As video games become more mainstream, game developers have added a variety of accessibility options for disabled players. Some common improvements are closed captions and visual cues for deaf players, alternate color options for colorblind players, or more comfortable controllers for players with motor disabilities like arthritis. These advancements are wonderful for disabled players, and accessibility options should always be implemented where possible. It not only opens your game up to a wider range of players, but makes those players feel seen and valued.
However, the previous examples only cover physical disabilities. There are plenty of mental and developmental disabilities that can affect a player’s gaming experience in less obvious ways, and video game developers should also be aware of these possible roadblocks.
People with ADHD and autism are more likely to struggle with spatial awareness than neurotypical people. For example, researchers have found that people with ADHD are typically less aware of stimuli in their left visual hemisphere than in their right, and awareness declines the longer the person is focused on a task. For me, problems with spatial awareness can manifest in situations like: double-checking my left and right when driving, looking down at the keyboard while I type because I don’t remember the keys’ placements, and getting easily lost in familiar places due to poor mental maps and difficulty visualizing spoken directions.
This doesn’t always affect my experience with video games, but it does impact me greatly when playing rhythm games and other fast-paced games with lots of visual clutter. Because of my low spatial awareness, I struggle to connect on-screen cues with real-life inputs. A good example is Dance Dance Revolution‘s iconic row of arrows, which then connects to a D-pad you dance on instead of the same horizontal layout. The more detached these cues are the longer it takes my mind to catch up, until I ultimately become frustrated and give up.
For a long time I had decided I was simply incapable of playing rhythm games, which saddened me because I love music and find these games entertaining to watch others play. But I recently found a game that I could actually enjoy, and I realized that I didn’t have to swear off the whole genre if I could find specific games that didn’t clash with my ADHD. If you have spatial awareness problems, or you’re a developer looking to make your fast-paced game more accessible to people with mental disabilities, I’ve created a list of traits that can reduce frustration.
Directly Connected Cues
Games like Dance Dance Revolution and Friday Night Funkin, while popular, have a physically detached input system (a gamepad on the floor, or your computer’s keyboard) and also show the cues in a different visual layout than the final inputs do. This adds more and more processing time between seeing a note, registering what to do, finding the right input on the player’s end, and pressing it. By clearly connecting cues and inputs there’s less processing time and confusion for the player. In other words, make it easy for the player to respond when they see cues.
Ensemble Stars Music and Project Sekai: Colorful Stage are mobile games, and great examples of this fix. They have notes you must touch directly on the screen when they reach you. It’s very obvious to the player when and where they must respond to cues, and instead of manipulating a separate controller you touch the same device that’s providing the cues. This style of gameplay is very straightforward, so I feel confident even at fast speeds or with more advanced mechanics.
I do have to mention that I still struggle with swiping left and right notes in Ensemble Stars. I already have a hard time with directions, and I find that when notes are going by very quickly the colors are too similar (red and orange) for me to process which way to swipe. Color is definitely something to keep in mind when it comes to accessibility, and out of all the note-style options in this game, there is only one which has more distinct colors for left and right.
If you ever played Guitar Hero and quickly lost track of the five different buttons– six with the strumming bar– your solution may be to find a game with fewer inputs. This reduces the number of distractions on the screen and allows you to really focus on following the beat.
Rhythm Doctor is an indie game that was developed during the global quarantine. It does have a slightly detached input system compared to the previous examples since it’s on your computer instead of mobile, but it’s notable for being a “one input” game. This means you only have to keep track of one set of cues, and your one button, as opposed to four or five of each. It requires much less thinking time for someone with spatial processing issues, but the game still stays interesting by adding more complicated patterns and mechanics with each song. “Simple” refers to the set up here, not the level of challenge. Don’t underestimate just how difficult it can get!
Rhythm Heaven Fever for the Wii relies on two main inputs. You can press the A button, or both A and B together depending on the cue presented. You use these to play through fifty different minigames, all with their own mechanics to learn, but it doesn’t feel so daunting when all you need is the same two buttons. Even if you find a particular minigame you’re really struggling with, the game gives players the option to skip to the next level. It doesn’t shame you or make you feel dumb for needing to skip, it just wants you to have fun, and it knows not letting you progress would only drive people away. You can tell a lot of love went into it, both in that caring tone and in its creative visual direction. The Rhythm Heaven series as a whole is a classic and has similarly simple control schemes that are perfect for beginners.
Maybe you also feel skilled at other types of video games and don’t understand why rhythm games in particular can be so overwhelming. Consider combining your existing skills with the new rhythm-based mechanics!
Some of the most recent rhythm games to come out have been unique cross-genre takes like Sayonara Wild Hearts, which combines racing and action with music, and Crypt of the Necrodancer, an RPG dungeon-crawler that progresses every quarter beat. These games still move to their music, but also include gameplay styles from other genres. In the case of Crypt it’s like any other turn-based game, just on a timer, so for people who have played plenty of RPGs it’s an easy adjustment. If you’re already familiar with other gameplay styles, mixing genres may be a good starting point for you when pure rhythm games become too confusing.
No one should feel left out of the gaming community because they need accommodations. There’s usually a game out there that can properly meet your needs, you just have to think outside of the box. And if it doesn’t exist yet, maybe you can be the person to make that new, fun, accessible game.