I love visual novels and dating sims. I’m also a sighted person who uses a screen reader sometimes because of a problem with my eyes/head that is aggravated by looking at computer screens, especially to read a bunch of text. VNs are a type of game that could be totally accessible to anyone who uses a screen reader (which includes blind and visually impaired players) because they’re text-based! Unfortunately, most are still not accessible, for some reason or another.
This is not a tutorial on how to actually do the coding or put the features into your game. This post is about what is needed for a game to be playable for players who can’t see the screen. I mention Ren’Py a few times because Ren’Py has automatic self-voicing for text (a mode players can toggle on/off that will read text aloud), and it has documentation on how to add the other necessary things, but you’ll have to look for instructions for whatever program you use.
Anyway, if you’re a game dev who would like to make your games accessible and open them up to an even wider audience, these are my tips!
(But remember these are just my tips, and it’s always a good idea to look for more, especially from blind and visually impaired players!)
First things first, how can a game be accessible for those who can’t see the screen?
a) There needs to be a way players can toggle on/off some sort of text-to-speech (TTS) mode in which everything will be read aloud.
b) The game needs to work with whatever screen reader a person uses for their other computer tasks. (NVDA, JAWS, etc.)
The most obvious thing that needs to be considered: the game text. If you use Ren’Py, this should already be taken care of. Though I’ve encountered some visual novels where it was a bit screwy. Like the text being read before the name of the character talking. Or choice screens reading all the choices at once, rather than when you move to them. So make sure whatever you’re doing is working properly.
Menus, Stats, Maps, Etc.
Menus, stats, maps, and other screens where you get info or make choices are often overlooked, and it makes games inaccessible that might otherwise be accessible enough to play. It’s usually because these screens utilize images, and when using an image, the self-voicing doesn’t have any text to read unless you give it some. It’s usually as simple as adding alt text.
If there are any images with text or images/screens in which something happens that isn’t stated in the text, it needs to be described in the text when the TTS mode is toggled on. (I know there’s a way to do this in Ren’Py so that certain text only shows while self-voicing is on.)
Descriptions of Characters and Settings
A game can still be playable without this, but I think giving a description when a character is first introduced would be nice too. Especially romance options in a dating sim. Same for settings.
When new characters are introduced, always give them some sort of name, rather than just putting question marks or nothing. Even if the name is “Tall Stranger” before the player knows their real name. The name gets stated before dialogue, so if there’s no name, it can be confusing and impossible to know who is talking or what’s going on.
Voice Acting Toggle
Full voice acting might be alright, but partial voice acting that only says part of the text or little sound bites is a problem. At least, it is in Ren’Py because voice acting prevents text from being read at all, so players will be missing text if only some of it is voice-acted. If there’s voice acting, consider including an option to turn it off, unless you’re certain it doesn’t interfere with any text. And it’s still good to have TTS or some way for players to replay a line if they missed it.
Screen Reader Toggle Button
If you make people navigate into a menu to turn on TTS, that isn’t going to help anyone who can’t see the screen and is playing alone with no one to help.
Preferably, you need to have a keyboard shortcut that will turn on the TTS mode. Another possible option, if a keyboard shortcut is truly not possible, is for the TTS mode to automatically turn on if the game detects the player is using a screen reader, but that could be faulty, or they might have turned the screen reader off to play.
Ren’Py self-voicing is toggled by pressing the V key. Most people who use self-voicing probably already know that, so that’s the first thing people are going to try. If you’re not using Ren’Py, it’d be smart to also use V as the toggle. If you use any other key, or even anything combined with V, the best thing would be to have it stated aloud when the game window opens. If that’s not possible, putting it clearly in the game info on the store page might help.
If you can’t see the screen, it’s hard to use a mouse to click things. Make sure everything can be navigated to and selected using the keyboard.
Skip Option for Anything Requiring Sight
Puzzles, combat, mini games, or anything else that requires someone to see the screen in order to play should have a skip option.
Certain things could potentially be made accessible with a bit of work. For example, Code 7 has some accessible puzzles. I believe Walkerman has accessible grid-based combat. There are games, like A Blind Legend, that have sound-based combat and movement (but that’s probably not super relevant to visual novels). Simple point and click elements in which you’re just choosing a door or an item to inspect could be turned into a choice format, like in Tomato Clinic.
So, if you really want to, you might be able to make non-text elements accessible, but as long as you have a skip option, and you give the player gets any vital info they missed, the game will still be playable. And whatever you’re including in a visual novel that is choice-based but isn’t navigable by keyboard, maybe consider if there’s really a need for it, or if you could make it keyboard navigable, or if keeping to the text choice format would work just as well.
(Just to be clear, I’m not saying there should be no sight-required games in existence. Some games are never going to be playable if you can’t see the screen. But that’s why this post is specifically about visual novels and text-based games that potentially could be playable.)
Sound effects are not always necessary, but there are times when they may be useful.
Sound can be used to indicate things like choice screens (though that’s usually not necessary), whether the choice the player made achieved a certain result, if certain choices are linked to certain characters / personality traits, etc. Basically anything that’s visually indicated (like with a color or symbol) and important. Arcade Spirits, when self-voicing is on, uses sound effects to indicate which personality trait your choice has affected, and it establishes what each sound effect means in the intro.
Though, to keep things easier, you might be able to just use alt text for some of these things. For example, if you wanted to indicate that a certain option leads to a special ending, and you’re able to give it alt text, the alt text could say, “Special Ending – Go with Jonathan.”
Include a gallery to see the CGs, or all the art, at any time after unlocking it. This isn’t necessary, but it’s something I appreciate as a sighted person who uses a screen reader because it means I can play the game with my screen off and not worry about missing any special art because I know I can just go check out the gallery when I’m done.
Other things will have to be figured out on a case by case basis since every game is different. If you want your games to be accessible to blind and visually impaired players and other screen reader users, you just have to consider how any other unusual things you add are going to work.
Test the Game
If you truly want your game to be accessible for anyone who can’t look at the screen, you need to play it without looking at the screen (or ask/hire someone else who regularly uses assistive tech to test it). From the moment you click to open the game window. Can you navigate all the menu items? Can you tell what’s going on? Is there anywhere you get stuck? Are there any choice screens using images where you didn’t add alt text? Can you access and understand stats, maps, calendars, or any extra sort of menus and info that are part of the game? Is it clear when choices have some sort of special significance, if that’s part of the game? Preferably you should check the whole thing, but at the very least, check the menus, any stats/maps/extras, the game text, and a couple choice screens. Now you know what still needs fixing.