So, another year is now over, and with the new video game releases basically finished until 2023, we here at Access-Ability thought that we should get with the times, and organise our own accessibility focused Game of the Year Accessibility Awards show.
While this year’s awards will be focused largely on highlighting positive improvements in accessibility seen in this year in the video game industry, there are a couple of “anti-awards” sprinkled throughout the show, in most cases for games where I want to praise something great the developers have done, but also need to highlight an area where they really need to improve. I’m not here primarily to be critical today, unless a game’s award needs a caveat.
Also, accessibility is very much subjective, and specific to the perspective of individual disabled gamers and critics. This awards show is not meant to convey the overall opinions of the disabled gaming community, only my personal opinions on the year that has been.
So, with all of that out of the way, let’s dive into the awards.
Best Innovation in Language Support – Sign Language Interpreters in Forza Horizon 5
Back in November 2021, Forza Horizon 5 developer Playground Games announced that their latest open world racing title, some time after launch, would be seeing sign language interpreter support added to cutscenes.
In spring of 2022, around four months after the game’s original release, this support was finally added to the game as part of a free update, and while its implementation wasn’t perfect, it was still a wonderful step forward for the AAA game industry at large.
The update brought British Sign Language, and American Sign Language, on screen interpreters to the game, who could be placed in various on screen locations, with customisable backgrounds. These could be activated separately from or in conjunction with subtitles, and were formatted using sign language specific sentence structure, rather than sign supported English structure.
For some deaf gamers, BSL or ASL are their first language, with written or spoken english sentence structures not their primary way of engaging with language. Additionally, subtitles often lack nuance of things like tone, emotion, and pacing, all of which are better conveyed through the presence of a sign language interpreter. This support makes cutscenes quicker to follow along with, and conveys additional information often lost by simply reading subtitle text in isolation.
While the number of sign languages supported is fairly minimal, and the number of cutscenes supported with sign language interpreters is limited and inconsistent, this is still a huge moment for our industry, worthy of recognition. This is not the first video game to ever incorporate any form of sign language support, but it is the first AAA video game to support multiple sign languages in a prominent manner, and it signals a positive step forward for video games as a medium. There is progress to be made, but this first step deserves recognition.
Best Incremental but Necessary Improvement to a Series – Audio Descriptions in The Last of Us: Part 1
When the Last of Us: Part 2 released back in the summer of 2020, the game’s impressive suite of accessibility settings offerings was comprehensive and ambitious, supporting exciting new features like High Contrast Mode, presets for various common categories of disabilities, and a whole host of best practice accessibility settings seen in other titles commonly praised by disabled gamers in years past.
While The Last of Us: Part 2 was playable start to finish based only on audio cues and accessibility support settings, by players unable to see gameplay details shown on screen, those players were expected to follow a story purely via spoken dialogue, and ambient sound effects, meaning that a lot of aspects of the story were liable to be missed during play.
This year, The Last of Us: Part 1 on PS5 attempted to rectify this, by implementing audio descriptions during cutscenes, to help flesh out the narrative to players who were relying primarily on audio to enjoy the narrative heavy game’s plot.
While the game’s audio description implementation is very limited, only appearing in very specific major cutscenes and failing to convey some very important parts of the story to sightless players, seeing a major AAA video game attempt audio descriptions at all is still a major moment for this industry, and it’s undeniable that this is a step forward for a series that still remains unchallenged as a benchmark for AAA video game accessibility support standards.
While there is still room to grow, it was great seeing Naughty Dog not simply rest on their laurels, content with the praise their previous game received, and continue to attempt to improve on the support options they offer disabled players.
Best Indie Game Outdoing The AAA Competition – Audio Descriptions in Stories of Blossom
While I do believe that the Last of Us: Part 1 deserves credit for attempting to implement audio descriptions in cutscenes as part of a AAA video game, I also want to take some time this year to celebrate an indie title, with a recently released demo that shows incredible promise in terms of accessibility.
Stories of Blossom is a simple point and click adventure game, in which a young girl explores a fantasy world, as described to her in stories told by her grandfather.
The game is playable by sightless blind players, via text to speech support, and an optional control scheme that allows players to cycle through interaction points on screen methodically, with visual descriptions provided.
Where this game really impressed me, however, was the robust nature of the demo’s audio description support, which gave in depth visual descriptions during every single cutscene, every time a new area was entered, each time a new in game conversation was triggered, or each time a new character was introduced.
While The Last of Us: Part 1 is worthy of celebration for bringing Audio Descriptions to a big budget title, Stories of Blossom’s demo is worthy of celebration for showing how audio descriptions can be implemented in a way that is thorough, and ensures that every part of an interactive story can be enjoyed by players of all levels of eyesight strength.
Best Reduction in Gaming Compulsivity – Shiny Hunting in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet and Legends Arceus
As a gamer with both autism and ADHD, I have somewhat of a love / hate relationship with shiny hunting in the Pokémon series. I find the act of slowly, methodically, repetitively working through earning a collection of rare creatures incredibly satisfying and calming, with the payoff of a successful shiny hunt giving me the dopamine spike that my ADHD brain craves, in a healthy, non-lootbox form. But, I have at times found the series’ shiny hunting mechanics predicated on hunts that can wreak havoc on my obsessive nature, and my difficulty in putting down incomplete tasks.
This year saw the release of two major Pokémon titles, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, both of which made shiny hunting, in their own ways, less predicated than past series titles on fear of missing out, or FOMO.
Pokémon Legends Arceus allowed players to improve their shiny odds over time, in ways that were easy to save and quit during without losing progress. Pokédex completion tasks could be cashed in at any time without limit, and saving would save progress without exception.
Add onto this the fact that Shiny Pokémon were visibly shiny on the overworld, with a sparkling sound effect and sparkling visual animation, which was really helpful for reducing the need to compulsively check, slowly, each Pokémon that spawns just incase it’s shiny, a real step forward for the series.
Mass Outbreaks, where large numbers of a species of Pokémon spawned at once with increased shiny odds, only contained a finite number of spawns, giving any given shiny hunt a natural end point, which could be saved part way through, with progress not lost if the game was closed during that process.
Lastly, if a shiny Pokémon did appear, the player could save, and be confident that they would not accidentally lose it if they failed to catch it. This meant that for shiny Pokémon prone to fleeing, such as Abra, it was possible to ensure that a shiny hunt would not be failed, making sure that FOMO didn’t cause a compulsion to reattempt another shiny hunt after the failure.
For all the issues I have with shiny hunting in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and I will get to those in a moment with our next award, I do think the game does a strong job of minimising compulsion in its shiny hunting mechanics.
Mass Outbreaks return, and still feature a finite number of spawns of a given species of Pokémon, along with the ability to manually save during an outbreak, without losing progress if you return later that day to continue after closing your game. Shiny Pokémon are also still visibly shiny in the overworld, although now missing the audio and visual sparkle signifiers, and again, we’ll talk about that in a minute.
The game also features a new shiny hunting mechanic, broken down into very manageable segments of small activity and time.
Players can take part in high level raid battles, each lasting less than five minutes, with a chance to gain a rare item called Herba Mystica, which can be used to gain time limited boosted shiny odds.
These sandwich ingredients are the main way of shiny hunting in game, and each provide 30 minutes of boosted shiny hunting odds, providing a predictable end point for any given shiny hunt. Additionally, with auto saves turned off, players can save before making their 30 minute shiny hunt sandwich, meaning that if their hunt is unsuccessful, they can close their game, turn it off, reset their save with no resources lost, able to come back at a later date and try that shiny hunt again.
Both of this year’s major Pokémon releases handled shiny hunting mechanics a little differently from each other, but both also fundamentally feel less like they’re preying on my compulsivity than games like Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, or Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, both of which focused on shiny hunting methods that failed to persist if you saved and closed the game before you found your shiny, which could theoretically take a very long time, and led to me feeling very anxious about closing my game and walking away, which is never a healthy relationship to have with a video game.
Most Frustrating Accessibility Rollback – No Visual Sparkle or Audio Cue for Shiny Pokémon in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet
While I do think that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are worthy of praise, in regards to the ways that they’ve made shiny hunting less intertwined with compulsivity and fear of missing out, I would be remiss if I failed to talk about the really disappointing accessibility rollback for disabled shiny hunters, compared to Pokémon Legends Arceus, a game I had been advocating to see make improvements to its at times flawed accessibility support.
In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Shiny Pokémon, when they spawn, produce a distinct sound effect, regardless of whether or not the player is looking in the correct direction to see them spawn. This audio cue allowed players who had the sound turned on, and were able to hear game audio, to know that there was a shiny Pokémon nearby, with a good degree of reliability.
For deaf and hard of hearing players, there was a visual cue upon spawn, but only if you were looking in the right direction at the time of spawn. This put deaf shiny hunters at a disadvantage, as their spawn cue was situational, rather than universal.
Additionally, shiny Pokémon, when targeted, showed a small sparkling icon, to denote that they were shiny, which was useful for species of Pokémon whose shiny form is less visually distinct from their regular form than other Pokémon that exist. Some Pokémon have dramatically different looking shiny forms, and some basically look like you slightly tweaked the lighting on them.
While I spent much of this year advocating for this system to be improved, making the argument that the game’s visual sparkle animation on shiny spawn should be made universal, visible even if you’re looking away at the time of spawn, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet actually moved in the opposite direction.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, seemingly in response to complaints that shiny hunting was becoming “too easy”, removed the audio cue, and the visual cue, and the shiny icon when a shiny Pokémon was targeted. All three of these tools, which were useful for disabled shiny hunters, were removed, undeniably making shiny hunting considerably less accessible, which is a huge disappointment.
Please do better Game Freak. Don’t roll back features that disabled players really valued as support tools.
Best Control Scheme Accessibility Improvement – Street Fighter 6
As someone who loves fighting games, but has disabilities that impact my hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, and my memory, I’ve always found it difficult to engage properly with a medium that I deeply enjoy. From remembering lengthy combo strings, to accurately and reliably executing inputs, most fighting games are simply not built for me to reliably be able to play.
Back in the summer of 2022, I got to visit Capcom’s London offices, and go hands on with Street Fighter 6’s new Modern control scheme, a new way of playing Street Fighter that maps most of a character’s core functions onto a setup much more akin to a game like Super Smash Bros, where special moves are executed using a set button and a directional modifier.
While there are some small sacrifices that were made to rework the controls, I found the game a lot easier to reliably engage with, in a similar fashion to when Street fighter on 3DS allowed, years ago,b the ability to use touch screen shortcuts for certain super moves.
With far less focus on memorising combos, and executing quarter circle inputs accurately, I had a lot more ability to focus on the actual strategy moment to moment while playing.
Pair this with the addition of another new control scheme for local play, simplifying gameplay controls even further, and I am really excited for more people like myself to have more ways to engage with this series on a more manageable footing.
Most Frustrating Barrier to Accessing Accessibility – Street Fighter 6
So, I want to be clear, I think it’s great that Street Fighter 6 is improving its level of accessibility support in terms of control schemes. I also think it’s great that the game is adding expanded audio cue options to the game, helping to make it easier for certain blind and sightless players to engage with combat encounters. There has always been a contingent of sightless and partially sighted Street Fighter players using stereo audio to compete, and giving them more options on how to fine tune how they hear gameplay information is a wonderful step forward for the series.
However, it seems that Street Fighter 6 is also on track to make the series less accessible for some of those same sightless and partially sighted blind players, by moving away from a menu based system of picking gameplay modes, towards one set in a 3D environment, where a character has to run around to different in-world locations to access specific game modes.
While some players had previously been able to use a combination of screen reader support and muscle memory to navigate their way into matches, some of those same players are reporting, based on beta gameplay, that they now require sighted assistance to find gameplay modes, a frustrating step backwards to see paired alongside new accessibility settings explicitly designed to make the game more easily playable by blind players.
Most Exciting Implementation of High Contrast Mode – Saints Row
While there were a lot of video games released this year that featured support for High Contrast mode, a feature steadily becoming a standard for first party PlayStation games, I want to dedicated this award this year to the 2022 Saints Row reboot, the first AAA video game I’m aware of released by a non PlayStation studio to have a proper stab at implementing their own version of the feature.
Saints Row takes a slightly different approach to High Contrast mode implementation than the one seen in most PlayStation titles. This isn’t a value judgement, it has its own pros and cons, but it is reassuring to see other studios attempting to implement this feature, as well as seeing them attempt to have their own spin on it, experimenting with alternative ways that the technology could be used to be helpful.
The game supports outlining important character details, rather than bucket filling characters in solid colour, with options to either greyscale the world for greater contrast, or leave other game elements unaltered.
It’s great to see new studios start to pick up on what Sony’s been pushing, and I hope this is the start of increasing numbers of devs supporting these features going forward.
Best Implementation of an Xbox Feature Outside of Xbox – Co-Pilot Mode Support in Horizon: Forbidden West
In terms of system level console accessibility support features, one of the most exciting ones out there, that I wish would become an industry standard, is Co-Pilot Mode, a setting that allows two controllers on Xbox to be registered as a single player, allowing for controls to be shared between input devices.
Co-Pilot Mode is useful both for disabled players wanting to spread their controls out into more comfortable to reach positions, as well as for gamers who want to have a friend help them with certain in-game actions during play. It’s supported at the system level on Xbox, and is rarely seen outside of that context.
While we’re still quite far away from Sony adopting Co-Pilot mode as a system level settings option, we did this year see Horizon: Forbidden West offer the setting as an in-game option, marking the first time the feature has been seen supported in a first party PlayStation title.
I hope that this is the first step toward us seeing support brought to PlayStation system wide for this feature, as it’s a really valuable option for players to have access to.
Best Understanding of Accessibility Nuance – God of War: Ragnarok
In terms of accessibility support, there’s a lot I could say about God of War: Ragnarok. The game is a huge step forward for its series, leaping from basically no accessibility support settings when the 2018 original title released, to being very comparable to The Last of Us: Part 2 in execution quality in its sequel. However, I want to focus this award on a small feature that meant a lot to me to see, degrees of accessibility preset.
This may seem like a really small feature, but when onboarding players into the game’s accessibility support settings offerings, God of War: Ragnarok features a series of accessibility presets, organised around common disability categories, very much comparable to the Last of Us 2. Where this game differs is that its presets are not all or nothing, but instead feature degrees of support per disability.
All too often, when disability presets are offered by games, the only option available is to turn on EVERY accessibility option for your disability category, at maximum settings, or ignore the preset entirely and set yourself up manually. By offering degrees of support per preset category, God of War: Ragnarok made using a preset a lot more welcoming to people whose accessibility needs might not necessitate turning on all settings, at full intensity, all at once, something that made using presets, for me, a lot more welcoming of a process.
Best Setting That Should Have Been a Free Update – Third Person Mode in Resident Evil: Village
Despite being one of my favourite video games of 2021, Resident Evil: Village also had the dubious honour of being one of the games that year that made me feel the most viciously ill.
As a player with pretty severe intermittent motion sickness issues, I often find that specific first person games with too much head bob, too small of a field of view, or a litany of other visual settings, make me feel literally ill while gaming. It’s a barrier to play for me, and one that forced me to play through Resident Evil: Village in several small segments, with frequent breaks.
As someone prone to motion sickness, I find third person games a lot easier to play, and a lot less likely to make me feel ill. This is why I felt so conflicted when Resident Evil: Village was announced this year to be getting a third person mode added to the game, but only bundled in with a paid story DLC.
There are a few reasons I found this frustrating. Firstly, this news was announced alongside a free accessibility update for the game, which did not include the new third person mode.
Maybe I could have had waved this away as them not knowing that third person mode is an accessibility feature, the problem is that during a later Capcom livestream, the game’s director acknowledged that third person mode support was specifically going to be helpful for motion sick gamers as an accessibility feature.
It’s not through lack of awareness, it was through not caring to put it in the accessibility update.
Recognising that third person modes are accessibility support, but putting still the mode behind paid DLC, bundled in with story content, rather than in the free accessibility update for the game, is really unfortunate to see, as it feels like it’s gatekeeping a feature that is known to make the game more playable for players who find themselves literally getting ill while playing the base release.
I’m glad that third person mode now exists for the game, it is really helpful, but on principle I object to it being sectioned off behind a paywall, away from other accessibility support settings.
Motion sickness support is a legitimate area of video game accessibility, and it deserves to be treated the same as other areas of accessibility, offered for free to players and not hidden behind paywalls.
Game that I Want to Praise, With a Conflict of Interest Caveat – As Dusk Falls
So, to get this out of the way, I did not formally review the game As Dusk Falls this year, because of a potential conflict of interest. During the game’s development I played an early build, and provided my thoughts on the game in the form of a review, to help the developer understand what aspects I thought would be well received, and which would be criticised, when the game eventually launched. I was paid for this work, and as such it feels important to disclose that information.
I think the game’s really neat, but I need to give you that context.
so, with that said, I want to give some praise to this title, which has in my opinion been somewhat overlooked this year, in terms of accessibility support offerings discussions.
This narrative adventure game automatically supports text to speech support for players detected to be using screen readers, as well as featuring options for removing timers on in-game decisions, supports quick time events that can be changed to single button presses or automatic completion, and more.
While the game doesn’t feature audio descriptions, it does feature narration of in-game on screen text, narration of all decision prompt text as well as the button needing to be pressed to select it, alongside the game’s support for voice acting of in-game dialogue. The game also narrates which button needs to be pressed, or which direction needs to be swiped, for quick time events, something inconsistently seen in other titles this year.
I’ve long advocated that many of these kinds of narrative, choice based, adventure games wouldn’t need a lot of work to be made more accessible to blind gamers, with text to speech support being the main barrier preventing many of these games from being playable by sightless players.
As Dusk Falls works really well in this regard, as it doesn’t feature segments of 3D character control, and proves the argument correct that text to speech support can often be enough to make this genre of game a lot more playable by blind players.
I wanted to give this game a little nod, even if it has to come with a caveat, because I think it’s really neat.
Accessibility Announcement That Most Needs to Materialise – Nintendo’s Cross-Platform Accessibility Controller
While never officially or formally announced by the company, we learned this year from former Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils Amie that, during his time at the company, Nintendo had been working on an initiative to try and create a cross platform accessibility controller, similar to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, that would work across all of the major consoles, not just Nintendo’s
As amazing as the Xbox Adaptive Controller is, right now it is only supported officially on Xbox and PC, with support on other platforms either impossible in the case of PlayStation, or requiring workarounds to implement such as on Switch. While the Nintendo Switch does have official accessibility controller support in the form of the Hori Flex, that also isn’t supported outside of its one target console.
Whether we one day see cross playform support come to pass in the form of Nintendo and PlayStation allowing use of the Xbox Adaptive Controller on their consoles, or Nintendo managing to create their own cross-platform accessibility controller as they’d once hoped, it would be a really positive step forward for out industry, and one I really hope we see come to pass some day.
Disabled gamers who benefit from custom controllers already find themselves needing to pay a premium to access accessibility controllers, and having to pay that premium price more than once, per console, is an unnecessary price barrier to gaming that we could be helping to eliminate for disabled gamers.
And there you have it, the Access-Ability Game of the Year Awards for 2022.
As I discussed in a recent video, looking back over the last two and half years of gaming accessibility, the gamea industry is making a lot of really positive steps forward for accessibility, and seems to be showing no signs of slowing down.
If there’s a video game this year that you loved that offered accessibility that really helped you, let me know about it down in the comments. It’s possible that it’s a game that I’m already aware of, and didn’t include on this because I was trying to keep it concise, but on the off chance that it’s a game I don’t know about, I would love to hear about the games that were good for you, and why they helped.
Here’s to 2023, a year I hope to see just as many steps forward toward a more accessible world of video games.