Accessibility was more visible than ever in 2021, but not always in a useful way


If last year was a tipping point for accessibility in games becoming visible, then this year has been a weather vane, indicating the direction in which developers are heading. While it may seem like critics and disabled advocates are constantly arguing that we have a right to be here, many studios are already recognizing this and making games for us and marketing them to us. Accessibility in games has never been so visible, but that visibility in itself is something to be questioned.

Many top-tier games have actively included accessibility information in their marketing this year, releasing information about their accessibility menus and features ahead of release. However, it is much easier to speak of the presence of characteristics than of the absence of barriers. You never see reports that say “The latest franchise adds promises to not have lowercase text”, or “The next blockbuster will never spin the camera like nauseating speed.” Disseminating information about game accessibility in advance is a good thing – telling people with disabilities that they are welcome and giving them the information they need to play an upcoming game – but it also guides the process. public conversation about accessibility in a certain way.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft is one of the largest publishers to have spoken particularly about the accessibility of its games and its hardware. Its two tentpole releases this year, Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite, included accessibility information as part of their pre-release marketing. And while both games have made high-profile efforts to include players with disabilities, results have been mixed, with disabled critics praising one and panning the other.

Forza and Halo Infinite both have full accessibility menus available at startup, with Halo Infinite making it one of the first things you see. Both games also allow you to make your character visibly disabled by including prosthetic limbs as part of the character customization options. While these are clear and visible steps to include players with disabilities, the actual accessibility of the two games is surprisingly different, demonstrating issues that are also opposing each other.

Navigating the Forza settings as a disabled player is an oddly fragmented experience. The accessibility section is very specific, including customizable settings for things like color blindness, subtitles, text-to-speech, and game speed. Some of these are relevant to me – I’ll come back to that. Game speed – but some settings that profoundly affect a game’s accessibility can be found in other menus. Vibration settings in ‘gameplay’, adjustment of audio levels in ‘audio’, remapping of controls in ‘controls’. Many of his full difficulty settings strike me as necessary from a motor accessibility standpoint, but these are also things that accessibility advocate Steve Saylor highlighted in his Forza Horizon 5 review as being beneficial for him by. as a blind player.

Optional access

(Image credit: Microsoft)

It’s easy to isolate metrics that have a specific impact on the barriers that I personally encounter, but as accessibility consultant Cherry Thompson recently explained at this year’s Global Accessibility Conference, “all options are for everyone and all options increase accessibility ”. All players navigate the interactions of our hardware, software, and bodies, and negotiate the friction that exists in the places they meet.

When you place a set of options behind a special menu, there will be a number of players who won’t look at them. Accessible design always has more benefits than any specific barrier it is intended to overcome – the example of “captions being good when you eat noisy snacks” being everlasting – but as soon as you do. identify as being for an accessibility need, people will ignore it, regardless of the benefits they might derive from it. Likewise, it states that there are some settings that relate to how the game is supposed to be adjusted and some are “extra” which you can still feel the effect of in many games. Turning off quick events only to watch an urgent pulsing UI prompt that expects you to mash a button is all too common, and it doesn’t sound so urgent but a little wrong.

All of the options are for everyone, and all of the options increase accessibility.

Cherry Thompson

Forza’s difficult navigation settings are all the more bizarre because they can be accessed elsewhere. When I first started playing it, with all difficulty settings at default, it seemed impossible to control my car. I overstepped, constantly stopped, and lost both literal and metaphorical momentum every few seconds. While I was gaining some control of the car through the in-game AI, what was essential for the driving to feel good was reducing the game speed to 85%, giving me that fraction of second more to react. It’s a setting I’ve never seen in any other game, and now desperately want in every game I play.

Accessibility settings may have given me control over my cars, but I’m still really bad at driving – it’s just fun now. Driving badly, in a nice and correct way, means going through barriers, beheading cacti, and racking up silly high point bonuses. Don’t crash into trees, stall, and feel frustrated with my hands. Forza makes room for “correct” play to be everything – to literally drive through Mexico, slide sideways off a cliff, or try to cut a personal best by a few milliseconds. Settings alone cannot create this experience.

Endless discomfort

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Where Forza has an awkwardly communicated menu but an accessible basic design, Halo Infinite is the other way around. It presents its accessibility menu from the first start of the game, but every element of this section is also present in all the other sections. In its presentation, it is much less different, but to go further than the surface level, it is much less accessible to play.

In Ben Bayliss’ review for the Accessibility Point of Sale Can i play this, he begins with the caveat that with Xbox history it’s easy to assume that Halo will be accessible, but “it’s important to note that the number of accessibility options available doesn’t determine whether a game is accessible, and Halo Infinite seems to be a perfect example of that. ”

The “clunky implementation” of accessibility features that he criticizes is also something I encountered during my time with Halo. Things that initially seemed useful didn’t really hold up, like the complete remapping of the controller which still didn’t allow me to avoid using stick-clicks in any way. Much like those awkward QTE deactivations, setting functions to “toggle” instead of “hold” never feels right either. At the end of the first mission, as I had to run through a collapsing station, Master Chief continued to slow down to walk quietly every few seconds, making the level design’s timed seams painfully visible.

(Image credit: 343 Industries)

More than anything else, the main experience is just plain uncomfortable to play. The design of Halo Infinite prioritizes mobility and aggressiveness. He wants you to constantly think on your feet, switching between your weapons, melee, grenades, and tools. Your ammo runs out quickly, you’re vulnerable if you stay in one spot for too long, and you’re supposed to face an enemy, not only to hit them, but to pick up their weapon when they fall. If that basic loop is wearing you out, if your reaction speed isn’t fast enough, if it’s information overload, there is no setting that will dampen what is fundamental to Halo experience.

The design of the game itself even recognizes that this kind of game is overwhelming. You do it for a few minutes at a time, in segments interrupted by runs, cutscenes, and battery searches. But this pace is designed with only the limitations of certain players in mind, and Infinite’s campaign is intentionally tougher than any of its series predecessors.

An accessible game is a game where accessibility is at the heart of its design. Explicit accessibility settings can tell players with disabilities that you are considering their needs, but accessible game design is more complex than that. As Thompson said in their speech, “One option can facilitate accessibility, other times it’s a band-aid on the problem. It’s not accessibility itself.”

(Image credit: Playground Games)

When the most visible games dictate trends in how games approach accessibility, 2021 leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s exciting to feel like a player the developers are actively courting, and not like I sometimes get lucky to be able to play a game. Marketing about a game’s accessibility and visibility of its features and its settings is a declaration of intent: disabled players are welcome here.

At the same time, I remain cautious that only the most visible work – which due to its visibility separates disabled players from others – will be recovered and reproduced. The work of making game design accessible from the early stages of production is still often recognized only in niche spaces. It’s the difference between having intercoms on a train platform to ask someone to find me a ramp and having platforms accessible to get on a train unassisted. It’s nice to go somewhere; it’s hard not to feel different.


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