PC Gamer US Edition|November 2021
From indies to blockbusters, developers are striving to include disabled players now more than ever
Ruth Cassidy
Last year’s instalment of The Game Awards celebrated the first Innovation in Accessibility award. This was alongside numerous other events recognizing accessibility for the first time, and dedicated efforts like the Video Game Accessibility Awards. It’s a topic that’s more visible than it’s ever been, but does this reflect the real state of gaming today?

While we might talk about some games as being ‘accessible to new players’ or an ‘accessible entry point to a niche genre’, accessibility here means access for disabled people—who make up 20% of working age adults in the UK, and 10.4% in the US. So while mainstream games awards may have their flaws—rewarding some of the industry’s darker aspects like crunch and abusive management—it’s still meaningful when they recognize efforts to remove the barriers that might exclude us.

Accessibility doesn’t only make things better for disabled players, however. David Tisserand, Ubisoft’s senior accessibility manager, shared on Twitter that around 95% of players leave subtitles on when it’s the default setting, and around 75% turn them on in the options at least once. This is a significantly higher percentage of the population than those who have hearing loss. Over email, Tisserand says, “For us, accessibility is about removing unintentional barriers so that as many players as possible can enjoy our games.” And concerning subtitles, that includes people with difficulty processing audio, noisy roommates, babies they can’t wake up, crunchy Doritos—the list goes on.


Ubisoft took two nominations for Innovation in Accessibility with Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, but another nominee was Obsidian’s Early Access survival game, Grounded. It sees players shrunk down to bite-size teen adventurers—an unnerving experience if the thing threatening to bite you is a spider. Grounded’s Arachnophobia Safe Mode made news last year for being the first game of its kind to buck the trend of forcing spiders on players with a phobia of them, allowing you to remove disturbing elements of their design or, at the top level, turn them into cute blobs.

Grounded also highlights the way that accessibility can be enhanced in even its more basic structures, like its ‘talk to me’ feature: a text-to-speech setting for its UI. As senior programmer Brian Macintosh explained, it wasn’t initially his idea, but something publisher Xbox Game Studios encouraged. “I didn’t initially understand how someone who is blind could even play Grounded, but it turns out there are many people who can see well enough to navigate the game, but have trouble reading text for vision or even cognitive reasons. For them, this feature takes the game from ‘barely playable’ to ‘quite playable’ which is a huge win.”

Without downplaying the seriousness of phobias, most of us can relate to finding spiders unsettling—I used the slider myself when it turned out my tolerance for the critters strongly depended on our relative size being biased in my favor. While this approach is inarguably innovative, Grounded’s text-to-speech option being a first for Obsidian represents something no less notable. Disabled players are being included who developers didn’t even expect to be playing their games.


Indies are leading the charge of accessibility


Hades’ introduction of God Mode was well-loved, ensuring disabled players didn’t hit a wall in the roguelike with its incremental increase of Zagreus’ demigod defenses.


Detective game Paradise Killer is stylish, but not murderous on the eyes— letting players disable the psychedelic backgrounds that could cause vertigo or motion sickness.


Chicory is a notably colorblind accessible painting game—and it also allows players to disable ‘wet sounds’, which can be bad for players with misophonia.


Beside industry giants Obsidian and Ubisoft, an unexpected nominee for Innovation in Accessibility was indie creation HyperDot. The game features only one mechanic: To move, or more precisely, to dodge out of the way of the polygons flinging themselves at you at high speed. HyperDot’s design was always centered around flexible approaches, but creator Charles McGregor credits a friend of his being gifted a Tobii Eye Tracker with the moment he realized he could make the game far more accessible.

“After I got [eye tracker compatibility] in there I was like, ‘Oh, if you can’t hold a controller, if you have a motor disability, you would be able to actually play all of HyperDot with it,’ and that really was the start of, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to actually take this a little bit more seriously and look into this.’” From there, his publisher Glitch supported him to reach out to accessibility consultant Cherry Thompson, as well as seek feedback from disabled streamers.

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