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Blind gamer helping make games accessible to everyone

When Brandon Cole was 6 years old, his older brother invited him to play “Super Mario Bros.” with him.

Cole was confused. Not because his brother wanted to hang out. Cole is fully blind. But his brother insisted, handed him a controller and started the game.

“Before you know it, I’m jumping over pits, destroying enemies, collecting coins and saving princesses,” Cole said. “I was elated. I was astonished. I was flummoxed.”

Cole’s brother then revealed the truth. His brother handed him an unplugged controller.

“I remember being really crushed by this,” Cole said. “I felt like I climbed a mountain that I didn’t think was climbable. Then, to find out I had done nothing and just stood there like a weirdo and pressed buttons on a controller that wasn’t even plugged in, it hurt at the time.”

Instead of giving up, Cole became determined to show that gaming could be accessible to everyone — regardless of your disability.

“I made a vow that one day I would beat one game, any game, without his help,” Cole said.

He completed his goal when he beat Killer Instinct.

“I was so happy, I ran into the living room where my mother was to tell her,” Cole said.

Now, Cole has a new vow: to help bring gaming to as many people as possible.

Becoming a video game consultant was really second nature for Cole. Without realizing it, he had done it his entire life.

“My gaming life was a lot of trial and error and figuring things out,” Cole said. “Every time I couldn’t play a game, I listened to someone else who could play it and I always considered what would this game need to make it so I can play it.”

He mostly kept those thoughts to himself. Until one day, his now fiancée told him something that would alter his direction.

“My fiancée said three words to me: You should blog,” Cole said. “Keep in mind this was 2005 and my initial reaction was no way.”

Eventually, his fiancée convinced him to give it a go. She helped him build a website, and, thanks to that blog, in 2014 Cole spoke at an accessibility panel at the Game Developers Conference.

In 2017, Cole was invited to speak at the first Game Accessibility Conference. Several game studios were in attendance — including Naughty Dog, the makers of the “Last of Us” franchise.

“As soon as I knew they were in the audience, I worked into my speech, ‘man, oh man what I wouldn’t give to play a game like the ‘Last of Us.’”

The interest, it turns out, was mutual. Cole met with Naughty Dog after his panel. Two weeks later, he received an invitation to visit Naughty Dog and pitch his ideas to the team.

“That’s when I realized, ‘Wait a minute, something might be happening here,’” Cole said. “I was smart enough to know what I was doing there was selling myself.”

Cole worked on bringing accessibility features in “The Last of Us Part II” for the completely blind.

“The biggest challenge is to not allow the team to fall back on its own assumptions,” Cole said. “I had to constantly be present and in the moment and ready to say no wait, a blind player isn’t going to do this.”

A big factor was reminding developers that things they take for granted may be new to blind gamers.

“I had to make sure they weren’t designing for the super user,” Cole said. “This isn’t going to be a case of the blind play a ‘Last of Us’ game. For some blind people, this will be the first major game they’ve ever played. All of these concepts that a lot of sighted people are used to are new to a blind gamer. We had to have the backbone there to support new players.”

The result was what Cole said is the first totally blind accessible AAA game ever made, including text to speech, auto target, ledge guard, enhanced listening mode, traversal and combat audio cues.

Cole hopes the standard the “Last of Us” set starts a movement.

“Not only did we raise the bar, I like to say we launched it into the stratosphere,” Cole said.

And Cole is eager to bring more types of games to blind gamers.

“I want to bring the blind community experiences they don’t currently have,” Cole said. “I welcome the chance to work on any of these projects. I embrace the challenge.”

He also is creating a choose your own adventure with his community through Choice Script, a development scripting language.

Cole’s come a long way from the 6-year-old left disappointed after a game of “Super Mario Bros.” He is determined to make sure that gamers with disabilities don’t ever have to feel what he did.

“I’m the kind of person that believes that anything can be made accessible if we are willing to try and put the thought into how it can be done and work to make it happen,” Cole said.

Contact Lukas Eggen at leggen@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Follow @lukaseggen on Twitter.

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