On June 19, The Last of Us Part II launched. A Sony first-party PS4 exclusive developed by Naughty Dog and a game that comes with over 60 accessibility features. It’s a game that has taken the disabled gaming community by storm just through perhaps reading Sony’s blog post, or maybe reading our review, or hell, maybe Steve’s emotional reaction to seeing the sheer number of options available. As the game drew closer to launch, I spoke with some of the consultants who were invited to the studio to help shape the accessibility features into what would become an incredibly important step for the industry.
The Last of Us Part II Accessibility in gaming has been growing over the years; Ubisoft’s stunning step forward with Assassin’s Creed Origins, Matt Makes Games’ incredible assist mode in Celeste, that intuitive ping system in Respawn Entertainment’s Apex Legends. With The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog worked with consultants to ensure that its highly anticipated sequel was going to be a game that a wider audience could play.
“Naughty Dog emphasized the significance of accessibility, making it one of their top priorities during production” Morgan Baker said. Baker is a Deaf accessibility specialist and explained that Naughty Dog “…decided to take an Own Voices approach, where they actively recruited consultants of varying disability backgrounds who are experts in gaming accessibility.”
Baker explained how the developers at Naughty Dog listened to her and showed a genuine interest in understanding how the studio could make the game more accessible and why accessibility features are important to disabled players.
“I felt both heard and was able to see my suggestions come to life, which is truly something special. This approach is the future of accessibility, and I hope other developers are paying attention and will consider taking a similar approach.”
Upon reflecting on her time at the studio, she recalled the moment she saw the accessibility options in The Last of Us Part II. “I remember when we first added directional subtitles, I nearly fell out of my chair with excitement And the blind features? It’s unprecedented,” She noted. “[They] put so much effort into making this game what it is…I feel grateful to be a part of the process and am glad that my niche background came in handy.”
“Being deaf, video games can easily become un-immersive. When you have a story-based game like The Last of Us Part II, that is the absolute last thing you want to happen,” she said. “I always found myself experiencing hearing fatigue with what little hearing I have, as I am constantly trying to decipher combat vs. dialogue, as well as how the sounds I can hear correlate to what is on my screen. It’s actively exhausting.”
Baker detailed that “The Last of Us Part II‘s listed features aim to achieve fully immersive gameplay for any level of hearing. Between directional subtitles, visual cues, and awareness indicators, I hope that the Deaf community will enjoy equal access to the gameplay.“
“It is a HUGE honor, and even that feels like an understatement,” Brandon Cole said when describing how it felt to have been included as a member of the consulting team for The Last of Us Part II.
“The feelings that I have are indescribable. Saying that I was a part of shaping the accessibility features doesn’t quite cut it. I mean, it does cut it from a technical standpoint, but you have to consider that this isn’t just a huge AAA game, it is the FIRST AAA game EVER to feature full blind accessibility,” Cole said. “I have changed the entire gaming industry for my particular community. I have witnessed a shift in their outlook on games over the past couple of weeks since this got announced. I have witnessed blind gamers buying PS4’s just for this. I truly feel I’ve done a great and powerful thing here.”
Additionally, Cole noted that he would be making a dream a reality by being able to finally stream himself playing a game for his sighted fiance rather than the other way around. As planned, Cole was able to stream The Last of Us Part II.
The gaming industry seems to be becoming a lot more vocal about the features they’re implementing to aid disabled gamers.
“We’ve got more studios forming accessibility teams, we’ve got things like Ubisoft’s accessibility-focused videos. Yeah, we are starting to truly be heard,” Cole said. “It is a game that can’t be ignored, and will mean that major, major accessibility support is out there in the world, easily accessed by developers looking to make their own products accessible.”
Ian Hamilton is an accessibility specialist well known in the a11y community who also consulted on The Last of Us Part II. He elaborated on the work Naughty Dog has done for blind gamers. “Trying to understand how a game might be playable without visuals can be difficult for sighted developers to get their heads around, but seeing something in action will really help with that. And not just through what the features do, what the features DON’T do is important for other devs to learn from too. Through looking at what the features don’t cover, developers can see how much important information the game already communicates through audio by default.”
That in turn can give you a better grasp of what the starting point is for your own games, what kind of information is already there that could be built upon further. It’s far easier for a developer to be starting from the perspective of what kind of info is being communicated in what way than from the perspective of ‘huh? Blind gamers? Playing ‘video’ games?’
Efforts to communicate a complex, or 3D environment with blind gamers isn’t a new concept as Hamilton said, referencing Terraformers from 2004 and PowerUp from 2008. But how Naughty Dog has gone about making these features for The Last of Us Part II is “a whole other ballgame.”
“Games that have huge awareness amongst both players and other developers can do enormous good through the influence that they wield,” he said. “Every one of these big-name games that pushes the bar for inclusion impacts the work of many other developers. We saw that super clearly from Naughty Dog’s last game, Uncharted 4, the accessibility features in that had an enormous influence on the industry in general.”
“So that’s absolutely my hope – my expectation – for the future. That the Super Trouper spotlight Naughty Dog are shining on the possibilities for blind gamers will have a profound impact on the rest of the industry, and in doing so mark a really significant turning point in the history of game accessibility.”
Hamilton continued: “For other developers the idea of matching what TLOU2 has – across all aspects of accessibility – may feel overwhelming. But it’s really not about a bar being set to hit or miss. What matters is how much of a game’s potential audience can have an enjoyable experience. And how to arrive at that point isn’t a case of reaching a desirable number of options. Figuring that out is an optimization process.”
“A blank screen doesn’t contain accessibility barriers, the barriers only come into existence through the decisions that designers and developers make. Each game has its own unique set of barriers, some a necessary part of what the game is, and many unintended unnecessary barriers. This means that a game may be more accessible than TLOU2 but with fewer options; another game may have more options yet not be as accessible”
“And also this isn’t Naughty Dog’s first rodeo. It is incredibly rare for a studio to ace accessibility on their first attempt,” he said. However, he explained that he’s witnessed developers across industries “doing nothing, out of fear of being unable to do everything,” and as such, his advice is simply “do something. Anything. Pick some low hanging fruit.” The result of doing even the smallest thing, “will simply mean more players can enjoy your game.”
He added that through making those first efforts, developers will learn a great deal about the feature development itself, about the process and workflow involved, and about community engagement.
“You’ll be able to take that experience through into your next game, allowing you to do more and better, earlier cheaper and easier. And that’s Naughty Dog’s secret sauce, the thing they said allowed them to achieve what they did; they took what they previously learned and applied it earlier in development.”
Hamilton mentioning Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 was fitting because Josh Straub, who has a physical disability and is the founder of DAGERSystem, not only had a hand on The Last of Us Part II, but also on Uncharted 4 and appeared in an accessibility video from the studio. Straub noted that he has personally witnessed a positive shift toward accessibility features since his time consulting on Uncharted 4 which launched back in 2016.
“Absolutely. It’s a key part of my philosophy that in order to implement accessibility properly, a developer has to know their limitations both in resources and in time,” he said.
“[The] impressive thing that Naughty Dog did was they prioritized accessibility in such a way that they were still able to produce a polished game that was supported by an industry-leading set of accessibility features.”
With games becoming more inclusive as more studios take accessibility initiatives, Straub discussed how the industry is changing because of voices such as his and other advocates.
“I would never say that any individual change is due specifically to my voice, although I have had the honor to contribute to accessibility initiatives in various games, but I can say that we are in the midst of a shift within the industry away from the subjective perspectives of individual consultants answering the question of “can I play this game?” and more towards the objective empirical science behind accessibility.”
Paul Amadeus Lane was another consultant on The Last of Us Part II and has a physical disability. When he had started consulting, he had an idea of where to take the discussion as far as mobility-challenged accessibility features. However, he said that it wasn’t until looking at the project in more detail that he saw the blind and deaf accessibility features, of which he said, “just blew me away.”
Inspired by my #disabled #media bro @stevesaylor this my reaction during my review of #TheLastofUsPart2 Once I saw the #a11y menu it was game on!— Paul Amadeus Lane (@Amadeus2k) June 17, 2020
As a disabled member of the media this has allowed me to do my job & review with no boundaries. Thank u @Naughty_Dog & @PlayStation pic.twitter.com/0ZiWBAV2mB
“Sometimes in the consulting world, we could develop a myopic view of accessibility. Keeping the focus just on the challenges that we may face from a motor skill that we may lack, or other types of challenges or disabilities we may have,“ Lane explained. “As we progressed in the project I came to realize that this was something that needed to be applauded and celebrated. The amount of Accessibility options are truly groundbreaking.”
For those who are disabled and may have been skeptical about enjoying a game, or even thinking about gaming in general, Lane believes that The Last of Us Part II “will encourage others in the disabled community who never thought of taking up gaming because of fear of failure. They are now able to join this amazing community of Gaming with little or no barriers.“
“I think the bar now has been raised for other development studios to follow the same example,“ Lane said. “Gaming should always be a challenging experience. However, it should never be a frustrating experience.“ He mentioned that there’s always a mutual determining factor whenever he has discussions with other disabled gamers. “That is that we never fully get to enjoy the gaming experience because of the anxiety of making sure that we are able to use every function of the controller, hear different cues, see everything on the screen, read descriptions, control characters or experiences. This list can go on for days. It shows the need to make sure the gaming is inclusive for all.
“Games are not free and you want to make sure that everyone is able to enjoy their investment.“
For Lane, he believes the video games industry has been changed forever with the release of The Last of Us Part II. “I believe this will go down in history in the gaming world with the transformation accessibility menu and gaming experience.”
Similar to Brandon Cole, Lane was able to meet a new milestone in his life as a gamer. While Cole was finally able to play a game for his fiance, Lane said that “The Last of Us Part II was the first game I ever completed without any help from family or friends.”
“What Naughty Dog accomplished was laying the foundation and should be looked at for motivation from developers both large and small.” James Rath, a legally blind accessibility advocate said. “When developers look back at their own titles in development they should consider what design aspects would alienate audiences. It’s important to remember disability isn’t exclusive to any one person.”
Rath is also a filmmaker, and he explained how he’d want to still experience his films should his blindness increase, or even if he started to experience hearing loss. ”That is why I’m taking the steps to design my films with accessibility in mind. I think it’s important to make your content accessible today so you or others can enjoy it tomorrow.”
With the standards of accessibility in a video game being set through The Last of Us Part II, Rath notes that he expects other Sony first-party titles to incorporate accessibility features going forward. He explained how he hopes that Sony makes use of the features, such as using the zoom function that works with the DualShock 4 touchpad. “[I hope they use] it on a system-level zoom that can interact with any game and not just the OS or first-party titles.”
“I understand different people and studios work on these varying games, but I do hope a level of consistency will come with first-party titles when it comes to accessibility in this upcoming generation,” Rath said.
Reaching out to consultants
For these consultants, helping explain their disabilities to developers is something they’re happy to do. But developers might wonder how to even reach out to, or find them.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out! If we are not available to help, we always know another person who can be. Our network is strong, so please use it!” Morgan Baker said, mentioning the a11y network that thrives on Twitter with active consultants.
Brandon Cole advised that advocates and consultants are vocal and that developers can “Look on forums like audiogames.net.” He added that “if you have friends on development teams who have hired us in the past, ask them for our contact info and shoot us an email. No matter how it’s done, we are ready to work for devs.”
James Rath clarifies that while advocates are happy to help, compensation is worthwhile for their time. He used himself as an example, “Be sure you pay for our time, expertise, and experiences. When I do accessibility consulting, it’s a lot for me visually. I strain my eyes to no end for long hours and I shouldn’t be expected to be put into that position for free labor.” He also noted that by being part of the community, he name drops other consultants whenever he can to developers, but encourages developers to get involved with discussions online.
Paul Lane told me that advocates and consultants have different experiences, “I had several years of gaming with no barriers but after my accident that left me a quadriplegic, I had to learn how to play games with my disability. This allows me to have a different perspective than someone who may have been disabled from birth or early in childhood. “
“It’s important to stress though that it’s not just about getting a few experienced consultants in to help.” Ian Hamilton said, “There are three key pillars, three main tools to help developers understand the size and shape of the problem that needs solving, and help you through the problem solving process:
- Advice and support from specialists
- Existing documentation on good practices, like gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, or APX, or CIPT’s guides
- Community engagement, through social media, user research, forums, betas etc
Each one of those three pillars has its own strengths and weaknesses. If you can do any one of them you’ll make a big difference to your game. But if you can do more than one, or even all three, their individual strengths cancel out each other’s weaknesses and you stand the best possible chance of your vision reaching as many players as possible.”
Hamilton also states that developers should pay advocates, consultants and testing participants, “Whether it’s consultancy or user research people’s time spent to help you improve your game has value.”
With The Last of Us Part II, accessibility efforts from previous games had been carried over and thought about early in development. Accessibility consultants and advocates have been brought in to the studio to further educate the developer’s knowledge and understanding. As a result, the accessibility features have had a huge impact on disabled gamers, with abled players, developers, and mainstream media taking notice of how important the efforts made are.
The Last of Us Part II has set a new standard for accessibility, and the result is that more players are able to experience the game with these features. It’s not perfect, and there are barriers for some disabilities, especially when it comes down to hardware-level accessibility, but it’s certainly a groundbreaking step forward.