When I post this video, it’s either going to be the end of 2021, or the start of 2022 and, just like many other humans on earth, this arbitrary milestone has got me thinking about the year that has passed.
2021 has been a weird year for the video game industry, with the knock on effects of “the big year indoors” delaying a lot of video game releases out of the year. Those video games that have been released have in many cases followed templates from years past, which has been true both for overall gameplay mechanics, but also in many cases accessibility support.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be looking back at the state of video game accessibility in 2021. We’re going to look at what’s new, what has remained unchanged, and what still needs to improve going forward.
For the purposes of today’s video, I am going to be focusing on several video game development companies from the perspective of their accessibility support. Some of these studios, such as Insomniac games, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts have credible allegations of many kinds levied against them as companies. While I would advise reading up on these allegations, I won’t be going in depth on them in this video, as I believe accessible video games are still few and far enough between to make note of those succeeding.
In a world where so very few video games are truly accessible, I think it’s important that disabled players are informed of which games may be playable by them, even in cases where I wouldn’t personally want to support the companies involved financially. I’ll talk about the various allegations in the comments, so as to not take up additional time in this video.
Looking back at the state of video game accessibility in 2021, for better and for worse the overall story is very similar to what we saw at the end of 2020, in terms of which companies were generally doing well, and which were falling behind the pack.
If you put aside the topic of consistency, Sony’s first party studios, particularly Insomniac Games, are still top of the mountain when it comes to offering a wide variety of flashy accessibility options in their AAA games, and doing so to a high level of quality.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart is the best example to look at from Sony this year, in regards to gauging where their titles are, when at their best. The game offers D-Pad shortcuts, aim assist, lock on, and even simplified controls that can map most of the game’s core features to a single button used in different ways.
While Accessibility settings are not yet standardised and mandatory across first party studios, most Sony first party games releasing today are following in the footsteps of The Last of Us 2 in terms of support for high quality subtitles, customisable difficulty, gameplay assist features, and most notably High Contrast Mode, a feature which Sony still seems to own the market on.
No other AAA game development studio has yet attempted to implement a feature like High Contrast Mode across their games, which is a real shame, but the feature is starting to crop up in games from indie teams, such as Boomerang X, a first person ninja game which implemented similar options this year.
While Microsoft’s steps forward in accessibility this year have not been as flashy as those taken by Sony, I would argue Microsoft this year has made steps that, long term, are going to be more important for the growth and stability of accessibility support in the games industry.
Back in October, Microsoft implemented a series of new tools and features designed to help and encourage game developers to make their games more accessible, and to hold gaming accessibility to a set of measurable standards. The first, and most public facing of which, was the implementation of accessibility tags on the Xbox store.
At the feature’s launch, Microsoft created a list of 20 tags for common accessibility features that are important to disabled gamers, across gameplay, audio, visual, and input categories. These include things like narrated menus, full keyboard support, subtitle options, input remapping, single stick gameplay, no button holds, speech to text and text to speech communication with online players, and more.
Developers can select these options if featured in their game, and have their presence listed on the Xbox store, so that players can pick up those games with confidence they will be able to play them, without having to first do external research. Additionally, developers can choose to link to an external website from within the store page with more accessibility information not covered by these common tags.
In order to have these tags listed on a game on the storefront, there are apparently Microsoft certification requirements in place to ensure that the included feature meets a certain level of quality. One example given is that to receive the Input Remapping tag a game can’t simply allow for button remapping, but has to go as far as including X and Y axis remapping on control sticks.
Now, to be clear, Sony has also this year implemented an accessibility focused page on the PlayStation store on PS5, but the difference here is the standardisation of and criteria for getting accessibility tags. On Xbox a game must meet a set quality bar in execution of accessibility to receive a specific accessibility tag. While these tags are not mandatory for developers, Microsoft is creating a quality bar threshold that developers need to meet in order to be promoted as accessible by Microsoft. This is a push to encourage developers to not just have accessibility features in their games, but to have those features meet a quality threshold before they are praised.
An example of Sony’s inconsistency of execution for example would be that where The Last of Us 2 allowed players to turn high contrast mode on and off at will during gameplay with a swipe of the touchpad, and supported high contrast mode curing all cutscenes, Ratchet and Clank this year only allows high contrast mode to be turned on or off by pausing the game and going a few menus deep, and doesn’t support it during all cutscenes.
As we will see during today’s video, more and more video games today technically feature accessibility options and settings, but the quality level they reach is an area the industry is yet to make consist.
Microsoft this year also added a system level set of colourblindness filters, to help accommodate somewhat for games with no custom colourblindness support, as well as encouraging more developers to use Xbox’s Accessibility Testing Service, where they will be told if their game meet’s Xbox’s internal accessibility standards, and if not how they can get there, as well as being pointed toward a new online course designed to teach, and test knowledge of, accessibility standards and support options.
Microsoft published games, such as Psychonauts 2, Halo Infinite, and Forza Horizon 5 all featured consistent robust accessibility support. This support was more consistent in execution than that offered by Sony studios, but does still lack high contrast mode support. Their games have in particular, offered good options for text to speech support in menus, as well as interesting custom difficulty support options.
Microsoft is also still the only console manufacturer to support an official accessibility controller, as well as supporting controllers from the last console generation for modern titles.
The only real disappointment regarding Microsoft is the fact that Forza Horizon 5, which released at the start of November, was heavily promoted at launch with the promise of sign language interpreter support. This feature, which only supports American Sign Language and British Sign Language, and only during cutscenes, is still not in the game more than six weeks post release. I am glad they’re trying to move the industry forward, but this feature is limited in execution, and not having it in game six weeks post release, after making a big deal of its inclusion, isn’t ideal.
Of the big three console manufacturers, Nintendo is still majorly lagging behind on accessibility support across their first party games. A PRIME example of this is Metroid Dread, a game that launched with basically zero accessibility settings options at all. The game is highly difficult, with control inputs often requiring combinations of multiple buttons, a reliance on very fast reaction quick time button presses, and not even the most basic of options to swap between control presets. The only positive accessibility aspect of the game is the inclusion of a map that highlights types of progression blockers, and allows you to see when you unlock a new item or upgrade which paths have opened up.
The one area where Nintendo made a positive step forward was with the release of Skyward Sword HD, which took a game which previously only supported motion controls, and added a non motion controlled option for play. This was clearly done to support the Switch Lite and Handheld Play rather than for accessibility reasons, but it does show that, when forced, Nintendo can find non motion alternatives to motion controls in even their most motion focused titles.
In the year ahead, I am going to be critical of any Nintendo game where motion controls are mandatory for play. Nintendo can work out alternatives when they try, and we should hold them to that standard.
While the Switch doesn’t feature an official accessibility controller, I did get my hands on and try out the Hori Flex this year, a third party Switch accessibility controller. While it functionally does the trick, it’s triple the price of Microsoft’s official solution, features much smaller built-in face buttons, is only available right now in Japan, and doesn’t feature any solution for emulating motion control with alternative inputs. You’re honestly better off purchasing an Xbox Accessibility Controller and running it on Switch using something like the Titan Too adaptor.
Lastly, Pokémon Unite released this year on Switch, and despite being a fun game conceptually, the game’s monetisation system was incredibly predatory, which is a real shame.
Moving away from the console manufacturers, Ubisoft this year continues to excel in terms of their accessibility offerings. While they are not as flashy in their offerings as Sony, many of the options they offer in their titles are more functionally useful.
I will address in the comments some of the allegations against the company and their treatment of their staff, but if you want to learn about that from those impacted, follow A Better Ubisoft on Twitter.
So, with that caveat said, let’s talk about Far Cry 6, and what it shows us about Ubisoft’s progress on accessibility support.
Far Cry 6 allows any button to be held, pressed, or double tapped, and for each to be mapped to a control input, so one button can be three different actions if you need fewer buttons to press, which is a really neat way of reducing the number of buttons a player needs to reach during gameplay. The game also supports a preset control scheme where no button stick presses are needed during gameplay.
Far Cry 6 will also point out in-game audio such as gunfire or explosions, point to which direction they are coming from, and give a distance measurement to tell the player how close the noise was to them. This helps deaf and hard of hearing players to navigate the world effectively, and react to threats telegraphed by audio, a step no other major studio has yet taken. More games should really try to implement this support.
Both Sony and Ubisoft’s years in accessibility were largely defined by taking accessibility features they had implemented in the past, and implementing them in many of their new games. It’s not consistent in its execution, but it is at least moving toward consistency of supported settings, which is progress.
EA was most notable this year in terms of accessibility for releasing five of their accessibility patents and making them completely free for other developers to make use of, most notably the patent for the Apex Legends ping system, which allows players to highlight objectives, items, enemy players, or teammates without using voice chat. Squad members will be informed via both on screen text and auto generated audio, so without saying a word your squad knows what you need.
However, EA is still one of the most predatory companies within the game industry when it comes to excessive monetisation in their games. While Fifa implemented the ability to see the contents of an Ultimate Team pack once per day before purchasing it, the game still visibly pushes players to that mode, and does so knowing full well that it is designed to push young and disabled players towards overspending.
Looking at Square Enix, we’ve got a largely positive picture, with a few exceptions.
The Guardians of the Galaxy game features closed captions, overheard subtitles, decent subtitle size options, as well as options for altered letter spacing, bold text, and custom background opacity. You can also preview changes to how subtitles will appear in game while still in the game’s menu, which is great to see. The game also offered an approach to difficulty I always enjoy, where you can pick a difficulty preset, then get taken to a menu that shows you what that preset actually means, and allows you to further tweak aspects of it such as enemy damage and player health from the defaults of the preset.
Life is Strange: True Colours featured generally well handled subtitles, including the option to swap to a dyslexia friendly alternative font, however the game multiple times features licensed music tracks that it does not subtitle in the slightest. It’s not great that when a deaf player reaches a scene where the main character is singing a cover of a licensed song for several minutes hearing players can hear the cover sung, but deaf players are not even told in subtitles what the name of the song is, let alone the lyrics being sung, or a description of the tone of the scene.
Life is Strange did include an interesting settings option where the game would warn players before spikes in brightness or volume. The setting wasn’t implemented amazingly, it often broke up the flow of the narrative by pausing the action and requiring player input to progress at dramatic moments, the concept was promising in theory. As an autistic gamer I often struggle with spikes in sensory intensity, but I would have appreciated an option to just normalise volume and brightness to maintain narrative flow while achieving a similar end result.
Both Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as House of Ashes from Supermassive Games, feature the option to turn button mashing sequences to button holds, a feature that is slowly becoming more common, but should really be a standard by now.
As with previous years, Japanese game development studios are largely falling behind the pack on accessibility. We previously mentioned Nintendo, but Capcom also joins them on the naughty step, with many of their games failing to even offer basics such as robust subtitles or controller remapping.
The one weird exception to this was Monster Hunter Rise, a Nintendo and Capcom crossover game that featured pretty decent accessibility options, against the odds.
From here on out, we’re largely going to be doing a lightning round, talking about individual games that did things particularly well or poorly.
Chicory included a misophonia mode toggle, which turned off the game’s “wet sounds” Misophonia is a condition where certain sounds can cause a person to feel irrational anger, and as the game’s signature paintbrush mechanic uses paint noises that are a common misophonia trigger, the game lets you turn those sounds off entirely.
Boyfriend Dungeon allows players to turn off in game text messaged from their in game mother, for those players with trauma around their real world mothers, something asked for by players of games like Animal Crossing and Chicory. The game also features content warnings at the start of the game.
Doki Doki Literature Club Plus made a big deal before launch about the addition of content warnings to the deluxe port, comparing its content warnings to those in last year’s wonderful indie title Ikenfell. However, ultimately Doki Poki Plus failed to live up to that comparison, featuring incredibly shallow and inconsistently applied content warnings. Unlike Ikenfell, which allowed players to skip certain scenes, and gave detailed in depth contextual content warnings which were hard to accidentally skip past, Doki Doki usually relied on single word text boxes, easy to accidentally skip, with no context, or insufficient detail.
Loop Hero, like many indie games before it, features options to turn off stylised options such as a CRT filter, and custom pixel text fonts.
Disco Elysium Final Cut added voice acting support to a VERY text heavy game. While not all text is voice acted, only dialogue, it reduces the amount of reading needing to be done by the player, which is a step in the right direction. The addition of a narrator for the non dialogue text would have been nice, but it’s still a step forward.
Looking at the overall state of gaming accessibility in 2021, my main takeaway is that 2021 wasn’t a year of monumental steps forward, but a year of baby steps towards standardisation, at least by studios outside of Japan. This has been a year of the studios that are aiming to be accessible working on their consistency, and those that are not seeming to dig their heels in, and continue to fall behind.
In many ways, it’s kind of nice to see that many of the things that were amazing surprise additions to games in 2020, are starting to feel like the status quo in 2021 from those studios. Things that so recently were unheard of in the industry are no longer notable enough to need highlighting in this end of year video, and that’s a great sign of progress.
You don;t have to reinvent the accessibility wheel, just jook at other people;s great wheels, and learn their techniques.
Accessibility needs to become a predictable core baseline experience, perhaps as much if not more than it needs to push forward. If everything could get up to speed with the current best, we would be so much of the way to where this industry needs to be in terms of accessibility..
We’re reaching a point this year where mainstream outlets are starting to pay attention to accessibility in their reviews, award shows have accessibility focused categories, and the average player is becoming more aware of accessibility options in games. This is a wonderful direction that I hope keeps its current momentum.
At this point, the conversation around accessibility is mainly about the hold outs that are slow to adopt best practises, and about the move toward consistency and quality of options presented.
This is why Microsoft in particular excited me so much, they may not have the flashiest accessibility options but their creation of standards devs need to reach quality wise for accessibility tags, paired with providing developers tutorials on how to be accessible, and testing to see if they meet their standards and, if not, where they fall short, are all steps designed to move toward a future where accessibility isn’t simply present, but meets baseline standards. That’s ultimately I think the next major step for this industry, when we make these things standards, with quality bars to reach, that’s when we will make serious progress.