Over the years of work, I have noticed an alarming trend — many otherwise capable subtitlers will often follow their client’s guidelines too strictly, almost dogmatically, without a real understanding of why those guidelines are the way they are and not knowing when to deviate from them to ensure the audience’s viewing comfort. This leads to countless subtitling errors, because no matter how robust and well-thought-out a style guide is, there will always be gaps in it, and so there’ll be moments when you need to make a judgement call based on your expertise rather than a written prescription.
In this new article series, I’d like to stress the importance of a thoughtful, intelligent approach to subtitling and to highlight some of those gaps, starting with arguably the biggest one.
At the same time, when given creative freedom, the most skilled and experienced subtitlers don't obsess over that number as much everyone else seems to believe, because they know just how unreliable it can be, for multiple reasons.
First of all, as I wrote in one of my previous articles, CPS and WPM consider only the volume of subtitle text but not its other properties, such as complexity or format. Unfamiliar words, tricky syntax, puzzling dialogue, italics and some other things will slow down your reading, and these two metrics simply do not reflect that.
Max Deryagin’s Subtitling Studio
What Video Game Subtitling Got Wrong In 2017
Over the last couple of decades, subtitles have become standard in video games. It’s difficult to find even a dozen of PC or console games that came out this year not subtitled. But despite the efforts of some great people — like the ones behind the Game Accessibility Guidelines — the situation is still far from perfect. Many issues remain, robbing players of the best gaming experience. So, I decided to write this article to highlight these issues and remind everyone why some widespread practices have to go.
Without further ado, here’s the list of my pet peeves in the video game subtitling of 2017:
1. Tiny font size
“What are these? Subtitles for ants?”
There’s an epidemic of microscopic subtitles. You will see them everywhere: from small indie games to high-budget bestsellers. Here, let me show you what I’m talking about:
(You can click on the image to expand it.)
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Star Wars Battlefront II
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Raid: World War II
Game developers make the font small for aesthetic reasons, to make their subtitles inconspicuous and thus help the immersion, but what they achieve is the opposite: the player has to focus extra hard on the text, which means more eye strain and more time spent reading the subs rather than viewing the image. And if you have less-than-perfect vision or a small (or high-res) screen, it becomes even worse.
Here’s an example of a good font size:
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
It’s unobtrusive and quite readable. Neat!
Ideally, the font size should be adjustable in the settings. If it looks like you can’t implement it due to the overlap with the in-game interface elements, that’s a good sign that the subs are not segmented right. With the line count and length in check, there shouldn’t be any overlap problems.
2. Extremely long lines
In film subtitling, we usually don’t go beyond 42 characters per line. This is for a number of reasons, one of which is to keep the text at a comfortable font size without running over the screen’s edges. Many game developers, though, have a different idea:
Call of Duty: WWII
Sniper Elite 4
Whether in a cutscene or during gameplay, these are plain hard to read, especially when there’s lots of action that you need to pay attention to.
Here’s an example of a good line length:
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
If you can keep the lines under 45-50 characters by splitting long sentences into two or more subtitles, that should do the trick. The goal here is to strike a good balance between the aesthetics and readability.
3. Too much text in one subtitle
When a sub is paragraph-sized, the player has to keep bouncing between the text and the image, lest they miss out on important visuals while reading. This, of course, is not ideal, but many games teem with subtitles like that:
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Outcast — Second Contact
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy
This approach is especially bad for fast-paced games. For example, in shooters you don’t have time for going back and forth between the sub and the image, because you have to focus on aiming your gun and scanning the interface elements (e.g. health points and minimap). So, in games like that the dialogue should be segmented into smaller, easily digestible chunks that the player can read and understand at a glance. The optimal character limit will depend on the game and its pacing.
In slower games long subs should be avoided as well, because they sometimes ruin the dramatic effect by spoiling what’s going to happen next on the screen.
4. Poor contrast
This is another issue that you’ll see everywhere. Also done for the aesthetics and also bad for the player. Want examples? I’ve got some:
Halo Wars 2
Need for Speed Payback
Agents of Mayhem
And again, if the game is highly dynamic, you don’t have much time to focus on the subs, so it can be really hard to keep up with them when the contrast is low. Let me demonstrate that in the video clip below. Try to pay attention both to the image and the text.
(The clips are muted to imitate not hearing the dialogue well, when you’d want to enable subtitles.)
Star Wars Battlefront II
Ridiculous, isn’t it? I can’t even read the text in time, let alone enjoy the scenery or concentrate on the action. And here’s an example of a good contrast:
The semi-transparent box makes the text visible at all times and doesn’t harm the visuals.
Now, it can be any contrast mechanic, not necessarily the box, just make sure the player doesn’t have to squint to see the text. Or, better yet, include several options to choose from in the game’s settings.
5. Arbitrary line breaks
Line breaks are a big deal in film subtitling. We know from surveys and experiments that ideal breaks — the ones that lead to the best reading experience — should be at natural points in the dialogue. However, it’s hard to find a single game that follows this practice:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Evil Within 2
Why is this the case? Well, it’s because most video games are programmed to make the text jump to the next line upon reaching the subtitle box’s edge. And that’s that — no linguistic considerations.
Now, doing line breaks the right way is a lot of work, mostly due to the fact that they follow slightly different rules in different languages. So, the localization process becomes trickier. Plus, it requires additional coding — and from the devs’ perspective it’s more resources to invest for no apparent benefit. But the benefit is definitely there, the evidence is solid, so I think it’s absolutely worth it.
Here’s a game that’s got decent breaks:
Now, Knack II doesn’t have perfect breaks, but at least it respects punctuation marks such as dashes, commas, full stops and so on. This alone makes its lines a lot better than those in 99% of the games released this year.
The same idea applies to segmentation between subtitles: it should follow the natural flow. However, subs like this are quite common (note the orphan “I”):
As you can imagine, these don’t lead to comfortable reading.
6. No minimum gaps between subtitles
Outside the game industry, most subtitling style guides prescribe to leave a small gap between subs that cover continuous dialogue — usually around 100 to 200 milliseconds. This is to ensure that the viewer’s peripheral vision doesn’t fail to register the arrival of a new subtitle, which might happen if the previous one had a similar shape. With the gap, subtitles flash to inform you that you need to focus your attention on the new text, so that you don’t miss it.
Let me demonstrate. The clip below has no gaps. Try to focus on the visuals:
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Could you see all the subtitles the moment they appeared on the screen? Or did you miss a couple? Well, I certainly missed one or two, and if the pace of speech was higher, I might not have had the time to read the text before it disappeared from the screen. Subtitles in video games largely ignore minimum gaps, and I hope it’ll change in the future.
7. Wild presentation rate
Yeah, in some games subtitles run too quickly, and there’s just not enough time to read them. Here, try these:
South Park: The Fractured but Whole
Quite a challenge to keep up, isn’t it? And it’s even more challenging for those who read slower than average: the dyslexic, born deaf, non-native in the subs’ language, etc.
Now, the unfortunate truth is, it’s not always possible to tame the presentation rate. The text must be verbatim, as per the industry standard, and if the characters talk a mile a minute and the game is action-packed, no amount of timecoding magic will help. It’s a design flaw rather than a subtitling one.
What you can do, however, is fix the other issues that make the text harder to read — the font size, contrast, line breaks, segmentation, minimum gaps, etc. — and that might be just enough to make the subtitles readable for the players. Plus, when it comes to localization, you can condense the dialogue lines where needed, which might require a change in the workflow and even hiring professional subtitlers for the task.
8. No features for the deaf / hard of hearing
The deaf and hard of hearing have very limited access to the audio portion of the game, which means they need additional information in subtitles: the speaker’s name, sound cues and direction of off-screen audio — when these can’t be identified visually. This is not only to be able to fully enjoy the game but also, in some cases, to be able to progress.
Here’s an example. In Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, when you venture outside the house after killing the chainsaw boss, you see a travel trailer. So you enter it, take a good look around, pick up some items, save the game and then, when you open the door to leave, the phone inside the trailer starts ringing — one of the game’s characters wants to give you important instructions:
So, what do you do as a hearing player? You turn around and take the call. And as a deaf player? Unable to hear the phone, you leave the trailer and wander around for a couple of hours, trying to guess what the hell you’re supposed to do now, until you either figure it by sheer chance or give up and go on the internet to find out. Pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Well, this game actually has a setting for enabling the phone icon, but many other games have nothing, and in such genres as horror, puzzle and adventure, sound information can be essential to your progress or survival. But, sadly, sounds and their direction are rarely subtitled.
Indicating the speaker — by name, color, icon or character portrait — is equally important, since it’s not always obvious from the visuals and the context who’s talking. For instance, in Nier: Automata there are two main characters: you control one of them and the other follows you everywhere. They often chat, but because there’s no speaker indication, as a hard-of-hearing person you often won’t know who says what. It’s quite confusing at times.
Now, in some cases these features can also benefit people without hearing loss — like when they’re playing in a noisy room or with the volume on low — but we know from player feedback that not everyone wants this information in their subtitles, so there should be an option in the settings to turn it on and off.
9. Other issues
While analyzing subtitles in several hundred video games for this article, I came across some rare, sporadic issues. Here’s a quick list of them:
No minimum duration;
Subtitles not in sync with the audio;
Subtitles cover important parts of the interface;
Poor positioning of subtitles (e.g. at the screen’s very edge or near the center);
Game not subtitled partially or entirely (discounting the VR games, since we have yet to figure the best approach for them).
There were also exotic, one-of-a-kind issues, but those are not worth mentioning.
Well, for now this is it. Let’s see what changes in 2018! And, as always, if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to leave a comment below!
Update: Thanks to everyone for such massive support! If you’re a dev looking to make great subs for your game, check out the article’s Reddit thread with lots of valuable player feedback!