I’ve been saying for a while, both on this show and in conversations with game developers more broadly across the video game industry, that I think we’re on the precipice of a leap forward in accessibility for one specific video game genre category, adventure games.
From narrative adventure games as [As] Dusk Falls, to side scrolling point and click adventure games like the demo for Stories of Blossom, we’re seeing really ambitious strides forward being taken right now toward more and more adventure games being not only playable, but increasingly accessible narratively, to sightless blind players, which makes me really optimistic about the genre’s overall potential to eventually be consistently accessible.
Today, I want to take some time to talk about a recently released 2D side scrolling adventure game called Brok The InvestiGator. Not only does the game have a really impressive suite of accessibility features designed with input from a sightless blind accessibility consultant, but the game is also a really interesting example of accessibility support being retrofitted into a game not designed from the ground up with that support in mind. It’s not perfect, but it’s an ambitious display of what can be done, even after a game is already on sale, to make it more accessible.
In Brok The InvestiGator, you play an alligator investigator living paycheque to paycheque in the outskirts of a big city, solving crimes for cash to try and keep yourself, and your step-son, financially solvent.
The game is part point and click adventure game, and occasionally part side scrolling beat-em-up, with Brok exploring locations, finding clues, gaining evidence, and beating up enemies along his adventure.
While I have a few small quibbles with the plot, namely things like a homeless man right near the start of the game not being given a name and simply being referred to as “tramp” in your conversations with him, overall the title has a pretty charming writing style, art style, and expressive voice acting that make it an overall pretty enjoyable title to play.
Getting onto the accessibility settings, which were all added to the game as part of a post release update developed with consultation from @Lirin111 on Twitter, options include audio descriptions (of characters, locations, and scenes), full text narration (which includes menu and item text, choices, numbers and more alongside special narrated tutorials), larger font options and higher contrast UI elements, high contrast mode support for character models, 3D positional audio, as well as options for skipping puzzles, or replacing them with alternative puzzles adapted to be better suited for blind players.
Players can set the game to vibrate their controller any time they walk into a wall, set specific buttons to be mapped to repeating either the last line of dialogue or the last instruction given, with I found really useful as a player with ADHD, and the game can be set to simplify certain rooms to reduce prevalence of jumps and dangerous traps.
Of note, audio descriptions cannot be activated independently of text to speech narration. The two are bundled into a single setting, and must either both be used, or neither used, which isn’t ideal, but it is what it is.
In addition, in another update that went live while I was writing this video script, the game now also offers the ability to turn off screen shaking effects, and an option for players to be automatically offered the option to skip fights before they begin.
In terms of general accessible design best practices, I appreciate that Brok The InvestiGator makes an effort to help blind players navigate to the game’s accessibility menu on first boot unassisted. If the player sits on the title screen for a few seconds without pressing any buttons, a text to speech prompt will activate, offering a single button press which will navigate to the accessibility menu, with text to speech turned on as default, to help the player set up their initial settings before play begins.
In terms of audio descriptions, Brok The InvestiGator isn’t perfect, but for a game retrofitted to contain audio descriptions post release the level of detail and specificity provided is impressive. There were a couple of scenes where as a sighted player I could locate details not provided to blind players by audio description, such as visual descriptions of some events or character descriptions on ocassion, but the audio descriptions were far more detailed and consistent in their execution than, for example, last year’s remake of The Last of Us: Part 1. While the execution falls a little short of the bar set by the Stories of Blossom demo last year, this is still one of the better examples of audio descriptions in a video game that we have to point to today, and easily one of the best examples of a complete finished game that we can point to that largely gets things correct.
While there are improvements that could be made to the game’s audio descriptions, such as giving a visual description of a Magatama in the opening audio description rather than relying on the player knowing what that is and what it looks like, the overall execution from a narrative and gameplay perspective is really impressive. New scenes are described in detail, with care given to noting where objects are in a room, what they look like, and how they are positionally arranged, alongside the character’s description and their relationship to the events and objects around them.
[Brok is a chubby yet strong alligator person wearing a red detective coat, a black tank top, blue pants, and a purple fedora. He has a grey metal plate on his muzzle, and wears a pendant shaped like a magatama, and is not wearing shoes.]
The game could be better about differentiating similar objects in a scene, such as in the second room of the game where three separate robots are simply described as “robot” when hovered over by audio description, in order to ensure that sightless players are more easily able to tell if they’ve already interacted with an interaction point in the scene or not. In this example in particular, once you enter combat with these robots, they’re differenciated as being “Model X1”, “Model X2”, and “Model X3”, differenciations which could have made it easier during the exploring stage to check each of these via audio descriptions with less risk of doubly inspecting one, and missing another. Giving each audio described object a unique name makes it easier to not accidently think you’ve already checked something.
In terms of navigating the game with limited or no vision, the majority of the gameplay in Brok The InvestiGator is point and click adventure gameplay. In these segments of the game, players can walk around using an analogue stick, with text to speech prompts activating when the player walks next to an interactable item, but the game also offers using the D-Pad to cycle between interaction points more easily. While this does make it easier for sightless players to find interaction points in a scene, the execution here does have some room for improvement potentially.
I know I keep making this comparision, but in the demo for Stories of Blossom, players use a similar system to cycle between interaction points in scenes. The difference is that in Stories of Blossom a player can cycle left and right, and methodically find their way to every interaction point in a scene in order, being certain that they have not missed anything. Brok The Investigator requires the player to press their D-Pad inputs in the direction of a new interaction point to locate it, making methodically cycling through interact points more difficult, and increasing the likelihood that a player who is blind may miss something that they could have interacted with. This is partially remedied by allowing the player to hold down the X button, in order to have a list read out by text to speech of all interactable objects present in a scene, but that doesn’t isn’t something that the player is told they can do, and it doesn’t necessarilly help a blind player work out where in the scene an object is that they’re trying to interact with. The list is read to the player from left to right in the scene, but that fact also isn’t communicated to the player, and doesn’t help specifically locate if an item is, for example, near the upper left or the lower left of a scene. Sighted players can see each object’s location highlighted by text on screen, so it would be ideal for blind players to have a method of methodically scrolling through all interactables.
The game’s developer has said the intention here was, to some degree, to try and maintain the feeling of having to search these scenes, with a possibility of missing something, but blind players that I follow on Twitter who I’ve seen discussing the game all seem to agree that an option to simply methodically cycle through all interaction points in order, without the ability to miss any of them, would be preferable.
To be clear, the existing system does work, and it does make the game a lot more playable than it was at launch, but there is still room for improvement over time.
The other portion of the game is side scrolling combat, and in order to make these sections more accessible to sightless players, the game will repeatedly say the name of an object if Brok is stood next to it in combat mode, and the object can be attacked, giving information on what is going to be attacked if you press that button, and confirmation of correct player placement.
In combat sections against enemy characters, rather than those requiring attacking stationary targets such as locked doors, the game’s aim is to use 3D positional audio to support a player knowing their position, as well as that of their enemy, and hearing audio cues to know when to block, and when it’s safe to attack. Assuming you have good directional hearing, and a good pair of 3D audio supporting headphones, the system works pretty well for one that was shoehorned into a game not originally designed for playing using purely audio.
The implementation of high contrast mode in Brok The InvestiGator is simple, but gets the job done, highlighting some interactable objects, alongside your player character, and enemies in combat. While it’s not the most robust implementation of the feature ever seen, particularly harmed by its occasionally very muted selection of high contrast highlight colours, it serves its purpose and makes important gameplay elements easier to visually track, particularly in combat.
Brok The InvestiGator isn’t perfect, but it is the kind of thing that I want more developers to aspire to. It’s clear the game was not designed with blind player accessibility in mind, and that the developer still has some learning to do on that front, but the changes offered do a huge amount to make this game more playable by more people.
As I said at the start of this video, I feel like we are on the precipice of something big in the gaming accessibility space, and Brok The InvestiGator is a really good example of this. The game features pretty robust audio descriptions, more robust than 99% of the video game industry today, alongside puzzles custom adapted for blind players, high contrast mode support, and all of this added as post release updates, with consultation from blind gamers. It has become a really impressive title in terms of accessibility, implementing features that, if we’re honest, could really be applied to most adventure games without too much difficulty.
I am a big believer that 2023 is the year that is going to set a benchmark for what blind player accessibility in adventure games can be, with titles like Brok The InvestiGator and Stories of Blossom. My hope is that we look back on 2023 as a turning point for the genre, because most of the features implemented here could be pretty broadly applied across an entire genre of games. If we could get adventure games as a broad genre to aim for this level of blind player accessibility, we could eventually have an entire genre aiming for consistent accessibility standards that would elevate accessibility.
Brok The InvestiGator isn’t perfect, but it is impressive, and worthy of praise. It serves as an example that other developers in the genre should be looking toward, learning form, and aiming to surpass in the years to come.