Accessibility in Video Games: My Thoughts and Experiences

This seems to be becoming a bigger and bigger thing. Microsoft have their adapted controller and have just posted a pledge for further support. Sony had an amazing amount of accessibility settings in The Last of Us 2. I’ll separate my thoughts based in different categories.

A small portion of the settings in The Last of Us 2

Visual

I’m colourblind. This isn’t an extremely rare thing (5% of males and 1% of females) but the trouble is…how people are colourblind varies massively. Some may be just red-green colourblind, others may be a wide variety. I have issues with certain shades of: red/green, green/yellow, green/grey, blue/purple, orange/green, purple/pink, red/black and probably some more. 

One recent “fix” seem to be colourblind filters. These don’t help me in the slightest, and also make the games look hideous. Microsoft’s proposal is exactly what I want: try and allow symbols or shapes to signify stuff alongside colour (the board game Ticket to Ride does this and it’s great), or allow the user to customise it to select the colours of their choice.

Some issues that I’ve encountered in games:

  • Health bars. Some of them have red on a dark background and it’s very difficult for me to see sometimes. Breath of the Wild is one (and ironically, the “important” highlighted text is also very difficult to read) where it’s very hard to see. If I squint I can make it out, but not really useful for combat. Dragon Age 2‘s health bar was literally impossible for me to see but luckily there was a mod to fix it.
  • Detective Mode. A mode that’s supposed to make things easier to see, but sometimes the choice of colours makes it difficult for me to see. Witcher 3 was the worst for this. Even though you could choose from a couple of colours, the “scent trails” were extremely difficult to see. Sometimes I even had to look up where to go as I couldn’t see it in the game.
  • Puzzles. A fair amount of puzzles require matching colours. Sometimes this means I have to try stuff a couple of times to get the colours right. It’s annoying, especially if a time limit is involved.

One thing that is an absolutely amazing achievement in terms of visual accessibility is The Last of Us 2. With accessibility features, people who are completely blind can play the game from start to finish. 

Audio

Now, I can hear fairly well, but at the same time I do find that voices in video games are nowhere near as clear as they are in most films/tv shows. This is especially the case during gameplay, when various sound effects and music are happening and as they’re dynamic, there’s not sound editor to balance the audio levels perfectly. So I often play games with subtitles on. 

Subtiles can be a mixed bag. For starters, there can often be mistakes and errors in the subtitles. I think some of them are from earlier versions of the script. Some I’ve noticed are:

  • Greedfall: A complete an utter mess. Loads of spelling mistakes, sometimes alongside correct ones in the same line (“fantom” and “phantom”), some lines are completely different, others sort of mean the same thing but with different words. Lots of misgendering (sometimes in the voice work, too).
  • InFamous Second Son: Definitely seems like a slightly earlier script was used for it. Every spoken and subtitle sentence has the same meaning, just often using different wording.
  • Saints Row IV: All NPC voices are subtitled fine. The player character has quite different subtitles. For this, I think that each of the 7 voice actors had a lot of freedom in terms of putting their own spin on things (not 100% sure) and that the ad-libbed parts weren’t written back into the subtitles.

I feel like I also need to give a dishonourable mention to Singularity (even though most people have probably forgotten about the game). In that, important plot points are given to you in noisy combat in really bad Russian accents. There are no subtitle options whatsoever. 

Most subtitles also are lacking in options, just turn them on or off. Better ones give you more useful options such as size (some subtitles are tiny, especially on a large TV), applying a background to subtitles, having the name of the speaker on or using different colours to show different people talking.

One great subtitle system was Left 4 Dead, which had an option which included subtitling specific audio clues for the special infected spawning. 

I think it would be nice for systems to have their own in-built subtitle system for developers to use so that settings could be applied globally.

Control and Physical

Microsoft’s adaptive controller is definitely an amazing thing. I really think that Nintendo and Sony should add native support for controllers like that (creating their own ones would be bad if they also don’t allow using others as the cost of customising your own setup is expensive, and would be ridiculous to have to do multiple times for different systems). You can already buy adapters for it for Switch/PS4, but native support would just be nice for those who needed.

For using another controller, things like inverting, swapping sticks and things like that should allow for a global setting (while still allowing you to override it for particular games because sometimes the other way can just feel right for certain situations). Button swapping should also be standard. Steam has some great controller options, yet strangely they’re not accessible from the default Steam view (you have to use Big Picture Mode to access it). 

Button mashing should also be something I feel should have an option to turn off. It’s something people may physically struggle with, but can be immersive when used in the right way so it should be up to the player. 

Difficulty

This is probably one that can be controversial. How difficult should games be? Should there be different rewards for different difficulties? What if a game is supposed to be a difficult task? Should there be an option for other people to experience the whole game? The Dark Souls games are often one of the ones talked about. They’re about overcoming a challenge. 

But should people who find it too difficult be given the option to reduce the difficulty? At the same time, would that also mean that some people will spoil their own experience by giving up too early and reducing the setting when they could rise to the challenge? And what if someone wants to experience the lore of the game but also likes to relax while they play? Personally, I’d say let people customise their own experience.

There’s also various different aspects of “difficulty”. Most is focused on combat, but some games will dish out things like puzzle hints a lot quicker on easier settings, or potentially even cut some things out (GoldenEye is a classic example of that, with fewer objectives on easier difficulties). Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a great difficulty section where it’s divided between combat, puzzle and exploration. I loved the ability to have combat on a lower setting while keeping stuff related to puzzles and exploring on the maximum difficulty.

Control added a patch which let you customise specific aspects of combat. Instead of a difficulty slider, you can manually adjust things like how much damage you take and deal, weapon reload times or even just turning off death. On top of this, these settings have no impact on saving, unlocking rewards or even achievements/trophies. It lets you tailor the combat to your liking. It’s even useful if you’ve finished the game and want a more relaxing time just hinting for secrets and collectibles.

So, what does everyone else thing of accessibility? How much effort should go into it, and should the console manufacturers provide more options for developers to use to unify some of the settings across games?

Do any games come to mind when thinking of specific accessibility problems or ones that do a great job with it?

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