steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_264017114_preview

A few months back I was introduced to an indie sci-fi horrror game called Spirits of Xanadu that really caught my attention. Set on a dormant spaceship above an unknown world, the game tasks you with exploring the ship, picking up guns, blasting away robots and unraveling a well written mystery regarding the fate of the ship’s crew.

However, none of that was what made the game stick in mind. As well written as the narrative was and as interesting as the environment was to explore, I was most intrigued by the game’s inclusion of a “peaceful” mode. When you play on Peaceful, the puzzle and exploration gameplay remain intact, the narrative remains cohesive, but combat is entirely removed from the game.

While probably not the core reason for its inclusion, the fact the game offered a mode with features stripped out got me thinking about the potential for increasing video game narrative accessibility through optional reduction of mechanics.

So, let’s address the obvious elephant in the room. This is a hard idea to sell to game developers. I’m basically asking developers to create entire sets of mechanics, then give players the option to completely ignore them. That’s scary from a development resource standpoint. Still, I think it’s an interesting enough game design concept to look at in some depth.

The concept of increasing video game accessibility through mechanic reduction isn’t an entirely new concept, but rather something that a number of games over the past few years have dipped their toe into. While surface level examples like Guitar Hero limiting the number of buttons required by the player are plentiful, examples like Spirits of Xanadu are far fewer and further between. Spirits of Xanadu removes an entire genre from its mechanic set, allowing people who struggle with FPS gameplay in real time to still be able to explore the games other mechanics at their leisure.

So, let’s talk about another interesting example of this that actually only came to exist earlier this month. A couple of weeks back on August 19th, Square Enix released a port of Final Fantasy VII for iOS. What was particularly notable about this port of the game was that it has an optional mode where all of the non story combat is removed and leveling progression is adjusted to accommodate. You only fight narrative related boss fights, you still gain your normal skills and abilities. The battles are still as difficult as they originally were. The only difference is you cut out the level grinding, leaving only boss battles.

Imagine a world where grinding is a thing of the past.

Imagine a world where grinding is a thing of the past.

While I was mainly interested in this as a fan of the game looking to quickly replay the narrative, I recently realised that it also opens up this particular JRPG to a whole host of players who simply didn’t have the seventy hours in their schedule to experience it in its original state. It’s all well and good stating that people could play through the game over a number of months if they’re short on free time, but that can highly dilute the play experience and narrative pace compared to the experience others get.

By giving players the option to remove content from the game, Square Enix have opened the gameplay, it’s most impressive moments and it’s narrative to a whole host of players who might otherwise have been able to experience it. It’s not accessibility as we normally consider the concept, but it’s hard to deny that it’s allowing a wider net of players to experience the core of the experience and discuss it with their contemporaries.

Lastly, indie survival horror game The Forest features a mode called Vegan Mode, which allows players to disable one of the game’s enemy types until the start of the next game session. What this allows players who are feeling overwhelmed to do is to gather resources in safety, building themselves back to a point where they feel up to once again engaging with the cannibals on the island. While the mode removes cannibals, it still leaves sharks and hunger as potential threats to the player. The player still has challenges, but they are able to opt into having a more relaxed experience until they feel ready to start engaging with that enemy type again.

This not only allows players who feel overwhelmed and might otherwise quit playing to get back on their feet, but also offers a respite from some of the game’s tension for players in the mood for a more relaxed experience while still progressing.

No thank you cannibals, not today.

No thank you cannibals, not today.

While these examples by themselves might not seem like anything impressive, I think we as an industry woefully underestimate the potential value of allowing players to opt out of mechanics to better access the narratives and interactive experiences we all love. Ours is the only industry that mechanically restricts players from completing the works of art and commercial products we create, and we need to start thinking about ways to work around that. While books may have vocabulary usage as a barrier to entry, there are resources available to explain the meaning of words and enable continued progression. No such accessibility enabling resources exist for those lacking video game mechanic literacy, and I wonder if the examples listed above might pose a potential solution for that particular issue.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting every video game in existence needs to adopt the idea of mechanic stripping accessibility increasing measures. Games like Bloodborne rely on an understanding of core literacy within the video game medium in order to do what they do. In much the same way A Clockwork Orange is deliberately obtuse in it’s language use in a way that impacts the plot, Bloodborne with mechanics stripped out would somewhat lose what makes it the frustrating, stressful, brick punching experience that it is. Still, a lot of games could really benefit from this kind of optional mechanic stripping.

South-Park-4

Imagine a mode in South Park: The Stick of Truth that removed quick time events, opening up that particular RPG up to players with carpel tunnel, or just players like me unable to tap quickly enough to get through them. Yes, I had to get help in order to progress past at least one QTE in that game.

Imagine a mode in Journey where you can disable the tilt camera controls so players with movement conditions are able to play without the camera making unexpected movements.

Imagine a mode in Bioshock Infinite with a vast chunk of the combat removed. I know I’d have enjoyed that game a lot more with the option to strip out non set piece combat, replacing some of that with more relaxed exploration of a fascinating world.

While this certainly isn’t applicable to every game, I think we need to start thinking about mechanic stripped gameplay modes as an alternative to traditional, numbers based difficulty modes when it comes to bringing new players into our medium.

Journey-Screen-Seven

There’s also the whole topic of adding additional mechanics to game to increase accessibility, like adding a pause menu to Dark Souls as an option. I think that’s best addressed in Joe Parlock’s feature for Polygon.

So, what do you think? Is there value in offering players the option to remove mechanics or gameplay content and systems from their experience of narrative heavy video games? Is this a silly idea? I don’t honestly know, but what I do know is that I would love to hear what people think on the topic.

So, let’s start making games more accessible by picking mechanics to optionally remove.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. As someone who played Spirits of Xanadu I really appreciated the peaceful mode. My first time through I played with combat, and it was fine, I have played enough FPS that the combat didn’t hinder my gameplay experience. But Spirits of Xanadu has 3 different endings, and when I went back through to get all the alternate endings I put it on peaceful mode. I might not have replayed the game if I had to deal with the combat again.

    I for one am all for this idea in certain games. Obviously it wouldn’t work for something like League of Legends or Starcraft 2, but for a story driven, single player experience I say why not. I know there are many stories in video games that my parents would like, but their video game experience doesn’t go past solitare. Even something as simple as a quick time event would leave them helpless. With today’s game makers trying to branch out and capture the “casual gamer’ demographic, I think we might being to see this more often.

  2. I don’t think he idea’s any more silly than including content in huge RPG’s that many players are unlikely ever to see. It’s something that enhances the experience for some without taking anything away from others, and it’s even easier to argue that given all these alterations are entirely optional. I’ve certainly been looking at the FFVII IOS port since I found out it’d be less of a time commitment.

  3. From the perspective “removing difficulty/time wasters”-

    I think this depends upon how the option is presented. If presented as a difficulty mode at the start of the game (Hard – Normal – Easy – Nonviolent) then I personally will be unaffected, as I always bully myself into choosing the hardest difficulty. On the other hand, presenting the option to bypass certain mechanics as an “easy mode” might come off as patronizing or demoralizing. People who would benefit from an “easier” experience might then avoid the option, choose something too hard for them, have a bad experience and end up disliking the game.
    If it were implemented as a switch you can freely toggle as you play, well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop myself from using it. I enjoy a challenge, but when playing a game for the first time, I will choose safer strategies instead of more fun strategies, because I don’t want to lose time and progress. NieR, for example, had a combat system that is fairly fun, challenging, and engaging- then midway through the game spear-type weaponry is unlocked and I spent the rest of the game using exactly one of the spear’s attacks. The lunge proved to be reliably effective and safe and there was no reason to ever change weapons or even use any other attacks- the combat effectively became “press Y”. Without an enforced challenge, I did what was reliable and effective, and the game became boring and tedious because of this. You might say this is a problem of self control, but I don’t have all the time in the world to play games, and If I died taking an unnecessary risk I view that as lost time, or even negative progress- that is enough to negate any enjoyment from the unnecessary risk.
    The games I end up enjoying the most (on a mechanical level) are the ones that enforce a challenge, and don’t allow me to be lazy.
    I don’t really have a solution or suggestion for how to perfectly implement a mechanics bypass, I’m just musing over my approach to gaming and how someone like me might respond to different implementations.

    From the perspective “increasing physical accessibility”-

    I’m a left arm amputee, and in my experience, the absolute best way to make a game accessible is to have it on an accessible platform. PC is simply the best platform for me. I can hook up literally any peripheral device to my PC and with a little ingenuity, I can create a control scheme for any game. I generally rely on my mouse with extra buttons in tandem with this product http://stinkyboard.com/, or sometimes I’ll use an Xbox controller with the stinkyboard controlling LB and LT.
    I can get by on the Xbox and Platstation using the standard controllers because most games don’t actually use LB and LT for anything important, and Razer’s Sabertooth controller allows me to have LB and LT accessible on the right side via extra programmable buttons. There are also devices such as the XIM4 that allow me to create a control scheme for any standard USB device, and plug it into the 360/X1 PS3/PS4, so I can use the Razer Sabertooth on Playstation, or even my mouse and stinkyboard.
    …And then there’s Nintendo. There are no products for Nintendo platforms to increase accessibility; I don’t know if the userbase just isn’t interested in making this stuff or if Nintendo actively forbids it. Homebrew on the Wii actually helps me a lot- there was some work on enabling USB device support and enabling gamecube controller support for games that otherwise require the Wiimote, but Nintendo actively fights homebrew through updates that erase it from your system. The WiiU makes me anxious because I can’t actually use the tablet controller, and while many games allow me to use the “Pro” controller, it’s always demoralizing to open a new game and find out I just… can’t work it. Even though Splatoon clearly depicts “Pro controller supported” on the back of the box, this just isn’t true and I had to return the game. The Pro controller is only allowed for local matches, and only for player 2. I’m at the mercy of every individual game’s predefined control layout, and every time Nintendo announces a new system, there’s a period of time where I just don’t know if I will be physically able to play any game on it at all. The only way I’ve actually been able to play most Wii and Gamecube games is by emulating them on PC, where I have the freedom of choosing my input devices.
    Even though I have an easier time on Xbox and Playstation, I’m still relying on tools that might not exist, or (in the case of XIM) even be possible in the next generation of consoles, and I don’t expect developers to plan for my condition. The only answer to guaranteeing physical accessibility is to just end the closed, proprietary console approach; and never let any company pass any legislation that would jeopardize a developer’s right to program an emulator.

Comments are closed.

Category

Uncategorized