Accessibility: Naughty Dog’s quiet push to expand their audience

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I freely admit that, like most of you, I’d never given the idea of accessibility in video games a second thought. That changed last year when my son told me he was having trouble with a game. He couldn’t figure out a relatively simple puzzle, because he couldn’t tell what colour the doors were – and that’s when we discovered he was colour-blind.

After that I started looking at games from a different perspective, I check the settings to see if there are colour-blind options, and I notice things that wouldn’t work for him like having a red warning circle for an incoming attack overlay the green floor, for example. To him there might as well be no warning at all, making the game much harder and more frustrating to play.

Even after learning that lesson from him, however, I never gave much thought to other ways that games excluded their own fans. There are button-mashing sections in games that everyone who’s experienced them remembers, for example. Take the hellish walk down the microwave corridor in Metal Gear Solid 4. Gamers pushed Snake to his limits as he made his way through the radiation zone, tapping away at the triangle button as fast as they could to try and keep him alive. What about the classic Test Your Might sections of Mortal Kombat, where you hammer on the low attack buttons to increase your power bar? God of War might well feature the most button mashing sections of any franchise, with Kratos using repeated button presses for everything from combo attacks and quick time events to something as simple as opening a door.

Those sections are remembered differently by people with physical disabilities, as they make the games completely inaccessible. It’s a subject brought to the attention of Naughty Dog prior to the development of Uncharted 4 by Josh Straub, editor-in-chief for DAGERS (Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating System), a website that advises consumers of the accessibility rating of video games using criteria like auditory, fine-motor, and visual accessibility. According to Straub he was playing through Uncharted 2 and hit a wall when he wasn’t able to button mash through a sequence in the Tibetan temple. Unable to open the doors needed to proceed, Straub realized he wasn’t able to keep playing without the help of an able-bodied person. He would later get in contact with Alexandria Neonakis, a user interface designer at Naughty Dog, meeting her at GDC to describe what had happened to him and to ask for better accessibility options in future games.

The revelation that Straub, a huge fan of the Uncharted series, couldn’t beat Uncharted 2 because of his disability hit home for those behind the title and those at Sony, including Kevin Keeker, the principal user experience researcher at PlayStation. “I think video games, for a lot of people, are often about being able to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do, experience great adventures,” Keeker says in the video. “And so that when you find that there are some people who can’t enjoy those things, it’s kind of crushing.”

accessibilityNaughty Dog had made a push for accessibility during the development of The Last of Us, but expanded that effort and went to work making changes for Uncharted 4 that would allow gamers with disabilities to experience the game without needing help from someone else. There are now options to allow you to toggle between mashing/holding the button to do everything from open doors to execute combat strings, as well as camera and aim assists that make it easier for those unable to run both left and right sticks smoothly to keep track of the action.

I don’t know what it’s like to live with a disability like Straub’s. I have a faint idea what my son goes through in his day to day life, but can’t really say what the next ‘oh I didn’t think of that’ issue we’ll hit might be. I know that he, like Straub, will still be playing games, though, and I hope more game developers follow Naughty Dog’s lead in making games accessible to everyone.

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I spent 10 years as an editor with Star News and, though I’ve moved on to other things, continue to write a weekly gaming column for the chain. I’ve also written for Incite – a short-lived magazine that most people sadly don’t remember – as well as some freelancing for EGM and other online publications.

I started as an arcade gamer, became a PC diehard when video cards first started being a thing, and have since become a primarily console gamer…though I try to keep the PC up to snuff for those must-have experiences.

I’m also a lifelong Edmonton Oilers fan, though I wish it was easier to admit that these days…

  • Gary Stewart

    Very interesting read and you’re right something I had never really throught of before.