Cyberpunk 2077 and the perils of playing video games with epilepsy

It may be Cyberpunk 2077 currently getting flack for being dangerous for those with epilepsy but it’s not the only game with similar issues.

Over the course of its eight-year development, CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 has been embroiled in its fair share of controversies. To date, the team has come under fire for their attitude towards transgender rights, their crunch practices, and the constantly delayed release of the game itself.

The latest outrage has been over how one of its central mechanics is liable to cause seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy. Known as braindances, the sequences in question have you interfacing with the memories of other characters by plugging into a special mainframe, whereupon you’re bombarded with an onslaught of blinking LEDs. Which honestly sounds quite unpleasant, regardless of whether you’ve got a neurological condition that makes you uniquely vulnerable.

Twitter has been ablaze with discussion of the subject for the past couple of days, with many people claiming that they no longer feel safe purchasing the action role-player, and that it seems needlessly exclusive to have what amounts to a full-blown epilepsy test at regular intervals in the game.

Whilst it’s pleasing to note that CD Projekt Red has responded by adding a health warning to the beginning of the game, and are committing to working on a ‘permanent solution’, the main positive to come out of all this is that it sparked a much-needed conversation. Because Cyberpunk is far from the only culprit of this oversight.

Gaming is teeming with flashing lights. Whether they’re big obvious strobes or near-imperceptible flickers that will barely register to the naked eye, there are very few releases out there that don’t include some kind of triggering stimuli. Over the past decade or so, this is something that my partner and I have had to learn the hard way.

For context, she has the photosensitive type of epilepsy, along with about 2 million others across the globe. The effects of this condition are not the same for everyone but, in her case, it means that she can’t stare at overly bright images for too long or be subjected to continuous bursts of white light. If it’s red, blue, or green it tends to be a bit more tolerable for her, but they can still send her into a grand mal under the wrong circumstances.

As such, we must be very careful about what entertainment we consume together. Star Wars movies are obviously all off the table, music concerts are a dicey proposition, and I will have to cover her eyes for the duration of West End musicals if they are particularly overzealous with their visual effects. Likewise, when it comes to video games, there are some titles that are just off limits for us as a couple.

For instance, we’re both enthusiastic survival horror fans and it’s always been a downer that she can’t watch Dead Space or Alien Isolation (two of my personal favourites, that I’ll never be able to share with her). Meanwhile, the combat in Kingdom Hearts 3 – which, as a hardcore Disney geek, she was looking forward to immensely – turned out to be a hectic maelstrom of energy blasts, laser beams, and fireworks going off in every corner of the screen. She’d try to spectate through her fingers, but even that proved to be overwhelming and we just had to give up in the end, much to her disappointment.

Another one she was highly anticipating was the recent Spider-Man: Miles Morales. However, due to the titular hero being reliant on electricity-based attacks, it too has been relegated to the ‘no’ pile. Sometimes it won’t be the entire game that’s unwatchable, but rather little snippets here and there. On such occasions, she can look away and I can provide crude audio descriptions whilst simultaneously trying to defeat a boss, but it still feels like she’s missing out.

None of this is to say that we expect developers to cater exclusively to us. On the contrary, my partner is incredibly resilient and doesn’t like to make a fuss about her disability. In fact, she usually tries to power through experiences that might aggravate her epilepsy, because she’s determined to not let it govern her life.

So, if we ever decide to take an informed risk, and play something that could potentially trigger a fit, we do it sensibly: taking regular breaks, fiddling with the display options, and weighing up which parts she needs to see and which parts she can afford to skip. If I get the chance, I’ll also scope the game out in advance, to see if it’s going to be remotely feasible to play together or if it’s an absolute lost cause.

Given that we are willing to make these concessions and go out of our way like this, it wouldn’t hurt if the industry would at least meet us halfway. From her perspective, she can’t understand why developers are so insistent on using lighting effects in situations where they really don’t need to. Granted, they can be useful for creating drama from time to time, yet often it just feels like an overused crutch to generate tension or jazz-up action sequences. One that puts up an unnecessary medical barrier to entry.

I mean, what does Bioshock gain by littering every other room with lamps that are on the fritz? And would people value Zelda: Breath Of The Wild any less if its degraded weapons didn’t explode in dazzling radiance upon impact?

By proxy, you start to become hyper aware of these triggers yourself after a while. Even when my partner isn’t around, I notice how obnoxious little things like police sirens and muzzle flares can be when they’re blaring in your face for a prolonged instance. For example, when I was muddling through Cuphead, not only did I realise how migraine-inducing its chaotic stages could be, but I also noticed that whenever a projectile comes into contact with an enemy, they momentarily glimmer for a nano-second.

If you’ve played Studio MDHR’s bullet hell masterpiece, you’ll know that this is quite a common occurrence and so that innocuous animation ends up repeating quite a lot! Although it was seemingly just a harmless feedback tool for everyone else, it rendered the whole game unplayable for us.

Which brings to me the point of this article: how can developers be more accommodating for those with photosensitive epilepsy? Well, for a start, they could follow Cyberpunk’s lead and ensure that their products are accompanied by a decent warning label. The issue with that, however, is that most titles already carry these vague disclaimers and they aren’t especially helpful.

They never give you a clear indication of how flashy content will be or if it’s just isolated pockets that you have to watch out for. You therefore end up with the impression that almost every single title in existence is totally unsuitable, when in reality they are largely manageable if you know what to expect.

A better alternative then would be to implement whatever ‘permanent solution’ CD Projekt Red is cooking up right now. Presumably this will be some kind of setting that allows you to turn off the LED braindances’ and, if that’s the case, it would be a wonderful step in the right direction.

Earlier this year, The Last Of Us Part 2 debuted with a comprehensive suite of accessibility options that benefited players with motor-control issues, hearing problems, and low vision. It was an unprecedented move and, with any luck, it will become industry-standard in the new console generation. Yet there were still a few gaps that could be filled.

Namely, there was no toggle function to simply deactivate the two-hour-long hurricane that dominated the Day 3 portion of the campaign. Admittedly, the colour-blind settings might have helped reduce the intensity of the lighting strikes here, but it seems like quite an easy fix in retrospect and hopefully that might be on the cards now.

In short, I’m optimistic that the Cyberpunk controversy will pave the way for a future in which video games are much more epilepsy friendly. After all, it would enable so many people, who have previously been cordoned off from the medium, to finally enjoy it. And it would help people like me share more of our hobby with the people we love.

By Harrison Abbott

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