December 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 12

Product Evaluations and Guides

Game Review: Timecrest: The Door by Sneaky Crab, Incorporated

In previous issues of AccessWorld, I have reviewed several interactive fiction titles including Choice of Robots, and the Delight Games series. In each of those text-based games, the player assumes the role of a character in the game. Decisions made are based on the personality of the character, and, as discussed in those articles, the character's personality should always be kept in mind during game play. In this article, we will take a look at yet another work of interactive fiction--Timecrest: The Door by Sneaky Crab, Incorporated. Throughout the remainder of this article, I will generally refer to the game simply as Timecrest. Unlike the games previously mentioned, in Timecrest, you play the part of an advisor. The main character of the game, a 16-year-old boy named Ash, who is from the magical world of Alyncia, may take your advice, or he may choose to follow his own path. Ash trusts you, though, and your advice matters greatly to him. For me, at least, Timecrest stands out from many of the other interactive fiction games I've played recently, and I will attempt to explain why. Along the way, perhaps I can entice some of my readers into playing the game for themselves. Also, I believe that the developers of Timecrest deserve some recognition for the work they have put into implementing VoiceOver accessibility into this game, which is playable on iOS devices and the Apple Watch. With that said, let's dive into the immersive world of Timecrest!

What Timecrest Is All About

Ash is a young magician in training who has succeeded in magically binding a spell to his pocket watch in order to make a connection with the human world--something that is forbidden in his world of Alyncia. You are the human with whom Ash connects, and his communication with you appears as scrolling messages on the screen of your iOS device or Apple Watch. I have tested this game using an iPhone 6 running the latest version of iOS 10, but I do not currently own an Apple Watch. Unlike many interactive fiction games, the action in Timecrest takes place over a period of time--and, as its name suggests, time is of the utmost importance in this game. Messages from Ash can appear in intervals of time ranging from a few seconds to several hours. One aspect of the game that might concern some players is the fact that notifications can appear from time to time when Ash is ready to begin communicating with you again after a pause in the action. In practical terms, however, I found these notifications to be no more intrusive than any other that may appear on my lock screen from time to time throughout the day, and game play does not seem to suffer regardless of how long it takes for you to get back to the story.

Speaking of the story, when Ash first begins communicating with you, his world is about to be destroyed by meteors. As messages from him appear on the screen, VoiceOver users will hear a sound indicating that new messages have arrived--something that sighted players do not experience. As you swipe from message to message, or even if you read the entire screen with a two-finger flick down, you will hear a unique sound when you have reached the most recent message. Yet another sound plays when Ash has stopped sending messages, and is waiting for a response from you, and still another sound is heard when Ash is unavailable for a period of time. As is the case with all other menu-driven, choice-based interactive fiction games, you must choose from a variety of options in order to move the game forward. In some cases, only one choice is available, and at other times, two or three choices are possible. Right from the start of the game, you learn that you have one crucial role to play besides advising Ash, and that is the ability to turn back time. By turning back time at various points in the game, you and Ash are able to learn about the history of his world. Who has decided to destroy Alyncia? Why is the connection between Alyncians and humans, once permitted, now forbidden? Along the way, Ash must determine who his friends are, and who his enemies might be. He makes friends, and builds a team of other young people to help him achieve his goals.

Unlike many games where a wrong move can end the story, and survival is the main goal, this 200,000-word story has many alternate paths, with various outcomes possible. Characters in the story may live or die, depending on the decisions that Ash, guided by your advice, makes along the way.

The game is free to play, but spending anywhere from .99 to $74.99 to purchase time crystals that will allow you to speed up time will enable you to complete the game more quickly. Time crystals can also be exchanged for gold--the currency of Alyncia--which Ash will need in order to buy certain items to help him accomplish his mission of ultimately trying to save his world. All items in the game have rich VoiceOver description, and a "Descriptive Help" button, which is on the screen at all times, gives blind players an overview of how to play the game using VoiceOver. One particularly notable feature of descriptive help is the ability to listen various game sounds as you swipe to their descriptions. Along the bottom of the screen as you play the game, you will find several tabs. Descriptive help changes depending on what tab has been selected, and the aforementioned help screen alerts players to the fact that some tabs will only appear once the player has reached a certain point in the game. The game developers have also made maps of Ash's world available to VoiceOver for exploration when required.

How Accessibility Came to Timecrest

In 2015, Sneaky Crab, Incorporated, a two-person mobile game company based out of San Jose, California, released Timecrest for iOS and Apple Watch, and received very good reviews including a mention in the New York Times . In July, 2016, an AppleVis user sent what Sneaky Crab CEO Justin Ng describes as a "heart-felt" message to the developers suggesting some accessibility enhancements that would make the game easier to play for those using VoiceOver. Ng and Sneaky Crab co-founder Lisa Gu have 15 years of programming experience between them, and have worked for such companies as Microsoft and Google, but Ng states that he had not worked in the area of accessibility prior to the request to improve the accessibility of Timecrest. Ng began to familiarize himself with VoiceOver on the iPhone, going so far as to use his phone with screen curtain turned on when possible for about six weeks. Screen curtain allows a blind person to use their phone with VoiceOver, while the screen appears blank to those around them.

Initially, accessibility improvements consisted of properly labeling all buttons, and making speech less verbose in certain areas of the game. By September of 2016, when a major game update was released, a number of accessibility improvements had been made, the most novel of which is the ability to turn on "pronunciation mode" which causes VoiceOver to properly pronounce the names of people and places in Alyncia. As mentioned earlier, VoiceOver users hear unique sounds when playing the game, and the "Descriptive Help" button gives information about the layout of the game, and allows players to learn the various sounds they will encounter throughout the game.

Ng believes Apple has done a good job with VoiceOver accessibility, but he wishes there were more control available. He would like to more precisely determine how and when VoiceOver speaks the sequence of events in Timecrest, thereby ensuring that important information does not inadvertently get interrupted during game play. Also, he is considering making use of Rotor actions to further enhance the game play experience for blind people.

In my years of playing various interactive fiction games, I have seldom found myself more drawn into a story than I have when playing Timecrest. The riveting plot and rich character development make this game come alive for me. Many of the characters in the game have Twitter accounts, and it is possible to earn extra gold by following and tweeting these characters once per week. The Sneaky Crab Website contains forums where game players can exchange ideas, although I have not taken a look at them as of the time of this writing.

Anyone who has the opportunity to visit with Justin Ng about Timecrest will quickly discover that he has a true passion for the story of the people of Alyncia. As of this writing, the game contains 10 chapters, divided into two parts. Part 1 is entitled "Faded Connections," and part 2 is entitled "The Door." It is not necessary to download each part separately. The story moves seamlessly from one part of the game to the next. Ng says that the story of Alyncia has not been completed yet, although a detailed roadmap exists. More installments of the game are coming, although Ng is unwilling to say just how many more at this time.

Ng believes that everyone should be able to enjoy Timecrest, and he is deeply committed to ensuring the best game play possible for people who are blind and using VoiceOver. I was surprised to learn that Ng himself enjoys playing the game using VoiceOver, and feels that it is a superior way to play the game rather than looking at the screen.

The Bottom Line

I would urge anyone who enjoys a really good interactive fiction game to give Timecrest a try. I also encourage everyone to take advantage of the game's in-app purchases in order to financially support a company who is willing to go above and beyond when it comes to making their product accessible to blind people.

What lies in store for Ash and the people of his world, and what role will you play in their fate? Only time will tell!

Product Information

Timecrest: The Door for iOS and watchOS
Developer: Sneaky Crab, Incorporated
Price: Free with in-app purchases available

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