Oh hey, it’s 2021. It’s a new year, and the perfect time to sit around and think about the year that has just been. Yes everyone, it’s time for our 2020 recap episode of Access-Ability. We’re going to look back over the whole year in gaming accessibility, and try to summarise the state of accessibility in video games, as it currently stands.
So, this week on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about what games did things well when it came to accessibility, which games struggled, and what overall trends came up over the course of the year.
So, any discussion of accessibility in video games in 2020 has to start by addressing the elephant in the room, The Last of Us 2. Put simply, The Last of Us 2 created a new benchmark for accessibility support in AAA video games this year. While not everything it did can be directly translated to other games, it stands as a really strong example of what AAA teams can accomplish if they really put their minds to it.
Developer Naughty Dog started the game with text to speech turned on as default, and opens on first boot up to a dedicated accessibility menu before the game itself even begins. The game features multiple different disability focused presets for people with vision, audio, or motor disabilities, and allows for a whole lot of manual tweaking of difficulty and settings.
From motion sickness modes to aim assist, a button to orient the player towards progress, to a text to speech readout of the Ui, the game was packed with useful settings. Some of the more notable settings included a whole host of ways to customise subtitle appearance and content, the ability to turn handwritten notes into plain text, and high contrast mode, which gave players the ability to turn the whole game greyscale, with the exception of important objects highlighted in bold and easy to parse colours.
The Last of Us 2 is even playable start to finish by totally sightless players, as demonstrated by gamers such as Twitch streamer SightlessKombat.
The Last of Us 2 was not perfect, it notably lacked audio descriptions which would have helped blind players during cutscenes, but the game undeniably stands head and shoulders above everything else released this year in terms of accessibility settings.
Sticking with PlayStation, The Last of Us 2 wasn’t the only Sony first party game released last year that did an impressive job with accessibility. Spider-Man: Miles Morales mirrored a decent number of the settings found in The Last of Us 2, albeit in a less comprehensive manner. The game features for example the same sort of High Contrast mode as The Last of Us 2, as well as settings to help players turn button mashing segments off, remove button holds, or remove quick time events entirely.
Moving over to Nintendo, in March 2020 we finally saw the Switch updated to add full button remapping on a system level, bringing the system in line with Sony and Microsoft’s consoles. The Switch’s button remapping doesn’t allow for motions to be remapped, which limits its usefulness in some games, but it largely helps more people play games on Switch. Many Switch games can now be remapped to be playable on a single Joycon, which opens up play to gamers who may need to play games one handed.
Right as lockdown was beginning, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game which is notable for its lack of accessibility settings, or any basic settings menu at all. The game features no ability to do things like change your text size, or alter your audio balance, and features several insects which can only be caught by audio cues without any visual cues to help deaf players. The latter of these was an issue in multiple Nintendo games this year, including Paper Mario: The Origami King, which features one mission that doesn’t signal its completion visually, only with an audio change.
Pokémon Go this year introduced a bunch of features designed to help people play the game from home during the pandemic, which also happened to allow disabled players to start playing the game from home. Unfortunately, most of these features have been rolled back since.
Doom Eternal, released towards the start of the year, featured an aim assist mode, which goes a long way to making the game more accessible to players with motor disabilities.
While “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” style adventure game Grounded wasn’t the first game to ever feature an arachnophobia mode, it did bring the topic to the forefront of discussion in 2020, and will hopefully lead to more games following suit in future.
Marvel’s Avengers in September featured as part of the game’s subtitles a couple of instances of non verbal cues being explained in subtitles. While not explicitly there as an accessibility feature, it was really helpful for me as an autistic player, and I’d love to see this done more deliberately in future.
Roguelike action adventure game Hades had its full release in 2020, and one of its most interesting settings options was a difficulty setting called God Mode. Basically, with God Mode on, players will gain a small defense buff to their character every time they die and have to start over from the beginning. This means that players constantly get stronger through perseverance, and that progress is more steady throughout play.
Indie RPG Ikenfell featured a bunch of really interesting accessibility settings too, from content warnings, the ability to skip fights while still gaining full experience from the encounter, and the ability to automate or semi automate the game’s Paper Mario style timed button press damage system in combat.
This year also saw a rise in games adopting settings to help dyslexic players. A couple of more notable examples of this include Paradise Killer and Tell me Why, which both feature support for Open Dyslexic, a font designed to be more easily legible by dyslexic players.
After it became a surprise hit during the summer, indie multiplayer murder mystery Among Us took on board player feedback that one of the game’s puzzles was inaccessible to colourblind players, and added symbols which could instead be matched for those players.
So, with a bunch of this year’s biggest games out the way, let’s take some time to look at the new consoles that released this year, and how accessible or not they were at launch. Additionally, we’re going to take a bit of time to look at some promising overall industry trends when it comes to accessibility, and a couple of titles that were released late in the year.
When it comes to the Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft was very forthcoming about accessibility support for their pair of new consoles. Right at the start of 2020, Microsoft let players know that all of their old controllers would be supported day one on the Series consoles, specifically stating that the Xbox Adaptive Controller would be supported at launch. This was a huge move, as it made the Series consoles the first ever games consoles to launch, day one, with a mass produced affordable accessibility controller available.
In terms of software support, the console basically kept intact all the Xbox One consoles accessibility settings, including screen magnifier and co-pilot mode, which allows two controllers to be registered as a single input. You can find a more in depth video on co-pilot mode linked in the video description.
The Series consoles packaging also featured some nice accessibility features, including stickers with partially unstuck ends which are easier to grip, and no twist ties used inside the packaging.
Sony by comparison maintained radio silence about accessibility settings on the PS5 until just a few short days before the console was released. The console’s new controller features two major new features, haptic rumble, a new type of rumble that simulates complex sensations, and adaptive triggers, which resist being pushed to simulate sensations like the drawing of a bow string.
Both the haptic rumble and adaptive triggers, which both pose accessibility concerns, can thankfully be turned off on a system level, bringing the controller in line with the functionality of a PS4 controller.
However, unlike Microsoft, Sony has chosen not to allow older controllers to be used to play new games natively on the PS5. This isn’t a hardware limitation, players can use remote play to play PS5 games with a PS4 controller, this is a choice by Sony to push new controllers, and a choice that unfortunately prevents players with custom made disability controllers for the PS4 from using them on the PS5,
The PS5 box itself contains twist ties, which can be difficult to open for users with motor disabilities, and the console lacks some basic accessibility settings, such as the ability to resize the console’s tiny home screen icons, as well as lacking a screen magnifier. The PS5 does however feature system level text size alteration, colour blindness profiles, and system level default settings to tell your game if you’d like things like subtitles to be on by default.
For many new games, the PS5 features a built in hint and walkthrough video system, but this is locked behind a PS+ subscription fee.
As of today, Nintendo and Sony both still lack their own equivalent to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, but progress is being made on unofficial support for those consoles. Switch owners can use adapters such as the Switch Up Game Enhancer to connect an Xbox Adaptive Controller via a wired connection, and the Titan Too adaptor for PS5 is receiving firmware updates that seem like a promising lead to getting the Adaptive Controller, as well as PS4 controllers, working with PS5 games. Additionally, peripheral manufacturer Hori has released an adaptive controller for Switch, but it’s available only in Japan, and costs considerably more than the Xbox adaptive Controller. Thankfully, it does support the same input connector types for players with existing peripherals.
One company who towards the end of this year have been making really promising strides forward in terms of accessibility settings are Ubisoft, who have really gone out of their way to try and improve the variety of settings they offer disabled players. I didn’t cover any of Ubisoft’s games on Access-Ability in 2020, largely because the company has failed to properly address mounting reports of harassment within the company from upper management, but going into 2021 I may have to change that stance. Ubisoft are becoming a key player in the video game accessibility space, and to ignore them entirely would do this series a disservice. However, I will mention the reports of harassment within the company when making videos about their accessibility settings.
One of this year’s final big releases was Cyberpunk 2077, which has a huge amount of issues when it came to accessibility. The game lacked full key rebinding support, didn’t allow for changing the text size of tiny subtitles above character heads outside of cutscenes, and notably gave one reviewer a photosensitive seizure during the review period. The game featured a warning, hidden deep within a EULA that joked at its start about how nobody reads them. The game has since been updated to alter the particularly egregious scene in question, but still features a lot of intense visual effects which could cause issues for photosensitive or epileptic players.
Lastly, VR gaming has basically made no steps forward in 2020 in terms of becoming more accessible. We’ve got a video on VR gaming accessibility coming up on the channel soon, just know that things are not really progressing at all in that space right now.
One big thing to note this year, something viewers of this show routinely mention in our comments, is that Japan is very much lagging behind Europe and America when it comes to including accessibility support in games. Most of the games this year that I had major praise for were developed outside of Japan, and a lot of Japanese developed games this year lacked even the most basic settings, such as subtitle options or button remapping.
Nintendo is particularly bad at this, with games featuring mandatory motion controls or featuring no settings menu at all. It’s telling that Microsoft is the only major console manufacturer to feature support for a disability focused controller, and that they sent consoles this year to so many disabled players to review. They’re a lot more willing to openly support disabled players and their needs. Even the Sony games this year I praised for their accessibility settings were largely developed outside of Japan. I have been told by commenters that this is a cultural thing. Japan is a lot less willing as a country to talk about accessibility for disabled people, but hopefully this changes over time.
One thing that was really nice to see this year was Accessibility becoming a more mainstream part of the gaming conversation. The Game Awards this year had an award for Most Accessible Game, even if the winner of that award being The Last of Us 2 was pretty predictable, and we even saw IGN publish accessibility reviews of the new next generation consoles. Granted, those IGN accessibility reviews were considerably delayed, I’d like to see them released the same day as the main reviews of the consoles in future, but it’s a really promising step in the right direction.
With everything said, this was actually a really promising year for accessibility in games. A lot of games made really impressive steps forward, and more than anything else we saw the wider gaming community talking about this as a subject. Video game accessibility is slowly becoming mainstream, and we can only hope to see that continue into 2021.