Games for everyone

Working at Funka I’ve found how easily accessibility thinking has followed me into my private life. It affects how I view the physical environment I move through, the websites I visit and one of my hobbies, the games that I play.

Danne Borell

Title: Expert in accessible pdfs and training instructor

It can be anything from noticing how a board game like Ticket to Ride uses symbols in combination with colours to show which cards and train tracks go together to appreciating how most tv- and computer games now give the player the ability to customize which buttons on the controller do what. It can be being happy when a game developer listens to users with disabilities and make changes to their games so that more people can play them. Such as giving the option to turn off screen shake or that screen readers work in the game. It can also be being frustrated when other game developers don’t listen and repeat the same errors already made many times before. They might not have subtitles or use small and hard to read text.

A lot has happened these last few years in accessible games. More and more game developers try to make their games more accessible for the users. That goes for both bigger companies and smaller ones. A lot can be written about this, but rather than trying to cover it all I would like to focus on something that one game did well in the last year.

Climbing mountains

The game I want to focus on is called Celeste. It was developed by the small game company Matt Makes Games and was released during 2018.

The story follows a young woman named Madeline who sets out on a journey to climb Celeste Mountain. She overcomes the challenges of the mountain, gets to know new friends and learns to accept herself. It’s a heart-warming story and has received well earned praise.

But Celeste is also very, very hard. It’s designed to be a challenge to experienced gamers. The rooms Madeline needs to traverse demand deliberation to figure out the way through, and dextrous fingers to perform the necessary manoeuvres. There are also extra rooms that are even harder for those who really want to challenge themselves.

The level of difficulty locks many people out from experiencing the game, and that’s where assist mode comes in. Assist mode makes it possible to customize the game’s difficulty. The player can change the games speed, give Madeline unlimited stamina so that she can stick to walls for as long as the player wants, make it so Madeline can do extra air dashes, or make her invincible.

Screenshot: Matthew Rowland

All of this makes the game easier, so that more people can play it. But it also seemingly contradicts the game’s very purpose.

Challenging yourself

The story of Celeste is about overcoming difficulty and thereby growing as a person, which is reflected in the game’s difficulty. As Madeline climbs a mountain the player overcomes the game’s challenges, and both grow on the journey. So by removing the difficulty, lowering the challenge, the player’s satisfaction is also diminished when she finally clears a challenge.

But a piece of the puzzle is missing from that way of thinking; we’re all different. Celeste is designed to be a challenge, but since we who play it are different the challenge we face is not the same for all of us. Someone who has played games his or her whole life will understand a lot of the imagery in Celeste automatically. What is dangerous? What is helpful? How can Madeline get around an obstacle? All of this becomes a lot harder for a player who lacks that experience. Motor skills have a role to play as well. A player who is used to similar games has muscle memory that makes it easier to get through many of the game’s challenges. A less experienced player doesn’t.

Assist mode gives the player the opportunity to set a level of difficulty that is challenging but still manageable.

A stressed parent of a young child with limited time for games can activate assist mode every once in a while, to get through the hardest parts of the game. A person who has a hard time understanding how to get through some of the rooms can make it so that Madeline can dash several times in the air and find their own way through the rooms. A person who has a hard time moving the fingers fast enough can lower the speed of the game a bit. And with the setting for unlimited stamina the player can take breaks in the middle of a section to think about how to continue.

A helping hand

Assist mode is also presented to the player in a good way. A text explains that the game is designed to be played as is, but since every player is different, assist mode is there to help so that more people can play it.

Screenshot: Matthew Rowland

Similar functions have at times been presented in a condescending way in some games, have locked some of the content away or been called cheating. In Celeste, the function is presented as what it is, an aid to make it possible for more people to play.

Now I’ve been focusing on what Celeste does right, but no game has so far succeeded perfectly with accessibility and this is not an exception.

Being used to making accessibility audits it’s hard to miss the accessibility problems that does exist in the game. Among other things there’s no option for players who have trouble perceiving certain colours, and some parts are hard to play if the player can’t hear.

But what Celeste does is good. It gives the player the option of setting the level of difficulty and approaching the game on the player’s own terms. This makes a difference for many players with a disability, but it’s also good for inexperienced players. The option to choose is good for everyone. It’s simply a step on the way towards games for everyone.