A look at a few accessibility issues with open-world games

Hello! Welcome to the first in a series of pieces to celebrate Disability History Month. Today, Vivek returns to the streets of Los Santos.

A few weeks back, the shocking news of the GTA 6 leaks drove me to revisit the incredible city of Los Santos in GTA 5. I thought that my initial opinions of the game would have changed after a decade, but it is still one of the best open-world games out there. The reasons behind my bold statement are left up to you to explore – after all, you have the freedom to play with the sandbox and immerse yourself in the beauty of Los Santos.

It makes me think, too. I’ve been trying to think of an eloquent phrase to replace ‘lack of accessibility settings’ when it comes to games. I believe the perfect expression is ‘immersion breakers’. Imagine a player who requires high stick sensitivity and decreased deadzones, but they’re faced with a game that doesn’t allow for adjustment of those settings. The gameplay experience would be frustrating, as you would constantly die in firefights. This struggle would break the immersion, due to an unnecessary barrier.

Welcome to Los Santos.

Now, with GTA 6 in development, it is time for constructive thinking on the issue of the whole open-world genre. After all, it isn’t perfect, especially when it comes to accessibility. Rockstar’s teams make some of the best open-world games around, but the accessibility settings are quite limited. It would be great to see these teams evolve their accessibility design.

Due to the nature of the open-world genre, controls can be complex and often have to change depending on whether you are on-foot, driving cars or flying planes. It would benefit players to be able to individually remap controls for each situation. So GTA 6 and the Cyberpunk 2077 sequel should follow the remapping standard set by Saints Row, Watch Dogs Legion and Horizon Forbidden West. Customizable controls would remove the immersion breaker of struggling with a control scheme that doesn’t meet your needs as a disabled player. You don’t feel like a badass stealthy netrunner if you get spotted or killed by an enemy before you can overload their synapses as you fumble to select that hack ability using the d-pad. Blah! Sniped by an immersion breaker.

Assisted aiming is another vital accessibility feature when enemies can attack you from any direction. However, assisted aiming is not always perfect either. For example, Saints Row has a strong aim lock-on, so the crosshair does not easily allow manual adjustments to the aim. This means precise headshots are tricky. The boundary between assisted aiming and restrictive aiming is a delicate balancing act: I use the lock-on to find the enemy and instinctively move the reticle up to get a headshot, for example.

Another issue around aiming is this: games should enable assisted aiming while driving especially if you have already activated it on-foot. Watch Dogs Legion allows your car to automatically drive you to a destination, and you can still cause havoc by hacking other cars on the journey. It would be a fantastic feature in GTA 6, satirizing the self-driving car, while giving you the freedom to unleash gratuitous mayhem.

Zoe’s Horizon Forbidden West review.

Since Ghost Of Tsushima, I have had conflicting opinions regarding waypoint navigation, more precisely with that game’s Guiding Wind mechanic. It’s an elegant implementation of fusing gameplay mechanics with captivating environment design. This evolution of immersion allows you to naturally discover the world and use the environment and wildlife to guide you to important points. However, constantly activating the guided wind pulse with a swipe of the touchpad is not only tiring but also an accessibility barrier. If future developers want to utilize this waypoint navigation mechanic, then players should be able to activate it through the map screen so it is constantly directing you in-game, like traditional waypoint navigation. Developers shouldn’t make games with a single game mechanic preventing players like me from experiencing an epic samurai tale.

I can’t discuss map icon density without humorously bringing up the old Ubisoft method, painting the entire world with endless icons, missions, side-quests, collectibles, towers to climb, etc. I have had fantastic open-world memories with Assassin’s Creed 2, visiting every single icon with a smile on my face due to the parkour system. I had a similar grin on my face when swinging through New York City as Spider-Man. I can’t wait for Assassin’s Creed Mirage so I can jump back into the franchise again in the iconic city of Baghdad.

That said, recently, when playing Horizon Forbidden West, the post-apocalypse city of San Francisco was saturated with icons. This overload can be stressful and negatively affect players with cognitive disabilities, who may find it difficult to choose what to focus on first. Instead of enriching the world, icon density removes the fun of accidentally discovering something incredible by yourself. Players want to enjoy the world they have been transported to instead of being reminded that they are playing a game. For this reason, I failed to complete Horizon Forbidden West: the narrative was great but the world wasn’t particularly exciting.

Finally, hearing about the Cyberpunk 2077 sequel brought me back to dreaming about the cyberpunk genre’s link with disability representation which was, unfortunately, missing in the current game. Saints Row allowed you to customize your character with prosthetics, which was pretty awesome. However, the cyberpunk genre would unify theme, gameplay and aesthetics together: your prosthetics would alter depending on which abilities you favor in your play style. I really do hope that games in the future push disability representation further. Characters with disabilities would create greater immersion in an open world game because disabled people exist in reality.

Immersion breakers are deadly traps that open-world games should definitely avoid, disabled gamers know where to tread so our voice is crucial throughout the design phase of a game. I have seen a vast change in removing accessibility barriers over the past few years, but there will always be the need for evolution.

And now? Time to return to Los Santos in the form of the Lord of Chaos, Trevor Philips.

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