For most, the release of The Last of Us Part II sparked debate on whether people should play it, with some praising it as intelligent and gripping while others found its messaging to be shallow and its violence gratuitous. For many disabled people, however, the question before “Should I play that” is “Can I play that?”
That’s the question Courtney Craven and their partner, Susan Banks, set out to answer when they launched the website Can I Play That in November 2018, although they initially bought the domain as a joke.
“It had just kind of become a running joke between the two of us: ‘Can I play that?’ Probably not,” Craven, a captioner, accessibility consultant and Can I Play That’s editor-in-chief, said. “It just kind of became this thing within the ally community, and people got really excited about having a platform that was just not necessarily for disabled gamers, because we also have a lot of developers that read our work too, but by disabled gamers.”
Banks passed away unexpectedly in March 2019, but her legacy lives on. In the time since launch, the site’s readership has grown by 500%, adding different writers with differing disabilities and perspectives.
For many people with visual, audio or motor impairments, videogames that are supposed to be immersive and relaxing can instead become sources of frustration. This is especially true when what they’re not able to see, hear or interact with causes them to lose not because of a lack of skill, but because of a lack of ability. That’s why when The Last of Us Part II came out, many were surprised and delighted by the unprecedented amount and depth of its options for accessibility.
“We’re going to be seeing this as a moment in the industry, where there’s accessibility before The Last of Us [Part II] and accessibility after The Last of Us [Part II],” Steve Saylor, a videogame accessibility consultant and Can I Play That’s media editor, said. “[This game] moves the accessibility standards so far forward in the industry that it’s now a race for other people to try and catch up.”
Saylor has a condition called nystagmus, which causes involuntary eye movements that make everything not within a few feet of him appear blurry. He’s been making content online for 15 years, and launched his current YouTube channel, Blind Gamer, in 2015. At first, the channel was meant to be entertaining by watching Saylor comically fail in various games, many times due to his visual impairment.
The channel’s focus shifted two years later, after Ubisoft invited Saylor to be a panelist at the 2017 Game UX Summit where different developers spoke about accessibility in videogames. The idea that he didn’t need to struggle so much with games if they were more accessible had a strong impact, inspiring him to focus more on accessibility in videogames for his channel.
“All this time, I kept saying that I sucked at videogames,” Saylor said. “But in reality, it was videogames that sucked for me.”
Saylor later began consulting for accessibility in videogames, including upcoming Ubisoft titles Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Far Cry 6, as well as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II.
Saylor’s consulting seems to have made a notable impact on The Last of Us Part II, as the level of options for those with visual impairments is staggering. Among the most helpful for Saylor is the zoom feature, where users can double tap on different parts of the controller’s touchpad to zoom in on the corresponding part of the screen. This helped Saylor discern objects in the distance without needing to squint or move closer to the TV. He also made use of the new high-contrast mode, adapted from an unlockable filter in Uncharted 4, where pertinent in-game characters and objects are highlighted in bright colors while the rest of the game gives way to gray outlines. This made it easier to tell when and where enemies were approaching, as well as helping him find easily missable collectible items. As is the case with many accessibility options, many abled players have found this feature to be helpful as well.
The game also features a text-to-speech option that reads every piece of on-screen text, as well as audio cues for different button presses and controller vibrations. Not only did Saylor find these features useful, but they also helped Can I Play That’s reviewer for blind players finish the game without needing help getting through any section.
Craven, who is hard of hearing, gave the game a perfect score in their review for deaf and hard of hearing players, making it the second game after Gears 5 that had no barriers between them and enjoying the game. Its customizable subtitles and indicators of where enemies were, as well as the high-contrast mode, not only better immersed them in The Last of Us’ world, but also helped them die less.
The Last of Us Part II offers a suite of options to help players with motor disabilities play the game, including fully customizable controls, one-handed movement and auto-aiming, but it’s not enough for everyone to play. Can I Play That mobility editor and freelance writer Grant Stoner, who has a neuromuscular disorder which progressively weakens muscles over time, couldn’t get past the game’s title screen.
“If I could have held the controller, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to play the game perfectly,” Stoner said. “This is more of a problem of accessible tech in the industry.”
The problem lies with the PlayStation 4’s controller, and since the game is exclusive to the platform, it’s the only one officially compatible with the game. Stoner lost the ability to fully hold a conventional controller about a year ago, and unlike the Switch’s smaller Joy-Con or the Xbox One’s adaptive controller, there’s no officially licensed, accessible version of the DualShock 4. He’s ordered an adapter to hook the Xbox’s adaptive controller up to the PlayStation 4, but it’s an extremely expensive and time-consuming process.
“Developers need to emphasize universal design,” Stoner said. “At the end of the day, money is money. And if disabled people can spend money on products that they want to spend their money on, not because they have to, that opens up independence for disabled people. It opens up increased revenue for developers and publishers. It opens up an entirely new world that we really haven’t had access to yet.”
For the future, Saylor says he’d love to see games implement audio descriptions for important narrative moments, in which a narrator would describe whatever is happening on-screen. The method has become a somewhat standard practice in film, and adding it to games, especially narratively heavy ones such as The Last of Us Part II, could help maintain their emotional impact and full context. Implementing it could be expensive and possibly only feasible for large development studios such as Naughty Dog, but Saylor says even adding in basic accessibility options can go a long way.
“I always recommend for indie studios, if they don’t have the budget or the amount of resources to add it in, then I would just say, try at least adding a few of the basics,” Saylor said. “And that would allow them to learn on their own how accessibility settings can be implemented, and you can basically add on those tools as you go from project to project.”
Despite most games not reaching The Last of Us Part II’s level of accessibility, Craven still believes the industry is getting better at it. The original The Last of Us from 2013 didn’t have many accessibility options beyond subtitles, but they remember being happy with what would be considered the bare minimum by today’s standards. They hope the standards for accessibility in videogames will continue to rise going into the next console generation.
“The most important thing that they could do, that all studios could do, is make all of these great things standard practice, so that we can rely on them,” Craven said. “I think we’re getting there. You’re seeing more and more studios prioritizing accessibility, and I think games like The Last of Us Part II and Gears 5 and the success that they had largely due to so many more people being able to access the games, it shows that making that investment in accessibility pays off.”
Joseph Stanichar is a Paste intern who specializes in videogames. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.