Video game accessibility: Lego The Lord of the Rings

Frodo and other Lord of the Rings characters, in Lego.

I've been thinking recently about video games and accessibility, after watching my Dad trying to play Lego Lord of the Rings for the first time.

What are we talking about here?

You might think of accessibility in terms of whether a building has a wheelchair ramp or how a website gets displayed, but it's much more widely relevant and should apply to any digital interface.

You might also think that video games don't need to be accessible. A blind person isn't going to attempt to play, and so long as a person in a wheelchair can use their hands they'll be okay, right?

Ignoring people because of a disability is pretty much the definition of discrimination, and not being able to do something (or not being able to do it easily) is very different from not wanting to do it. Why shouldn't a blind person want to play games?

Making something accessible means considering a range of disabilities and impairments, for example not only blindness but also other visual problems. Improved accessibility helps everyone who uses a product, not just those with disabilities.

How is accessibility relevant to games?

Understanding accessibility with respect to a website is relatively straightforward as there are specific guidelines on how to do it, but they can't be applied so easily to games.

For a start, there's a difference between an inaccessible game and one that is simply difficult. We don't want all games to be easy and straightforward - difficulty and mystery are the basis for many games. So how should this be approached?

If a game has tough criteria for success, such as short time limits, complex puzzles or strong enemies to defeat, then it is difficult. If a game places restrictions on how the user can control the game, then that is bad accessibility. An example might be a game that doesn't let a user choose their own controls, forcing them to use keys or buttons that are hard for them to operate.

Web accessibility is based on four principles of accessibility, which are:

  • Perceivable - information and controls must be presented in ways that users can perceive
  • Operable - user interface components and navigation must be operable
  • Understandable - information and the operation of user interface must be understandable
  • Robust - content must be robust enough to be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents (such as different browsers)

Some games are designed to confuse the user. Figuring out how things work and discovering hidden secrets in a game can be part of the fun. What the accessibility guidelines for games could be (and whether they should apply to all games) is a discussion for another time. However, some games are designed for all ages to enjoy, so it's fair to apply some kind of accessibility critique to them.

With that in mind, let's look at Lego Lord of the Rings.

Enter my Dad

Humble Bundle gave away the PC version of Lego Lord of the Rings for free just before Christmas. I'd completed it and many of the other related Lego games before and thought my Dad would enjoy it.

I sat down with him to give him an introduction to the game but was unprepared for how confusing he would find it. He struggled with things that I thought were clear and simple and made me realise that the game has many problems that can prevent even perfectly able people from enjoying it.

I've tried to summarise them below. In order for this to not turn into a review or personal rant against what I don't like about the game I'm going to only talk about things my Dad struggled with.

The controls configuration screen

The currently selected option and the current player name (1 or 2) are both highlighted and flash in the same way.

If you try to bind a key to a command that's already in use, it unbinds it from the other command without any notification. If you try to do this but the key is already bound to the other player, it refuses to bind the key. There's no feedback if you try to do this, it just doesn't work.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being operable and understandable.

The menu screen for choosing game controls.
The controls configuration screen. It's unclear from a static screenshot but the currently selected option flashes to indicate where you are.

Jumping at an angle using the keyboard

Some jumps require very precise control movements and skill, and are often dependent upon the player understanding where they're trying to jump to in relation to where their character is standing. This is difficult to do when playing with a keyboard, but easier with a gamepad.

Later games such as Lego Jurassic World have a mechanism to aid with complex jumps, but this one doesn't. It's debatable whether this counts as an issue or just something that you need a certain level of skill to achieve.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being robust.

Two Lego men beside a series of rocks floating in a river of lava.
Crossing this river of lava is one of the first jumping obstacles in the game. My Dad fell in more times than was funny, often in exactly the same way, because the angle he was trying to jump at was different to the angle he had to jump at.

Choosing a different character

To change characters you can use the characters wheel. This involves holding down a key while using the movement controls to change your selection. This is hard to use with a keyboard, particularly when selecting characters at the North East, SE, SW and NW positions - the selection moves too easily to an adjacent character.

There is another way of switching to another character, but it's much less precise. There's a further problem in that it uses the same control - but it only requires a quick press, not a hold, so it's easy to do the wrong thing.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being operable.

A wheel with character faces on them.
Three characters can be selected at this point in the game. Selecting the character in the middle can be difficult.

Knowing what can be interacted with and what can't

The world of Lego Lord of the Rings is littered with things made from Lego bricks. Some of them can be interacted with. Some of them can't. Some of them can, but only if you have the right character.

It's not immediately obvious how to tell these items apart, and attempting to interact with some items with the wrong character doesn't prompt any kind of help.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being understandable.

A rocky outcrop with various bits made from Lego.
Some of the bits of Lego scenery here can be interacted with by the chosen character. Some cannot.

Being able to see your character properly

You can rotate the view but it's very easy to lose your character amongst the scenery, particularly in the open world bits. My Dad got frequently confused.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being perceivable.

A series of hedges, with no player character visible.
My character is in the centre of the screen, obscured by the bushes. There's usually an indicator to show where your character is, but it doesn't always appear.

Cursor key confusion

If you map the cursor keys to any of the action keys, the on screen hint prompts you to press e.g. "right". My Dad had done this, and became confused over whether the game was asking him to press the right cursor key, or the key he'd chosen for moving his character to the right.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being understandable.

A character with the hint '(Up)' written over him.
Where the cursor 'up' key is bound to something other than 'move up', this is potentially confusing.

If you have bound the cursor keys to actions other than movement, it's inconsistent that when looking at the map of Middle Earth the cursor keys move the view around, not the keys you've bound to movement.

This could be classed as a failure in terms of the game being robust.

A map of the Lord of the Rings world, with some locations marked on it.
An example of the map screen.

The reasons behind the problems

I think there's some valid problems there but I think it's worth delving into the background of Lego Lord of the Rings in order to provide some balance.

Firstly, it's a game designed to be played on consoles, with a console gamepad. That's not much of an excuse though, and the developers have been repeatedly criticised for their lack of care when porting these Lego games to the PC.

Secondly, it's tricky to balance a game's difficulty for all players. If it's too easy and filled with popup hints it can turn off some players. If it's too hard and provides no help it can turn off others. I recognise that.

The other thing to bear in mind is that this is at least the three thousandth game in a series that stretches back to the mid 1800s at this point (or at least it feels like that sometimes). In any series of games there's always an assumption that players will be familiar with the previous ones, although assuming that everyone knows how to play your game is likely to alienate new players.

Conclusion

Where to go from here? It's fair to assume that these games sell pretty well since they keep making more of them, so the developers have little motivation to look at any of these issues anytime soon.

My Dad's fairly determined, but I suspect he'll give up on Lego Lord of the Rings pretty quickly. No one's lost out, because he got it for free anyway, but consider this. What if he played the game through, loved it, then bought every other Lego game there is?

There's some potential sales you're missing out on, game publishers. Consider that.

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