what is being promised is ideas, rather than in place features, and it’s tough to say in practice which autistic players the game will, or won’t, be a good fit for.
So long as Blinnk is marketed as aiming to be as accessible as possible for autistic players, and not as a blanket “autism friendly” video game, I am excited to see what a development team with a passion for autism friendly VR game design manages to achieve.