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.
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.
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.
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.
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.