Over the last three or so years, one of the areas of game design that has seen the most ambitious steps forward taken in accessibility is gameplay assists for blind players.
From The Last of Us 2 introducing audio cues to allow for sightless players to navigate stealth and combat sections with minimal assistance, to games like Brok the Investigator redesigning puzzles for blind players and incorporating audio descriptions during gameplay, we’re seeing steps being taken to make more genres of games more playable, more consistently, for blind players of various kinds.
The latest game to take a stab at improving blind player accessibility, in an often inaccessible genre, is 2023’s Forza Motorsport, which this past week detailed an ambitious suite of blind driving assist features, developed over the past two years with the help of sightless blind accessibility consultant Brandon Cole.
The game’s new blind driving assists, which the developer has been careful to explain aim to reduce barriers to play for blind players rather than making guarantees about playability for every disabled player, assist blind players with navigating in game races using other kinds of sensory cues to assist during gameplay.
Starting with audio cues, one of the features explained in an Xbox published video was the new Steering Guide, which will pan engine and tyre audio for a player’s car to the left, or right, to signify which direction a player needs to turn to stay on the track’s driving line, and as they take turns on each track.
There’s also Track Limit Cues, which apparently give players a beeping alert sound as they start nearing the edge of the track, audio panned to a particular side, to help identify how close they are to leaving the tarmac.
Additionally, there appears to be a feature that seems to function similar to when rally car drivers have a co-pilot reading information about upcoming turn direction and turn angle, in order to help provide more info about what is coming up on the track.
While these features were explained in some detail, according to Brandon, the game features a large number of small assists that can be customised to meet a player’s specific needs, and for him they come together to make the game playable.
Brandon explained in the Xbox published video announcing the features that, as someone essentially blind from birth, he has never driven a real world car. Not only is he now able to play Forza, but he has come first in races against AI opponents thanks to the features being implemented in the upcoming title.
For blind players who have some degree of sight, but a reduction in their vision level, there are additional assist features available, including large menu icons and large text, HUD text size alteration options, colourblind modes, high contrast mode options for menus and HUDs, among other features designed to improve visual clarity for low vision players.
The developers at Turn 10, and Brandon, both warn that there will likely be a learning experience involved for sightless players who pick up Forza Motorsport and decide to play using its audio cues system. Speaking to IGN, Brandon pointed out that as someone who had never driven a car before, he had to learn things like the fact that you need to slow down when taking tight turns, things that are less intuitive when you’ve not seen a car being driven, or driven one yourself. But, while there may be a learning curve with the new assists, it is clear that with practice, these tools can make Forza playable by some players who might otherwise not be able to race around its in-game tracks.
While video games generally are far from universally accommodating to blind players, there’s a world of improvement happening compared to just a few years ago, in terms of AAA game developers making attempts to make their games playable for a wider range of blind players.
Forza Motorsport 2023 getting a talented accessibility consultant like Brandon Cole in to work on accessibility support for their game early in development is a wonderful move, and clearly having him involved for multiple years on the project is yielding impressive results. Brandon will apparently be continuing to consult on Forza Motorsport after it is released which is also a great sign, allowing work on these new features to continue once the game is more widely available to blind players, to ensure that as many players as possible have the tools they need to play.
Forza Motorsport is quickly positioning itself as one of the most exciting titles this year in terms of its accessibility aims, and I’m so excited to see the amount of effort being put into opening doors to make racing sims more accessible.