How to Make ADHD-Friendly Video Games
As regular readers know, I have ADHD. I also play a lot of video games. So I have thoughts about game design and how to do it so games are more enjoyable for people who have attention issues. This is mostly going to be a series of gripes about poor game design, so be warned
Request #1: Just Let Me Play the Game
This is the first one for a reason. It’s the most important. When I’m playing a game, I want to play it. I don’t want to watch it. I definitely don’t want to read it. I want to be hitting buttons that make things happen. Every time you stop me from doing that, I’m bored.
Don’t use cutscenes. Every second spent in a cutscene means I’m not playing the game. I want to play the game. Your cutscene is stopping me. Thankfully, most games these days let you skip the cutscenes, but that means I have no idea what’s going on. Just don’t use them!
Dishonorable mention: Kingdom Hearts III. The gameplay is really fun, but it’s constantly interrupted by cutscenes telling an overly complicated and bizarre story. Worse, it will often play a cutscene, then let you take a few steps, then play another cutscene! It feels like I spent more time watching that game than playing it.
Do use atmospheric and audio storytelling that happens while I’m playing the game. Leave clues in the environment about what’s going on. Have characters talk to me while I’m doing things. Have events occur in the background while I’m accomplishing tasks. Find a way to tell the story that doesn’t involve disabling the controls.
Honorable mention: Bioshock. Except for one scene, the entire story is told through the environment and audio logs that play while you’re exploring.
Don’t interrupt the action with mandatory dialogue, especially unskippable dialogue. This is often worse than cutscenes because there’s a static background with nothing but scrolling text. Sometimes you need dialogue, but often you can accomplish the same storytelling without it.
Dishonorable mention: Zelda: Skyward Sword. This game gets interrupted about every 30 seconds by some annoying character wanting to talk with you. Every time you encounter anything that looks fun to do, you’re interrupted with some stupid dialogue that you can’t skip. Cut it out.
Do let me keep playing the game while dialogue is happening. Let me move around and do stuff, and walk away if I’m not interested in the conversation. If you’re unwilling to do that, at least make the dialogue optional or have separate parts of the game be dialogue-heavy and action-heavy.
Honorable mention: Fallout 76. For all its flaws, it handles this part really well. You can do whatever you want while characters are talking, including managing your inventory, shooting enemies, or walking away. There’s never a point at which you’re trapped in a conversation.
Honorable mention: the Mass Effect Trilogy. Mass Effect is a hugely story-heavy game with tons of dialogue, but the majority of it is optional. Most of the mandatory dialogue occurs between missions, so it doesn’t interrupt you while you’re trying to play the combat parts of the game. It’s not perfect about it, but it strikes a good balance.
Must Go Faster
Every video game character is too slow. Walking from one spot to another isn’t fun. It shouldn’t take a lot of time. Game designers obviously understand this, as they often will allow fast travel and/or give you movement speed upgrades. But it’s treated like something you have to earn. And even once you max out your speed, nearly every character is still too slow. Why not allow the character to move faster? What’s the harm? Why not just give everyone an option to set their own movement speed?
Don’t have any section where you have to spend more than 10 seconds just walking. If that’s the case, the character is moving too slow. And definitely don’t ever slow the character down in a non-combat situation. If you have a run button, don’t put limits on it. Just let me run all the time!
Dishonorable mention: Final Fantasy VII Remake. This is the game that inspired this post, as it commits basically every sin I’m mentioning here in an otherwise enjoyable game. But it’s especially bad on this point. Its characters move too slow by default. It has a run button, but it just gets turned off sometimes. In certain rooms, your character moves extra-slow for seemingly no reason. It’s infuriating
Do just make the character move fast. Faster. Faster than that. Keep turning up the speed until it ruins the game. Then make that the maximum and give people an option to set their own movement speed. If that would make the character OP, design your game better. Don’t have game mechanics that rely on characters being slow.
Honorable mention: emulators. Most emulators give people an option to set the game speed and adjust it on the fly. This makes everything go faster, including dialogue, cutscenes, and characters. It’s fantastic, and I wish game designers would follow their lead.
Don’t have sequences where I have to inch along a wall or an overhang slowly. Almost every game that involves complicated platforming, for some reason, has sequences where you have to press your back up against a wall or hang from a ledge where you inch your way along at 1/5 your normal speed. There is absolutely no need for this.
Dishonorable mention: the modern Tomb Raider games. Most of the game involves running, jumping, climbing, and other platforming. And in the middle of each platforming challenge, there’s a part where you have to inch along while hanging from a ledge. It’s completely unnecessary.
Do make platforming fun! Instead of slowing things down, speed them up! Keep adding abilities that let you go through the platforming sections faster!
Honorable mention: Ori and the Blind Forest. The game is a mix of platforming and combat challenges, but the platforming never requires you to move slowly. Often you will move slowly because moving fast is difficult, but you don’t have to! When you do, it’s your choice. And throughout the game, you unlock lots of upgrades that let you get through the platforming challenges faster. It’s great.
Your Boss Fights Are Bad and You Should Feel Bad
We need to talk about bosses. Pretty much every boss fight is stupid and boring. In almost every game that features boss fights, there are 1-4 ways to damage a boss that don’t damage you, and your job is to figure those out, dodge or block until there’s an opening, attack, and then repeat this sequence 20-30 times. Repeating the same sequence of moves over and over is mind-numbingly boring. It gets even worse if the sequence is difficult to do, because then you end up dying a few times and can end up having to repeat the sequence (dodge dodge dodge attack) hundreds of times before actually beating the boss. By the end, I rarely even feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m mostly just relieved that I can get back to the fun part of the game.
Don’t give bosses giant health bars. Don’t even give them health bars! Don’t make me slash away at them 50 times to kill them. That’s boring. Even better, just don’t have bosses. Games do not require bosses! They are usually the least fun part of the game!
Dishonorable mention: Hollow Knight. Hollow Knight is a really fun game until you get to the bosses. Then it’s just a slog. Bosses have giant health bars and require dozens of hits before they’re taken down. They have fixed attack patterns, so to win, you have to memorize the attack pattern, wait for an opening, then attack. Then you do it again. And again. And again and again and again, about 20-40 times per boss. It’s the opposite of fun.
Do make bosses fun and dynamic! Make each boss a variety of different challenges. Incorporate puzzles, platforming, and action. Have the boss be able to be killed in a single hit, but make it challenging to score that hit. Make most of the fight trying to trap the boss or open up a vulnerability. Take a cue from movies, where most bosses are killed with a single hit on their vulnerable spot. That’s fun and exciting! If you can’t figure out how to do that, just take out the bosses. You don’t need them.
Honorable mention: Shadow of the Colossus. The entire game is a series of boss fights, but each boss is like a level in itself. Some bosses require difficult platforming. Some require precise timing. Some require clever puzzle-solving. Some require all 3. Each boss only takes about 3 hits to kill, but it’s a real journey to be able to score those hits. More bosses should be designed that way.
Make Better Games!
I introduced this as a way to make ADHD-friendly games. But really, I think taking these suggestions would improve games for almost anyone, even people without attention difficulties. Most of the problems I’m describing aren’t fun for most people. There are, of course, a subset of gamers who want their gameplay to be interrupted, their characters to move slowly, and their bosses to be repetitive, but I’m pretty sure that’s a minority of players. Making gameplay more continuous, movement speed faster, and bosses more dynamic would make games more fun for most of us.