Subtitles are a part of almost every game nowadays, save for visual novels or text adventures because text is already part of the game itself, and they’re pretty damn awesome. They’re an important form of accessibility, allowing players, particularly those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, to enjoy games to the fullest potential.
However, subtitles are only truly accessible when they can actually be read. Sometimes, subtitles will appear to be way too small or they blend into the background enough that they aren’t readable. Other times, there’s so much text that appears at one time, the player can’t read it all before the scene has moved on. As a result, crucial information might end up being lost. This can impact deaf/hard-of-hearing players even more if they rely on the subtitles to know what’s happening. When the subtitles fail in their primary objective, which is to make the game more accessible, this can have a negative impact on those who need them and have a poor experience with the game.
There are things that can be done to make sure that subtitles succeed in their goal. Designing good subtitles is a process of its own, and there are things that game developers should consider when designing subtitles for their game:
Having large text for the subtitles is extremely important. If the text is too small, the subtitles are useless. Having text that is large enough that it can still be readable on the screen, whether it’s big or small, is crucial to making the subtitles functional.
Having contrast implemented in the subtitles, be it a black outline around white text or a black box around the subtitles, helps improve readability which decreases the chances of the text blending in with the background, which can go a long way for subtitles.
Customization options for subtitles is great primarily because it gives the player control over how they want to set up their subtitles, and lets them chose what works best for them. Options might include text size, speaker name, and text backgrounds.
Not having too much text appear at a single moment is a good guideline to follow as well. Too many words might overwhelm the player, or they might find themselves unable to read all of the text. Restricting subtitles to just one or two sentences at a time can make a huge difference.
Games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed Origins are great examples of how developers took the time to create great subtitles.
Rise of the Tomb Raider, for starters, has large text in a readable font, and it also uses a translucent black box around the text in order to prevent the text from blending in the background. The way the subtitles are designed is not only great and readable during cutscenes, but is also particularly useful because the player can still easily read the subtitles during action sequences.
Rise of the Tomb Raider also gave players the option to differentiate between speakers in the subtitles by changing the subtitle colours depending on who was speaking. For example, Lara’s subtitles were white, and the person she was talking to would have their dialogue appear as yellow text. The only thing that has to be kept in mind when doing something like that is making sure the colours can be differentiated by colour-blind players, or otherwise, they won’t benefit from this option.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is another example of doing subtitles really well. The text is, again, large and readable, and also has a black outline around white text to prevent the subtitles from blending in. But the game takes subtitles above and beyond by including numerous customization options. The subtitles in Origins are already well done by default, but if the player wants, they can make some changes, like adding the speaker name to the subtitles, or a black box around the text for additional contrast. The game lets the player take control of the subtitles and decide for themselves what works best for them.
Both of these games show that we as an industry has come a long way in terms of designing subtitles, and accessibility in general, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
Customization options are becoming more common but they’ve yet to be the norm. They’re great because we hand power to the player to control how they want their subtitles to appear and what works best for them. Something we can add to this would be including a preview within the menu itself in order for players to get a look of how their customizations will affect the appearance of the text without having to go back into the game.
Placing the option to turn on subtitles before even reaching the main menu is another way to increase accessibility. Similar to how horror games ask to adjust the screen brightness before beginning the game, having an option to turn on subtitles means players don’t have to dig through menus to turn them on, and they won’t miss anything critical in the intro if the game starts right away before the player can even get to the menu.
Lastly, something we can add to subtitles is closed captioning. Why stop at just showing dialogue, when we can add closed captioning to alert deaf/hard-of-hearing players of things happening in their environment that they might not see. For example, let’s say there’s an enemy begins chasing the player from behind so they can’t see them, but their presence is made clear through sound effects. However, if you can’t hear them coming, the player is at a disadvantage. Having closed captions can remove that disadvantage and let players experience the game to the fullest.
In conclusion, game developers have to put the needs of the players first in every aspect of the game, and that includes subtitles. It’s important to remember that subtitles are a form of accessibility, and if they’re unreadable, it’s the same as them not being there at all. Having well-done subtitles can open up the game to more people and make a lot of difference for players, especially the ones who need them the most.