The Last of Us Part II released to rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Many outlets and individuals praised the story, gameplay, and gratuitous violence, labeling it as a perfect sequel to the original entry. Alongside the cheers from able-bodied fans were disabled players, sharing their enthusiasm for a game featuring roughly 60 accessibility options. For many disabled individuals, The Last of Us Part II is the first barrier-free game to launch on consoles, proving that accessibility features can enhance a gaming experience for a variety of disabilities.
The Last of Us Part II is not developer Naughty Dog’s first venture into the realm of accessibility. In fact, their most recent title acts as years of trial and error when attempting to provide accessible settings for disabled audiences. In 2016, Naughty Dog released Uncharted 4: A Thief’s end with a dedicated accessibility menu, featuring a bevy of options. However, these features did not account for numerous barriers that often accompany each game.
“For Uncharted 4, we had a bunch of different options to adjust controls, and in fact that combined with Camera Assist and Lock-on Aim made it possible to play the game almost entirely using one hand. But even still, it fell pretty far short of a full controller remap option,” said co-lead Game Designer Emilia Schatz.
Schatz, along with Lead Systems Designer Matthew Gallant both acknowledge the journey to improve accessibility in future titles. While Uncharted 4 was a success, there was more work to be done for disabled fans.
“By the end of 2017, we had developed our first prototypes for many of the new accessibility features: text-to-speech, high contrast mode, enhanced listen mode, and navigation assistance. We had our first accessibility-centered tests in the summer of 2018 [and] scheduled regular tests with consultants and focus testers for the rest of the game’s development, Gallant said. “It was absolutely critical that we planned for these features so early in development. Not only did it allow us to allocate the necessary technical resources to tackle these challenges, but it also gave us time to solicit feedback from the community and make changes accordingly.”
Time is crucial when implementing accessibility options. Schatz and Gallant note that early development periods are key when creating and adding new features, especially when certain settings prove problematic with systemwide updates or bugs. Further, earlier development times lead to polished products, enabling disabled players to jump in on day one.
“[N]avigation Assistance and High Contrast Mode were very difficult as well. Although implementing them was relatively straight-forward, it required a studio-wide effort to make sure they worked consistently across every level in the game. Every player and enemy (and their weapons and accessories), every interactable object had to be tagged with the right color in High Contrast Mode,” said Schatz.
Alongside High Contrast Mode, Schatz discussed the laborious attempt to properly execute Navigation Assistance.
“For Navigation Assistance, it meant every moment in the game needed a registered goal, and there were a lot of hard-to-find bugs and problems to overcome related to that, especially in the more non-linear sections of the game and for things like puzzles,” Schatz said. “The design department in particular put a lot into making it work in every level.”
Text-to-speech also proved troublesome, namely due to a technological barrier, as well as guaranteeing that the feature worked with the game’s 25 available languages. Yet, despite the initial challenges, design teams, programmers, and consultants ensured that each accessible option could appropriately assist with a player’s physical or cognitive limitations.
“We want everyone to be able to play our games, and we will continue to strive to be at the forefront of accessibility in games,” said Gallant.
Thankfully for Naughty Dog, the challenge of creating many of the accessibility features is only temporary. After overcoming the initial barriers, developers begin to normalize their addition into future products. Not only does this create future games which disabled players can confidently purchase, it eases the overall production.
“Most of the features, once implemented, become just a part of our engine and workflow,” said Schatz. “And for some of the more difficult-to-implement features, we’ll find better ways of doing them so development can be more streamlined.”
Naughty Dog is not the only development studio which aims to create an accessible gaming future. Despite the roughly 60 options within The Last of Us Part II, the past two years have seen an incredible upsurge in the inclusion and acceptance of accessible titles and software. God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, the Nintendo Switch System Update 10.0.0, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey account for a mere fraction of games from studios devoting their efforts to make their products accessible. Yet, despite the competition, developers hope to share their techniques and findings.
“Knowledge sharing is critical to the advancement of accessibility support across the games industry,” said Gallant. “We have and will continue to discuss and collaborate with other developers and studios who are also striving to provide better accessibility features for players.”
Schatz echoed that statement.
“[I] hope that Naughty Dog’s investment in accessibility saves that guesswork for other developers, allowing them the development time to include and even improve on these features for their own games.”
Opinions of the narrative aside, The Last of Us Part II is accessible perfection, one which should be praised and copied. For many disabled individuals, gaming is the only means of interacting with other cultures, nations, and people, especially from within the comfort and safety of their own homes. When barriers plague a title, disabled gamers are left out of experiencing a cultural phenomenon, thus highlighting their differences, and prohibiting their sense of normalcy. A barrier-free game is more than mere entertainment. It’s proof that disabled voices are actively being heard.
“So many of us believe that games are something special, that they offer a means of personal engagement with narrative that is unrivaled in any other artistic medium,” said Schatz. “As creators advancing games as a way of telling stories, it’s incumbent on us to also remedy the ways our medium falls short. Games should be for everyone.”