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The Last of Us Part 2 Ellie Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America via Polygon

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The Last of Us 2 goes beyond accessibility and difficulty levels

Naughty Dog is trying something new with in-game options

Three bloody bodies lie strewn about the old grocery store. Victims of overconfidence, I tell myself, squatting behind a glass display case to train my ear toward the sounds of the nearby infected — specifically, the guttural hiss of a Clicker as it attempts to find me with echolocation.

The monsters do seem quicker in The Last of Us Part 2, and I have no desire to see my throat get ripped out. My body is tense, hands nearly twitching in readiness to act. There’s no reason I can’t get this right.

I slide my finger left across the touchpad. The world shifts to high contrast. My enemies, red. Myself? Blue. My vision has become something like that of the eponymous Predator, in fact, and my targets stand out like fireworks against the night sky.

While the Clickers use sonar to stalk their prey, I use the square button to send out a ping that brings information back to me. It turns out that the Clickers and I aren’t all that different when it comes to hunting.

Where evolution has made them better slayers, perfectly adapted to their environment, I’ve found my edge in the game’s accessibility menus, which offer so much more than the standard colorblind and difficulty options that I’m not sure what we should call them anymore.

Everyone is welcome

The list of accessibility options in The Last of Us 2 is massive, with too many individual features to cover. I thought Gears 5 had set a new long-term bar for excellence in accessibility, but Naughty Dog rose to the challenge, and may have done even more to make sure everyone can play comfortably.

The software options run deep, allowing players to adjust so much that the term “accessibility” barely seems to fit. These are options that change some very important aspects of the game’s design itself, not just how the same information is presented to different people.

Starting The Last of Us Part 2 for the first time takes players to an accessibility menu, in fact, showing them some of the available choices right away, complete with a text-to-speech function that allows people to instantly make the changes they need without first struggling to get that option even turned on.

A few of my able-bodied friends said this was initially a little jarring, but it’s important to get players to these settings first thing. Reading everything in a game’s introduction, or even going through a lot of spoken narration, can be daunting for many, especially for someone like me with poor eyesight. Getting those initial options out of the way before the game even begins is crucial, and I hope this becomes the new normal.

A look at the difficulty options of The Last of Us Part 2
The customization menus are deep, but Naughty Dog does a great job explaining what each setting does
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Thankfully, there are presets for vision, hearing, and motor accessibility issues for players who may also be a bit impatient and just want to get going, so no one is going to be left waiting for long. I had a good idea of what I needed already, so it only took me a few seconds to adjust the HUD sizes, subtitle configurations, and lock-on options to my liking, including a helpful indicator to differentiate enemies from other items in the game’s world.

I also change the setting for the quick-time events that ask you to quickly, and repeatedly, press a single button; now I can instead simply hold that button down. This isn’t something I need for my disability — though sometimes I can’t see which button I should be using at first — but I always turn it on for my own comfort. I just don’t like hammering a button over and over to perform a simple task, you know?

Another difficulty menu in the Last of Us Part 2, showing you can display whether you’ve picked up an item in a previous playthrough
Spend some time in the menus, digging around. I was surprised at many of the great options I found
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

That’s why these menus are such a delight. There is so much here for folks who might not otherwise think they could benefit from any of the toggles in an accessibility menu. The Last of Us Part 2 has something to offer just about everyone, even if you’re actually unhappy with certain aspects of the game itself.

We need new names for these kinds of options

It’s that weird blending of difficulty, accessibility, and game design options that makes these screens so interesting.

Options like auto pickup, enhanced listening mode, and navigational assistance are incredibly helpful in letting me play without seriously altering the game, but each of these options may be just as useful for people who are fully able-bodied.

Navigational assistance, for example, turns me toward the direction in which I need to go to further the story, ignoring any collectibles or optional details in an area. If I honestly can’t figure out where to go, or I just want to get to the next story beat, this option means I don’t have to waste time wandering around, hoping I’m going in the right direction.

Ellie looks off into the distance and sees stairs she must get to, and says, “How do I get to those stairs...?”
You can turn on a toggle that tells you where to go to progress the story on command, for those who may get stuck a little too often.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Enhanced listening helped make up for my lack of vision in a few spots, but also made me aware of items in a room that needed my attention, meaning I didn’t have to triple-check small areas if I didn’t know what to do next, or couldn’t figure out what in-game spot needed my interaction.

Turning on the auto pickup option meant that I didn’t need to keep tapping a button to pick up items if I was in a place with a lot of collectibles or crafting items, which is helpful for anyone who has issues hitting buttons rapidly. But as I said before, maybe you just want to turn on this option, or any of the above options, because it makes the game more enjoyable.

Auto pickup is the sort of setting that removes a bit of friction from the entire experience of the game, should anyone so desire. Or they can leave it be, and tap that button as much as they want if they get something out of the interaction.

This is better for literally everyone

I was surprised when a friend showed me that he was using the high-contrast display mode, an option that changes the colors of allies, enemies, interactive objects, and important items, while stripping the rest of the environment’s colors away to a grayscale. It’s the option I’m discussing in the first paragraphs of this piece, in fact.

I use this feature to help me spot enemies before I accidentally bump into them, something that’s happened before — especially in games where the infected match the game’s background color palette — and to avoid missing something that might be obvious to someone with more precise vision.

The Last of Us Part 2 with visual cues turned on, showing the contrast between the characters, items, and backgrounds
The game looks very different with some of the visual assistance options turned on, but every important detail of the world stands out clearly.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

But that’s just why I use the option; my choice was about necessity. My friend simply didn’t want to miss any items, and this option made the game more enjoyable for him, while relieving some of the stress of worrying about collecting all the good stuff in each environment. It was about focusing on the parts of the game that mattered to him — the emotion, the characters, and the story — while being able to relax when it came to some of the parts that didn’t, such as hunting through each environment for well-hidden items.

The accessibility options are so dense, and so interesting, that they can almost be seen as ways to remix the game, as well as helping a larger percentage of people play at all.

There’s an option to skip puzzles, an interesting feature for anyone who has played the game multiple times and doesn’t want to continue to do the same things just to spend some more time in these gorgeous environments.

There are players who despise swimming sections as well, and the infinite breath option means that they don’t have to deal with the stress of trying to get somewhere quickly before they asphyxiate in-game.

If you dislike stealth sections, especially when it can be hard to tell when or if someone or something can see you, you can turn on the option that makes you invisible when prone, maintaining part of the game’s illusion while allowing players like my wife — who just hates stealth sections — a way to move ahead without feeling like she’d rather slam her head into a wall.

The options don’t stop there, however, although we’re now dealing with the sometimes murky area between accessibility and difficulty.

The Last of Us Part 2 offers five different overall difficulty ratings, but Naughty Dog also seems to admit that it doesn’t know what players may need, so there are also plenty of granular options that let you decrease enemy aggression, accuracy, or speed. You can adjust how much damage enemies inflict as well, or how many checkpoints there are in long encounters.

Do you want your traveling companions to be more aggressive as well, more ready to help if you get in trouble? That’s a toggle, and it’s a fun one to play with. You’re also given some control over how much resources and ammunition you find as you scavenge, in case you’d rather go Rambo instead of making sure every shot counts.

Or you can decide to decrease the amount of pickups, adding even more pressure when you have to fire a quick shot and don’t have much time to aim. Don’t worry if you need that extra time, by the way — there’s also an option that slows down time while you’re lining up a shot, should you need the extra time or just prefer it.

Ellie hides behind cover while looking for items or collectibles in The Last of Us Part 2
Or you can only use a few options, for a more traditional experience that helps in one or two areas.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

This isn’t even meant to be an exhaustive list — just a glance at what’s available to adjust, and why you may want to look deeper into the menus than you had first assumed.

Of course, if these options bother you and it brings you more pleasure to play as you feel the developers may have intended, it’s simple enough to ignore each and every setting. But there’s no weakness to be found in fiddling with a game’s parameters to match the way you’d like to play it, should the developer give you that option.

It’s not like anyone thinks you’re weak, or not getting the full experience, if you drive a car without adjusting the heat or A/C, you know? Naughty Dog created a game crammed with every software option currently imaginable, and doing so helps everyone.

The accessibility options made some people burst into tears, and left others amazed by how much they could control the way in which they played the game, and how much better it is to be given that power over the experience. Writing this article made me realize that we need more and better ways to talk about who these options are for, and why people may want to use them.

The options in The Last of Us Part 2 don’t just mean that more people can play, but that more people can get what they want out of the game, without having to slog through the parts that give them trouble, or that they’d rather leave behind. This isn’t about working around your challenges or being able-bodied, and it’s not as simple as “hard” versus “easy.” It’s about finding ways to keep everyone playing, and engaged with the action on screen.

That’s an amazing gift to be included in a game where so much is riding on the experience of playing to deliver the scares, sadness, and fear of the story itself. What you think of the game, and its ending, is up to you. But Naughty Dog proved that it’s willing to put in the effort to ensure that as many people as possible could experience it for themselves.

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