35. Thoughts on Accessibility

3&5

So, I’ve finally finished up auditing all the puzzles in the game. Essentially, just solving them all and taking notes on what might need to be improved or removed. Overall, I think the game is in a pretty good place moving forward. There are some areas that I’m pretty happy with as is, but there is still a lot of work to be done to improve some other areas. Obviously this is just considering design work. Let’s not even get into how behind the curve I am from an aesthetic point of view.

Early Accessibility

This week, I chatted with a deaf accessibility advocate for games. This was an interesting and challenging conversation, and has left me thinking a little bit about what’s involved in making a game more accessible, and how that intersects with the design of Taiji. Obviously, I think that accessibility is an important and often ill-addressed concern, and my goal with the game is to never make a puzzle difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with its subject matter.

However, I think there is some tension between accessibility concerns and the pursuit of particular subject matter. As an example, if you want to do puzzles that are “about sound”, deaf people will unfortunately, but necessarily, be excluded.

It is easy to see why making a puzzle that relies on pure audio cues is a bad move from an accessibility standpoint. In many cases, it would be easy to make additional visual cues, and to not do so can simply be chalked up to laziness.

But my big question is, are there particular cases when not adding those cues can be justified? And if there are, what are they?

Some of my thoughts on this are a bit hard to clarify without specifically addressing and spoiling some of the puzzles planned for Taiji. Even still, after discussing the details of the puzzles with the aforementioned accessibility advocate, they did not seem particularly convinced that there was any tension other than my laziness and lack of care.

Similar concerns arose in the wake of the release of The Witness. There are some puzzles in that game which people who are color-blind or hard of hearing will have trouble with, or may simply find impossible without just looking up the solutions. Because of this, the designer—Jonathan Blow—has been called callous, “ableist”, or at best unconcerned about accessibility. The last one is particularly strange, considering the game received a PC patch to add a click-to-move mode, and nearly all of the puzzles in the game—including many that use color as a cue—are designed to be as accessible as possible; symmetry puzzles that care about colored hexagons using cyan and yellow, for example. In my last point of defense of Jon Blow before I move on, he has been quoted saying that he wanted to ship the game with a puzzle which only color-blind people would be able to solve, however in this case he was hamstrung by the the poor color consistency of most display technology.

So, what is the reason to make those kinds of decisions? To create puzzles which by their very nature exclude certain people from fully enjoying your game? Jon Blow says it is because the puzzles in The Witness are all “about things.” I agree with this sentiment, but it perhaps requires a bit more clarification to even make sense.

In many puzzle games, the “point” of the puzzles is essentially to be a challenge. The puzzles are meant to be hard for the player to solve, and probably fun as well. In games like The Witness (or Taiji, for that matter) the point of the puzzles is significantly subtler. The puzzles are intended to be interesting and, about something real. By “real” I mean that the subject matter is, at best, not confined simply to the game. The thinking that a player will do when solving the puzzles can be taken with them back into the real world.

It may seem a bit callous, but it should go without saying that both sound and color are phenomena that really exist, even if some people cannot experience them.

This can seem to lead down a path of reckless disregard for other people, so I think it is also very important to emphasize that what I’m talking about here—both in my own case and the case of The Witness—are puzzle games. These are games that, by design, will exclude people who are simply not intelligent enough to complete all of the puzzles in the game.

So What?

Perhaps all of this can just be seen as a long elaboration intended to serve as an excuse for my laziness, or “ableism”, or perhaps some other unidentified flaw of character. However, I still have not addressed the core issue:

What am I going to do about accessibility?

Currently the plan is to make the game as accessible as I can. When puzzles involve the use of color for separation, but are not explicitly about color, I will endeavor to choose colors that will work for as many people as possible for that purpose.

But what about when puzzles are explicitly about those things? What about puzzles about sound, for example?

In these cases, I will primarily design the puzzles with the intent of pursuing the subject matter that interests me. If I have to choose between a puzzle which can be made accessible or painting myself into an inaccessible but more interesting corner, I will most likely choose the corner.

However, I also intend to provide some level of assistance when possible. This, in itself is a tricky proposition, because I do not simply want to condescend to players who are using the assistance options. In essence, adding accessibility seems as though it will often amount to designing an entirely different set of puzzles. The puzzles therefore must be interesting in their own unique ways, and must endeavor to be analogous to, and at least as challenging as, the inaccessible puzzles.

Perhaps this will not be enough, or not even be possible. After all, I am mostly opining here without having fully designed any set of puzzles like this. But I think this is the best way for me to balance these two ideals: accessibility and truth.

Addendum

I want to clarify a couple things: What exactly is the difference between a puzzle which is about sound or color and one that simply uses it as a cue. And why do I think that the former cannot be made accessible without simply designing a different set of puzzles?

To do so will require spoiling a couple puzzles. The Witness is a hugely broad puzzle game, so I can actually find examples in both the positive and the negative without talking about any other game.

Spoiler Warning: If you have not completed the two areas shown below in The Witness, then avoid reading further.

witnessareas.jpg
The Keep (left) and The Jungle (right) in The Witness

The Keep

So, in the example of puzzles which simply use audio as a cue, but are not really about sound; we have the example from The Keep. The third hedge maze puzzle in the front courtyard must be entirely solved by listening to the loudness of your footsteps while walking on the gravel pavement inside it. The maze on the panel matches the shape of the hedge maze which contains it, and particularly crunchy spots found while walking through the physical maze denote an area to be avoided when drawing a corresponding path through the maze on the panel.

The reason that I say this is not a puzzle about sound, is that it would work just as well if you simply wrote out separate captions for the footstep sounds. The softer ones being written as “crunch“, and the louder ones being written as “CRUNCH“. The puzzle would essentially work the same.

It is important here to note the difference between subtitles and captions. Subtitles only show you spoken dialogue, whereas captions will also give you a textual indication of important audio cues.

The actual puzzle here is about noticing that the loudness of the footstep might be important, and then figuring out in what way. The argument against accessibility here is that hearing players are inundated with the sound of their footsteps throughout the whole game, and so this is a subtle thing to notice. Consequently, captions would be much less subtle.

I think this is actually not a very good argument: First, it isn’t really that subtle, as the important footstep sound is unusually loud here. And secondly, if the consistency is really that important, just put captions on all of the footstep sounds in the game. Make them small and unobtrusive if you have to.

Sadly, The Witness does not support captions at all, and therefore this puzzle is impossible for deaf players without simply looking it up.

The Jungle

So, in the positive example, we have the puzzles in the Jungle. These are puzzles that are actually about sound, or more specifically: about hearing. This will be harder to explain, because the puzzles themselves are much more subtle.

First, if you need a refresher on the content of these puzzles, I actually have an analysis video on the first half of this area, in which I discuss some of the subtle details involved:

 

Now, I want to bring the attention to my specific point earlier. Why do I think that these puzzles cannot be made accessible without simply making a different set of puzzles?

In this area, the essential task that the player is doing is listening to some bird songs, and transcribing the different pitches of the notes onto the panel. One could easily imagine some sort of analogous visual cue: a series of mechanical birds which all chirp in time with the notes, and are set on branches of varying height, with the height of the branch corresponding to the pitch of the note.

This type of cue would in fact work quite well, but only for the first three puzzles in the sequence. Past that point, the puzzles begin to play with both the particular difficulty of distinguishing different notes by ear, and the way in which we focus our attention on certain sounds by filtering out others. Both to our benefit and our detriment.

Perhaps again, there could be some analogous changes to our cues here. Perhaps the birds start out in linear order as they would be on the panel, but they begin to be shuffled up, and the player must watch the order in which they chirp. Perhaps the branches which the birds are situated on begin to blow in the breeze, and so it is more difficult to tell which bird is supposed to be higher. Perhaps there is a branch which is broken and the bird has fallen onto the ground. Perhaps there are birds which are not situated on branches at all, and they are irrelevant. These could be interesting ways to evolve the sequence, but what I am trying to argue is not that the puzzles cannot be made accessible, but that by doing so, they are now puzzles which are fundamentally about something different.

They are no longer puzzles about sound, and now are puzzles about spatial relationships between moving objects.

Does this make these accessible puzzles bad? No. But it does make them different puzzles.

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8 thoughts on “35. Thoughts on Accessibility

  1. Are painters exclusive of the blind? Are musicians being of the deaf?

    The common sense answer to both is “no”. I think that people only get worked up about it with video games because often, the majority of a video game is accessible to the majority of people. Most of The Witness can be played just fine by a deaf person, for example — so why have this one small part of the game be inaccessible to deaf people? Isn’t that exclusory? (It is also much easier to point to who is being excluded in a game like The Witness, where there are clearly separated areas which are about specific sensory things.)

    It doesn’t take much to see why this line of argument is bunk, because you can just pick any disability, or combination of disabilities, arbitrarily and mould your desired argument accordingly. A person who hasd lost both their hands, for example, would find it very difficult or impossible to play the game at all. But we would not say that Jonathan Blow was exclusive of those without hands, just as we would not say that a musician is exclusive of the deaf.

    I am therefore of the belief that accessibility is absolutely a good thing, but should never impede on the art.

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  2. So I wrote out a thought-through reply, but then WordPenis fucked me over and tried logging me in and I lost it.

    In short: art is not exclusory just by being, unless intentionally so; accessibility is great, but shouldn’t impede on the art.

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    1. Sorry that wordpress ate your comment. I really just use it because it’s what I’m used to, but to be honest, I’m not sure if there even _is_ a better blogging service.

      Yeah, I think it’s important to reiterate that it’s not my intention to exclude certain people. It’s more that, by the nature of stuff that I want to explore, people will get excluded from those parts. Anyway, I felt like the blog post was probably ill-advised, but I tried to think things through as much as I could. Accessibility is a complex topic and I probably could spend a great deal more time discussing it, but this will stand for now.

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      1. I don’t have anything against full disclosure. I think writing out your thoughts, in the spirit of honesty and open discourse, is always a good thing.

        It’s just interesting to observe this phenomena of how worked up people seem to get about accessibility in video games, more so than many other mediums.

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  3. Great post overall, I find myself generally agreeing with your take on accessibility here.

    I’d disagree that the maze sound puzzle could be made accessible with captions. This puzzle is about noticing something that has always been present (the footstep sounds), but only now conveys the information needed to solve the puzzle. You’re right that you could add footstep captions, but this would quickly become a nuisance if present for the entire game. To a deaf player it would seem like an insane design or accessibility feature, and might even feel condescending to them. It might finally make sense to them when they finally make it to that puzzle, but I’d argue it’s too clunky an approach to be feasible.

    That being said, this puzzle would be immensely frustrating for a deaf player. There is no explicit indication in the game that sound plays a role in any puzzles, since saying so would be a spoiler. A deaf player could spend tens of hours successfully playing the game, then arrive at this puzzle. They would spend hours trying to solve it. Their previous experience in the game would tell them that as impossible as it may seem at first, every puzzle has a reasonable solution, and their perseverance will pay off. Except in this case, it won’t. They’ll eventually look up a solution, and throw their controller at the screen when they find out they spent hours on a puzzle that was literally impossible for them to solve.

    I’ve mulled about this issue for a while, and I’m not sure what the right solution is. For myself, a player who is not deaf, this was one of my favourite puzzles in the entire game. It would be an enormous loss for the puzzle to be removed just because it cannot be made accessible for a small fraction of players. But I also can’t figure out a way to make it accessible for that fraction of players. The closest I’ve come to a solution is this:

    In the options menu (or in the launcher), add a “hard of hearing mode” toggle. This toggle doesn’t tell you what it does, just that you should turn it on to enable accessibility tweaks for players who are hard of hearing. Then, when you arrive at the maze sound puzzle, if the toggle is flipped, play a voice recording or show a pop-up or something telling the player that this is a sound puzzle, and that they may need to ask for help or look up a guide.

    It’s by no means a perfect solution. But at least it eliminates the frustration deaf players will experience, while still allowing players with normal hearing to enjoy the puzzle as it’s designed.

    I’d be curious to hear thoughts or potential issues with this approach.

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    1. Actually, rather than a pop-up or voiceover, you could just turn on the spoiler-y subtitles. It’s a much less satisfying puzzle for deaf players, but at least the massive frustration is avoided.

      The same approach could potentially work for the bamboo area sound puzzles too.

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      1. Appreciate your comments. Actually the solution that I was proposing in the article, although I may have not described it adequately, is essentially what you were talking about here. If you have an accessibility options menu, then captions for the deaf or hearing impaired would be under there. The bamboo sound puzzles are a much more difficult issue to resolve with captions.

        I think your verbal solution of a pop-up telling players that puzzles in that area will require hearing is one that works but is sub-optimal for the type of game that The Witness is.

        My plan for Taiji is to have an options menu with assistance for different disabilities. This will sometimes simply change some visual aspect of the puzzles, but other times will swap out for an entirely different set of puzzles. This is simply because I do not believe I can create “accessible-by-default” versions of some of the puzzles which are congruent with the same subject matter as the original puzzles. Who knows, perhaps in some areas I will have just have to tell players that the puzzles there may be impossible for them. I’d prefer to avoid verbal explanations though.

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