Racing along the lush desert roads of Mexico in my orange Corvette and I’m in awe of the world before me. The Forza Horizon I’ve loved since the release of Horizon 2 in 2014 but prettier, more photoreal than each past entry in the series. I round the last corner before arriving at Horizon Festival grounds for the first time when it happens. My late partner, Susan, pulls out just as I enter. I utter a quiet, “Hi,” and just for a moment, I can feel her weight on the couch beside me, smell her subtle fragrance of vanilla and rose, and hear her boisterous laughter as I crash into an oncoming car.
I anticipated this moment, seeing her in the latest addition to our favorite series even though she’s been dead for two years, yet still, it caught me unprepared. Drivatars, AI replications of Xbox friends that have played Forza games, are a core component of all games in the Forza franchises and they are the sole reason I’d avoided all things Forza from the time of Susan’s death in early 2019 to the summer of 2021 when I finally felt ready for the jarring sight of AI Susan.
Forza Horizon was something of a reprieve for both of us and she started every day by playing it, from September 30, 2014, Horizon 2’s launch date, until March 3, 2019, the day of Susan’s death. Susan had suffered a serious illness after an accident which left her having frequent seizures and unable to drive in 2013, a terrible blow to a woman that once adored cars and, much to my dismay, driving at high speeds. Discovering some form of the rush of racing via our new Xbox One in 2014, she told me, gave her back just a bit of what she’d lost to the illness.
Susan could play Forza games barrier-free, which was far from the case in most other games. A Deaf woman, she adored simply being able to start the game and play it, not worrying that she was missing the story or essential audio cues. For me, it provided a nice break from the “critique brain” I’d grown into as we also began working in accessibility advocacy.
An Ever-Present Connection
After hundreds of hours spent in FH2 and 3, I lost interest in the series beyond seeing how pretty the cars and worlds were in Horizon 4. At the time, I was working as a dog walker and spent my word day stuck in a car driving all over Chicago. I watched Susan play the game each morning for the half-hour she allotted for it because seeing her joy was how I wanted every day to begin but beyond that, I never touched Horizon 4.
There were many games I’d avoided following Susan’s death. Fallout, Dragon Age Inquisition, Far Cry 5 and New Dawn. But none to the extent of Horizon because while others had her uncanny likeness created in character creation, none put “her” in the game as Horizon did. I slowly turned to those favorites to sustain a connection with her but Horizon stayed there in Xbox limbo, installed but never played.
It’s difficult to carry on working in the very industry, at the very site your deceased partner made quite a name for herself in. Even the smallest and silliest of things serve as reminders of her and sometimes, you just need to forget.
In July 2021, two years after Susan’s death and well out of that daily grieving space, I adopted a dog which I’d named Potato. In September 2021, on a whim I installed Horizon 4, only to find that Susan had named her avatar “Potato.” Teary-eyed by the inadvertent connection to her, I cruised through the streets of England in her Range Rover, the car she’d once had in real life, with her trademark plates, “ONEODDGG.”
After her death, I had no plans on continuing to work in games, certainly not game accessibility. It was something I’d done for her and taking over the more public-facing work she did to sustain CIPT was not something I was interested in doing. But slowly, opportunities I couldn’t turn down presented themselves that firmly planted me in the games industry.
One of those opportunities was a short consultation with Playground Games on their upcoming game patch for Horizon 4. The patch would improve subtitles in the game, something Susan slammed in her accessibility review of the game. That experience was the first of many that left me wishing Susan could witness the impact her advocacy was having on the games industry.
A Lasting Legacy
With the announcement of Forza Horizon 5, I knew the game would be a priority for CIPT to cover. Both Playground Games and Xbox had made abundantly clear their commitment to inclusion and accessibility.
I launched the game upon receiving a review code and found myself again cruising the streets teary-eyed. I was able to continue what felt like Susan’s playthrough of previous games by selecting the same avatar she chose in 3 and 4 and customizing my plate to “ONEODDGG.” But this time, I could go further than she ever could.
Susan’s accident and the illness that followed left her with an amputated leg which she wore a prosthetic for. She was also a bald woman (by choice, not illness) and adored games that allowed her to create a bald female character. In Forza Horizon 5, I was able to give “Susan” a bald head and a prosthetic leg and I smiled knowing how thrilled she’d have been by both.
It’s indescribable, the feeling of creating a character in her likeness in a game that I know she had an impact on. Accessibility has made massive strides in games in recent years and while advocates like Susan have been doing the work for decades, the accessibility mindsets we’re seeing at studios now, she was at the forefront of that, along with others, being loud and educating on how to include disabled people in games.
I’m not a glutton for punishment in my Forza Horizon 5 playthrough, recreating things as Susan had them, trying to relive our time together. That’s not my aim at all. It’s part nostalgia and part pride when I play games with her in mind. And in Forza Horizon 5, that pride and nostalgia has never been stronger.