When it comes to video game accessibility, there are two main approaches developers can take to help more people to play their games. There’s a hardware approach, like that taken by Microsoft with their modular Xbox Accessibility Controller which allows players to customise the physical buttons they press while gaming, and a software approach, like those we discussed last week in games like Celeste and Dishonoured 2, where you can tweak the difficulty of certain aspects of a game to make the overall experience more playable for you.
On paper, I love the idea of video games solving as many of their accessibility problems as possible via software solutions. Software solutions don’t require the purchase of specific hardware by players, and when implemented well make a game accessible out the box for everyone, regardless of if they think of themselves as a gamer who might need assistance sometimes. The problem is, when talking about software accessibility in games, you sort of have to point to a lot of different solutions, spread across a lot of different games, to get a good idea of what a truly accessible game looks like.
Until now, no one game has truly captured what a software accessible video game should look like. Some have come close, but today’s game knocks them all out the water.
Let’s talk about The Last of Us 2, and how it provides a blueprint for accessible software that I hope Sony picks up as a first party standard from now onwards. All video games would benefit from watching what this game is doing.
Don’t worry, this video will be entirely spoiler free, we’re just here to talk about accessibility, not anything about the plot or gameplay surprises.
Now, I want to warn you up front, even without hitting on every single accessibility option available in The Last of Us 2, this is going to be a pretty damn long list. Buckle up, settle yourself in, there’s a wonderfully huge amount to cover.
Up the top, The Last of Us 2 offers players three different accessibility presets, each designed to help people with a specific kind of disability need impacting their play.
The Vision Accessibility preset, designed for players who are partially sighted or even totally blind, includes options for text to speech support in well over 20 languages, larger HUD size, various degrees of automated targeting lock on, audio cues to help with non visual traversal and combat, a setting to prevent you falling off ledges to your death, unlimited invisibility when prone, and the option to skip puzzles which may not be accessible without clear eyesight. The mode also includes a high contrast mode, where at any time the game can quickly switch to a black and white environment, with the player, enemies, and interactables all highlighted in bold and easy to spot colours.
The Hearing Accessibility Preset, for deaf or hard of hearing players, includes preset settings for visual on screen indicators, visual dodge prompts, highly customisable story and combat subtitles, subtitle names and direction indicators, and increased vibration cues in combat to replace audio cues.
The Motor Accessibility Preset, useful for players like myself with motor control disabilities, allows for degrees of auto targeting of enemies, automatic pick up and ammo swapping, assistance controlling the camera and traversing the environment, infinite breathe so that underwater sections are not time limited, no ledge falling, held buttons replacing button mashing or combos, deactivated weapon sway, the ability to skip puzzles, and some tweaked combat options.
These three presets can all be customised, and all of their customisations are available to all players regardless, but they demonstrate a clear understanding of some basic categories of accessibility need, and a thoughtfulness about settings that might help a disabled player jump into the game quickly without having to fiddle too much in menus.
Now, before we dive in further to the rest of the HUGE list of accessibility features the game supports, I want to point out that the Vision Accessibility preset is by far the most ambitious of the three, and the one I am most pleased to see Naughty Dog take the time to work on. The Idea of making a AAA video game playable from start to finish by players who are entirely blind is phenomenal, and one I hope we see given the attention it deserves. Seriously, this could open up the game to so many people who usually cannot play big budget titles, and that’s super exciting.
So, with the presets out the way, let’s rattle off a bunch of other software level accessibility settings this game has, because there are a lot of them, and they all deserve a moment in the spotlight.
All controls in The Last of Us 2 can be fully remapped, which might not sound like a big deal by itself, until you realise that includes all motion controls and touch pad swipes too. Nintendo, look at this game and learn lessons, if you care about accessibility, it’s possible to make motion controls remappable to help more people play. Accessibility is more important than you wanting us to waggle.
If you need to hold a controller sideways or upside down, the game can adjust the analogue sticks to treat a new direction as up.
If you need to play one handed, which the game has both left and right handed presets prepared for, The Last of Us 2 will automatically put the camera behind you whichever way you move, allowing you to explore without needing to use a second analogue stick.
You can customise your level of automated targeting lock on for enemies, up to a point where it’ll automatically target enemies which are not even on screen yet.
The game’s hud can be customised to make it easier to see with darker backgrounds or increased size. The game has three different colour blindness modes, and the game even includes a whole section of settings designed to reduce motion sickness, from camera shake and motion blur sliders, to field of view, camera distance from the player, and having a persistent dot in the centre of the screen. Those motion sickness settings in particular are one I would personally benefit a lot from seeing in more games.
You can hit a button to be pointed in the direction of story progress, or a pair of buttons to be pointed at the nearest pickups or creatures. You can automate jumps and sprinting, as well as other traversal tasks.
For totally blind players, you can set a stereo sound to ping and alert you to the direction and distance of enemies, and ping differently when you get close enough to them for a stealth takedown. There are sounds for when your aiming sights are correctly pointed at an enemy, to alert you to the location of cover, sounds to tell you to crouch in level traversal, and sounds to tell you when there’s a gap to jump over.
If you struggle with combat, The LAst of Us 2 has you covered too. You can set hostages not to escape, your allies to not get grabbed, enemies not to flank you and get behind your location, enemies to be less observant of you in stealth, enemy accuracy can be dropped, you can have better dodges, you can toggle slow motion, and you can get visual indicators on screen to show you the direction an enemy injured you from.
And this is all before we have even hit the game’s actual difficulty mode options. As a default, the game offers players Very Light, Light, Moderate, Hard, and Survivor difficulties, but also features an option for custom difficulty, which lets you tweak a whole bunch of granular settings. How much damage will enemies deal? How often will the game give you mid fight checkpoints? How aggressive are enemies? How complex are their attack patterns? How fast do they move in charging attacks? How much will or won’t your allies kill enemies on your behalf? How stealthy are you? How much ammo does the game give you access to?
Oh, and none of the game’s achievements are tied to difficulty, so you can Platinum this game regardless how many difficulty and accessibility modifiers you apply to your playthrough.
What I think The Last of Us 2 really gets right in terms of software level accessibility is the way it hits on, quite possibly, every good example of software accessibility I have seen in gaming, and then goes a step above and beyond afterwards. From customisable difficulty to presets for specific disability groups, small tweaks through to support for players entirely devoid of their sense of sight, The Last of Us 2 seems to have settings suitable for literally every conceivable kind of player. It is a masterpiece in terms of the efforts it has gone to in attempting to help more people play one of the year’s biggest games.
Software accessibility will never be a total replacement for accessible hardware, but for the foreseeable future The Last of Us 2 is going to be the game by which all other gaming accessibility is measured. Developers, you need to use this as an instruction manual. You don’t have the excuse now of not knowing how to make a game accessible, you’ve got the blueprint right in front of you.
If I could ask one thing of Sony, going forward into the next generation with the PS5 later this year, it would be this. Please get whoever at Naughty Dog was responsible for these accessibility options, and get them to tour every one of your first party studios. Get them to teach all your studios this approach to accessibility, and give your staff the time and money to make these sorts of changes a standard going forwards for all of your first party games. I know it won’t be easy, but you’ve done something amazing here, and I can only dream of a world where all your big budget games are this playable by this many players.