How do you make a game accessible, with gameplay, cinematics, and all, to the visually disabled? With the upcoming release of The Last of Us Part I, Naughty Dog hopes to have found a way, by implementing an industry-first feature for Triple-A: audio descriptive cutscenes, which audibly describe what occurs in cinematics (including characters’ emotions, movements, and expressions).
The remake arrives two years after the release of The Last of Us Part II, which disabled players praised as one of the most accessible games to date. With approximately 60 accessibility options and features dedicated to removing barriers for a variety of disabilities originating in Part I, as well as new features like haptic feedback sensitivity for spoken words in Part II, Naughty Dog is demonstrating a commitment to making their titles as accessible as possible.
As the industry’s understanding of disabled gaming grows, Naughty Dog is bringing all of Part II‘s accessibility settings — and more — to Part I. Matthew Gallant, Game Director for Naughty Dog, explains to Fanbyte the process behind developing audio descriptive cutscenes and its potential impact for the greater accessibility movement.
Despite featuring award-winning blind and low vision settings, Part II was only accessible in its entirety through gameplay alone. For a game that relies heavily on storytelling, blind and low vision players were still unable to properly experience crucial cinematic moments. Gallant explains at the time of producing the sequel, the industry mindset of accessibility revolved around making games playable, and more importantly, beatable.
“Our main focus on The Last of Us Part II was removing barriers that would prevent players with disabilities from being able to progress and complete the game,” he tells Fanbyte. “However, when we were testing these features with [blind accessibility consultant] Brandon Cole, he noted that there was still a great deal of story content that was inaccessible to him. He didn’t have the environmental context for the spaces he was moving through, nor could he determine the unspoken interactions between characters in cinematics.”
Cole’s concerns were noted, but the complexities surrounding audio descriptive cutscenes meant that it was unable to fit within Part II‘s production timeline. Early in development, a ‘screen reader’ was crafted and completed for the final product — essentially, all menus, tutorials, and on-screen prompts can be audibly read out loud to guide low-vision and blind players. But the technology didn’t have the “fine-grain control” or quality necessary to be expanded for cinematic implementation. Thankfully, that opportunity finally came with Part I.
To build the remake’s audio descriptive cutscenes, outside assistance was needed. Naughty Dog collaborated with a specialized team at Descriptive Video Works (DVW previously teamed up with Ubisoft, to create audio descriptions for the world premiere trailer of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla) and various global Sony partners.
Because visual displays of facial expressions and character movement needed to be conveyed through audio alone, entire scripts were produced in conjunction with each cutscene. It was all captured and recorded without disrupting characters’ spoken words.
“Developing audio descriptions is difficult because they must be written and recorded in a way that fits within the quiet moments between lines of dialogue,” Gallant says. “There is a lot of subtlety involved in determining what information is critical to the scene, how it can be conveyed succinctly, and where it can be inserted in a timely and relevant way. Localization makes this even more difficult since the length of the spoken lines and the gaps between them is different in every language.”
This new feature demonstrates the growth of not only the industry’s understanding of accessibility, but also Naughty Dog’s evolution as a studio. Gallant explains that several years ago, Naughty Dog started with basic conversations about removing barriers to now redefining blind/low vision accessibility within the Triple-A space. And with these advancements, disabled players across a multitude of platforms will have the capability to enjoy new games with as little restriction as possible.
According to Gallant, the first time Naughty Dog became aware of barriers disabled players faced with their games was during the making of Uncharted 4. After hearing Josh Straub, the editor-in-chief of Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating System (D.A.G.E.R.), discuss his frustrations with being unable to beat Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog collaborated with him as a consultant for Uncharted 4.
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“This started with the modest request of allowing players to hold a button instead of mashing it during an action set piece,” Gallant says. “However, adding this one option shifted us to a completely different mindset when it came to making games. It gave us the consciousness to anticipate potential barriers and make plans early in production to address them. Meeting the needs of players with varying needs and capabilities is a good universal design principle, and it has in turn made our games better for everyone.”
To continue this understanding of disabled players’ needs, Gallant recommends that developers stay connected with members of the disabled community. Naughty Dog regularly utilizes accessibility consultants, as well as maintains a consistent presence at the Game Accessibility Conference, an event dedicated to showcasing accessibility innovations and disabled perspectives. Beyond that, he also wants the industry to consistently examine accessibility reporting. He regularly reads features and reviews about new titles to gauge what does and does not work, and how Naughty Dog can learn from others.
“The Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection review on [Can I Play That] noted that the constant haptic vibrations from rain could present a barrier for players with motor accessibility needs,” he says. “The [author] correctly noted that it was unfortunate that the game didn’t provide fine-grain control over the haptics; they were either on or off entirely. This observation inspired us to create the DualSense menu on The Last of Us Part I. It allows players to fine tune the vibration strength for various categories, such as melee, gunshots, and ambient weather.”
Accessibility isn’t just for new IPs. With new releases, including remasters and remakes, Naughty Dog is ensuring that their titles can be as accessible as possible. This is especially beneficial for disabled players who may have had to skip games like Uncharted or The Last of Us when they first released due to a lack of inclusive design practices or accessible features.
While Part I’s inclusion of audio descriptive cutscenes is a crucial step toward the overall advancement of game accessibility, it also demonstrates that innovation takes time. For disabled players, reaching out with concerns and advice helps fuel the development of these design practices and features. And for developers nervous about not being able to implement every option into their games, Gallant assures that even minor accessibility settings can make a drastic difference.
“This would be my takeaway for other developers: start small. Every design choice you make that removes a barrier further opens up your game to someone. Strive to make each game more accessible than your last.”