(CNN) — When blind gamer Steve Saylor received an early review copy of The Last of Us Part II, one of the most anticipated video games of the year, he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
So he set up his camera, ready to record his reaction in a video for his gaming YouTube channel. But just seconds into the video, the Canadian streamer suddenly bursts into tears.
“I was expecting to record a really exciting, hype moment showing the first time I see all the accessibility settings, but basically the second I started up the game, I was hearing a text to speech read off every single accessibility option. To be honest, the floodgates just kind of opened,” Saylor told CNN.
“I couldn’t stop crying for a solid 10 minutes. It was like everything I had been working for in the past five years, my efforts with disability consulting and advocating for more accessibility in games, finally paid off. This is literally the first time we have ever seen a game have this many features.”
The game, which launches June 19, is a sequel to The Last of Us, a 2013 action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog and released exclusively for Playstation. At the time of its release, it was labeled “the game of the decade, a cultural phenomenon within the video game industry,” according to Saylor.
For years, fans have been anxiously waiting for the sequel, which continues the story of Ellie, the 14-year-old heroine of a post-pandemic world impacted by a fungal plague that turns people into zombies.
In the game, players must evade or kill both cannibalistic zombies and hostile humans to protect Ellie, who is immune to the infection and possibly holds its cure. The Last of Us Part II takes place five years after the events of the previous game and is played from Ellie’s perspective.
Along with stunning visuals and breathtaking landscapes, the game comes with a diverse array of accessibility features that will provide disabled players with an especially unique gaming experience.
“This is a first time we have seen a game where every piece of text on screen had text to speech in it,” Saylor said. “Anyone without visual impairment could actually close their eyes and be able to play this game with all the settings turned on. That’s how powerful it is.”
Working with disabled gamers on accessibility options
For gamers with disabilities, the fight for more accessibility options has been long and tedious, with extremely gradual improvements over the course of decades. But when it comes to accessibility, The Last of Us Part II is second to none.
Labeled by Saylor and other players as the “the most accessible game ever,” the game features more than 60 accessibility settings, with expanded options focused on fine motor hearing and new options for low-vision and blind players.
Emilia Schatz, one of the lead gameplay designers of The Last of Us Part II, said she was inspired to expand accessibility options after receiving a letter from a gamer. The player was unable to finish another Naughty Dogs game when they got stuck at a point where they had to repeatedly press on a button to escape during a fight.
“It’s heartbreaking for me as a game creator because that person is so passionate about playing our game but there was just this moment that all of a sudden blocked them. We found that it’s often a relatively small thing that can unlock an entire game for some players,” Schatz told CNN.
“I think there hasn’t been a huge awareness of how games are inaccessible to a wide group of people. A lot of developers have — no pun intended — a blind spot for things that don’t personally affect them. Hopefully our game brings attention to the fact that there (are) things that can be done to affect players in such a positive way. It’s absolutely worth everyone’s time to try to fit it into their development schedule.”
The gaming studio worked alongside numerous accessibility consultants, including Saylor, who offered ideas on the types of features needed. While many of the changes were simple and fairly easy to implement, Schatz said their goal was to “raise the bar and figure out what are the extents to how much we can make a game accessible.”
For players with motor or physical disabilities, there’s the option to customize all of their controls. They can also turn on cues that will point them toward the way forward and toggle the option to hold buttons instead of having to repeatedly press them.
For the hearing impaired, there are subtitles that cover not only dialogue, but combat action, too. They can also adjust what events cause the controller to vibrate, toggle prompts to keep them aware of nearby enemies and receive prompts telling them when to dodge in combat.
For the visually impaired, there is a text-to-speech option. It narrates many aspects of the game, from which options they’re selecting in the menu to what weapon they have just equipped and how much ammo remains. They can also swipe the touchpad to receive status info on Ellie and toggle high-contrast mode, which will highlight the geometry of the world and brightly color enemies, allies, interactable regions and more.
There are special audio cues they can toggle to create unique sounds depending on a variety of in-game factors. The first type is called Traversal Audio Cues. These will trigger when there is an obstacle a player can vault, or when there are ammunition, bricks or bottles to pick up. Then there are Combat Audio Cues that indicate when an enemy is within takedown range, when they’ve taken one out or when their reticle is pointed at an enemy.
“We are excited to see these changes get out into the world and have other games adopt them to show that even in a game as seemingly inaccessible as our game, where you need to run, shoot at people, hide behind cover, evade people and jump across gaps, all those things that seem impossible for blind players are actually not impossible,” Schatz said.
“There are ways we can make it work.”
Continuing the fight for accessibility options
When a player launches the game, the first thing to appear is a screen offering various accessibility options. For disabled players, this is both new and unexpected — and for many gamers, this is the first time they actually feel seen.
Saylor was not the only gamer to have had such an emotional reaction when playing The Last of Us Part II. Courtney Craven, another gamer and member of the accessibility community, was also left in tears after playing the game.
Craven, who is hard of hearing, runs “Can I Play That?” — a website dedicated to reviewing games and rating them based on how accessible they are. And according to her, nothing so far has beaten the Last of Us Part II.
“Accessibility is still pretty new, unfortunately,” Craven told CNN. “A lot of times we’ll turn on a game and just be disappointed. Either the subtitles are microscopic so you can’t read them or there’s no visual cues to go with sounds. For hard of hearing players like me, there’s a lot of features I need in a game to make it an equitable experience for me. But this game left me feeling pure joy.”
Craven said she was blown away by how much attention and effort was put into just the accessibility portion of the game. Playing the game made it “very obvious” that developers were committed to play testing with disabled players, she added.
With an unprecedented display of options and aids, the game is well suited to a diverse community of gamers, whether they are blind, hard of hearing. struggle with mobility issues, or a combination of them all.
For many gamers like Craven who aren’t used to playing video games and actually “being good at it,” The Last of Us Part II is life-changing.
“This definitely sets the bar extremely high for other developers to not only reach this standard but also overcome,” Saylor said.
“It’s had a huge impact on disabled players who will be able to pick this game and actually play it. No doubt this has made history. We will be looking back at this moment as accessibility before The Last of Us Part II and after The Last of Us Part II. And this is just the beginning.”