I’d just got my job at Frontier, and my first real paycheck. Gone were the days of maybe scraping £200 in a month by carrying boxes around at Argos, now I was making actual money that could pay bills and shit! So, naturally, I used it to buy myself a nice gaming computer and a whole new set of peripherals, including a sexy new Razer Kraken headset.
I mean, seriously, just look at it:
I fire up my game, and I notice the sound is really weak in my left ear. Like, really weak. I look it up online, and it turns out that sometimes these headsets just have one side a bit louder than the other. I adjust it in Windows’ settings, boosting the left side to meet the right. With balance restored to the universe, I thought nothing of it.
About a week later, I come in from a day’s work and settle down to play some games – specifically Battlefield 4. I got all set up and wandered into a building, rifle raised, before someone made an entrance by blasting out the wall beside me with a tank shell. Shrapnel rained all around, and the ringing from the shell reverberated around my head as the tank rolled into the building and over me. I screamed in pain, and tore the headset off.
I had accidentally put it on the wrong way round, and the boosted side was now being heard by my right ear – at its proper (insane) volume. The issue was me.
So I guess I’ll take this moment to thank Razer for producing a headset so refined in audio quality that it helped me identify my own hearing problems. You make sterling tech! It would probably have been more comfortable to actually be run over by a tank.
Silence Is Golden
To cut a long story short, it transpired after multiple tests that my hearing is actually better than normal, but it’s extra better in my right side, and I don’t have the required super-brain to make sense of the sound, so I get sensory overload really easily in crowded spaces.
But it was a long road to working that out, and for a very long time I genuinely worried that I was losing my hearing. I love music, I love discourse, and I spent many a restless night – and an inordinate amount of money – trying all manner of medicinal and not-so-medicinal remedies to make sure I could keep it.
And since I think far, far too much, it became very noticeable to me how well – or how poorly – my favourite form of entertainment handles the hard of hearing. Even with my ‘deafness’ revealed to be less so, that crusade is far from over. My mother is half-deaf and every time I see the news struggle to keep up with the spoken text or a line that’s been subtitled incorrectly on her favourite show, it makes my blood boil.
It transpired this week that the Spyro Reignited Trilogy – a triple-threat remaster of some of my favourite childhood games – didn’t feature subtitles in its cutscenes. I was not happy about this to begin with, but things turned more sour when I read Activision’s response:
…There were certain decisions that needed to be made throughout the process.
While there’s no industry standard for subtitles, […] [we] will evaluate going forward.
Spell It Out
The idea that the decision to not include subtitles was something that was made during the process of making the game – like something that would have impacted a deadline – is unfortunate enough wording on its own, but the implication that they will ‘evaluate’ including them in future is just as troubling. But I take the most issue with the idea that there is no ‘industry standard’ for subtitles.
When Activision refers to the ‘industry standard’, they’re referring to two main ideas, most likely:
- the ‘industry standard‘ in a broad sense, like some kind of agreed-upon way subtitles should be presented in games and how to implement them;
- and the certification/compliance requirements that you need to pass to get your game published on a console platform.
With no such thing (right now) as a video game developer’s union, the top one is currently only really going to exist as guidelines in its present form. The bottom one should really be a requirement for accessibility reasons alone, too.
With 1 in 6 people in the UK suffering from some form of hearing loss, of which around 50,000 of those are children, the ability for games to cater to those who cannot hear is so important to me, as it allows access to another world, freedom to explore, fight and win on your own terms. Especially for children, for whom these adventures are formative as well as transformative, this is paramount.
Adding subtitles – which transcribe spoken dialogue – but more specifically closed captions – which also illustrate off-screen sound effects for those who cannot hear them – should be an industry standard.
What should the industry standard be?
Indie dev and all around top guy Tony Gowland posted this tweet about the subtitles in the otherwise excellent Forza Horizon 4. His choice of language is better than anything I could ever come up with:
On his 42” TV, these subtitles are not readable by him when he’s 1m away. This is not acceptable – the subs on the screen take up an absolutely tiny amount of screen space. I can’t even read the subs in that embedded tweet, and I’m right in front of my monitor.
The BBC has an exhaustive document detailing their own standard for subtitles, which should be something for games to not only aspire to but also do better than.
Of particular note to me is the section on authoring font size, which specifies numerous aspects of how the subtitles should be presented.
Applying some facet of the BBC’s subtitle guidelines to Forza, I can produce a simple mockup that – while maybe not carrying the artistic flair of Playground’s in-game subs – is certainly more readable at a distance:
This is much more in line with the size and readability of subtitles I’d expect from a modern game catering to all audiences.
Speak up, TEXT!
In the case of something like Forza, you might find yourself wondering ‘what’s the point?’ Why indeed would a racing game bother with subtitles when it’s surely about the brum-brum cars? That question in itself poses an interesting one about the nature of an industry standard – what games deserve to be playable by the deaf?
My answer would be ‘all of them’, but let’s dive deeper with a game with a dedicated narrative that must be read if not heard.
There was a bit of a furore earlier this year about the fantastic God of War. It’s one of the best games of this year – it might even be the defining game of this generation. And, at launch, its text size was tiny – in the image above, you can see how difficult it is to process things.
Fortunately, a patch allowed the player to adjust the size of the subtitles and on-screen text. That’s what’s amazing – thanks to the interactive nature of games – we have the luxury of letting players adjust the size of the text or – as in the case of Spider-Man, even place them on against a background.
All games should aspire to this level of accessibility.
The Competitive Advantage
Overwatch is one of the most entertaining competitive shooters ever released, and it’s the beating heart of much of what gaming should be, with an incredibly diverse cast and is full of representation and inclusivity. It’s one of the most high-profile games with an openly gay character on its box. It’s forward thinking in almost every respect.
Unfortunately, its handling of subtitles is one of its only aspects stuck firmly in the past.
The game features an absolutely stellar audio engine that allows you to reliably play and understand what’s going on within the game. Enemy footsteps and weapons are louder than ally ones, for example. Every character has a distinctive callout when they use their earthshattering ultimate ability, which is a completely different line if they’re your ally.
“Clearing the area.“ – Friendly Reaper / “DIE! DIE! DIE!” – Unfriendly Reaper
A lot of these lines are the only way to know if you’re under attack. If you hear a distant “Fiiire in the hole!”, you know there is a Junkrat on the enemy team and an explosive tire headed your way. If you hear the low rumble of “It’s hiiigh nooon…” then it’s time to rush for cover because rootin’, tootin’, cowboy shootin’ McCree is about to blow everyone’s heads off. Recognising these sounds is a vital part of effective Overwatch play.
And to a deaf person, these fundamental aspects of the game simply do not exist.
It has been argued time and time again that including closed captions for these elements would provide an unfair advantage – that everyone would play with them switched on to know exactly what’s going on in a match. To me, that seems like the preferable alternative to locking out a subgroup of players.
To settle that argument regardless, Fortnite – an equally competitive game with zero dialogue – features an on-screen audio visualiser that shows you the location of nearby events. A similar display in Overwatch would work wonders, even if it’s just the symbol of the ability in question.
I mocked up a simple example of how that might look if, say, for example, a McCree was to stand behind you and get ready. It’s enough of a warning, without providing an unnecessary advantage.
It’s a damn shame Spyro Reignited Trilogy doesn’t carry subtitles. We have come quite a long way for accessibility in games, almost to the point where we may have thought it was a no-brainer to include subtitles. But they’re not actually required – and that should change as soon as possible.
Clear, readable subtitles and inclusivity-focused design for the deaf and hard of hearing should be an industry standard, regardless of the game in question. For Activision, evaluating their inclusion “going forward” should really more be a simple statement:
We will include them in the future.
And we always should have.