What I’ve Learned About Game Design as a Hearing Person Rating Deaf Accessibility
When we launched our Deaf game review site, OneOddGamerGirl, I assumed it would be a fun hobby that maybe would help a few Deaf and HoH gamers not buy games that hadn’t taken their needs into consideration in the design process. Our process was simple — Susan (who is Deaf) would get a game and play it for a while, I’d watch and then I’d play the same part of the game and we’d compare notes on what she found difficult to see if it was due to something she couldn’t hear.
I could not have imagined that five years later, we’re still at it, still finding the same problems in nearly every game we review, and I’m still learning how to do my end of the job more effectively.
In that time, I’ve learned a few things that, if every person and studio making a game took into consideration, our job of reviewing Deaf accessibility would become unnecessary.
Sound design is everything and nothing
Not many games rely heavily on just their sound design to immerse players in their world and convey the mood of the game. The few that do? They can easily fall flat for Deaf players.
The games Below and Gris are prime examples of this. Both games are visually stunning with novel gameplay. And they are vastly different games in terms of art, story, and mechanics. What they do have in common is that they are much easier for a hearing person to get into than a Deaf person, due to so much of the mood being set by either sound effects or music.
Neither game has voiced dialogue, so no subtitles to provide Deaf players with a story. In both, you play as a lone wanderer traversing beautifully crafted worlds. In both, the player is largely left to create their own meaning and story. In both, the sound makes this easy to do.
The sound effects of Below, a dungeon crawler survival game, set the mood of being alone and noticing things that make it a bit eerie, leaving the player wondering if they’re about to die alone in a dark cave. A loud clap of thunder, the subtle sounds of water dripping from a cave ceiling, the swoosh of the player character’s sword cutting down a monster or grass. It all works together to put hearing players in the mindset of being alone and a little worried. The problem? None of this is conveyed visually (save for the rare occasion you’re out of a cave and the thunder is paired with lightning) so Deaf players are left with a tiny character to control in a huge world of tiny things around them with no reason to care about why they’re doing what they’re doing because nothing immerses them in the game.
Gris was a similar experience, though for very different reasons. I would liken Gris to playing an opera. People go to the opera for the sound of it, not to watch a good play, no matter how beautiful the set and costume design are. The watercolor world of Gris is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played and the music, for me, was what made it so satisfying and left me feeling connected to the character as I moved her through the different puzzle levels of the game. All of the story, the feelings of loneliness, sadness, grief, it’s all conveyed through the music and no matter how pretty the game is to look at, lacking the immersion and mood set by the music, the game can be very difficult for Deaf players to get into.
Is this to say that games with no spoken/text-based story are bad games? Of course not. This is simply to say that if your goal is not to craft a game world completely reliant on sound design, it’s essential to take into consideration how you visually represent the sounds in your game, which leads me to my second point…
If it’s important enough to provide sound for, it’s important enough to caption (or provide a visual indicator for)
This seems like a simple rule to follow but it’s one so often overlooked. And it applies to both sound effects and spoken dialogue. In open world FPS games, a very common problem we come across when reviewing them is the presence of gunshots somewhere in the distance telling me where not to go if I don’t want to get into a gunfight. More often than not, this subtle sound isn’t given a visual indication until you’re too close to the enemy to avoid getting into that gunfight. This applies to any kind of enemy and it’s a major issue in survival horror games.
The subtlest of sounds give cues to hearing players concerning where they should and shouldn’t go, whether they should hide or run for their life.
I’ll use in-game snakes as the best example of this problem. Every single time I come across a snake in, say, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Far Cry 5, I am made aware of its presence in plenty of time to either avoid it or find it and kill it before it can strike at me. How am I made aware of it? It either hisses or rattles. Snakes are an enemy type that is nearly impossible to see in games because they’re so good at hiding because, well, they’re snakes and that’s what they do. So even Deaf players who have much more finely tuned visual awareness than I do fall victim to the surprise snake attack.
Far Cry New Dawn is, to the best of my knowledge, the first game to remedy this snake issue, thanks to its sound subtitles telling players as soon as the snake makes a noise alerting hearing players to its presence. The sound subtitles of Far Cry New Dawn have made the game more immersive and survivable than any previous FC game and it’s a feature every game needs to adopt to provide for better Deaf accessibility. I encourage you to try playing either of these games with the sound off to see how well you fare against the snakes, however…
Playing a game with the sound off is not a suitable replacement for Deaf accessibility testing
After losing much of my hearing because of meningitis last year, I can safely say Deaf and hard of hearing people move through the world very differently than hearing people. I’m learning to be much more visual than I was before both in real life and in video games. I’m discovering the subtle vibrations all sounds make that I’d never have noticed before I lost my hearing. I am adapting to being unable to hear well by learning to pick up on things using other senses in ways I never needed to before and would have never really known how to rely on before.
This is to say, if you are hearing, you don’t really know what to look for in Deaf accessibility. I’ve been rating Deaf accessibility in games for five years and I’m still learning new things every time I write a review.
The other problem with simply turning the volume off on a game and deciding the Deaf/HoH accessibility is good enough? If you made the game, chances are you know it inside and out. You know when to anticipate an enemy (or a snake?) and because you designed the game (or have been looking at it every day for three years) you know what’s hiding in every inch or your game world, so just as I have learned to use other sources of knowledge when moving through the real world because I can’t rely on my ears anymore, a game developer already has that knowledge, at least as it pertains to their game, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.
Subtitles are everything for story and worldbuilding
(Spoilers for RDR2 below)
Towards the end of RDR2, I came to a point in the game where I had to pause the game so I could go cry my eyes out. We were fleeing what would be our last camp, running from the people that had been chasing us throughout all 60+ hours of the campaign and they got my horse. In a cutscene, Arthur thanks and says goodbye to his beloved companion. I lost it. Having spent the last 60+ hours watching Arthur bond with and praise his horse, I knew how much he loved her. I knew how much I loved her after all those stick presses to max out our bonding level which would cause Arthur to say some version of “That’s my good girl!” as he patted her on the neck or gave her a snack. Arthur was more affectionate toward his horse than he was his human companions, so that single moment, after hours and hours of building it up, was such a perfect moment in the story and in Arthur’s character for me.
For Deaf players? Not so much. Susan saw me blubbering over the loss of my horse and asked me what was wrong with me, insisting it really wasn’t that deep because during her playthrough, her horse had served as nothing more than a vehicle that moved too slow and she had to maintain far too often. Everything that I’d experienced that made my horse special and left me crying over her death? Absent from the game for Deaf players because Rockstar didn’t subtitle all the instances of Arthur praising and bonding with his horse.
It’s a similar story for Far Cry 5 and New Dawn (can you tell where I’ve spent most of my time lately?) In both games, I have a favorite gun for hire. Grace in FC5 because of her bad jokes and very odd callouts. “Still alive!” she shouts as we’re running through a field, not near anything dangerous and not doing anything in particular. In New Dawn, Hurk Jr. is my favorite thanks to his hilariously inappropriate comments about nearly everything Cap does. My affinity has very little to do with the abilities of each companion. If I like their personality enough, I’ll overlook what might be a less than helpful rocket launch when I’m trying to be stealthy.
When watching me play FC5, Susan asked me why in the world I always chose Grace as my sidekick because she found her to be slow and not really that helpful, as once she’s shot one enemy, the whole world is alerted to your presence. To say she was annoyed when I told her I liked Grace not because of her abilities but because of her dialogue is an understatement. Why? Because all of the amusement I was getting from Grace’s random chatter Susan was missing out on because it’s not subtitled. That’s when I was given the job of companion interpreter for her playthrough.
But you can see all that immersive worldbuilding and story I get simply because I’m a hearing player that makes me enjoy a game that much more, too often Deaf players miss out on completely. Now that I’m serving as companion interpreter, I’m told it feels like an entirely new game with more meaning, more at stake, that she wants to spend more time in.
All of these elements combine to make or break a game for Deaf/HoH players and they’re all seemingly simple things that people don’t seem to notice until they’re explicitly pointed out to them. Take these few points into consideration when making a game and you’re opening it up to a whole new market in a whole host of new ways that just might earn you a new fan for life.
Originally published at www.caniplaythat.com on February 27, 2019.