Pokémon has reached its ninth generation with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, representing the series’ first foray into an open world. Results so far have been mixed, with particular focus on the games’ poor technical performance. However, the move to an open world has led to other issues that, while not alien to the series, are exacerbated by the additional freedom afforded to players.
With both games’ maps and minimaps obscured with countless icons, a lack of path finding, and no meaningful landmarks, navigation in the ninth generation of Pokémon has been a nightmare so far.
While this is partly due to Game Freak’s inexperience with open-world games, it’s also part of a growing trend in the industry. Navigation aids, mission logs, objective markers – aspects of gaming we’re so familiar with – are disappearing. Where studios like Bethesda and Ubisoft once drowned us in signage, the relative absence is now detrimental to players. It is particularly detrimental to gamers with a cognitive impairment.
Cognitive accessibility is often left out of conversations about accessibility. This isn’t surprising from Japanese studios like Game Freak – or Nintendo – where accessibility is ignored, and often incidentally. But as we push for more accessibility in the west, most recently with God of War: Ragnarök, why is cognitive accessibility lagging behind?
Cognitive disorders, in context
Cognitive impairment affects a range of functions in the human body, including memory, concentration, communication and emotions. Associated with multiple conditions, including dementia, ADHD, autism, and epilepsy, cognitive impairments — both mild and significant — are also a major axis of chronic disease, in a host of conditions called chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and, as of 2020, the aftermath of COVID-19.
For players struggling with cognitive impairment, aids that help with navigation and task memorization play a vital role in getting us to play at all. Yet these elements are toned down or removed from modern games. Ghost of Tsushima turned signage into a vague gust of wind, while Elden Ring eschewed quest tracking and meaningful navigation altogether.
“Because modern games have moved away from linear paths,” says Laura Kate Dale, an accessibility critic and consultant, “and in the case of games like Breath of the Wild allowed you to go full bird’s eye view and climb up a wall instead of following a walking route, in my experience games have become more reluctant to offer groundbreaking lines.”
While one can understand the difficulty of adapting navigation communication as we expand our motion catalog in 3D spaces, in many cases the answer to this challenge is to completely remove pathfinding tools.
Which drops cognitively impaired players into an overwhelming and unnavigable world.
Alexa already has cognitive symptoms, but after a bout of COVID, she found periods where she “couldn’t play games at all. I just didn’t have the focus to process what I was doing.”
A big problem for Alexa?
“My brain doesn’t really make mental maps of where things are in relation to each other. Even with a mini-map on screen, I’ve had times where I set a target marker and, if it isn’t a directional beacon of some sort I can see on the main screen , I will end up going the wrong way.
This echoes the experience of many, including myself, in a gaming landscape that engulfs larger, more complex worlds and deviates from non-immersive navigation, as a neuro-invasive virus engulfs the world’s population.
Things get worse when we consider that cognitive accessibility can be more complex than signage, including tools that help us dissect movement and narrative momentum, such as subtitles, accessibility tools “that explain nonverbal subtext in subtitle files,” which Laura says are “rather useful for been me.”
Or it may include better social tools to help those for whom communication and socialization are more difficult. This is something Dan, an autistic gamer, struggles with in Destiny’s raid system.
A lack of options to curb complex entries and a requirement to handle raids on a team make them more difficult to execute. Looking at trophy and achievement data for Destiny 2, this is a widespread problem as less than 20 percent of players have completed a raid.
The scope of cognitive accessibility, like so many areas of accessibility, is broad. That can be a challenge for developers. But it’s increasingly difficult to see resources poured into cognitive accessibility when so many tools that have already helped are taken away.
Why have we reached the point where cognitive accessibility is so absent from games and discussions around them? For Alexa, that’s partly because “a lot of cognitive accessibility features already exist. But they’re not always considered accessibility features.”
Laura agrees. “Because a minimap, or screenshot functionality, or plot summaries are all things that are commonly used by non-disabled players, there’s not really a connection between them and the idea of them being accessibility features.”
This is a trend we can trace back to 2016 when From Software titles went mainstream, and two years later with the release of Breath of the Wild and its imitators.
Dark Souls has long been praised by vocal fans for not “holding the player’s hand” (their words) with a lack of tutorials (although every From Software game has tutorials) or signage. The resulting confusion over how to proceed was refreshing for some, while pushing them out of the games for others.
Leading up to Elden Ring’s release, Hidetaka Miyazaki – the creator of Dark Souls – told the New Yorker. “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
It’s a feeling most developers would repeat. But in practice, it’s hard to see the truth in the statement when games like Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring so give players free reign in vast worlds with little or no cognitive aids.
In particular, the system used by Elden Ring is a huge barrier for players with a cognitive impairment. “I have a hard time with video games giving me too many tasks to keep in working memory at once,” Laura explains. “Or expect me to concentrate for long periods of time and use things I’ve seen in contexts where I can no longer see them.”
However, when criticism is leveled at these decisions, it is often ignored or aggressively reprimanded, as seen in the reproach leveled at Elden Ring by developers for its lack of signage and cognitive accessibility.
It’s something Dan experiences when he communicates his difficulties with the Destiny playerbase. “The community doesn’t see it as an accessibility issue,” says Dan. “It’s being treated as a skill issue, so they say I don’t ‘deserve’ that content (then claim the raids aren’t hard after all).”
This makes it all the more difficult to communicate our needs, even when speaking to those who ostensibly support accessibility efforts. As Laura told me, “My experiences are often treated as an afterthought in accessibility discussions because of the level of abstraction between my needs and what people can see from the outside.”
This reflects wider society, in which cognitive symptoms are not immediately apparent to outside observers, linked to so-called “invisible illnesses”, and regularly maligned beyond the already dangerous levels of apathy to disability. In a world so built around perceived normality that people with disabilities are consistently excluded, it becomes increasingly difficult to assert oneself in all areas of life.
But thanks to features that aren’t popular with a wider, able-bodied audience, we’re losing a lot of the progress we’ve already made in gaming.
Is there hope for the future? Perhaps that depends on our own individual view. But while cognitive accessibility is often ignored, and we’re seeing a decentralization of it in terms of gameplay, the industry isn’t completely apathetic to tools and features that help us.
Ironically, Ubisoft has equipped recent Assassin’s Creed titles with options to play with or without map markers, while characters regularly remind players of current objectives.
Alexa tells me how Celeste helped her when she “set the game speed to 90 percent of full speed. This gave me more time to press the buttons with poor reflexes, but it also gave me more time to think and process the information.”
Marvel’s Avengers’ use of closed captions has been a boon to Laura, who mentions a scene where two characters share a wordless exchange, contextualized in subtitles. “It was really helpful to explain these non-verbal interactions, and something I wish more games would think about,” she said.
Dan points me to Pillars of the Earth. “The menu gives you multiple options to auto-pause based on low health, a timer, or when skills are charging,” he says. “It can really give you time to think about what’s going on.” Similar to Obsidian’s recent release, Pentiment, “You can hover over many of the underlined terms to get a pop-up reminding you what it means, and the mission log summarizes the choices you make pretty well. made so far, and who you should see next time.”
There are bright spots in an industry where cognitive accessibility is so often made disposable. But until the conversation about cognitive accessibility normalizes, these may remain dim lights on an otherwise dim horizon. With our ability to play games driven not by a lack of progress, but by a devolution of specific standards due to player trends, we will continue to see elements that make games accessible and navigable for players like me.
It’s kind of like being new to a city. But if you look for signs they are all gone because the locals liked it so much. When you ask for help, you are told that you are just not good enough to find your way. It isolates, excludes and is impossible for many. With current trends, that’s the future of gaming: removing anything that takes the hassle out of navigating until we’re all lost.