Originally released for the PlayStation 3 back in June 2013, The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, a father whose daughter died during the first night of a zombie-like outbreak, trying to help Ellie, a girl with seeming immunity to the spreading plague, to cross the United States safely under his protection and guidance.
While the original game set benchmarks for narrative presentation in video games, it’s the sequel, The Last of Us: Part 2, that we tend to talk about a lot more often here on this channel.
The second game in the series marked a notable step forward in tems of software accessibility for PlayStation first party studios, with the introduction of a series of disability presets, huge numbers of in depth customisable settings, a series of tools designed to ensure the game was playable start to finish by sightless blind players, and the introduction of High Contrast Mode to help ensure important game elements were more easily visible by disabled players.
The Last of Us: Part 2 deservedly received a lot of praise for the strides it achieved in terms of creating a new standard for accessibility in AAA video games, but that isn’t to say that the game didn’t feature room for improvement in terms of accessibility. It was probably the peak of accessibility in the AAA industry, but there were areas where it still had room to improve.
Back in September of 2020, we published an episode of Access-Ability discussing the fact that, while The Last of Us: Part 2 was playable from start to finish by sightless blind players, due to a lack of audio descriptions, those players were often lacking in context as they progressed through some of the game’s plot.
Story told through spoken dialogue was communicated to players who could not see the screen, but any other storytelling, from environmental descriptions to non verbal actions taken by characters, were not communicated in an audio format.
So, when it was announced that The Last of Us: Part 1’s PS5 remake would be incorporating most, if not all, of the accessibility settings found in Part 2 into the original 2013 game, alongside adding new features including Audio Descriptions for cutscenes, it seemed like Part 1 Remake might not only bring the original game in line with Part 2, but perhaps in some regards surpass it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a review copy of The Last of Us: Part 1 on PS5 for the past couple of weeks, and have dedicated much of my time with the game to checking out the new accessibility feature additions. While I can confirm that the game does meet and exceed the accessibility support seen in The Last of Us: Part 2 in many regards, my review isn’t quite that simple, and in some ways the small steps forward taken serve to highlight just how far we still truly are from making a AAA game fully accessible to sightless blind players, and how much potential room there still is for improvement, even within the industry’s premier example of accessible design.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about the accessibility settings found in The Last of Us: Part 1 on PS5. We’re going to talk about what new settings have been added compared to The Last of Us 2, in what ways those new settings are helpful, and in which ways they’re still falling short of what our industry ideally should be aiming toward.
I’m not going to go into incredible depth on the full range of accessibility settings found in The Last of Us: Part 1 on PS5 in this video, as we discussed most of them during a recent video reporting on leaked settings menu screenshots, and in our review of the accessibility settings in The Last of Us 2, both of which I will link in the video description down below.
While I will attempt to summarise most of the important settings included in the game, the short version for people who have played The Last of Us 2 is that basically every accessibility setting from that game makes a return here unchanged, or with only very minor tweaks. Gameplay has not been modernised or updated to match The Last of Us 2 however, so some accessibility settings will be a little less useful than they were in Part 2, a game designed with these settings in mind from the start.
The Last of Us: Part 1 starts the initial boot of the game with an accessibility quick start menu, with text to speech turned on by default to help navigate these early menus. Players can pick between vision, audio, or motor disability presets, with the ability to tweak individual settings later from the main accessibility menu.
High Contrast Mode returns, still able to be switched on and off with a quick swipe of the touchpad, and the game is mechanically playable start to finish by sightless blind players, with a couple of infuriating moments unfortunately sprinkled in where a degree of trial and error may be needed to proceed, much like was the case with The Last of Us 2, if anything a little worse here.
One early example of a moment of developer oversight for sightless players comes when Joel is required to help a character move a bookshelf aside. The game will navigate the player toward the bookshelf, let them know they need to press triangle to interact with an object, but will then fail to give the player context for the fact they’re pushing a bookshelf, or tell them they need to push the bookshelf to the right to progress, requiring some analogue stick trial and error, listening out for sounds that signify progress. This was an occasional issue in The Last of Us 2, and has not been fully resolved in Part 1 on PS5. If anything, issues like this come up a bit more often in Part 1.
Additionally, sometimes you’ll reach an objective, as directed by the game’s progression pathing tools, and be unable to progress, but not be told why via audio assistance, only on screen text. Often this is because a scene requires the player to kill enemies in an area before they can progress, but this isn’t always communicated as audio, and can cause some early points of frustration.
Additionally, Part 1 Remake sometimes fails to properly prioritise audio when game dialogue and accessibility dialogue are triggered at the same time. Neither set of dialogue is paused, and in many cases accessibility audio will be lowered in volume, near muted, while narrative dialogue remains at full volume.
An example of this in my review playthrough occurred when dialogue explaining for the first time that a sightless player can access a skip puzzle prompt in the pause menu was, for me, spoken over by in-game narrative dialogue, and was not repeated.
I really feel like accessibility focused audio prompts need to take priority over any other audio, even if that means automatically pausing the game momentarily to ensure that prompt can be delivered uninterrupted, or in a worst case scenario lowering narrative audio volume to make sure that the accessibility prompt isn’t missed.
Furthermore, there does not seem to be a way to change the fact that character dialogue volume during gameplay is impacted by your distance away from a character, and whether or not you’re facing them. This is not ideal for sightless players, as the game’s navigation tools are designed to point you toward progress, enemies, or items, not friendly NPCs, sometimes making it difficult to work out how to get closer to a character to improve their dialogue volume.
Lastly, the prompt telling disabled players that they can skip a puzzle does not in any way describe the puzzle that may need skipping, why it may be tricky, or give any context for what was skipped if you choose to skip over that content.
The game is possible for sightless players to complete unassisted, much like The Last of Us 2, but there are definitely areas where developer Naughty Dog failed to do enough to assist in that experience, both in terms of gameplay instructions and narrative context, a theme we will revisit later in this video when we discuss the game’s new audio descriptions.
It is possible to get through the game, but there are moments of frustration that could have been improved.
In-game controls in The Last of Us: Part 1 Remake can be fully remapped, with presets available for one handed play, setups for left handed or right handed players, with settings allowing for the controller to be oriented sideways or upside down if needed, with analogue stick directions reoriented.
On paper, basically everything that made The Last of Us: Part 2’s accessibility settings praiseworthy returns, and nothing is omitted, or made less accessible, than it was in that title. The only downsides are where the original game’s design doesn’t perfectly mesh with the accessibility tools, and things haven’t been changed to, sort of, fix that.
Now, let’s get onto some of the more noticeable new additions unique to Part 1.
Players who need to zoom in on areas of the screen during gameplay can now double tap the controller’s touchpad, holding down the second tap until a desired degree of zoom is achieved, moving the zoomed area of the screen selected by dragging a finger around on the touchpad, and returning to a full unzoom with a second doubletap. The only downside to this zoom feature is that subtitles do not adjust to your new zoomed in perspective, meaning while zoomed in subtitles may no longer be visible on screen.
Players can also swipe the touchpad to slow down the game speed, both during gameplay and cutscenes. While the setting is an appreciated addition, it doesn’t feature any degree of customizability, only supporting one speed of slowdown which is predetermined.
In one REALLY interesting addition, players can use the PlayStation 5 controller’s haptic rumble feature to play in game dialogue as vibration through the controller. This is designed to allow deaf and hard of hearing players who may be able to read dialogue subtitles, but not hear spoken dialogue, to get a sense of the way that a line is being spoken, both in terms of pacing and vocal delivery.
If a character is speaking angrily, shouting, whispering, or trying to hold back emotions that keep breaking through, the intention is to use vibration to convey that, so that deaf and hard of hearing players can pick up on some of the nuances of narrative delivery, rather than needing to intuit that information from context.
In theory, the hope is that this should serve a similar purpose to when Forza Horizon 5 introduced British and American Sign Language interpreter support to cutscenes earlier this year, giving deaf and hard of hearing players better insight into tone and pacing of dialogue.
While I am not in a position to review the quality of this setting, or whether it succeeds at this aim as well as sign language interpreter support would have done, it is really interesting to see this setting, as I have not seen any other developer attempt it, and I will be eagerly looking out for reviews from deaf and hard of hearing players once this review embargo lifts. I will try to share one in the comments on this YouTube video as soon as possible.
Lastly, let’s talk about the big new feature, cinematic audio descriptions during cutscenes.
While the execution of audio descriptions in The Last of Us: Part 1 is an undeniable step forward for the series, its subpar inclusion only really serves to highlight how many places it’s still lacking, and how much of the game’s narrative is not, and really should be, accessible to sightless blind players.
Audio Descriptions in Part 1 Remake are exclusive to entirely hands off cutscenes, and not present at any point in the game where the player has control of the camera, regardless of level of linearity. This means that any moment where the player is either actively in control of the character, or scenes where the player can control the camera but the events playing are out pre scripted, feature no audio descriptions at all. This is, unfortunately, the vast majority of the game.
When audio descriptions are present, the quality of their execution is superb in helping to flesh out the narrative, but the rarity with which they appear is a real disappointment.
Now, I do understand the reality that audio descriptions are a lot easier to implement in cutscenes where the player does not have any control at all than they are in moments of interactive gameplay, but there are so many scenes in this game where basic audio descriptions could easily have been inserted, but are not, and it’s honestly pretty infuriating.
Let’s take this early car ride scene for example. Joel’s daughter is in the back of a car, simply looking around while Joel and his brother Tommy talk to each other. The scene is pre scripted, and would have been a perfect scene to add audio descriptions to, painting the scene for players that the world is falling into panic and chaos as the beginnings of an infection outbreak spread. The scene features zero audio descriptions.
Or, in terms of gameplay settings, when playing The Last of Us: Left Behind, a short additional story defined by its setting inside an abandoned shopping centre, the audio descriptions never ONCE mention the story’s physical setting, the joy and frivolity juxtaposed against the ruins of war and violence barely outside, that I would say is integral to the tone that the story is trying to convey.
When Ellie and Riley break into an abandoned halloween store, and Riley jumps out at Ellie to jumpscare her wearing a spooky mask, none of that is communicated to the player, despite the scene being an “in engine” cutscene where player control is temporarily taken away. Moments like that I would define as cutscenes in practice, but they are not considered cutscenes for the purposes of audio description.
It feels like it should have been possible to insert triggers into the game world which activate basic audio descriptions, even if just to describe new locations entered by the player. Even if not, I wish that perhaps Naughty Dog could have allowed simple descriptions of locations to be included when blind players swipe up on the touchpad, triggering verbal descriptions of their crouch state, ammo count, health, and other gameplay information.
There are so many scenes that would have a far greater impact if just a few simple words of description were provided to players. For example, there’s an early scene where Joel is swimming through water, that never gives sightless players the context that they’re swimming through a flooded subway station, filled with the remains of crashed train cars, long since derailed.
Even something as simple as starting combat encounters with a brief description of who you’re shooting at, for example police searching for people who have escaped their allocated quarantine zone, would help to provide much needed context for players whose primary experience of the game is audio.
Additionally, at some points the audio description actively lies to the player, or fails to give them accurate information, such as an opening title card displaying “The Last of Us: Part 1”, but the audio description only stating that it says “The Last of Us”. This may seem like a minor discrepancy, but for players who are relying on audio descriptions to accurately communicate visual information, a degree of accuracy is important to provide, and this kind of inaccuracy seems like a really needless alteration..
While the cutscene audio descriptions present undoubtedly are an improvement compared to The Last of Us 2, they fall incredibly short of what should have been the goal, true audio descriptions that help make the entire narrative able to be followed by sightless players. They are a step forward, but they are a baby step, and far from the industry standard defining example that many had hoped they might be.
I recognise that I have spent a LOT of time in this review sounding VERY negative about the accessibility settings in The Last of Us: Part 1, but I want to be clear that, despite any issues I’ve raised in this video, I do still think it’s one of the most accessible AAA video games available to date for disabled gamers. It is a game Naughty Dog should be proud of, and one that other game developers should be looking toward for inspiration on how things should be done.
I bring these criticisms up not to suggest that Naughty Dog don’t care about accessibility, or aren’t trying hard enough, or deserve to feel bad, but because they are circling so close to perfection, and the things that need fixing and improving are so manageable, that I really think with a little bit or constructive feedback they could really create something close to perfection in this space.
The things I am criticising are issues, but issues that can be overcome, and present a golden opportunity to bring our medium more in line with media such as movies in terms of sightless blind accessibility support.
The Last of Us: Part 2 took incredible leaps forward for AAA gaming accessibility, and deserved all of the uncritical praise it received for that. But, we’re now a few years removed from that game’s release, and while Part 1 is on paper more accessible, it also feels like now is a more reasonable time to ask for better going forward.
The fact that both games in the series are now technically playable from start to finish by sightless players is fantastic, but we can be doing more to improve their experience. Audio descriptions in cutscenes are groundbreaking, but we can’t sit back and consider that a job completed. Players deserve at the very least descriptions of locations, and moments where a visual element is crucial to understanding the tone of an interaction.
If all of these new accessibility updates had been added as a free update to the already existing releases of The Last of Us, rather than being sold as part of a £60 new release, I would probably be a lot more willing to praise these additions, and less likely to criticise what is lacking. But, when these accessibility settings are being made exclusive to a new full priced release, and used as a major selling point, it feels worthwhile to be critical of them under that light.
If someone buys this game because of the addition of audio descriptions, I truly believe they’re likely to be disappointed by how scarcely they’re used throughout the narrative.
If this truly is a ground up remake, it feels like Naughty Dog could have baked in triggers to make sure that audio descriptions could show up during gameplay, the same way that NPC conversations crop up as you walk through the world. If you’re remaking the game from scratch, I would really have expected more of an effort to incorporate audio descriptions into more aspects of the game.
If you’d like to hear more in depth thoughts about the accessibility on offer in this remake of The Last of Us: Part 1, I have also posted to this YouTube channel a half hour video chat with Steve Saylor, a blind gamer and accessibility advocate, about his thoughts on The Last of Us: Part 1’s accessibility settings, and generally our shared thoughts on how this title fits into the current state of gaming accessibility.
I am glad this remake of The Last of Us: Part 1 exists, and that it is as accessible as it is, but I would really like to see Naughty Dog, in future, take some big steps forward to improve the experience for sightless blind players, and get one step closer to that accessibility benchmark they are so close to becoming.
I am critical because I think they are close to perfection, not because I think they’ve failed.