Vampire Survivors: Can a one-handed game be enjoyed by a person with a disability?

March 21, 2023
Image Description: Vampire Survivor cover next to a closeup of two hands working the game controller

Very few video games have earned as much hype and won as many awards in the past year as Vampire Survivors. It’s all the more remarkable when you remember it’s a $5 game made by one person with the help of a few freelancers.

Imagine if the 1986 Nintendo game Castlevania was a twin-stick shooter like Smash TV. You move with the left stick and shoot with the right stick except it’s a single-stick shooter. Your weapon fires automatically. The goal is to survive the teeming hordes of beasts for as long as you can. When you inevitably die, the game is over and you must restart from the beginning.

You can unlock additional characters, weapons, and relics for subsequent sessions, so the incentive to keep playing is high. In the following gameplay trailer, a review quote from Rock Paper Shotgun appears: “You can play it with one hand while eating a bag of crisps.”

Video description: Vampire Survivors trailer with rousing music that shows gameplay and quotes from reviews.

The quote is obviously played for laughs, but the accessibility implications caught my attention. Could someone with a mobility disability play and enjoy Vampire Survivors?

To find out, I spoke with frequent Equal Entry collaborator Josh Grisdale. Josh is the founder of Accessible Japan, a site dedicated to collecting knowledge about traveling in Japan with a disability.

He is also the founder of TabiFolk, described as “a social network for travelers with disabilities to share information, advice, a laugh, and maybe a rant or two.” As a casual gamer with quadriplegic cerebral palsy who uses an electric wheelchair, Josh can speak from personal experience about accessibility in video games.

Video description: Josh Grisdale introduces himself and shares some common issues he encounters while gaming.

Experience with Vampire Survivors

Herndon: What has been your overall experience so far with the game? Are you enjoying it?

Grisdale: I am enjoying it too much, perhaps. The simple controls and short games make it a very “one more time” game. When I play twin-stick shooters, my wrists can bump into each other pretty quickly, so I was really impressed with how easy it was to play Vampire Survivors. I realized that it’s also on Xbox Game Pass, in addition to mobile, so I have been trying it on both. I find the console version better.

Herndon: How so?

Grisdale: The controller. I could put one hand on the left joystick and the other on the “A” button, which is the same way anyone else would play.

Herndon: Did you find yourself gravitating towards particular weapons because they simplified the game? I’m thinking of Pasqualina’s runetracer that automatically fires in the direction of enemies.

Grisdale: Yes. I often used Garlic, which places an aura around the player and deals damage to every enemy who is inside of it. The King Bible works similarly. Also, Song of Mana, when I got to the second level. With those weapons, you don’t have to avoid enemies all the time. Weapons like the knife require a bit more precision in your movement.

Video description: Josh navigates the character and level selection screens and begins a new game. The only sound is the clicking of the controller.

Herndon: Did you use the map at all?

Grisdale: Yes, when it was unlocked, I used the map to find items. Visual directional cues are provided for dropped chests if they are off-screen. But it’s not very useful for navigating a stage.

How Can the Game Be More Accessible?

Herndon: Can you think of any technical changes the developers could make that would make the game more accessible for you?

Grisdale: On the console, I tried to play completely one-handed, though I can do two-handed.  The only issue I could think of was that when you level up or get a treasure box, and you click “Done” the game resumes immediately.

When playing one-handed, it takes a bit of time to move my hand from the “A” button to the left stick, and if I am surrounded by enemies, then that can mean death. It would be great if there was an option to have a count-in after closing a dialog box. As in, after clicking “Done,” a timer counts down — 3, 2, 1 — before the action restarts.

Video description: Josh shares a tip for one-handed players.

Herndon: What about the mobile version?

Grisdale: One touch-screen issue is that my finger drifts to the middle or the top of the screen as I play. To correct that, I lift my finger off the screen and put it at the bottom of the screen. It only takes a second or two, but during that time, my character isn’t moving and is vulnerable. Maybe I’d benefit from an option to slow or stop the game when the player’s finger is removed.

Herndon: It seems as if that could be feasible, especially with a controller, because the game could be paused by default whenever your joystick is positioned in the center, the way it is when you’re not playing. Are you familiar with the game Superhot?

Grisdale: That’s the one where enemies only move when you move?

Herndon: Yes. I wondered if this game could have a similar option.

Grisdale: That might work.

Herndon: I noticed that players can’t change the game difficulty in Vampire Survivors. Although they do have the option to toggle off the “Arcana” power-ups, some of which can make it harder to achieve more gold and XP.

Grisdale: Yes. Unrelated to me, I like how they have a “flashing visuals” warning at the start. It would be great if they had the option to turn off flashing immediately, instead of in the Options menu.

Herndon: Even with the option to toggle flashing on and off, it’s still a very intense game visually, especially later in the game. That’s part of why it’s so fun. Perhaps there could be a grayscale option for people who found the visuals too overwhelming.

Grisdale: That’s true. Hopefully, it would still be fun.

Working with Game Controllers

Herndon: Do you ever connect your Xbox controller to your phone via Bluetooth to play mobile games with it?

Grisdale: Sometimes. It might make a game a bit easier to play, but it also feels like too many steps. I’m just a casual gamer. When I want to play a game, I want to play right away for just a little while. It’s part of why I haven’t used adaptive controllers very much. I think they’re cool and I’m glad they exist, but I live in a small apartment and don’t want to devote a lot of space to gaming equipment.

Herndon: Evil Controllers take up less space and might be worth checking out.

Grisdale: They look interesting.

Video description: Shows a variety of controllers including standard and adaptive controllers.

Herndon: Did you have any luck remapping the Xbox controller buttons for Vampire Survivors?

Grisdale: On the Xbox, in the accessibility settings, you can remap the buttons — but not the trigger buttons. However, a PlayStation controller will let you do it. I was told by Xbox that it was a physical restriction with the way their controllers are made. If you buy the Elite controller, you can remap the triggers.

Herndon: Standard controllers don’t have onboard storage like the Elite controllers. My understanding is that Microsoft is aware of the trigger remapping issues on the standard controller, and several developers are advocating for a fix to be made soon.

Grisdale: I hope they do fix it. Xbox offers a lot of old games in their store that will never be updated, and therefore never be accessible without OS support.

Herndon: What other games have you enjoyed?

Grisdale: I had a good time with Archero on iOS. In that game, you lift your finger off the touchscreen and stand still to auto-fire at enemies.

Herndon: Have you played any other roguelikes that you found to be more accessible than Vampire Survivors?

Grisdale: Yes, but they were not as fun as this one. Vampire Survivors is very sticky! I think they have done a great job of showing that a game doesn’t need to use every button on the controller to be fun.

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