For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been terrified of spiders. Whether they’re maliciously spying on me in a corner of a room or just chilling on my windowsill, the mere sight of spiders causes my palms to sweat and my breathing to accelerate. It’s a phobia that’s also proven to be fairly debilitating when it comes to enjoying my favourite hobby: gaming.
The practise of combing through online message boards to read if an upcoming game features spiders is something I’m all too familiar with. My girlfriend had to hold my hand (and frequently act as my eyes) while I gingerly shuffled through Metro Exodus’ arachnid-infested tunnels. To my shame, I’ve also never finished either Bloodborne nor the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil. Both are titles that games media have dubbed as ‘must play’ experiences, yet those games’ giant spiders have always set off my nervous responses, thus preventing me from enjoying those games to their fullest.
Before I start playing my tiny, tiny fiddle anymore though, I must stop and acknowledge that I speak from a hugely privileged position. There are many gamers out there who cannot play several games because a physical or mental disability prevents them from doing so.
The Welcome Trend of Accessibility
Thankfully, accessibility options are becoming increasingly common in modern games. Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller is a wonderful piece of kit that’s designed to accommodate gamers who suffer from a range of physical disabilities. More recently, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II boasts an unprecedented amount of accessibility options. Steve Saylor, a legally blind gamer due to his nystagmus, even shed tears of joy after discovering the full range of options available to help visually impaired players. “For the first time in my entire life, I was able to sit back on the couch and play the game without any barriers getting in the way,” he later said in an interview with the BBC.
One of the more unique instances of accommodating disabled gamers can be seen in Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, which doesn’t have a colour blind mode, but for a surprisingly good reason. Tim Cain, one of the game’s directors, suffers from a form of colour blindness similar to monochromacy, so the entire game’s visuals are designed to accommodate colour blind players by default. But it’s Obsidian’s most recent game, Grounded, that really got my attention, since it features a unique accessibility option called ‘Arachnophobia Mode,’ which supposedly makes the game’s spiders tolerable for arachnophobes.
For the unaware, Grounded is a first-person survival game that takes heavy inspiration from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You play as miniature children navigating your own backyard as you try to repair the machine responsible for making you tiny, all while hiding from aphids, ants, and of course… spiders. Despite the game’s cartoony style, the game’s trailer still made me recoil in horror thanks to the image of a spider chasing our miniature heroes through an underground tunnel that’s caked in webs. If I was browsing to buy the game, this would’ve been more than enough for me to ‘nope’ out of the game for good. But I was intrigued to see how Arachnophobia Mode aimed to quell my fears. The game recently got a demo, so I dove in and checked out its accessibility options for myself.
Testing Out Grounded’s Arachnophobia Mode
Arachnophobia Mode doesn’t outright turn off the game’s spiders, which is good because they’re still a valuable element of the game’s design. Rather, it offers a means of making spiders appear less visually intimidating to folks like me. To my surprise, the feature let me choose from five diminishing levels of ‘spiderness’. It adjusts not just the look of spiders, but also how they sound in game. Level one reduces a spider’s leg count to four, level two removes legs altogether, level three takes away the fangs, level four changes the head shape, and finally, level five removes colouration and some eyes. At this level, in-game spiders quite literally look like two floating metal ovals with red eyes, a far cry from the usual model with its tiger-striped abdomen suspended by a cradle of eight spindly legs.
More out of curiosity than fear, I set it to the maximum level and booted into the game proper. After bashing a gnat to death with a pebble and scrounging some weeds, I pressed on to hunt for spiders (something I thought I’d never do willingly). Then, I saw it. Wandering near gooey spider webs and weaving through towering blades of grass was a giant hovering fish oil tablet. And it wasn’t happy to see me.
Admittedly, it was a little jarring to see what looked like an unfinished enemy model hanging out with the game’s other meticulously crafted insects. Yet, because I knew I chose that model, the enemy type still mentally registered as a spider. Crucially though, I didn’t fear it because my phobia was triggered. Instead, I perceived them simply as a ‘high-threat’ enemy, like Creepers in Minecraft – I feared the game over screen, not the form of the spider.
This corroborates with a 1991 study conducted by Graham Davey examining why arachnophobes detest spiders. For the experiment, Davey interviewed 118 undergraduates about their thoughts on spiders. Around 75% of that group stated they found them mildly or deeply frightening. That group was then asked what characteristics of spiders they find the most off-putting. The two biggest factors were their ‘legginess’ and their erratic movements. These are likely similar results of Obsidian’s own research and playtesting when devising their take on Arachnophobia Mode since, at its core, the feature attempts to rationalise an irrational fear.
In practise then, this feature is successful. By eliminating many of a spider’s defining characteristics, like their ‘legginess’ and, by extension, their erratic movements, my nervous response to spiders was never engaged. As an arachnophobe, the giant backyard environment was still unsettling to navigate. Some of the bigger types of ants were a bit gross to look at, but it was deeply comforting to know the classic form of a spider would never ambush me. Grounded’s Arachnophobia Mode makes an honest promise to gamers like me, and it gave me an opportunity to actually play this game without fear. A decidedly better substitute to quivering behind a pillow while watching gameplay footage on YouTube.
Previously, I always saw accessibility options purely as a mildly interesting gaming feature – something that’s useful for a niche selection of gamers and a menu that I’d seldom glance at. After experiencing what it’s like to have my phobia catered for though, I can better empathise with what a revelation it must be for disabled gamers like Steve Saylor to have their requirements acknowledged.
Games like The Last of Us Part II and Grounded are frontrunners for 2020’s winning race for accessibility. They’ve successfully opened up the conversation about accessibility in gaming and their suite of options set a high benchmark that future game developers should be encouraged to follow. Accessibility tools like Arachnophobia Mode, colour blind options, and even something as simple as directional closed captions can truly make a world of difference to some gamers. When well implemented, these options can break down otherwise damning barriers that could impede people’s ability to do something as simple as play a video game. More people should be permitted that pleasure because in gaming’s race for accessibility, everyone’s a winner.
If you’d like to learn more about accessibility options in games (it really is a fascinating subject), then I can wholeheartedly recommend checking out caniplaythat.com, a superb resource hub for disabled gamers. Additionally, Mark Brown’s (Game Maker’s Toolkit) video series on the subject is a great watch and a good entry point to the topic:
Writer of words for tired eyes and lover of games that make me smile. Blogger and YouTube content creator who can’t keep quiet when it comes to gaming. Don’t like my work? Fight me IRL in Smash Brothers.