When Naughty Dog released the sequel to their highly acclaimed game The Last of Us, they stirred up the pot not only within the more or less mature fans with the storytelling and character development but also among the entire industry with its wholesome audio design, gameplay and, what it the most important, accessibility features. The production was hailed by many gamers with disabilities and sites dedicated to them as the most accessible game.
Playing any game as someone completely blind was impossible.
Video games were considered a medium that is rather exclusive than inclusive. While deaf people at least had subtitles so they were able to play most of the games (not without problems though), playing any game as someone completely blind was impossible. That changed after the The Last of Us Part 2 release. The game has more than 60 accessibility features for various kinds of disabilities and moves the inclusiveness to another level.
For the players who are blind or have low vision, the game offers options such as: text-to-speech, high contrast display, auto aiming, puzzle skipping, large HUD scale, screen magnifier and many more. The game also warns the player when they may fall down off the edge and get hurt or killed. But the most innovative setting are the audio cues for everything we do in the game: picking up objects, moving and, most importantly, fighting. That makes the game playable with no vision involved which is revolutionary.
For the players who are deaf or hard of hearing there are options like: awareness indicators shown when the enemies spot you, pick up notifications, subtitles covering story and combat, subtitle names, subtitle directions or combat and guitar vibration cues. For the players with a physical or mobility disability there are: auto aiming, auto pick up, camera assistance, navigation and traversal assistance, hold instead of tapping buttons, puzzle skipping, infinite breath under the water.
There are also many options regarding motion sickness and the ones that makes the gameplay easier for all players. Furthermore, all of the keys and controls can be remapped which makes the gameplay comfortable for the gamers with disabilities in particular. Naughty Dog did a great and hard work creating all the features but it would not have been possible without the accessibility consultants and their ideas and remarks.
One of the consultants, Brandon Cole aka Superblindman, describes working with the developers: “Naughty Dog made sure to hire multiple consultants across a spectrum of disabilities to cover as much ground as possible. My role specifically was to consult on the accessibility of TLOU2 from the totally blind perspective. I presented many ideas that affected narration, audio cues, navigationassistance, aim assistance, and more.”
“The work itself was a combination of brainstorming with the multiple teams developing the game, and playtesting the game itself to see how features were working.” – continues Cole. “Sometimes, both would happen at once, and programmers would fix accessibility-related bugs live during testing. It was an epic, 3-year venture that I loved every second of.” What is very important, the developers hired the consultants shortly after they started developing the game, so the consultants had the influence on every aspect of creating TLOU2.
According to Brandon Cole, the accessibility features in the game are top notch. As he claims: “It’s hard to argue that we did something special here. No game has as many accessibility features rightnow, 60 plus, as the Last of Us Part 2. There are games that do very specific things better (Destiny 2 has better button remapping for example), but The Last of Us stands out as the game that covers by far the most ground when it comes to its accessibility.” I have to agree with that statement for as a visually disabled gamer I find the accessibility options in this game revolutionary.
The Last of Us stands out as the game that covers by far the most ground when it comes to its accessibility.
Ian Hamilton, another accessibility consultant that was working on the game, agrees a lot: “Revolutionary in a number of ways, yes. Including being the first AAA game to have considered accessibility for blind gamers from the ground up. But I would say that there isn’t a sliding scale of how accessible a game is, it’s a question of how accessible to who and why. For some people TLOU2 is the most accessible mainstream game they’ve played, for others it is not. Accessibility is a broad topic covering all kinds of barriers and impairments.”
Hamilton also explains the general role of the accessibility consultant. Internal talks and workshops for the devs, feedback on individual features, expert reviews, development of educational and training materials, internal standards and guidelines, and in general talking about what a company needs to improve the inclusiveness – this is what makes a game like TLOU2 accessible for almost everyone. What is interesting, even a non-disabled gamers eagerly use the game’s features to make the gameplay more efficient and convenient.
Ian Hamilton: “One thing that really stood out to me was people who are not blind using the accessibility functionality implemented for blind gamers. The auto-rotate to avoid getting lost, the environmental sonar ping to help with hunting down collectibles, and so on. It’s a really great lesson in universal design.” He also mentions that the subtitles were being turned on by over 60% of the TLOU2 players in the United States, and that does not mean that such amount of people there are hard of hearing. They do that for various reasons.
Although it might not meet all of the expectations of the gamers with disabilities, The Last of Us Part 2 is still the most thoroughly developed game in terms of accessibility. Brandon Cole: “The Last of Us 2 was a giant kick in the face to developers. It let them all know that yes, total blind accessibility is absolutely possible.” The Last of Us Part 2 is a milestone in accessibility, paving the way for other studios to make their games inclusive. Ghost of Tsushima, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or Marvel’s Spider Man: Miles Morales are good examples of the AAA games that followed that trail.
Their developers met lots of misunderstanding and ignorance regarding the need of making their games accessible. Like: “why do blind people or people with one arm play games at all?” This is a topic for another article, and as Ian Hamilton says: “We’re still only at the start, the bottom of the curve. We still haven’t had a single big name mainstream game that even gets the core basics of accessibility (text size, subtitles, colourblindness, remapping, effects/camera intensity) right, and we are a very very long way off from any gamer being able to pick up any game and have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be able to play it.”