When Naughty Dog was developing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the studio had what lead gameplay designer Emilia Schatz describes as “a very simple plan” for accessibility features inspired by one player in particular. Prior to starting work on the game, the studio received a letter from a player who managed to get near the end of Uncharted 2, but got stuck at a point where they had to rapidly press a button during a quick time event. “They were able to play all the way to that point and then they were blocked from finishing the game,” Schatz explains.
This experience got the studio thinking much more about accessibility — though things admittedly started slow. “In Uncharted 4 our accessibility options were actually pretty sparse,” says Schatz. “But we got a lot of community praise for it, and felt like we had a huge success with a very small amount of things that we did.” The studio decided to take things a step further with its next game.
The Last of Us Part II is arguably the most ambitious title to come out of Naughty Dog. It takes place in a massive post-apocalyptic world, including a staggeringly detailed rendition of Seattle, with much more involved stealth-based combat and elaborate cutscenes. It’s the kind of huge and detailed game you’d expect from the studio’s swan song on the PlayStation 4. But one of the most impressive things about the game is how large and varied its accessibility options are. You can now navigate the world largely by sound, or zoom in on the screen as if you were using a smartphone. There’s an astonishing array of things to choose from.
According to Schatz, while the accessibility options in the game are varied, they all point toward the same goal: keeping players from hitting those sticking points, whether it’s a difficult QTE or something else entirely. “Accessibility for us is about removing barriers that are keeping players from completing a game,” she says. “It’s not about dumbing down a game or making a game easy. What do our players need in order to play the game in parity with everyone else?”
There are around 60 different accessibility options in the game’s menu, covering things like controls, visual aids, audio clues, navigation and traversal, and combat. Some are fairly standard features, like being able to make the UI larger or tweak the subtitles for color blind users. Other elements are much more involved. There’s a text-to-speech option that reads out everything in the game, from menus to the notes Ellie picks up on her journey, and audio cues to indicate when there are items nearby or a ledge you can climb up. A new high-contrast mode changes the visuals entirely for low-vision players, rendering the world a light grey, and turning allies blue and enemies red. (This was inspired by the unlockable “thief vision” filter in Uncharted 4.) You can even use the Dual Shock controller’s touchpad to zoom in and get a closer look at the world.
“It’s not about dumbing down a game or making a game easy.”
According to game designer Matthew Gallant, one of the reasons the team was able to include so many features is that it was part of the design process from the beginning. “We absolutely had to plan these features early in production,” he says. “It was absolutely critical.” There were three features in particular — text-to-speech, fully remappable controls, and the high-contrast mode — that required large technical resources, and they wouldn’t have been possible without so much time. “We couldn’t have done this if we hadn’t, from the outset, said ‘This is a priority,’” he explains.
The process for finding those potential sticking points began in 2017 and involved a few different elements. Naughty Dog worked with accessibility advocates like Brandon Cole, attended conferences to speak to other developers and players, and, of course, did a lot of focus testing. This process not only led the team to new options to add into the game, but also how to best present those options to players, which was the source of a lot of internal debate.
Initially, the team at Naughty Dog planned to have modes that covered specific areas. There would be one for hearing impaired users, for instance, and another for issues around motor control. The idea being that you switch on that mode and all of the related features will be enabled. “Instantly we got feedback that ‘this is not what we want,’” Gallant explains. “‘We want to be able to dig into the menus, fine-tune things, adjust things, really get into the nitty-gritty of what these options mean.’”
The designers had to give up their nice, tidy menus in favor of something a little messier. Diving into the accessibility menu in The Last of Us Part II is almost overwhelming, with so many toggles and siders to choose from. It gives players granular control over their experience, but to make things a bit easier, the developers also created a handful of presets that can be enabled at the outset of the game, grouped under categories like vision and hearing. From there, players can still jump in and tweak the settings to better suit their needs. “The idea here is to give players a starting point,” says Schatz.
Another issue was the tone of the game. A big part of The Last of Us is its focus on violence and trauma; it’s an experience that intentionally makes you feel tense and uncomfortable. And the developers wanted to ensure that those elements still came through no matter what settings were enabled. “When we’re making an accessibility option, we wanted to match that tone as best as possible,” Gallant says. “We didn’t want to make something that felt off, or dissonant with the themes.”
In the high-contrast mode, for instance, figuring out what color to paint certain characters wasn’t all that simple. “One of the overall themes in the game is the gray in the middle, and who is friend, and who is foe,” says Schatz. “Especially at some of the more ambivalent moments in the story, when someone might be one or the other, what color do we make them right now?” The team also had to figure out things like the exact frame of animation in which death occurs, so that they could switch an enemy to a neutral color at just the right time. “There was a lot of subtlety that had to be worked out because of the tone of our game,” she explains.
“There was a lot of subtlety that had to be worked out because of the tone of our game.”
Some of the features are also about more than simply making it possible for most people to play the game — the team also wanted to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. For some players with low vision, for instance, having to stay close to their TV just to read text can be uncomfortable. A feature like the touchpad-enabled magnification is designed to help alleviate some of this strain. “We think a lot in accessibility about making the game playable,” Gallant says, “but there’s a lot to be said for comfort as well.”
Schatz and Gallant both say they’re excited to see some of the unintended ways players utilize these features, and they hope that experience can inform new options for whatever Naughty Dog’s next game is. But the process of working on The Last of Us Part II has also shown them that these kinds of features are vital to opening up the studio’s games to a much broader audience.
“It feels like a failing on our part if a player reaches a part of the game that’s inaccessible to them in any way,” says Gallant. “It’s incumbent on us to be the ones to find the solutions. Accessibility just makes these games better.”