Video: Making Games Better for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing | Designing for Disability
Video games are for everyone. But there’s one group who have, historically, been treated as a bit of an afterthought: disabled people. Many millions of people live with hearing loss or vision problems, colourblindness or epilepsy, amputations or muscular dystrophy, and hundreds of other conditions that can affect their visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive functions. But this doesn’t mean they can’t play games. Because when developers offer certain options or make certain design choices, disabled people can suddenly find themselves able to enjoy a game that would be otherwise impossible to play.
Which means these often cheap and simple choices can open a game up to an entirely new audience of players. And so in this series of videos, I’m going to be looking at some key ways that game developers can make their titles more inclusive to disabled people. Starting off with auditory options, for players who are deaf or hard of hearing. Part 1: Subtitles – Subtitles are one of most popular accessibility options in games. In fact, Ubisoft says that a whopping 60 percent of all Assassin’s Creed Origins players had them on while playing that title. But if they’re so popular, it begs the question: Why Are Video Game Subtitles So Terrible? Because while TV and movies have an almost universal standard for subtitles, with big text and clear fonts and easy-to-digest lines – video game developers seem to just make it up as they go along, leading to crappy subtitles in tiny text and illegible fonts and ridiculous dimensions.
Just look at a game like Borderlands 2. The text is tiny, the font isn’t very clear, the white text blends into the background, the player has to read across the whole width of the screen, and there’s no indication of who’s talking. And this is just when you’re standing still and listening to Claptrap: imagine trying to read this stuff in the middle of a heated combat encounter. And that’s the thing about video game subtitles: its more important than any other medium that they’re easy to read, because you’re trying to divide your attention between the subtitles… and everything else you need to think about. So, in an effort to get game developers on the same page, here are the golden rules of good subtitles. Subtitles should be large. Tiny subtitles are probably the most common mistake that developers make in this area. Perhaps they don’t want to break the immersion of the game world; but those who really need subtitles don’t care about that: they care about being able to read the dialogue quickly.
So look to a game like Life is Strange: Before the Storm or Assassin’s Creed Origins, and boost your font size until you can easily see it from across a room. Or, better yet, just let players choose a font size that suits them. Subtitles should use a simple font. A nice, clean, sans serif font should be used to make reading as effortless as possible. Compare the easy-to-read text in Detroit: Become Human, to this horrible scribbly font in Metal Gear Solid V. This is not the time to keep up your brand identity, this is the time for clarity. Subtitles should contrast against different backgrounds. Try and read this subtitle. Pretty tough, right? Well it’s not surprising, considering that the pale text and outline is practically camouflaged when placed against certain backgrounds. Subtitle text should typically be white, with either a thick black border, or a dark black shadow, or – best of all – a semi-transparent black box, like in Prey.
That will work against any background, and stop readers needing to strain their eyes to keep up. Subtitles should be short. If you look at movies, you’ll see that subtitles only contain a few words at a time. Guidelines for places like the BBC and Netflix state that each line contains about 37 to 42 characters, and only two lines are shown on the screen at once. In games, though? Well, anything goes, with some titles showing entire paragraphs of dialogue at once. So, instead, look at something like Hitman which largely sticks to short stabs of dialogue across a couple lines. This keeps everything in the centre of the screen and easy to read. And it stops silly things like this: in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the player reads “Who called the elevator!?” seconds before Batman actually hears the elevator. Detroit: Become Human is better, with shorter scraps of dialogue for each individual thought or clause.
When using multiple lines, subtitle writers should also aim to have text break at a natural point in the dialogue. Here’s some guidelines from Netflix, on when they do and do not break a subtitle into two lines. Subtitles should stay on screen long enough. Players will obviously need time to read the subtitle in question. While it’s usually fine for the subtitle to stay on screen for as long as the character is speaking, you might need to extend their stay for fast-talking characters. The BBC says subtitles should stay on screen for about 0.3 seconds for every word that must be read. Oh, and don’t forget to create a visual gap between subtitles. On Netflix, there’s a few frames of nothingness whenever the subtitles change. This barely-noticeable flash will catch the viewers eye and tell them that there’s a new line of dialogue to read. If you don’t do this, like in Borderlands 2, then players might miss that there’s a new line. Subtitles should indicate the speaker When you have lots of characters on screen, and you can’t hear the dialogue to distinguish a voice, it can be tough to know who is actually saying the line in the subtitle.
This is why video games should indicate who is currently speaking. God of War puts the speaker’s name at the beginning of every line. And that’s very clear, but it does increases the size of the subtitles and makes for some very redundant reading. A better solution can be found in Rise of the Tomb Raider, where characters are named when they first speak, but their dialogue is also given a unique colour. From now on, the name can be dropped because the colour tells you who is speaking. Terrific! Subtitles should cover all dialogue Games have a nasty habit of giving you subtitles for cutscenes and major characters, but absolutely nothing for background chatter and ambient discussions. In Mirror’s Edge, for example, these cops have lines: but they don’t have any subtitles.
This is especially important when that insignificant dialogue ends up being, actually, quite significant. Like in Hitman, where guards will tell you whether or not you can enter certain areas in your current disguise. GUARD: I can't let any patients through this way. Rules are rules. For whatever reason, those lines are not subtitled at all. Which actually brings us neatly onto the next topic. Part 2: Audio Cues – Because, accurately conveying spoken language for cutscenes and dialogue is one thing – but games are unique in that they often use audio cues to convey important, gameplay-critical information. In Overwatch, for example, every character has a unique voice line to indicate that they’re about to unleash their ultimate attack. So if you hear “justice rains from above” or “it’s high noon”, you know it’s time to duck for cover. Even if you can’t see Pharah or McCree on screen. Unless, that is, you’re deaf, hard of hearing, or have the sound off – in which case you won’t know anything is about to happen because those sound effects have no subtitles or related visual cues.
Without sound, you’re completely screwed. A game like Half Life 2 is much better in this regard. This game, and most other Valve titles, offers full closed captions that don’t just cover spoken dialogue, but also gunshots, enemy chatter, explosions, and more. That’s cool, because Half Life 2 has a really vivid soundscape of iconic noises, which abled players can use to understand what’s happening – even outside of their visual range. But these closed captions help bring that experience to the hard of hearing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you where the sounds are coming from. But we’re now starting to see games that don’t just describe the sounds – but also help explain their location. Minecraft’s audio cue subtitles, for example, use left and right arrows to help you orient noises like plopping items and moving animals. And Final Fantasy XIV lets you turn on an overlay that visualises sounds, and helps show where they’re coming from – even if they’re behind you. But perhaps the best version of this I’ve seen so far comes from Fortnite… on mobile devices. Here, critical sound effects like gunfire and footsteps are displayed as icons in a ring around your character.
This quickly lets you understand what sounds are happening, and where they’re coming from. Epic has since added this option to the console and PC versions of the game, but strangely decided to make it so that you have to turn the sound off entirely and play in silence, if you want to show the visual indicator ring. Not great for those who are hard of hearing, and just need a bit of extra info. So I think developers should always try to avoid having critical information be conveyed exclusively through sound. Like in Metal Gear Solid V, where enemies will simply shout that they’re throwing a grenade ENEMY: GRENADA! – a line which has no subtitles. Be more like Call of Duty, where grenades are indicated by both an audible bark, and a clear visual cue. I mean, you can have this stuff as an option if you like.
Though when it comes to multiplayer games it’s important to consider whether a visual indicator would give players an unfair advantage. In which case it perhaps should be, just like in Fortnite Mobile, mandatory, or turned on by default. Part 3: Sound puzzles – Now. Imagine this. You’re deaf, and you’re happily enjoying the enigmatic, line-doodling puzzle game The Witness. You don’t need sound to enjoy the game, and all of the audio diaries are conveyed through subtitles. Great. And then, you suddenly hit a puzzle that requires you to listen out for sounds in the environment. Damn. There are some games that are completely built around sound, rhythm, or music. And that’s fair enough. But when games that aren’t about music suddenly introduce a puzzle that is based on notes or tune, it can be a complete game-ending roadblock for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.
This happened to players in Undertale, where there’s a puzzle where you need to listen to a tune in one room – and play it back on a piano in another room. Thankfully, creator Toby Fox later patched the game to have the answer simply appear on screen if you wait near the statue. Giving players an alternative way to finish these puzzles, or using some kind of visual element, or making them completely optional – which, they kind of are in The Witness, I guess – would stop sound puzzles from being the end of the road for players who are hard of hearing. Part 4: Options – When it comes to accessibility, there really isn’t a thing as having too many options. And in terms of audio, there are lots of things you can let the player fiddle with. For subtitles, some games let you change the size of the font.
Assassin’s Creed Origins lets you decide whether or not to show the speaker’s name, and whether or not to use a background. Another important option is the ability to change the volume of different parts of the sound mix. Games like Mortal Kombat X let you change the volume of the effects, announcer, dialogue, music, ambience, and cutscenes – allowing players who are hard of hearing to drop, say, the background music in order to increase the volume of the more important sound effects. And finally, players should be able to turn on subtitles before a single word of dialogue is spoken. This can be achieved with an accessibility menu before the game starts, like in Naughty Dog’s more recent games. Or a simple subtitles button in the first cutscene, like inFAMOUS: First Light. Oh, and I almost forgot. Can game developers please all get together and agree on one set place for the subtitles option? Some put it in gameplay, others in sound, others in accessibility, others put it in language. Come on.
It’s getting silly now. So, making a game more accessible to the deaf, or hard of hearing, or just players who need to turn the sound down because a baby is sleeping in the next room, is not too difficult or expensive. I mean, it would be wonderful to see more games like Moss, where hero Quill can communicate to the player in American Sign Language. But for all other games, there are loads of easy-to-follow guidelines for subtitles from the movie industry, to cover dialogue. And when considering audio cues and puzzles, it’s just a case of thinking about how to communicate the same information without access to audio. And while it would be awesome for more studios to get disabled players in to test their games for auditory accessibility, indie developers on a budget can check that their game is playable… by putting their TV on (mute). Hey, thanks for watching. I want to thank Susan, aka OneOddGamerGirl of AbleGamers, who helped check this video for accuracy. And the Game Accessibility Guidelines website, which is packed with good advice.
This series will return in the future, with a look at designing for visual, motor, and cognitive disabilities. For now though, please share any games that do a particularly good or bad job of auditory accessibility in the comments below! GMTK is powered by Patreon..