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Vaporum’s Little Puzzles Cause Big Accessibility Issues

If only steampunk augments were real…

If you’ve played Legend of Grimrock, sitting down with Vaporum will practically be second nature. It utilises a tile-based movement system with real-time combat, and focuses on exploration, puzzle solving, monster fighting, and loot collecting. Key differences include a streamlining of combat (spells can be cast with hotkeys instead of inputting specific ruin combinations), the removal of parties (you’re all on your own here), and a switch to a steampunk setting. The latter of those is what really makes Vaporum stand out, with its mechanical arachnids, steam-powered suits of armour, and decidedly old-school weaponry.

Of course, your enjoyment of all that will likely come down to how much you enjoy the basic act of dungeon crawling. For myself, I found that it got pretty stale early on; most one-on-one encounters boil down to repeating “attack, sidestep, attack” ad nauseam. With this being my first exposure to this type of game, it’s entirely possible that it’s just not really my style. However, even on the “Normal” difficulty, enemies are so spongy that experienced players may find their patience tested.

What I really want to touch on is some of the game’s “puzzles”, though – in scare quotes, because they’re not really puzzles. They’re effectively races in which you need to press a switch and then make a mad dash to a door before it closes. Unless there are hidden shortcuts I was overlooking, the time limits are strict; if I made it through, it was often with the door immediately slamming shut behind me. Here’s where the tile-based movement turns into a real pain.

In the average first-person action game, there are all sorts of “exploits” you could use to speed up such a process. For instance, you could move until you were just in range of the switch, then slam it while simultaneously turning the camera, and hug the corners of the map while running through the door. It might still be close, but there’s a slightly wider margin for error. Here, your character rotates in 90 degree increments; you must be perpendicular to the wall if you want to hit the switch. Then, every movement you make afterwards – be it turning or moving – happens in a static amount of time. Your only real options for speeding up are to memorize the path so you don’t have to rotate the camera, or make sure you’re pressing the needed button immediately after the previous animation ends.

Now, for me, these puzzles were a bit of a nuisance; nothing more. After visiting the Steam forums, though, I learned that they were a real accessibility issue for some. One user in particular suffered from muscular dystrophy so found the game next to impossible to complete. The only useful suggestion to assign a mouse or keyboard macro to input the necessary button presses. Unfortunately, this could easily run into input speed problems. Unless the game actively queues commands (something which I haven’t noticed), it would take a ton of tweaking to ensure that the inputs were fast enough to get you through the door without outpacing the game along the way.

This got me thinking about accessibility in the wider sense – some games aren’t as forgiving as Vaporum. At least here, the whole situation is isolated; you could in theory pause the game in front of the switch, figure out a strategy (macro or otherwise), then immediately implement it and continue. In other games, that’s not really an option. How many action games rely on QTEs for their big set-pieces? Of those, how many either give extremely short windows of time to press the necessary buttons, or expect you to mash a button like it’s a spider that refuses to stay dead?

Games have been taking steps to become more accessible as they start to appeal to a wider audience. I’ve seen colourblind options in settings menus with increasing frequency, and opening games to those with various motor deficiencies seems like a logical next step. According to CanChild, five to six per cent of school-aged children are affected by developmental coordination disorder, a condition that impedes motor skills that often worsen later in life. That may not seem like a large number, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s thousands (or even millions) of potential players who are gated off from games due to something largely out of their control.

Now, this isn’t some call to rework every single game to be accessible to everyone. Developers have clear visions for their products, and nobody should ever feel forced to make changes to their project for the sake of mass appeal. However, I think that it’s an important point for developers to consider: is there a better way?

The timed puzzles in Vaporum didn’t add anything to the experience; if they weren’t there, I wouldn’t be thinking, “Man, I really wish this game was faster”. Plus, considering the overall methodical nature of the game, they stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, combat requires well-timed dodges, but there’s still a significant delay between dodging, attacking, etc. Besides, at least combat difficulty can be lowered with a slider. Some people don’t have that luxury in their everyday life; physical and mental health don’t come with difficulty sliders. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving a bit more consideration to those who are already playing life on “Expert”.

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