When watching TV here in the UK, usually early in the morning or late at night, you might notice that publicly funded TV channels are required to include a certain number of hours of programming including a British Sign Language interpreter on screen.
While broadcast TV requires sign language interpreters to be available for certain programming, that standard is very rarely applied elsewhere. Most streaming TV networks offer closed captions, and the video game industry is slowly getting better at offering subtitles that meet appropriate levels of quality, but sign language interpreters are very rarely offered as standards across the board for content.
That is why it came as a pretty big surprise last week when it was announced that Forza Horizon 5 would feature on screen sign language interpreters, in multiple languages, in game rather than just subtitles, a first for a major AAA video game release.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about the addition of sign language interpreters to Forza Horizon 5, alongside the game’s other accessibility options. We’re going to talk about why a deaf or hard of hearing player might benefit from having a sign language interpreter rather than just on screen subtitles, the hurdles in adding sign language interpreters to a game, and why it’s not great that sign language is being treated as a nebulous post launch extra.
Let’s start off by talking a little bit about sign languages, for the uninitiated. Sign Languages are not a monolith, and vary country by country. Just because two countries feature similar spoken and written languages doesn’t mean their sign languages are the same, or similar.A great example of this is American and British spoken English are nearly identical, but American Sign Language has more in common with French Sign Language than British Sign Language, including totally different alphabets. They feature regional dialects and slang that vary by region, the same way spoken and written languages do.
While most deaf or hard of hearing sign language users can read and write the primary written language in their country, for most it’s essentially a second language. This is because most sign languages differ in sentence structure, grammar rules, and use of terms to their counterpart written languages. Subtitles are functional, but can in some cases take a little longer to read and process than sign language, which can be a problem when subtitles have to follow the pace of the story being told.
Additionally, sign language conveys a lot of tone, emotion, and pacing that are not conveyed in subtitles alone. Subtitles and closed captions will tell you the words being spoken, or the sounds made, but often not the nuances of those.
The reason why sign language interpreters are so valuable is they are in many cases not only easier to follow for deaf or hard of hearing users, but also convey more information than subtitles alone.
So, why do video games not incorporate sign language interpreters more frequently? Well, firstly, as we addressed above, there are a lot of different sign languages, basically as many as there are spoken languages. As a result, adding sign language interpreters to your game basically doubles the number of localisations needed for each country you release your game in. Ideally this should be something we factor into AAA game development costs, but it’s a daunting proposition for many developers, and until we have an example of our industry doing so successfully, and being praised for doing so, it’s likely a hard sell to the people signing off on expenses.
Additionally, video games have the additional issue of lacking fixed camera angles, or fixed dialogue interactions. In most video games you can skip dialogue, walk away from someone mid sentence, walk in on someone having a background conversation, or make choices that branch dialogue. Where TV sign language interpreters can work to a set script, video game developers have yet to ask questions about how they will handle these unique aspects of video games. The answer might be to have hard cuts if a player skips a line of dialogue, or only subtitle cutscenes, or to have a priority system for which conversations get an interpreter vs subtitles. These are questions game developers are going to need to work out through experimentation.
So, with all that groundwork out the way, let’s talk about Forza Horizon 5. Last Friday, the game’s developers Playground Games announced that the game was going to feature support for in game sign language interpreters.
Coming as part of a post launch update, the game will support showing a picture in picture sign language interpreter on screen during cutscenes, with American Sign Language and British Sign Language supported.
While it is fantastic to see a game developer finally take the step to add sign language support to a AAA video game, their implementation comes with issues. As we mentioned before, sign languages are as varied as spoken languages, and while this is a wonderful step forward, it’s a real shame the game won’t support nearly as many languages for sign language users as it does for hearing users. In a perfect world, you should be supporting this feature for the primary sign language in each country you have a spoken and written localisation for.
Additionally, sign language support will only exist during cutscenes. This means that, during gameplay segments, players will still have to rely on written subtitles. Again, I am glad the support is coming, but we would hope to see games do better in future.
Lastly, sign language interpreter support is not available on launch day. This may seem minor, but every other one of the game’s supported languages, and accessibility settings, is available in the game at launch, with no firm date for sign language interpreters given beyond “coming soon”. This makes the addition of sign languages feel like an optional afterthought, rather than something the developers considered as integral as other accessibility and localisation additions.
This was also made worse by the fact sign language support was given a big press push by the developers on Friday, when the game was only available as an expensive early access release, several days before the game was released on Game Pass. This caused multiple deaf and hard of hearing players I know to purchase the game rather than wait for the Game Pass release, excited about this accessibility feature, not realising it wasn’t yet available to play. While the Microsoft blog post and some press coverage mentioned the feature was coming soon, it was usually as a footnote addition rather than part of headlines. While this is not entirely the fault of the developers, the information was out there and available, it not being front and centre I can anecdotal say caused a few purchases from players excited to try out some uncommon for gaming accessibility support.
Quickly moving on from the game’s upcoming sign language support, I did want to quickly rattle off some of Forza Horizon 5’s other accessibility settings support that is available day one.
Forza Horizon 5 features a multitude of difficulty tweaking accessibility settings, ranging from the skill of AI enemy drivers, to the quality of your own car’s handling, to the ability to rewind gameplay and retry segments of a race without penalty.
In tourist difficulty, if you fall a long way behind the pack, cars will slow down dramatically until you are able to catch up, regaining speed once you’re back within a competitive distance of them.
The game also features sliders for colour blind filters, and a high contrast UI, but it’s not possible to preview the strength of colourblindness filter you have applied from within the starting accessibility menu. Colourblind filters can be applied to the game itself, or the UI, separately or as a pair. High Contrast mode is supported for UI, but not for in game visuals.
Subtitle text size and background opacity are customisable, but again without previews of the changes within the menu.
Text size in menus can be increased, and this can be previewed inside the menu itself.
Moving video backgrounds can be swapped out for static images.
When playing offline, you can reduce the speed at which in game cars move, to make it easier to maneuver. This is controlled with a slider, and can be reduced down to 40% of the default game speed. The music and voice lines will still play as normal. Car movement in cutscenes will be unaffected, but as soon as you have control of the car it will move more slowly.
You can also increase how long notifications appear on screen.
The HUD is highly customisable, allowing for choices between visual style and clearer information display, and inputs can be remapped, including things like customising deadzones.
And, lastly, the game features a variety of highly detailed options for altering the balance of game audio.
Overall I am really happy with Forza Horizon 5’s day one accessibility offering, and the fact we’re seeing a AAA game step up to the plate and try to incorporate sign language interpreters is exciting, but that optimism isn’t going to stop me being critical of the execution.
If you’re going to include sign language support in your game going forward, you should make it just as much of a priority to have it ready for release day as other localisations you implement, or other accessibility features you have ready for launch day. You should really support more sign languages than just ASL and BSL if you support more spoken and written languages, and it would be worth trying methods of adding that support outside of cutscenes as well.
But, still, this is an exciting step forward for our industry. Sign Language not only aids in the speed with which some people can follow a story, but also helps give additional context that can make the story more engaging. Right now we’re working on seeing proper subtitles as standard, but the idea that sign language interpreters might one day become commonplace in video games is an exciting future to look forward to.