Accessibility in games doesn’t have to sacrifice difficulty

Games, despite their challenge, should be as accessible as possible
Ellie from The Last of Us Part 2 coloured blue with a grey background, as part of the 'High Contrast Display' accessibility feature

In the AAA gaming space, accessibility in games is still not a priority. While that is unfortunate, there have been recent exceptions that give hope for other developers to follow suit and implement accessibility features moving forward. However, what seems like an age-old argument is that many players are still hesitant to accept these features as a necessity, as they feel it may devalue the game’s intended challenge. However, recent titles from both industry juggernauts and acclaimed indies have proved that accessibility options in games don’t have to take away from the challenge.

Unfortunately, these recent examples do not represent the majority of games. Most games still lack basic accessibility options such as colour-blind settings, subtitle settings, or volume sliders. Preserving the game’s difficulty is essential, but a lack of basic accessibility options is incredibly disappointing to see. For example, 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice by FromSoftware is a phenomenal title with hardly any accessibility options. By design, the game is supposed to be challenging and push players to their limits, but that does not excuse the lack of user-specific preferences. Having accessibility options such as color-coding for the kanji that flashes on the screen to warn the player how to approach the incoming attack could have opened the door for many new players alone. For example, having one flash red for when Sekiro has to perform a double-jump, blue for the Mikiri Counter, and green to dodge the attack altogether would have been a beneficial option that doesn’t sacrifice the game’s difficulty in any way. Furthermore, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does not have colorblind support or subtitle options, making it even more frustrating for many players who would love to play the game but simply can’t.

This issue isn’t exclusive to FromSoftware either, which makes it even more upsetting. Many big releases ignore essential accessibility options that would welcome many more players to the community and game, which isn’t acceptable. Games, despite their challenge, should be as accessible as possible. Not wanting to sacrifice the creator’s vision is fine, only to an extent, and most releases don’t even support the bare minimum, which is saddening to see. Whenever a significant release excludes accessbility options, it drives a large portion of the community away. And that hurts everyone involved.

The groundwork that developers such as Naughty Dog, Matt Makes Games, and Supergiant Games have laid is necessary and game-changing, and will hopefully light the spark for other developers to make their games more accessible for their audience. 

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II is a great example of a AAA game taking these issues seriously. With what is easily the most accessible game of its size and scope, The Last of Us Part II offers a metric ton of accessibility features that allows just about any player to pick it up. Everything from text-to-speech, subtitle options, disabling weapon sway, infinite breath, to extensive colour-related and hard of hearing related options, The Last of Us Part II’s accessibility features are vast. However, what makes The Last of Us Part II so unique is how none of these settings take away from the game’s difficulty, which lies within the difficulty setting picked by the player. If the player finds the game too challenging or easy, they can change that on the fly and try to fine-tune it to their liking with all the other settings. Nothing compares to The Last of Us Part II, and what the game brings to the table is ground-breaking in every way. Simply put, whenever Naughty Dog pushes boundaries, many developers across the industry take note. Hopefully, this is the start of quality accessibility features in games going forward.

Additionally, indie developers have been innovating in this space for quite some time now and deserve most of the credit for drawing attention to the cause. 2018’s Celeste, for instance, was universally praised for its “Assist Mode,” and rightfully so. What Celeste’s Assist Mode brings to the table are options to help players who may struggle with the game’s mechanics, such as the stamina system, air dashes, and the overall speed of the game. Players can even toggle on invincibility to get through parts of the game that may not be possible for them to get past without it. Not only is Celeste an incredible game, but it can also be a challenging one. What these options did was open the door for many more players to be able to play and potentially finish the game. Even last year’s Hades has an incredible “God Mode” option that makes the player stronger each time they die. What God Mode does is essentially make the player learn the game’s mechanics but without the frustration of feeling like they aren’t making any significant progress, which is an enormous feature for a roguelike game.

Celeste Assist Mode menu, featuring game speed, dash assist and invincibility options.

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding this topic should not be happening. Making games accessible is beneficial to everyone, and there are ways to do that without sacrificing difficulty or “creator intent.” As pointed out above, if handled with care and respect, implementing these options only makes the experience better for players and welcomes many more who otherwise would have skipped it. There is essentially no downside to implementing features to help others learn or get better at the game. It’s easy to be pessimistic when many developers still seem to be ignoring this issue. Still, with Naughty Dog throwing their hat in the mix and smaller teams leading the charge, other studios should be taking note and helping to shape the industry for the better.

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