Letting Players Play Their Games
You finally work your way to the end of a level, having mastered the skills needed to conquer it. A lone boss blocks your path to the next area, the next level, the next save point. You ready yourself as it comes at you, ready to be done with an area that has proven more difficult than expected. Ten seconds later, you’re dead.
Not a fun way to start things off, but that’s okay. It took you a while to master the level, too, just one more thing to master. You make your way back to the boss, knowing now that it won’t be easy. Instead of focusing on beating it this time, you watch its patterns, look for weaknesses, for ways to get past it.
One attempt turns into five. That turns into ten, which turns into twenty. Now you’re not having much fun. Most of the game you’ve been able to get past with a bit of work and patience. Something about this boss is different, though. It moves differently from any other enemy in the game. Or it uses a technique that comes up nowhere else in the game. Maybe it just seems like a big old damage sponge. Whatever the reason, the fun you were having evaporates. Now you’re just angry. How many times is this thing going to kill you? Without any sort of accessibility options to help, is this the end of the game for you?
When “Get Good” Goes Bad
Most of us have been there at some point. We reach a spot in a game where we just can’t progress, no matter how much we practice. For some, it may have been when they were younger, while for others, it may continue to happen. Maybe there are a few Gods among players out there who have never found themselves in such a situation, but few of us are amazing at every type of game. If it were just a puzzle or navigation issue, you could look up a solution, but no one can force your fingers to do things they don’t want to.
There’s no good time to end up stuck. If it’s too early in a game, we feel like we wasted our money. Buying a game and only being able to see a couple of levels doesn’t feel good. Neither does spending our time to get near the end, however, and then finding that you can’t finish the game you invested so much into.
Planting A Flag
If you beat Psychonauts 2 with the invincibility toggle on, you still beat P2. https://t.co/OinBv1nuNr
— Double Fine (@DoubleFine) July 9, 2021
This has been an issue since games started offering an ongoing adventure, but some developers are searching for solutions. While being able to select your difficulty has been a normal option for nearly as long as gaming has existed. That isn’t always enough for all players, and some titles resist even that option. For players, it isn’t a perfect solution either. Many gamers feel like they didn’t really beat a game if they did it on a lower difficulty setting. Something many older games even drove home by not letting you finish the game on lower difficulty settings.
That’s why Microsoft’s recent tweet on the subject felt so interesting. In one tweet, they took a stand for a culture where players aren’t judged by how hardcore they are, but rather by finding their own enjoyment. The team at Double Fine followed that up quickly, confirming that their upcoming title Psychonauts 2 will offer an invincibility toggle. This should help players who want to see their way to the end of the game get there.
An Idea Already In Use
While I was excited to see these takes, it quickly reminded me that this is an option I’ve been seeing more and more in recent months. In just the last month and change, I noticed similar accessibility options in both Boomerang X (Our Review) and Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Our Review). These are very different games from Psychonauts 2, and from each other, for that matter. Yet all three are providing an option to help make sure players can reach the end.
Wanting to know more about what is bringing this on, I reached out to Greg Lobanov, the creator of Chicory, as well as Wandersong. Chicory is a game which for the most part, forgoes combat. There are some tough puzzles, but a wonderful hint system should help any player get through them if needed. Yet the game still features a few bosses who can at times get quite tough. These are the moments when the option to turn off damage or become invincible becomes hugely valuable, especially for players who didn’t go into the game expecting them. Yet, I was curious why the bosses were included when they feel so different from the rest of the game.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale Finds Ways To Appeal To Different Players
“We wanted to express some of the game’s more intense emotions and themes in a way that we didn’t feel like we could do without something like the boss fights. [T]he fact that the game has such a diversity of intensities helps all the gameplay beats hit harder, I think. It was also probably a bit selfishly because we wanted to have fun making the bosses,” Lobanov said. Considering how effectively those bosses drive home the game’s most important moments, I can’t disagree with that.
This is true for plenty of games, yet many don’t think to give this sort of option. I wondered where the idea came from. “Even amongst [our] core team, Em [Halberstadt] (our sound designer) was pretty firm that the bosses were her least favorite part. And in general, we knew a lot of people would pick the game up as a cozy painting adventure and might feel blindsided by the more intense content. So we really wanted to make sure those folks always had an out. (The same philosophy carried through to the content warnings).”
Chicory being the game it is really helped drive the need for this sort of option home. “It was probably easier for us to see the need for that with this game because it is just so diverse in what it offers. If I was making a game that was strictly dark/difficult/action-oriented then it would be way harder to design for accessibility, let alone recognize the value of it.”
Is Something Lost?
I loved seeing so many accessibility options. Yet even I wondered if the game went too far in letting players choose to skip the boss fights entirely. With the option to turn off damage, I saw little reason to actively skip them. I said as much in my review. “I would strongly advise against [skipping the boss fights], as these are wonderful sequences. Instead, you can provide yourself more life or even turn off the ability to die or even take damage. These will let any player find an option that lets them see these through.”
Lobanov disagreed with me, though, at least in that players who want to skip them shouldn’t do so. When I asked if he had any pause about allowing these fights to be skipped entirely, he said, “It did give me a little pause initially, but it wasn’t long before I met a playtester who really wanted to be able to skip them and it only took talking to that one person to really understand why it was necessary. For that person (and lots of players, I’m sure), the game is perfect as a chill painting game, and they just didn’t want to engage with the dark or difficult stuff–knowing that they could skip it made the game something they could comfortably (and feel safer) doing after a tough workday.”
Accessibility Is Always Important, Even If Different Games Have Different Needs
For Greg, actually facing the boss isn’t necessarily crucial to understanding that experience. “I think actually knowing that there WAS a boss fight or intense conversation that was skipped is enough for someone to get what we want out of the experience. There’s a sense of pride in making some visually impressive and showing it off to players, but at the end of the day, it’s enough for a player to know “something emotionally intense happened to the characters here,” and so much of the game’s richness actually comes from how the characters react and feel about that stuff after the fact.”
After making Chicory, Greg saw the benefits of accessibility options in any game. The exact ones used in Chicory might not be the best fit for every game, though. “I think any game will benefit from considering accessibility as part of the design, but exactly how that fits into the project is gonna be totally different from game to game. There’s no such a thing as a perfect one-size-fits-all solution that fits every single game. And if you put stuff in your game just to check off a feature box, that’s an easy way to make something that misses the mark. That’s just as true for any given accessibility feature as it is for lots of stuff that games nowadays include as a matter of routine, like combat.”
A Future For All The Players
People in the industry are always talking about expanding audiences. Doing that requires making games that a wide variety of players can enjoy. Perhaps every game doesn’t need an invincibility toggle, though I hope we see more games continue to explore the option. All games, however, need to think about how the player will enjoy them. Games like Chicory and Boomerang X prove that this sort of option is worthwhile. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to say the same about Psychonauts 2. Few of those upset about games providing these choices are the same people who got stuck on level two of a full-price game and could never see the rest of what they paid for. There’s always room for difficulty for those who want it. There just need to be options for other players as well. While the needs of every game will be different, hopefully, we’re heading toward a future where developers build their games around the accessibility needs of their players.