Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Access-Ability, it’s a show on YouTube where I talk about the video game industry, accessibility, and representation. Basically, what can we do to help more people be able to play games, and more people to see themselves in the games they play.
When it comes to video games, I love unlocking stuff. Give me a game like The Binding of Isaac, where every couple of successful playthroughs I’ll unlock a new item and then, oohh, when I play it again I find something new and that changes up my gameplay experience, I love stuff like that. I love open worlds where you can go finding lots of different stuff hidden around. I love adding to my gameplay experience by exploring a bunch, and playing more, to get more stuff to do.
However, not all video game unlockables are created equal, and today I want to talk about an issue that has been popping up more and more frequently in video games, particularly in a couple of Nintendo games recently, but it’s certainly not a Nintendo specific issue. Today, we’re going to talk about the fact that some video games have started hiding accessibility settings behind progression, or NPCs, and we’re going to talk about why that’s a problem.
In most video games, collectables and unlockables found throughout your adventure are optional extras. Maybe you can find a better weapon, or upgrade your inventory size, or dress up your character in a different outfit. These kinds of unlockable upgrades are totally fine, they reward exploration, but what should never be hidden from the player are settings that make the game more playable for disabled players.
A couple of weeks ago, we here on Access-Ability talked about the importance of customisable sound settings for hard of hearing players. You can check out the full video linked in the description below, but in summary, allowing players with partial hearing to alter the balance of their audio mix allows them to prioritise gameplay vital audio, while minimising music, or other background audio elements that may not be as important for them to hear.
In 2019’s Pokémon Sword and Shield however, players who booted up the game initially didn’t have the option to balance their game audio, and many players never found that option at all. A couple of hours into the game, after players cross the game’s first open world area and reach the second city, you can find a random NPC stood by a shop who gives you an in-game item, a pair of wireless headphones, which unlock the ability to balance your audio.
This NPC is in no way signposted. Nothing visually tells you they’re important, or that they will offer you anything but flavour text. The game never draws your attention to them. If you miss this NPC, you simply don’t get to balance your game audio in the settings menu.
Paper Mario: The Origami King, recently released by Nintendo, also featured a similarly obtuse method of unlocking settings designed to aid player progression. When you first boot up the game and check the settings menu, you’ll actually see a couple of settings menu icons listed simply with question marks. No indication what they are. No indication how you unlock them. Some settings you don’t have access to.
So, what settings has the game hidden away? Well, the missing settings are difficulty assistance settings for players who may be struggling with the game’s puzzle combat sections. You can unlock the ability to get hints about ideal enemy placement, unlock extra time to solve puzzles, and even customise how much extra time the game gives you to solve puzzles.
So, how do you unlock these difficulty tweaking settings? Well, the location to unlock them isn’t that hard to find, but there’s nothing to tell you that’s where they’re unlocked.
A few hours into The Origami king, players unlock a location called the Battle Lab in the game’s main hub world. The building features a basement where players can practice basic aspects of combat and puzzle solving. The problem is, the Battle Lab is unlocked so early in the game that most combat is still very basic, and most players will not feel the need to do extensive practice there when first unlocking it.
However, if you find yourself late game struggling in The Origami king, and could use a few menu settings to make your experience easier, you need to know to head back to The Battle Lab, and play around with the game’s training mini games until you unlock those settings. It’s never signposted that this is where you can unlock difficulty tweaking settings, and this is incredibly easy to miss.
Now, to be clear, I have no issue generally with menu settings being unlockable through progression, so long as they’re not settings that are important to helping people play your game. Hide fun unnecessary secrets in your game, rather than hiding accessibility settings.
In terms of games that do unlockable menu settings well, we can look to a game like Astral Chain, which locks completely pointless and silly menu settings behind hidden collectables. Do you want to make your HUD slightly more transparent? Do you want to change the voice of your in-game computer? Do you want to change the colour of some menu icons? These kinds of settings are hidden behind exploration, they’re easy to miss, but none of them fundamentally change the experience of playing. You can miss every one of them, and still play the game effectively.
While Nintendo has recently been the most notable company hiding accessibility settings behind gameplay progression, they are by no means the only culprits.
Looking back at The Last of Us 2 which released a few months back, one of the most useful accessibility settings the game introduced for blind and partially sighted players was high contrast mode, where swiping the PS4’s touch pad would turn the whole game greyscale, highlighting enemies in bright bold colours to make them easier to pick out from the environment.
Ghost of Tschushima also has a similar setting, but it’s locked behind gameplay progression rather than being an options setting for disabled players to select when booting up the game. By levelling up your Focused Hearing ability, players can turn the world greyscale, highlighting enemies in bright red. You have to upgrade this ability several times, each time increasing the strength of this visual effect, which is a real shame. When fully upgraded it basically functions like the previously mentioned high contrast mode, but it’s locked behind gameplay progression. If you’re a player who needs high contrast mode to make the game playable, you can’t exactly play hours of the game without that setting in order to unlock it.
While this is by no means a rampant issue in our industry, it’s one that seems to have become more common in 2020, or at the very least it’s one I have been noticing more in 2020, and it’s something we really need to keep an eye on. Settings that make your video game more playable by a wider array of people, should ideally be available right from the moment you boot up the game. Look at something like The Last of Us 2. The first time you boot up the game, you should have access to any and all settings that can make the game more playable by people with specific needs. You should not be hiding those behind progression, behind hours of gameplay, or behind NPCs that players may never find.
The more of your game that players have to play through to reach those settings, or the easier those settings are to miss, the more likely it is that someone who has a specific need will never find those settings, and will either have to stop playing your game, or will pass it over entirely.
Settings menus in video games are designed to allow players to tweak their experience, and to make the game work for them. Don’t hide accessibility settings behind gameplay, or behind NPCs that are missable. Make your game playable, right from moment one, for as many people as possible.