If you, like me, grew up playing your first video games on the NES or SNES, then you likely remember an era of gaming where pause button functionality was an expected part of your gaming experience. Your game controller had a big button that said start, but in most practical terms it was a pause button, it’d simply stop your game at any time, no questions asked, and resume play after a few minutes.
Most modern video games still support pause functionality, but it’s no longer a predictable industry standard. From games with online multiplayer matchmaking components, to games designed with combat difficulty at the forefront, or just games with lengthy cutscenes, some games today don’t support the player pausing their experience to the degree that older games did.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about pause menu functionality. We’re going to talk about the kinds of games that don’t allow players to pause, the ways that pause functionality can be important to disabled gamers, and how pause options could be implemented into certain types of multiplayer games.
Let’s start off today’s episode by talking a little bit about some of the better known video games that don’t allow players to pause their progress, and why those games limit pausing.
The first category, and probably the one most will think of first, is “overcome a difficult challenge” combat games. The Souls series games by From Software, titles like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne are great examples of this. These games are about surviving unrelenting challenges. They are punishing games by design. They are games that punish you for carelessness, and rarely offer you any respite. This is very much tied up in the identity of these games, and part of that mentality is not giving the player the ability to pause gameplay.
If we use Demon’s Souls as an example, you can bring up a menu to look through your items, or change your equipment, but the game itself doesn’t pause while this menu is raised. Enemies can still attack you while you have your menu open, and even hitting the home button to go back to the system menu doesn’t pause the action. The intention is clearly that players should not have a way to be safe from danger while playing. The recent PS5 remake does feature a photo mode, which acts as an impromptu pause function of sorts, but it is certainly not advertised as such, and is very much hidden away. The intention is that you always be in danger while playing.
Similarly, The Monster Hunter series of games have traditionally lacked support for pausing the game when playing in single player. Again, the game contains a menu that can be accessed, but while the menu is open the game continues to run. The series is about overcoming insurmountable fights with huge monstrous beasts, and the intention seems to be that you should not be able to get any respite from that combat. Some past entries in the series could be paused by hitting the home button on your console, and Monster Hunter Rise does feature a pause option hidden a few settings menu deep that’s a little tricky to reach in the heat of combat, but the series is at least moving towards more accessible pause functionality in single player.
Both the Souls games and the Monster Hunter series feature multiplayer components, in the form of player invasions or multiplayer quests, but the presence of these should not be used to excuse a lack of easily accessible pause functionality in their single player experiences. These games could allow for easy pausing, but they choose not to, and that makes them less accessible to a range of disabled players.
In competitive online multiplayer games which last a few minutes, not permitting pausing makes some sense. If another player could pause your multiplayer experience at will, and without limitation, that could certainly be opened up to abuse from players deliberately pausing to impact the flow of gameplay. But many online co-op games could likely implement pause functionality with some ease. You could allow co-op players to opt into pause functionality, and if you’re worried about it being misused, you could limit the length of a given pause break, or how frequently they can be activated, or require both players to agree to the pause. There are ways to make it work, but co-op multiplayer games in most cases could support pause functionality. Look at games like The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, which offered online multiplayer pause functionality to great effect.I’m looking at you, Monster Hunter: Rise multiplayer quests, you could support pausing..
Lastly, while many other games support pausing at any time during single player gameplay, a surprisingly high number still don’t allow players to pause during cutscenes. This is an issue, as many of the disabilities we are about to discuss may necessitate pausing during non interactive scenes.
We’ve discussed some of the types of games that don’t support pausing, but what we haven’t yet discussed is the groups of gamers who are impacted when games don’t support pausing mid gameplay. So, in no particular order, let’s take the rest of this episode to discuss some of the groups of disabled gamers who would be more able to persevere through playing Demon’s Souls if they could pause the action ever so often.
For gamers with ADHD, pause functionality in video games can be really important. The ability to focus on a single task, and not lose attention momentarily, can make games without pause functionality difficult to focus on. If someone with ADHD can feel their focus slipping away briefly, the ability to pause, do something else for a few minutes, and return, can be the difference between success and failure in a difficult game.
For gamers with chronic fatigue or chronic pain, playing through video games can be an experience that requires breaks at unexpected moments. If someone is playing a difficult video game, and kicking ass at it, but suddenly has a pain or fatigue flare up, the ability to pause, recover, and hop back into the game exactly where they left off can make difficult and challenging games more accessible.
For players with Fibromyalgia, a specific chronic pain condition that often comes bundled with experiences described as “brain fog”, being able to pause games is not only important for pain management, but also for being able to mentally reset and regain focus, in moments where the player’s brain may feel too cloudy to properly think or focus.
For players like myself who are autistic, certain games contain chaotic and overwhelming sensory information which, while okay in small doses, can lead to sensory overload during longer play sessions. In these games, being able to pause, take some space away from that sensory information, and return, can make the difference regarding my ability to play the game through. Additionally, Autistic people experience high rates of gastric distress.
For gamers with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or other gastric distress conditions, games that cannot be paused can cause real issues, as often sudden pain or discomfort can arise, and may not be something that can be ignored until a level is completed. The same can be said for people on certain medications that impact a user’s bodily functions. Certain medical conditions come with a degree of urgency that doesn’t mesh well with games that do not support pausing.
Beyond that, pause functionality makes games more accessible to groups of gamers outside of those with disabilities. If you need to pause to help your family with something, or answer the door because some post arrived, or even just noticed you were dehydrated and could do with some water, being able to pause games makes them more accessible to people who need to live their lives alongside playing the game they are playing.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and I am sure other disabled players who require pause functionality will add their thoughts in the comments on this video, but the point here is that there are several groups of gamers who are perfectly capable of taking down a Rathalos in Monster Hunter, or the Tower Knight in Demon’s Souls, but are held back from overcoming those challenges by the fact those games don’t want players to pause during gameplay.
While it’s true that competitive online games will probably never see support for pausing gameplay mid match, there is no good reason we couldn’t see every single player or co-operative multiplayer game support pausing their experience. The only reason we don’t see it in single player games is a sense of “just deal with it”, and that is pushing away people who could love your games, but have specific disability needs.
And sure, Monster Hunter: Rise and Demon’s Souls on PS5 both technically have ways to pause gameplay, but they are hidden away and easy to miss. Both those games could have given players a settings option, where hitting pause to bring up the menu pauses the gameplay. Both games have functionality to pause gameplay, but they’ve tried to hide that they have it, because that’s not how they want their games played. News flash, disabled people sometimes need to pause mid game, not letting them is an accessibility issue.
I really hope over the next few years we can move away from this idea that letting a player pause your challenging game is “making it easier”. It’s making it more accessible, and increased accessibility is not a bad thing.