subtitles
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Subtitles in video games: yes or no? Do players use them?

Throughout my gaming journey, I’ve encountered numerous instances where subtitles, an essential feature for understanding game narratives, have been poorly implemented or completely neglected. The issues range from their complete absence to a host of other problematic aspects.

Firstly, I’ve often found that many games simply do not offer subtitles. This is not just an annoyance but a significant barrier to understanding and appreciating the game’s storyline. The lack of subtitles can be a significant roadblock, especially when in-game dialogues get drowned by ambient sounds, music, or combat noises.

Moreover, even when subtitles are available, they are often barely distinguishable from the gameplay background due to a very thin black outline. This lack of visual contrast makes it difficult for players to read the text without straining their eyes, significantly diminishing the gaming experience.

Size adjustability is another critical feature that many games seem to neglect. In some instances, the text is so small that I’ve found myself squinting just to read it. Subtitles should be a tool to facilitate understanding, not an element that forces players to strain their eyes during gameplay.

How often players turn on or off subtitles?

Game TitleSubtitles Default SettingPlayer Interaction with Subtitles
Assassin’s Creed Origins (2018)OFF~60% of players used them
Far Cry New Dawn (2019)ON~97% of players didn’t turn them OFF
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2019)ON~95% of players didn’t turn them OFF
The Division Game 2 (2019)OFF~75% of players turned them ON at least once;
~50% still have them ON
Subtitles in video games made by Ubisoft

The tweets also highlight an interesting point made by David Tisserand, that “Subtitles matter to everyone“. He encourages the industry to adopt best practices regarding the use of subtitles in games. It’s clear from the data provided that a significant portion of the gaming community appreciates and uses subtitles.

Game TitleSubtitle Usage
Sniper Elite 595%
Lego Star Wars: Skywalker Saga95%
Guardians of the Galaxy97%
Data on other games I’ve found

Video games subtitles in game design

Moving on, there’s also the common issue of game designers prioritizing “stylish” fonts over readable ones. It might look cool, but it often comes at the expense of legibility. In such cases, deciphering the subtitles can become a challenging game in and of itself!

The problem doesn’t end there. Many times, subtitles lack background opacity, making it harder to distinguish them from the gameplay background. This lack of contrast can make it nearly impossible to read the text, especially in fast-paced or visually complex scenarios.

Another key issue is the lack of speaker indication in the subtitles. Without indications like “Anna: The place is quiet,” compared to just “The place is quiet,” it can be hard to follow who is speaking, particularly in games with numerous characters or complex plots.

Furthermore, I’ve encountered subtitles that span three or four rows, creating an information overload. This makes it challenging to keep up with the text while also trying to focus on the game, thereby breaking immersion.

Unfortunately, these problems persist even in re-released versions of games. For instance, Halo 2 Anniversary on PC includes subtitles in cutscenes but neglects to offer them during gameplay, which is when players arguably need them the most. Similarly, Borderlands 2’s subtitles, while present, are too small and can extend up to three or four rows, making them challenging to read in the middle of the game’s visually busy scenes.

The worst offender in my experience has been Assassin’s Creed 1, which had no subtitles at all. This omission was particularly painful given that AC1 has a very engaging story that is often drowned out by music, background noise, and monotone voice acting. The lack of subtitles forced me to resort to reading the story on the wiki, depriving me of the in-game storytelling experience.

While many gamers may not care about subtitles or captions, for those like me who have difficulty hearing or who are deaf, they are indispensable. The lack of quality control and standardization of subtitles in video games is a glaring issue that needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, the standard for subtitles has improved in recent years, with many modern games rectifying the issues I’ve mentioned. However, many older titles, particularly from the 2000s and early 2010s, still suffer from these problems.

How to have great subtitles in your game?

Ubisoft’s data from aboce shows that 95% of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey players and 75% of Division 2 players prefer to keep subtitles on, emphasizing the importance of high-quality subtitles in enhancing game experience. To ensure your players don’t miss out on anything, there are ten golden rules of video game subtitles to adhere to.

  1. Avoid using translation software like Google Translate for localizing your game’s content. Instead, work with a team of translators who understand the industry, target markets, and local gaming culture.
  2. Keep your text lines narrow and short, given that translations can result in a text expansion of up to 300%. Short lines cover less of the screen and make reading more comfortable for players.
  3. Stick to standard sentence case instead of using all caps, which can be seen as a sign of bad manners or “shouting” in many cultures. It also ensures easy readability for the average player.
  4. Change fonts for different languages as your default font might not look good or even be legible in all languages. This makes the game enjoyable for all players, irrespective of their language.
  5. Use captions to source dialogue lines so that players can easily tell who is speaking, which prevents confusion during dialogues with multiple characters.
  6. Centre-align your subtitles for easy readability and to minimize obscuring crucial visual elements.
  7. Include important non-speech sounds in subtitles. These are vital for players who play without sound or are hard-of-hearing, as it helps them understand what’s happening in the background.
  8. Ensure subtitles accurately reflect what players hear. Often, voiceover artists improvise dialogues, which can lead to differences between the spoken dialogue and the subtitles. These differences, even if minor, can be annoying for players.
  9. Make it easy for players to switch subtitles on and off as per their preference.
  10. Localize slang in subtitles, which helps maintain the game’s atmosphere while making the conversation easy to understand for international gamers.

In conclusion, while not every gamer may require or appreciate subtitles, for many of us, they are essential. Subtitles enhance our understanding and appreciation of a game’s narrative, and developers need to ensure their quality and accessibility. As players, we deserve a gaming experience that considers our needs and respects our accessibility requirements.

About the author

Tom Henry

I worked as a PM in video games, now I'm trying some new things.

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