If there’s one thing that’s been on the tongues of the gaming populace lately, it’s The Witness. After around seven years of waiting, gamers of the puzzle persuasion have finally been able to wrap their minds around the vibrant, and at times trying, world of The Witness. Created by Jonathan Blow of Braid fame (a 2-D puzzle game involving time control mechanics), the games takes the player through a setting rife with puzzles—around six hundred of them—which teaches them the mechanics along the way with no outright statement of “this is how you do this”. Both Blow and the game have been hailed as artisans who take an innovative approach to the genre while providing a game that is strangely compelling despite the seeming lack of story. However, not long after the game’s release, issues began popping up with the game’s accessibility, causing frustration for some of those who had been waiting for the game. Now, unintentionally, Blow finds himself in the middle of not only a conversation about molding gaming paradigms to fit an artistic vision, but a conversation about the adaptivity of inclusion in games as well. And for his part, Blow does little to add to the latter.
For a long time, game creators and fans alike had been arguing for the “outside world” to take games more seriously, to view it as an art form not unlike film or literature. By now, few are arguing that point anymore: games are as much art as anything else that can be considered art. However, certain subsets of game fans take up this strange spot where they don’t want allow games the same sort of criticism as any other form of art, not realizing that this is counterproductive to what they may have argued for in the first place and misunderstanding how most video games aren’t art for art’s sake. Still, critics and players have found themselves in this strange grey space concerning The Witness. The question concerning games—indie games, as compared to games for a larger audience—has shifted from “is it art?” to “should art be inclusive indefinitely?” And that’s a hard question to answer. A simpler concession is that if it’s not, then the artist has a duty to let their consumers know.
The Witness, for all its beauty and impactfulness, does not allow all of its players to experience all of the game. There are several puzzles that, for those with colorblindness, can be exceedingly difficult or impossible to complete. Additionally, for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, certain other puzzles are entirely missable. For his part, Blow specifically made it possible to be able to finish the game without completing these puzzles, and many others. While some people are content with this, others aren’t and expressing that this is only part of the issue. The more infuriating part of the problem, it seems, is that Blow neglected to tell his audience that the game had these barriers in the first place. In a discussion with Kotaku, Blow states:
“We definitely thought about colorblindness but ultimately there was not much we could do in terms of the individual puzzles… So the approach instead was to ensure the game did not require you to complete any particular area to get to the end. Colorblindness is only an issue with a fraction of the puzzles in the game, and our design focuses these puzzles in a small number of areas, so the workaround is just to skip those areas.”
And while that certainly is a workaround, it feels like a bit of a cop-out, in terms of game design and absolutely in the case of considering his audience. Making the issue “avoidable” doesn’t make it magically disappear, especially when the audience as a whole wasn’t given any hints at all that they may not be able to play some parts.
It’s easy to look at a big name game and say, “of course this game should be accessible to everyone. Fuckin’ duh,” but lines start to get blurry around indie games. If games are art, then some games just aren’t going to be accessible to everyone because not all art is accessible to everyone. However, video game creators who sell their work on the well-known platforms need to understand that as much as you may consider your work art, you’re appealing to a wider audience. You are trying to convince people to partake of your art and your story on a scale larger than maybe a personal website would bring in. Sure, you can plod on without revealing that parts of your games may not be accessible, but it kind of makes you an asshole.
Artists of all mediums should be allowed to produce the kind of art they want, but when exposing it to the world at large for a price, they must also expect criticism. Whether or not they adapt to that criticism is ultimately their choice, but they need to consider if their lack of inclusion is really part of their artistic message, or something they were just ignorant about because of their own able-bodiedness. On the topic of colorblindness, Brenna Hillier at VG24/7 states:
“[The continued lack of colorblindness accessible options in games] is even more damning when you understand that, thanks to the resources and freely-provided expertise available to developers, it’s relatively simple to introduce accessibility solutions – colour filters, subtitles, visual UI substitutions for audio cues, key binding options. All you have to do is have that initial thought, that little spark of empathy, and then make the effort to act on it.”
While we can trust the internet in most cases to point out these things (and groups like AbleGamers exist to help in the case of physical disabilities), players shouldn’t have to rely on a delayed report from other players to be able to know if they can play a game. Players should be able to trust that developers haven’t completely bypassed available accessibility options in the name of “artistic vision”.
At the end of the day, yes, an artist should be able to create the content they want to (within reason). However, if a portion of an artist’s audience isn’t ever able to get the full story being presented, is the artist really doing their work justice? Probably not. For able-bodied people, such accessibility options may not be the things we have in the front of our minds, but that’s no excuse not to think about them. And giving an answer like “well you don’t have to do that part of the game” after the fact is a negligent, dismissive answer that shouldn’t be acceptable in 2016.