I’ve been publishing weekly episodes of Access-Ability for around two and half years now, with over 125 videos / articles published in this series so far, and in that time period alone, it’s undeniable that we’ve seen incredible strides forward in the quantity, and quality, of accessibility settings options available to disabled gamers.
I started this series a few weeks before the release of The Last of Us: Part 2, a game whose release undeniably kicked off a golden era of mainstream attention for video game accessibility. While gaming accessibility conversations certainly didn’t start in the summer of 2020, the speed with which we’ve seen large scale gaming companies adopting increased focuses on accessibility since then has been truly beautiful to behold, and I think that deserves some recognition.
So today, on Access-Ability, I want to take some time to look back over the last two and half years of video game accessibility, and celebrate some of the milestone moments that have taken place since this show began.
This article isn’t going to be an exhaustive list of every single step forward in accessibility this industry has seen since this show began, but it will attempt to highlight as many major moments as possible, to paint a picture of how far we’ve come, in such a short time. There is progress that still needs to be made, but today is about progress that has been made already.
Seeing as we mentioned them during the introduction to this video, let’s kick off by talking about Sony, a company who have solidly established themselves in the gaming accessibility landscape in the time since this series began.
The Last of Us: Part 2 marked the start of a major accessibility push from PlayStation, causing ripples that can still be felt in other studios’ titles today.
The Last of Us: Part 2 not only broke ground with features no other AAA video game had previously implemented, but also brought together a lot of best practices seen in other titles over the years into a single cohesive package.
From having an accessibility settings walkthrough on the first boot of the game, which included text to speech narration on by default, through to its implementation of accessibility presets for common categories of disability, its extensive gameplay accessibility tweaking options, to its introduction of high contrast mode, and its extensive audio cue system that helped it be playable start to finish by sightless blind players, The Last of Us 2 undoubtedly created a benchmark by which other games aiming to be accessible are still being judged years later.
While not every first party PlayStation game released since the Last of Us: Part 2 has made the same effort to be accessible, we have seen increasing numbers of PlayStation Studios titles incorporating very similar settings options, to similar degrees of success. From the Marvel’s Spider-Man games, to Ratchet and Clank, to the recently released God of War: Ragnarok, more and more PlayStation exclusive titles are embracing features like High Contrast mode visuals, increased auto targeting, text to speech support, audio cues, and accessibility settings menus that are available on first boot of the game.
While High Contrast Mode is still thought of by many as a PlayStation exclusive feature, we are finally starting to see other companies attempting to implement versions of the tech in their own titles, most notably 2022’s Saints Row reboot.
A few months ago, Sony was also responsible for another major step forward in gaming accessibility, when The Last of Us: Part 1 Remake on PS5 implemented audio descriptions for certain cutscenes, allowing blind players who had been able to navigate Part 2 without assistance, but had missed out on some narrative context, to be able to enjoy more of the game’s story, in more depth.
While there are other games in the indie space featuring more robust audio description implementation, it is still a major milestone to see a AAA game from a major publisher attempt to implement audio descriptions, full stop.
Lastly, increasing numbers of PlayStation exclusive titles are being ported to PC, bringing with them increased options for disabled players, such as support for accessibility controllers. While these games are releasing at least a year delayed on PC, and it would be good to have some of these options on PlayStation itself, it is still a positive seeing them brought to a platform that can access additional accessibility tools and peripherals.
Moving on to Microsoft, one of the other major players in video game accessibility, their improvements in the past few years have been perhaps less flashy than those of PlayStation, but I would argue have been more consistent, and had impacts that could long term be more important for our overall industry.
When I look at Microsoft’s accessibility improvements over the past two and a half years, I see a lot of improvements made that aim to make games on their console, across the board, closer to having accessibility standards that players can predictably rely on.
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than when we look at the implementation of accessibility tags on the Xbox store. These tags not only allow disabled gamers to see, at a glance, which accessibility features a given game supports before purchasing, but also allows them to rely on a specific quality bar being met.
In order to get an accessibility tag on the Xbox store, Microsoft has to confirm that your game not only supports a given feature, but supports it to a set level of quality. Having subtitles, for example, isn’t enough to get you the subtitle tag. Do you have decently sized subtitles that meet standards for legibility?
Alongside this, Xbox’s first party studios have consistently released titles with a decent baseline level of accessibility support, consistent across most titles, as well as helping other outside developers reach these expected baseline standards.
Microsoft has made available for developers a suite of tutorials and educational materials designed to help teach accessibility basics. They also have an accessibility testing service that allows devs to find out how they could improve their games, as well as providing access to pools of accessibility consultants to help advise on accessibility best practices.
Beyond that, while Microsoft’s accessibility controller for Xbox released back in 2018, a major moment for accessibility in gaming came in 2020, when the Xbox Series X and Series S released. The new generation of Xbox Consoles were backwards compatible with prior Xbox controllers, including the Xbox Adaptive Controller, marking the first time a new console generation has launched, with support for an accessibility controller on day one.
The fact that no new accessibility controller or peripherals needed to be bought, for disabled gamers moving to the new console generation, was a major moment for this industry.
In addition, the Xbox Series X and Series S released with accessible packaging, including box tape strips with easy to grasp unsealed edges, helping improve accessibility further.
While Co-Pilot mode on Xbox isn’t new, it’s a 2017 feature that allows Xbox players to register two controllers as though they were one to control a single character, 2022 was the first time that we saw the feature implemented outside of an Xbox console, when it was made available to players of PlayStation’s Horizon: Forbidden West. Hopefully, this is the start of progress, toward this being available more widely to players.
Microsoft also introduced system level colourblindness filters which, while not a replacement for manually designing colourblind modes in games, is a feature that has undoubtedly helped make more games more accessible to more players, when dedicated support is lacking.
Lastly, we should recognise the importance of the release of Forza Horison 5, the first major AAA video game to implement multiple types of sign language interpreter support into cutscenes. While there’s room to grow, in terms of the amount of dialogue supported, and number of sign languages supported, the feature’s inclusion is a big step forward for our industry, and one that I hope we see become more common.
While Nintendo has made less progress than its peers in terms of accessibility, and in many cases unfortunately gone backwards, I do want to acknowledge that they did provide a non motion controlled gameplay mode for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a previously motion control exclusive title, as well as introducing system level controller remapping, and finally gaining access to an officially supported accessibility controller, the third-party peripheral the Hori Flex.
While the Hori Flex is expensive, and Japan Exclusive, it is a step forward to see the device supported, alongside other controllers like the 8BitDo Lite SE. Third parties are stepping in to create accessible controller options, and this is progress.
While discussing specific studios, I want to take a moment to talk about Ubisoft.
I have made no secret of the fact that I have problems with Ubisoft’s management, and the way employees at that company have historically and presently been treated. I don’t cover Ubisoft’s games as a general rule of thumb, I don’t give them traditional reviews, but I do sometimes cover them here on Access-Ability, because it is undeniable that they have become a major force in the accessibility space in recent years.
In terms of third party developers, not manufacturing their own consoles, it is notable that Ubisoft games have generally been really good about supporting hugely customisable gameplay control options, they’ve been ahead of the curve on implementing full closed captions that cover all in game sound effects with directional signifiers, and more.
Ubisoft has made a concerted effort to ensure its games release with a reliable baseline level of accessibility support, and I truly struggle to fault them on that front.
While EA’s level of accessibility support is inconsistent, they did a little while back make some of their accessibility patents they held, most notably the Apex Legends ping system for non verbal online multiplayer communication, open and available for any developer to make use of. While I have my issues with patenting accessibility solutions in the first place, this step was a welcome sign of progress.
While Capcom’s overall level of accessibility support is still inconsistent, it is undeniable that Street Fighter 6 is making some wonderful steps forward for the fighting game series, with more accessible control scheme offerings, and improved audio cues for blind players.
Moving away from discussing specific studios and publishers, while we are still a long way away from accessibility support becoming standardised across the industry, a lot of accessibility support options are becoming much more common, and showing progress toward becoming standards.
Dyslexia support is becoming a lot more common in video games, with more and more developers opting to include options to swap their default in game text font for a more dyslexia friendly alternative, often Open Dyslexic.
We’re also seeing a dramatic uptick in the number of studios including closed caption support, rather than simply dialogue subtitles, alongside features like speaker names, speaker direction indicators, customisable text colour, text size alteration, and background opacity options.
More and more studios are making their accessibility support options known before release, and while we still see these options often being held onto as marketing reveals, the mere fact that we know about a lot of these settings before a game’s release day is a huge step forward compared to where we were a few years ago. This is helped by accessibility focused review outlets more frequently receiving pre-release review code, and being able to disseminate hands on impressions before launch day.
Major award shows, like The Game Awards, are introducing categories that praise achievement in the field of accessibility in front of mainstream audiences, and mainstream gaming outlets are commissioning more articles and reviews from disabled critics about their experiences with games.
Basics like customisable controls, custom audio sliders, subtitle sizing and backgrounds, colourblind filters, button mashes being changed into hold, button holds being changed into toggles, and customisable difficulty options, while far from the standards that they need to be, are becoming more often than not the norm. They are becoming expected, and a disappointment when lacking.
While our industry still has a long way to go to be truly, consistently accessible, it feels important to, every now and then, stop and take stock of how far we’ve come, in such a relatively short time.
Accessibility in games, when I first started this series, was a rare positive surprise to see done right. Today, I don’t have time to cover every single video game that releases with exciting accessibility settings support, because they’re becoming that common. More often than not, the games that become noteworthy are those that lack the basics, or exceed what is fast becoming a standard.
Accessibility in video games has come so far, and I think that’s something we can all celebrate.