The Witness Sparks Discussion on Games, Art, and Accessibility

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.

The WitnessFor 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.

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This entry was posted in Art, Disability Studies, Internet, opinion, Video Games and tagged , , , , , by Tsunderin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

3 thoughts on “The Witness Sparks Discussion on Games, Art, and Accessibility

  1. This is my frustration every day as a 100 percent blind individual who loves video games and hasn’t been able to play any for years because of developers not even considering differently abled people would want to play these games. Dealing with these barriers already, I’m really not surprised that dealing with color blindness was not in the forefront of their minds. And yes, it’s 2016, but considering a law was passed about 2-3 years ago to make games more accessible and Sony has been fighting back on doing so (in fact, I think they got having to make games accessible pushed back to having to work on it this year so we’ll see how that goes) I honestly am not surprised. It’s infuriating beyond words, but it’s just something us disabled folk have to deal with until someone comes along and decides to break the status quo and say “No, it’s doable, I did it in my game”. Considering accessing something as simple as logging into steam is impossible without sighted help, I find this hard pressed to become reality.

    Like I said, infuriating, but a reality I’ve been facing for years. Like you said, hopefully these issues will change in the foreseeable future: I would love to play games, not not just experience them through let’s plays and friends playing them and having me tell them what to do so it’s like I’m playing them but they’re doing all the visual stuff lol.

  2. Crystal, that’s not quite correct!

    There are many hundreds of blind-accessible games, particularly on iOS. Even mainstream console games. There are tournament level blind fighting game players for example.. Mortal Kombat X even has a dedicated blind-accessibility mode.

    The law that was passed was the CVAA. It specifically does not require games to be more accessible. It requires communication in games to be accessible, which is a bit different. Sony have not been fighting anthing, it is the USA’s games industry body, the ESA, that has been in negotiation with the FCC over it.

    It is only communication in games themselves that has the exemption until 2017, the law already applies to game consoles and also to distribution platforms / gameplay network such as steam. If you check out either an XB1 or a PS4 they now have a raft of accessibility features, mostly affecting the system UI, such as screenreaders, and some affecting gameplay, such as remapping and zoom.

    It’s true about it taking people to get it started though. There are fantastic examples of accessibility for all kinds of imapirments and all kinds of game mechanics, but it takes a certain number of high profile cases before the ball starts rolling.

    That’s what happened with colorblindness. A few short years ago it was a rarity, then some high profile games started doing it, resulting in lots of press coverage, games like Sim City, Borderlands and Black Ops 2. From then on things started changing very quickly, to the stage where it is at now, where not including it results in the kind of uproar seen over The Witness.

    To be fair Jonathan Blow did come a cropper of his timescales. He actually made the decision to make them skippable way back in something like 2011 before there was widespread uptake and knowledge, had he been doing it now he absolutely would have been able to find solutions. The quote in the kotaku piece is a repeat of what he said back then, it’s not a recent decision.

    But there isn’t really much excuse for deciding way back then that they would be skippable, and managing to fail to make them skippable in the 5 years inbetween. I assume he forgot about it.

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