Games Reveal the Contrasting Colors of Accessibility

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This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

Full Disclosure: I was previously a patron of Niche Gamer on Patreon.

I had to hear it from Wil Wheaton.

Talking to the creators of open-world hit game Uncharted on his show, Conversations with Creators, the geek legend praised a feature that helps you guide protagonist Nathan Drake around its vast, sprawling environment: “And I love there’s that subtle yellow path,” he said. “I never got lost!”

When I heard him, my eyes widened. I’d finished all three games in the series and never had any help from any “yellow path”! Do you have any idea how many hours I wasted wandering off and backtracking? Those are hours I’ll never get back, Naughty Dog!

Why didn’t I know about the yellow path? Because I never saw it. I was born with an extremely rare eye condition known as achromatopsia nystagmus.

It only affects 1 in 33,000 people. What it breaks down to is:

  • Near-sightedness
  • No depth perception
  • Extreme light-sensitivity
  • Color-blindness

In brief, I have to look very closely at things in order to see them, and I only see black and white.

At one point during a game, I stood atop a mountain crag, a huge chasm in my way. I know from my decades of playing video games that there must be a way to do it—I just can’t figure it out. I don’t wanna look it up, because I can sense it’s a straightforward challenge.

I go this way. I go that way. I try this jump. I try that shimmy across the rocks. Nothing works. The death sequence plays over and over again. It adds up.

My wife wanders into the living room. “Oh, is this Uncharted?” I let her know that it’ll be pretty boring, watching me die over and over. She watches for a second. “Are you supposed to go through the red areas?”

My heart sinks. She explains that there’s a not-so-subtle spread of red bricks, reddish dirt, and other conspicuous indicators forming a path through the treacherous landscape. She points out one such area. Red is, incidentally, my favorite color. But here, I could barely make it out.

I crossed the chasm.

Uncharted is a fantastic game series; Naughty Dog is not the only offender. Enter sweet, infuriating Assassin’s Creed.

Another open-world game series, it favors stealth over Uncharted’s spectacular MacGyvering. I love it, but I don’t love Eagle Vision, one of the distinctive features of play, often all-but necessary for your character to make progress.

Where I live in LA, the most reliable way for me to make progress is the bus. The bus sucks, because people don’t wash, pick fights, and hate being there—and that’s just the drivers. But I don’t hate the bus as much as I hate Eagle Vision.

Eagle Vision made me nervous from the outset. It’s one of those things that, for we disabled, sounds kinda cool, but comes with a sinking feeling that tells you it’s just not going to work out.

The tutorial walked me through it: “Press R2 to turn on Eagle Vision. In Eagle Vision, you use your mad assassin observation skills to observe things other people don’t notice.” I pressed R2. The tutorial continued: “Notice targets are in red, civilians are in yellow, potential enemies like guards are in blue.”

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I dropped the controller.

“Aw, come on!”

It sucks, because my wife bought me this game for my birthday. I can’t tell the difference between any of the people that Assassin’s Creed has just helpfully color-differentiated for me.

Sure, sometimes, the game zooms in on a character to let me know specifically whom I’m after, but the population at-large, the people I’m supposed to know about so I don’t kill civilians, or piss off guards? I’ve no clue.

Fortunately, progress is still possible, though I imagine it’s really handy—a fact attested to by the ridiculous number of times I must start over.

Even worse is Resident Evil 4, Capcom’s survival horror epic.

It’s hands-down among my top-10 favorite gaming experiences thanks to intense visuals, a creepily engaging story, and the satisfaction of shotgunning zombies and evil cultists. But one puzzle in it almost ended my joyful delirium before things had even gotten cooking: the church puzzle.

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Early in the game, you’re stuck in a church. To get out, you have to match symbols, each of which is—you’ve guessed it!—one of three different colors. I stared for a second and realized that this would be impossible.

To a normally sighted person, it’s a simple matter of organizing red, green and blue symbols in an easily-deduced pattern.

Not for me. I gave it an honest try. I guessed. Over and over. I probably spent close to half an hour trying to randomly get it right. Finally, I gave up and looked up the solution, and was back in action.

SOLUTIONS

I know what you’re thinking. “Okay, Anton. We get it. Gaming while achromat is tough. Did you have any solutions?” Yes. Yes, I do. And the cool thing is that some solutions are so easy, AAA developers will facepalm for having not considered them before.

In the puzzle game Sparkle 2, you shoot colored balls at other colored balls in an attempt to create combinations that pop away before the advancing mass of balls can overwhelm the player. I tried the game fully expecting to fail, but I had a blast because of a simple check-box: “Accessibility.”

Click it, and there are patterns on the balls! I was now matching patterns instead of colors. The developers, 10tons, didn’t have to re-invent any wheels or start any revolutions. All they had to do was replace colors with patterns, and their game opened up for me.

This technique can’t cure all accessibility ills, but just imagine if the church puzzle had given the symbols texture as well as color? I would’ve had a fair chance. Admittedly, such a technique wouldn’t work as well with Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed.

Perhaps instead of a yellow line, there could be little arrow signs. Or, maybe, a subtle little rumble in the controller when the player’s pointed the right way. Nintendo often throws in a help box after you’ve failed a level a few times: nothing too hand-holdy, but there if you need it.

Assassin’s Creed is full of symbols, and more wouldn’t hurt, especially if they were optional. Arrows float around pointing to nearby goals and story points, and above characters’ heads now and again, so why not have Eagle Vision operate in a similar way? Maybe even give the disabled player the option to make all text and symbols really big so we can’t possibly miss them.

None of these solutions would be perfect. But it is possible. It can happen.

I’ve spent my entire childhood, most of my teen years, and some of my adulthood going to eye doctors. In the early days, it was to figure out what was wrong with my eyes. More recently, it’s to get official sign-off on government forms so I can get my disabled parking placard and other such necessities. I’ve learned in all these visits that, medically speaking, I only see black and white. I say “medically speaking” because, and I can’t explain why this is, I feel like I see some color. While I am sometimes able to identify some colors, I can’t distinguish between colors and groups of colors.

Anton Hill

About

Anton A. Hill is a blind writer, lifelong gamer, accessibility advocate, host of the weekly #GamesExp YouTube chat show, and co-founder of parody gaming journalism magazine Voxol at VoxolMag.com. He lives in Los Angeles.

  • Immahnoob

    You know, there’s something called “colorblind options”. Some intelligent developers use it for the purpose of solving these type of issues.

    But I guess not everyone is smart enough and picked that up.

    Anyway, great editorial, that title, kek. I am that guy that believes more options can’t do you any harm, so why not have them? I actually enjoyed using the colorblind option on League of Legends, just because it changed shit a bit.

    I mean, why the hell not? It also made it easier to spot shit being thrown at you. I don’t know, the red in LoL simply doesn’t give me that “DANGER” meaning anymore, orange seems to do it better.

  • Jesse Jones

    My colorblindness isn’t nearly that severe – I have trouble differentiating similar colors like blue/purple or yellow/green – but I have these issues all the time.

    A recent example is the scent trails in The Witcher 3. A faint red wisp against green and brown is near-invisible to me. I had to resort to angling the camera bizarrely to try to frame the trails against blue sky (or run around and make a guess where to go).

  • Shiggy Diggy Doo

    I have trouble distinguishing certain greens with certain greys but I also didn’t come across a game that challenged that.

    But I was once called batshit crazy for insisting a wall was green but people swore up and down it was gray.

    So yeah I think every game needs a colorblind option.

  • Mea K

    I’m just red/green colourblind and this can already be a colossal pain in especially puzzle games. Usually your typical Bejeweled clone will make an effort to give the coloured gems different shapes but I’ve found that having to scan for shapes/symbols is much slower (for me, anyway) so I start running out of time in levels after they’ve introduced blue 2 (which is probably purple) and green 2 (it’s probably yellow).

    It’s also inconvenient when you’ve been rockin’ your badass blue armor for hours and then someone brings up that you’re wearing pink…

  • Audie Bakerson

    My family has a lot of color-blindness (only the commonish red/green) so I have to really roll my eyes when devs go on about making games more acessible for womyns (because girls suck at games but they are equal and just as good as men and ignorance is strength), yet completely and utterly fail to avoid red/green indicators which costs nothing.

    I remember my brother being glad to finally see a game with color correction options.

  • Yabloko Molloco San

    Dredmor has a “colorblind mode”. I always found it to be neat and something that should be more used more often in vidya.

  • Mellow_MH

    As a huge fan of Monster Hunter, it sucks to have never been able to tell whether I’m at green or yellow sharpness, if they used something like a pine green it would be okay.

  • InfectedAI

    That’s funny, because Monster Hunter is one of the games I point to as being accessible. For example there’s both audio and visual cues when charging weapons.

  • InfectedAI

    I think there’s an option to show the trails on the minimap.

  • Thanatos2k

    It’s a tough problem. Simply using colors is often a really elegant way to subtlely differentiate things WITHOUT using symbols, arrows, or anything else that might be a bit distracting if plastered all over so color blind people have no problems.

  • InfectedAI

    I see lots of people go, ‘Why don’t developers just add colorblind options? They’re lazy!’ But is it really that easy?

    Every little thing in a game has to be designed, implemented, sent to QA, sent back for reworking if it didn’t work properly in some sections, sent to QA again, etc. Everyone working on this is getting paid during all this. Features cost both time and money and publishers as a business have to choose what’s worth it and what isn’t. People would be surprised what some simple things end up costing.

    Before everyone starts telling me off, I find this is a topic that’s hard to discuss civilly online hopefully that’s not the case on NG, I’m not saying this isn’t worth it. All I’m saying is it’s not as simple as having someone flip a switch or spend some time real quick on it.

    Implementing even something like colorblind options must have a decent cash and time value attached to it. That’s money the publisher/developer has to spend and time that has to be weighed against deadlines. So considering the amount of the gamer population this affects (1 in 33k is among everyone, for gamers specifically it could be much lower), I’m not surprised it isn’t a top priority for developers.

    Not to mention a simple color change might not be enough for many game designs. Further alterations might be needed requiring even more resources.

  • No_Good_Names_Ever

    Did you get the family curse?

  • Jesse Jones

    That helps a lot for clues and footprints (which usually glow brightly enough for me to see anyway), but it doesn’t seem to show the scent trails.

  • DynastyStar

    If anybody wants a game that has colorblind mode, I suggest you try Dust: An Elysian Tail.

  • random

    >In brief, I have to look very closely at things in order to see them, and I only see black and white.
    >Red is, incidentally, my favorite color
    What?

  • bateruchan

    that assassin’s creed gif hurts.

    mmm i’m fortunate in that i see colour really well
    but i mean, i think games being made with accessibility in mind is pretty nice.
    like that blind dude who played ocarina of time… and i used to frequent a forum where a blind guy could beat the old pokemon games by the sounds of wall bumps… dude knew all the pokemon by their cries. he enjoyed the games a lot.

    it’s subtle and most people won’t notice, but those who do…
    accessibility is always good, man.

  • scemar

    This hit me in the feels man.
    I’d support publishers putting a little bit more of attention to problems like this, at least the ones that have simple solutions that would not be difficult, or expensive or out of their way.
    It’s odd that for all the BS equality and inclusion diabetes talk going in gaming about the medium no one actually seems to do any real talk about real problems with real solutions that could benefit real people such as a simple optional arrow with a symbol on top of a target for people that can’t see the glowy red aura.

  • scemar

    They don’t need to avoid red and green. 99.99999% of people will be fine with it.
    They just need to put in an alternative via color blind settings.

  • scemar

    Back in the day I forgot to get TM flash as a kid and managed to travel through the whole cave entirely blind.
    It was tough stuff.

  • Audie Bakerson

    Actually it’s 6% of the male population (~3% overall). Far higher than 0.00001%.

  • bateruchan

    same!

    you could kind of see the walls tho in the original games… at least, so long as you played on a GBC. idk about the original Gameboy~

  • bateruchan

    a lot of men can’t see red/green. my dad can’t. i happen to luck out. My brother is… undecided.

    My dad wears a lot of pink on accident because he can’t really tell. i think he thinks it’s tan or something? I don’t remember, and I don’t have contact with my dad anymore to ask… or my mom. Either way it’s a little ridiculous, but it’s why, growing up as a kid, i didn’t really see pink as a ‘girl’ colour, because my dad was seen in pink way, way too often for me to associate the two.

  • vonSanneck

    The dev went out of his way to make it that way.

  • alterku

    I do agree that the option for those who have trouble differentiating color should always be a thing in video games, where color matters in a gameplay sense. I don’t think it should ever be forced over and above the creator’s wishes as the main way to convey information, but as an option in settings it is a fabulous idea.

  • alterku

    Has to do with the shade and interpretation his mind/eye gives of it, I’d wager.

  • alterku

    You’re correct that not every game will have this as a focus. And it shouldn’t. Indie devs who don’t design for it from the start are probably the only outlier here, though. Most other studios can spend the extra pittance to change a few things for an option toggle.

  • alterku

    I would have liked there to be a bar that depleted as your weapon lost sharpness, sort of how when you’re choosing a weapon to equip you can see the amount of use a weapon has before it degrades.

  • scemar

    That was ironic exaggeration but yeah, there’s a decent chunk of people with it but still not enough to entirely give up two colors for the rest of us.
    Just seek an alternative.
    Look at what splatoon does, they use every color for teams and it is random but if you choose accessibility options they limit it to the ones it’s safe to use for the color blind.

  • DynastyStar

    Its still a colorblind mode…

  • DynastyStar

    I was not saying that as a way to say its viable, I was saying it as “if you’re colorblind, try it out” or something.

  • vonSanneck

    And I wasn’t descriptive: the dev went out of his way to include the colour blind mode in his game. I may be misremembering it, but I heard it from TB’s first impressions video.

  • Audie Bakerson

    You don’t need to avoid those two colors entirely, just make the difference between them unimportant.

    An option is fine too, though costs something (though very little) to implement.

  • ianhamilton_

    Not really, the extra reinforcement actually usually makes things quicker and easier, not harder.

    Nice example for you: the map in Burnout Paradise, where each race type is represented by a different coloured circle. Impossible if you’re colourblind, still a pain for everyone else, having to remember what a purple race equates to. Add an icon and you’ve made it better for everyone.

    If colourblind friendly by default is not realistically possible for your game and you do end up putting in options instead, then this:

    “people who aren’t color blind would never use it.”

    …is totally fine. It’s an option.

  • ianhamilton_

    Not necessarily. It depends entirely on what stage of development you consider it at. Think about it at the end and try to retrofit and it’ll always be costly. But think about it from the outset and it is usually cheap, sometimes free. Decide at the outset to use orange and blue for your team colors – free. Decide from the outset to allow players to lock team kit colors instead have them – very cheap. Decide from the outset to avoid relying on color alone – often very cheap, depending on mechanic.

    The figure amongst gamers has no reason at all to be lower than any other demographic, and it isn’t 1 in 33k. That’s only the very rare sub-type that the author has. It’s 8% of males.

  • ianhamilton_

    Yes, this. Not relying on colour alone. This approach works even for the rare minority that the author belongs to, who see no colour at all.

  • Thanatos2k

    “Not really, the extra reinforcement actually usually makes things quicker and easier, not harder.”

    You’re not really understanding what I’m saying. Icons appearing over things is immersion breaking. Fine for games where you know you’re playing a game, like Burnout Paradise, but if you’re immersed in a narrative, colors are a great way to draw attention to things without having a giant spinning icon.

  • InfectedAI

    Actually it does have reason to be lower. Not everyone plays games, so out of all those that are colorblind a good portion of them won’t be gamers. Leaving the number of colorbind gamers even lower than the total number in the population. As for the specific numbers this comment is 3 months old so I don’t remember where all these statistics came from.

  • ianhamilton_

    Colours aren’t a great way to draw attention to things, because they can’t be reliably perceived by the audience. Something that breaks for 8% of your makes isn’t exactly what you’d call elegant. That’s the point of the article, and why considering colourblindness is so commonplace now.

    There are more subtle ways to avoid colour reliance than adding a giant spinning iconn, ways that are no more unrealistic and immersion breaking than applying arbitrary colours to things.

    Sometimes, a big icon is entirely appropriate. Like in Doom. The locked/unlocked doors are differentiated by red/green lights. It’s a text environment with display panels everywhere, so having locked/unlocked represented as an icon on a coloured background on a screen would fit perfectly.

  • ianhamilton_

    That isn’t how percentages work. Basic maths. Here’s how it works using rough USA figures as an example.

    240 million adults
    120 million adult males
    9.6 million colourblind adult males

    60 million adult male gamers
    4.8 million adult male colourblind gamers

    So yes, the number of adult male colourblind gamers is smaller than the number of adult males who are colourblind.

    But the number of gamers is smaller than the number of adults too. By the same proportion.

    So the percentage of adult males who are colourblind is 8%. The percentage of adult male gamers who are colourblind is also 8%.

  • InfectedAI

    I think you’re making too many assumptions with your numbers, unless you actually pulled them from somewhere?

  • ianhamilton_

    I’m just explaining to you how percentages work. But yes, the numbers are accurately sourced, just rounded slightly.

  • Thanatos2k

    “Colours aren’t a great way to draw attention to things”

    Factually wrong from a design perspective, not just in games, but in any other industry where visual design is important.

  • ianhamilton_

    Visual design is very mportant in the web industry. Even on a team of two, one of them will be aa visual designer.

    This is from WCAG2.0, the international standard for accessibility in the web industry, adopted both in company accessibility policy and in national and international law :

    “Color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.”

    And if you’re in the USA, this is from section 508, the legal requirement for all hardware and software either produced by or used by any federal agency, (including, for example, games used for training or in schools) –

    “Color coding shall not be used as the only means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.”

    So as you can see, factually, it not only isn’t great, it is often straight up illegal.

  • Thanatos2k

    We’re not talking about accessibility – we’re talking about what is effective design for the people who aren’t colorblind.

    Look, it sucks being colorblind, but it doesn’t mean that colors aren’t enormously effective for use in design to those who can see them.

  • InfectedAI

    Ah, I didn’t know those numbers were real. I didn’t know anyone had such statistics, and now I’m curious how they gathered them.

    You stated the number of males who game and colorblind male gamers are both smaller than the general population by the same proportion. I didn’t think that would be the case. I thought colorblind gamers to general population would be a significantly smaller proportion than male gamers to the male population.

    Do you mind sourcing your numbers? This is something I’d like to look into more.