When it comes to video games, or really any kind of media, one thing many of us take for granted is being able to recognise a character’s face. For most people, faces are one of the key ways we recognise each other. If asked to describe a friend, you’d probably start by describing their face, as faces contain a lot of identifying features. But, for some people, recognising faces is either difficult, or in some cases impossible.
Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is a condition that can be inherited, or develop after a head injury, and occurs in around 2.5% of the global population to some degree. For people with the condition, the area of the brain that specialises in recognising and remembering faces doesn’t function correctly, resulting in an inability to recognise people based on their faces. They can still use other regions of the brain that recognise more general complex patterns, but faces specifically can take a long time to recognize, if the person can at all.
Today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk a little about Prosopagnosia. We’re going to talk about aspects of game design that can help make characters recognisable to those with the condition, we’re going to talk about settings which can help players recognise characters by means other than their faces, and we’re going to talk about existing accessibility settings which can help players to keep track of who is who in scenes.
For many people living with Prosopagnosia, due to their difficulty recognising faces, a series of other aspects of a person or character are often important in helping place who a person is. For some living with the condition, faces are recognisable only if seen in a familiar context, meaning that interactions with a person in an unexpected setting or at an unexpected time may prove difficult.
So, how can game designers make their games more accessible to players with prosopagnosia? Well, before we look at dedicated accessibility settings, there are some overall design considerations to keep in mind that may help.
If there is an NPC in your game who always can be found in a certain location, and they show up out of the blue as a surprise, bear in mind that this will for many be a key cause of them failing to recognise that character. Notice these moments, and make sure you make them a priority with any support measures you work on.
Similarly, if identifying features of the character have changes, such as them arriving to meet you in a wildly different outfit to usual, this may be particularly tough for players with prosopagnosia to recognise. Even just changing a character’s hairstyle or having their face get dirt on it can make them much tougher to recognise.
When thinking about accessibility support for those players, these are some of the kinds of situations you should be particularly aware of. Moments where the character’s non facial appearance has changed considerably, or where you wouldn’t expect to run into that character.
In terms of character designs, many people I spoke to with Prosopagnosia noted that diversity of character designs, outfits, and exaggerated appearances all add towards making games more accessible to those with the condition.
Games with unrealistic cartoonish art styles often allow for more exaggerated differentiation between characters, which means there is less reliance on complex facial recognition to recognise a character. Does your character have an easy to recognise silhouette? Huge unique hair? Do they always appear dressed in a big trench coat? Do they always strike a pose when entering the scene?
For players with prosopagnosia, it’s going to be much easier to recognise the difference between two exaggerated anime characters, of differing heights and neon hair colours, than it is to recognise who is who in a game full of realistically modelled 30 year old white men with short brown hair and stubble.
And, even if your game is going for a more photorealistic art style, body type, age, gender and skin tone diversity all really help make your characters more recognisable for players with face blindness. Diversity of cast is already a great thing, but this is an added benefit to overall industry trends towards diversity.
Basically, diverse casts are easier to tell apart, cartoonish exaggerated characters are easier to tell apart, character design changes may make characters tougher to recognise, and seeing a character outside their usual setting may make them tougher to recognise.
So, with the general design thoughts out the way, now’s the time to talk about specific settings that developers can include in their games to help players with prosopagnosia recognise characters within play.
When it comes to making characters easier to recognise for players with face blindness, one of the most simple yet important things game developers can do is provide multiple ways for the player to check the character’s name in real time.
There are several ways you can do this, some of which already exist in games, and some of which are ideas for the future.
Some games, such as The Last of Us 2, include options to include speaker names in subtitles, so that the player can check at a glance who the character currently speaking is.
Other games, such as Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney, allow the player to pause the action, and look up a glossary that includes faces, names, and short bios of who the character is. This can be done at any time, which is important for keeping track of who characters are.
It’s also important that, if your game doesn’t contain something like a real time accessible glossary, that you make your game pausable easily during things like cutscenes. As a last ditch effort, allowing the player to pause at least allows them to pause and google a character name or list of characters with images on their phone to keep track of.
Other options games could implement that would help players with prosopagnosia include settings to place character names above their heads in scenes, similar to how Cyberpunk 2077 places overheard lines of NPC dialogue above character heads in the game’s open world, having a dedicated subtitle option that simply shows character names and bios when they enter a scene, or offering players the ability to show character names when looking directly at or mousing over a character.
Other possible options which can help include flashbacks in story modes when a character is reintroduced after a long absence to remind the player who they are and when they were last important to the plot, or glossaries where players can pause and read about the character and remind themselves who they were and what their significance was.
Lastly, one other accessibility setting that is accidentally useful for players with face blindness is dedicated volume mix sliders. Players who struggle to recognise faces can sometimes find voices more memorable, and as a result may wish to turn non dialogue volume down, so they can more clearly hear the differences between speakers, and recognise characters that way.
When it comes to supporting players with prosopagnosia, the solutions are pretty easy to remember. The more diverse and less realistic your characters are, the easier they will be to recognise. If you introduce a character who hasn’t been around for a while, or is in a new setting, or a new outfit, make a special effort to remind the player who they are. Give players options for seeing character names, pausing, and ideally checking character names, bios and images in an accessible pause menu. Let players turn down non dialogue volume, and do as much as you can to help characters be recognised without relying on their faces.
Face blindness is more common than most people realise, and a lot of the tips for helping those players keep gaming simply rely on you remembering not everyone recognises a face as quickly as you might.