When it comes to accessibility features in video games, things have improved somewhat in recent years, with many developers now consciously providing elementary options that tweak the gameplay experience to better suit players of different abilities and with specific impairments. There remains much work to be done, though, to promote industry-wide understanding and communicate the vital importance of implementing these options for many gamers.
In this feature Isabelle Meyer looks at a handful of the most useful accessibility features already present in many Nintendo Switch games and identifies areas where developers and publishers could make improvements to allow a wider audience to enjoy their output. This is very much a non-definitive list, but highlights options that should really be implemented as 'industry standard' these days.
There are lots of gamers who have disabilities and, depending on their exact nature, face mild, moderate, or severe disruptions to their capability of playing video games. Some people struggle to hold specific types of controller, or can’t complete Quick Time Events due to delayed reactions. As such, buying games as a disabled gamer can be tricky — a section that one player might negotiate with ease could be a major roadblock for another, and one which the developer never intended to present such an insurmountable obstacle.
One way game developers ensure that disabled gamers are able to fully enjoy their hobby is through the inclusion of accessibility features — options that enable players to tailor the gameplay experience to their exact needs and preferences.
Even when games include accessibility features, it can still be difficult for disabled gamers to access and activate them, or get reliable information regarding their existence
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some games are developed where accessibility features either aren’t included at all (and in some cases even purposefully excluded and replaced with a “git gud” mentality that makes games harder, often for the sake of bragging rights than any specific game design reason.
Even when games include accessibility features, it can still be difficult for disabled gamers to access and activate them, or get reliable information regarding their existence. They're rarely spoken about in reviews making it much harder for those with disabilities to find out if they can play specific games. With some developers who go that 'extra mile' and include a host of accessibility features, these can be hidden away in menus or sometimes for more passive accessibility features, even locked behind paywalls/DLC.
All of this can leave disabled gamers with the dilemma of whether buying a game at all is worthwhile, especially when digital games are not easily returned (and many releases are digital-only). Even with physical returns, it's not like the old days where you could return a game for its full value even if it had been played — these days you're trading for store credit and so you've already eaten a loss just to see if you can play the thing. If the game can’t be played for whatever reason, there's often a feeling of being left out as players are unable to join in with the latest popular title and its online discourse with friend groups or wider gaming communities.
Without risking spending out on a game, a disabled gamer’s only solution is to look up reviews and hope that writers will include accessibility information in their report. This method not only heavily relies on a game being popular enough for review sites to cover, but also a degree of luck that the reviewer comments on those very specific aspects of the game — areas which it might not occur to them to highlight, but which are vitally important to some potential players.
More coverage of what's included would be a start, then, but for developers there are certain features that should really be in there from the beginning in most video games. Here are five accessibility options that we'd like to see implemented as standard (where appropriate and applicable) across any new title.
#1 Difficulty Options That Can Be Changed At Any Time
One of the simplest accessibility features that can be employed to assist disabled gamers with all manner of impairments is an adjustable difficulty level. Difficulty options have been present since the earliest video games, but not in every game — and the tendency for developers is to add more challenging modes for once you've mastered Normal.
Easier modes have slower moving enemies, higher main character HP levels, or remove Quick Time Events that are mandatory to pass certain stages. Any or all of these examples may offer disabled gamers a less taxing gameplay experience and enjoy the narrative more fully — if the game has a story, that is.
More granular difficulty options are becoming a lot more common. Even better are those games which let you alter difficulty settings at any time with no penalty rather than locking you into a fixed one-time selection — this is something that the Ys series does well. The option to change your mind during a playthrough if further through the game there's a spike — or if with the unlocking of power ups something physically hard to complete at first becomes significantly easier — is a boon for all players. An adaptable gameplay experience can also benefit those who have 'good' and 'bad' days, enabling them to make adjustments as needed so that gaming doesn’t have to be a 'good' day experience only.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes this further and allows a custom difficulty level to be built, letting players craft their own challenge to an extent. Alternatively, some games have a “Story Mode” which tones down difficulty and can even remove gameplay obstacles entirely so that players of absolutely any skill level can enjoy the narrative. These Story-focused modes generally assist through altering player/enemy health bars, offering immunity from enemy attacks or adjusting movement speed. It may offer more signposting or guidance, or activate automatic grabbing of platform edges or highlight jumping routes for players, or offer bonus items to assist in the early game, or aim assists — it all depends on the game.
A story-focused mode which de-emphasises skill-based gameplay allows players of all ability levels to enjoy a game's narrative journey. The destigmatisation in the wider player base of needing to play on such a mode would make the gaming community a much more welcoming place for more players.
#2 Platforming Assist Options
Platforming of some sort crops up in games across all genres, and this is a common area that disabled gamers can struggle with, particularly those with motor difficulties or issues with depth perception.
Some games such as Super Mario Odyssey include shadows to show where you will land in order to mitigate this — an invaluable tool for all gamers navigating a 3D space on a 2D screen. However, these shadows are not always easily visible, which somewhat defeats the point of their inclusion. One excellent example of an optional assist done right can be found in Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, which has an option to add a coloured ring to surround those shadows. This ring makes it much easier to differentiate from the background environment.
Again, including the ability to add a clearer landing position indicator is a relatively easy feature for developers to implement, and it could help many types of players. Such a simple feature could open up quite a closed-off genre to more players who would normally have been unable to engage with platformers.
#3 Alternative Colour Display Options and Filters
In-game colours can have a huge impact on people with a variety of different disabilities. The ability to adjust some aspects of the colours on display using preset filters has been making its way into some games such as Immortals Fenyx Rising and the aforementioned Crash Bandicoot 4. While these colour filters are really great for mitigating issues for some players, they do not constitute a one-size-fits-all solution for colour vision variations.
Some combinations can make it harder for players with certain types of colour-based vision impairments to differentiate the hues on display. I have encountered vision modes that put items highlighted in orange against a blue backdrop, for example, which for those with a more standard colour perception may be a great combination, but for others actually makes the differentiation harder. While pre-set alternative colour options mark an improvement to games where no alternative is offered, colour selection features can be vastly improved by allowing the gamer to select the colour choices themselves opposed to only allowing for pre-determined options.
Colours also have an impact on text readability, with black-on-white text often being a barrier to text-heavy games. Like colour vision, there is no one-size-fits-all option here. Games can be made accessible even further by including other options such as adjustable fonts, backgrounds and the ability to switch font sizes.
#4 Character and Ability Customisation
A more passive accessibility feature you'll often come across is character customisation that allows players to alter their character avatar's appearance and attributes. While this is often included as a fun option for all gamers, it also has passive accessibility benefits as it typically allows colourblind or vision-impaired gamers to amend character and clothing colours to help them stand out better.
In many games, character customisation options are either included as unlockables later in the game or can be locked behind DLC paywalls
Adjustments to a character's appearance is not always an immediately accessible option, though. In many games, character customisation options are either included as unlockables later in the game — rewards only made available after the player makes progress — or can be locked behind DLC paywalls. For example, in YS IX: Monstrum Nox, costume customisation is available as an option as the game progresses, however, only specific colour options are available and even then this requires significant story progression to unlock them as purchase options. Alternatively, other DLC costume options are made available for use at the start of the game with some colours being exclusive to the DLC.
Another example is Monster Hunter Rise, where — pleasingly — colour customisation of armour is available without DLC. This, however, is unavailable at the start of the game; instead the player needs to be a specific Hunter Rank and even then, only specific types of armour are able to be colour customised. Arguments about locking costumes and cosmetics behind microtransactions aside, this makes playing much harder for players who either can’t afford to buy additional DLC or manage to unlock new customisation options through gameplay.
With colour in gaming, it is also important to bear in mind that some with photosensitive conditions including those that trigger seizures may have trouble with specific colour ranges, as well. The option to tweak colour and brightness/contrast values across the board — characters, environment, menus and UI — might make the game more accessible to these kinds of players.
It is also worth noting that those with photosensitive disorders also have to pay closer attention to frame rates (although let's face it, there's no shortage of gamers preoccupied with that particular topic!) because some struggle with repeating colour patterns flicking by at higher frame rates. At lower frame rates, that same colour combination may not lead to difficulties, meaning that — shock! horror! — a lower frame rate may be desirable in certain situations. Screen flicker rates may not affect the average player but for those with photosensitive disorders they can cause activation of conditions even if the flicker isn't consciously perceptible.
Unfortunately, as hardware develops further and further, and the general expectation is that games must have as high a frame rate as possible, this could unfortunately result in certain players being excluded due to the hardware only offering refresh rates above those they can tolerate. OLED screens can help offer a more stable image, although again, there is no one-size-fits-all adaptation and OLED technology may not help with every photosensitive gamer — indeed, it comes with issues of its own.
#5 Button (Re)Mapping and Expanded Controller Options
Button mapping in games is more often associated with 'pro' gamers on PC or for using specialist controllers but can also help with accessibility opportunities for some disabilities. The prevalence of button mapping has grown a lot over the last few years — indeed, Nintendo integrated system-level button remapping on Switch in the 10.0.0 firmware update. More games than ever now offer some degree of button mapping or different controller layout options.
There are usually two main aspects to button mapping: adjusting input options for easier reach on standard controllers, or adjusting to a specific controller that better suits gameplay. Adjusting for specific controllers means custom controllers built to support specific disabilities can easily be used in game. With the Switch, button mapping features can also be used in conjunction with custom Joy-Con grips to allow for one-handed playing.
Beyond the games themselves, between first and third party manufacturers, there is a whole host of types of controllers that can be attached to the Switch, with some of these being specifically built with the aim of helping those with disabilities.
A lot of controller manufacturers (particularly those for other platforms) often focus on building bigger and bigger controllers — with more buttons, extra programmable paddles, and so on — which certainly assist some gamers, such as those whose fine motor skills are impaired and struggle with small controllers and buttons. However, some people equally need something smaller and easier to hold. Similarly, there is the issue that some bulkier controllers and consoles are simply too heavy for certain players and as such they cannot be safely used for any meaningful length of time.
Nintendo's Hardware - How Could Switch Be More Accessible?
Many alternative controllers are wired and often suffer the loss of other features that standard/Pro controllers carry, including haptic feedback. The Joy-Con are a welcome change not only due to their small and compact design, but the number of both licensed and unofficial grip peripherals into which the Joy-Con can be placed. With that said, it might be nice to see Nintendo itself produce an official small Pro Controller with more reliable analogue sticks. More options is rarely a bad thing, especially in this case.
For some, holding the Switch in handheld can be too cumbersome or weighty to be practical, especially with the slightly heavier Switch OLED. However, the Switch Lite is one of the lightest gaming devices and surprisingly weighs less than the 2DS XL and ‘New’ 3DS. Crucially, the Switch Lite doesn’t suffer a major loss in graphical fidelity compared to the standard Switch — in fact, the greater pixel density of the smaller screen arguably makes the image more pleasant, albeit significantly smaller and dimmer than the OLED screen.
A Switch Lite OLED, then, would certainly be a popular addition to the Switch line up, as it would allow photosensitive players to feel the benefits of an OLED screen as well as being able to use a small device.
The Nintendo Switch is a very versatile console that has allowed many players to explore gaming who may previously have been unable to do so, or enabled them to sample new genres that were perhaps inaccessible to them previously. The Switch has already demonstrated its unique ability to draw many people together through its games — just think about the huge Animal Crossing phenomenon during the global lockdowns. With the help of developers, the hybrid console has arguably made gaming more accessible to those with both social and physical disabilities than any system previously. It would be fantasticto continue this trend and encourage developers and hardware manufacturers to consider the positive effects of including accessibility features and the improvements they offer gamers of all skill levels and abilities.
Which of the features above do you make most use of when they're available? Let us know in the poll below and tell us which other accessibility features you'd like to see as standard across all video games. Also, let us know which Switch games you'd be interested in hearing more about with regards to their accessibility options.