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Accessibility in gaming should be the rule, not the exception

Naughty Dog's exemplar treatment of Uncharted 4 shouldn't be so unusual

Hats off to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End developer Naughty Dog. Not only have they created a critical and commercial smash hit, that is widely being referred to as one of the finest games ever made, but they have taken pro-active steps to ensure that their farewell to Nathan Drake can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Specifically, we're talking accessibility features.

In a rather sweet and honest video released by Sony last week, a number of the Naughty Dog development team recount the story of how they brought accessibility features - that were partially implemented for The Last Of Us - to Uncharted 4, following a fan's revelation that he simply could not complete Uncharted 2 without the assistance of an able-bodied person, to help him get past a series of button-mashing door openings in the final chapters.

That fan, incidentally, is Josh Straub. Josh is the editor-in-chief of the incredibly informative website DAGER System, that not only reviews games on whether they're any good, but also whether they present any specific challenges for players with disabilities.

While a huge amount of credit is due to Naughty Dog, who have gone to such lengths to ensure improved accessibility for their game - and I'm not wanting to take anything away from their achievement, believe me - there is something quietly perverse about the situation. We find ourselves heaping praise upon a developer for going the extra mile in the sphere of accessibility in games, that in most other industries would be considered the bare minimum.

Let's take rail travel as an example. If you want to travel by train, you'll find that every inch of that journey has been accounted for in terms of accessibility: there will be ramps or flat-level access to the station; you'll find ramps or elevators to avoid the use of stairs; low-height ticket machines will be available for wheelchair users; signs will carry Braille and kiosks will have text-to-speech facilities; ramps can be unfurled to bridge the gap between platform and train, and priority seating (or wheelchair space) will be available in the carriage.

Rail travel is a very perfunctory activity, though, whose primary concern is getting people from A to B. Gaming on the other hand is purely for entertainment purposes, so it could logically follow that accessibility to transit is deemed more essential or important than entertainment. In the recreation space modern movie theatres all have step-free access, and the movies displayed will often have the option of subtitled screenings or even audio descriptions for the blind; while sports stadia and concert halls have specific seating and wheelchair areas for disabled patrons, to ensure they have as good a view of the action as everyone else.

The UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which has since been repealed and subsumed by the significantly more complex (and far less easy to parse, hence our referral to its predecessor) Equality Act 2010, states that duties on service providers are as follows:

  • Since 2 December 1994 - It has been unlawful for service providers to treat disabled people less favourably for a reason related to their disability;
  • Since 1 October 2002 - Service providers have had to make 'reasonable adjustments' for disabled people, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way they provide their services.
  • Since 1 October 2004 - Service providers may have to make other 'reasonable adjustments' in relation to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.

And in this context Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment - like the rail companies and the movie theatres - are service providers. They produce a product or service and you hand over some of your hard-earned cash to make use of, and hopefully enjoy, said product. While they're not obliged to make sure you like their product, they are required to make 'reasonable adjustments' to allow less physically able gamers to at least have the same access to their titles as everyone else. It's even worse if you do love their game - like Straub did, with Uncharted 2 - and are unable to complete it because accessibility in gaming is sadly streets behind almost every other industry.

What is on the face of it an overwhelmingly positive intervention by Naughty Dog perhaps only seems like such an astounding leap forward, in terms of equality and accessibility, when considered against the backdrop of an industry that has been passive to the point of non-consideration when it comes to these issues.

One of the Naughty Dog developers in Sony's accessibility video, UI scripter Andres Ortiz, speaks of how difficult he personally found the Uncharted series multiplayer to play, given that the teams have always been red and green and he suffers from classic red/green colour-blindness. He pitched the idea of changing the green team to blue, which is a small change that makes no difference to the gameplay itself, yet has allowed for Uncharted 4's multiplayer to be far more accessible. Sometimes it's a simple thing that makes all the difference.

To be fair to the games industry for a moment, subtitling and remappable controls are relatively commonplace, and colour-blindness is one of the most widely-addressed accessibility issues - with everything from MOBAs and card games, through to strategy titles and that interminable hacking minigame from BioShock 2 causing red/green bother - but it's remarkable that even the most forward-thinking developer like Naughty Dog didn't realise they had a problem with multiplayer colours until a colour-blind developer joined their team in 2014, or with accessibility in general until a fan raised it as a red flag.

That's not to say that all areas of accessibility in videogames are being neglected, however. There is a growing market for audio games - ostensibly games for the blind, which seems like a bonkers notion in a medium with the word 'video' in its name - that are growing in number and quality each year. Many take the format of an adventure game guided by narration, rather like a choose-your-own-adventure book or a classic text-based adventure like Zork, with the player making choices as to their character's progress. The likes of Sean Bean and Benedict Cumberbatch have lent their vocal talents to audio games in recent years too, which only helps raise their profile and bring them towards the mainstream. Audio games are becoming increasingly sophisticated, including elements like puzzles and combat - something which seems untenable without the aid of a visual display - but it's the quality of the audio cues and the improvements to the overall production values that make all the difference.

There could be a tendency to err on the side of horror, given that a lack of sight makes for a terrifying prospect for those of us who have never experienced it, but it is important that audio games don't swap one sort of exclusivity for another. It would be wrong to doubly punish visually-impaired gamers with horror-only titles, and similarly, it would reduce the potential accessibility of these games for sighted players - whether through sheer idle curiosity, or because they are worthy games in their own right - by boiling down the lack of vision to a petrifying and lonely experience.

Accessibility works both ways in this respect and audio RPG Three Monkeys sets out to avoid these pitfalls by actively empowering the player's blindness. In a world suddenly plunged into darkness the player character - blind from birth - is thrust into a position of power; the only person equipped with the skills to save the world, and the only person not afraid of the onset of darkness. Not only is Three Monkeys an exciting prospect as a videogame in its own right and a paragon of accessibility, it actively turns the notion of disability as weakness on its head, and offers a sense of both power and agency to a long-neglected community of potential gamers.

And if you're left in any doubt as to why that's important I'll leave you with the words of Josh Straub, on why the accessibility features in Uncharted 4 are such a big deal.

"When I turn on a game like Uncharted, I'm not, you know, confined to a wheelchair... that brief period of escape is why accessibility is so crucial, because the more games that offer that, the more people with disabilities will be able to escape and have better lives."

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