How Playground Created Forza Horizon 5’s Breakthrough Sign Language Support

A few years ago, a teacher for deaf and hard of hearing children in London, Cameron Akitt was brought to the Playground Games to participate in a workshop for Forza Horizon 5. Over two days he spoke with many designers. . in Playground about his experience playing games with video game subtitles and subtitles.

At one point during the seminars, he gave a piece of feedback he never expected to see implemented. He suggested that Playground could go a step further than subtitles, and also include American Sign Language and British Sign Language as supported languages ​​in their game.

Akitt told IGN: “There are subtitles and captions. “But if you are a first sign language user, if you are culturally deaf and have a hearing impairment in your family and you only know sign, then English is a second or even a second language. your dad, and reading in your second or third language is a grueling experience at the best of times, and if that’s the only way you can enjoy a game, it’s not exhausting. enjoy the peak. “

Akitt told me that when he mentioned it to the original Playground, he understood it as some kind of heavenly, unlimited budget, magic wand hint. He came home from the conference and didn’t think much of it, until about two years later he received an email from Playground. It’s rolling out his proposed feature into Forza Horizon 5, and the team wants him back as a consultant to help make that happen.

Now, on March 1st, Akitt’s offer has finally come to fruition. Forza Horizon 5 will receive a free in-game update that adds ASL and BSL language support to all of its cutscenes, with actors from the deaf and hard of hearing community appearing on screen. picture to sign the full scene.

Speaking to IGN with Akitt, Forza Horizon creative director Mike Brown said that their conversation with Akitt “turned the light on” for Playground. “As an English speaker, I always thought that subtitles were the solution to that problem,” he said. “And it was only from talking to Cameron that I learned that subtitles are a solution, but not the best solution.”

So Brown committed. He teased the feature “very early” in the development of Forza Horizon 5, initially thinking the team would include it at launch as a language option like any other. . But in practice, the implementation of this feature proved to be more complex and difficult than Brown had ever expected.

Brown explains that the actual technology of performing a signer through the game cutscene isn’t as challenging. Actually, that part was easier than he thought. Instead, the many challenges Playground had to overcome in order to implement the feature almost entirely because it was one of the first, if not the first, video game developers to try and end it. fit something like that on this scale.

Because nobody has done it before, there are no processes, people, or pipelines like there are with other language options. Everything Playground did – find actors, hire consultants, translate English scripts to ASL and BSL, etc – involved building every system and connection from scratch.

“Nobody provided that service to provide sign language for video games. We had to create all of those relationships ourselves.”

“For example, if we want to add another voiceover language to a game – say we want to add Hungarian as a voiceover language – companies exist to provide that service,” Brown said. “There will be people for whom I can pay a certain amount, send them all my conversations and get the translated conversations back. And that’s it.

“No one provides that service to provide sign language for video games. And so we had to create all those relationships ourselves. We have to find those interpreters… we have to make all those relationships, make all of those contacts, find people who can provide us with a sign language actor or information. sign language interpreter and build it. I think we are the first to do that.”

That is a complication. Another problem is that translating English to ASL and BSL is not a direct, 1:1 translation by any means. As Akitt explains, ASL and BSL have their own grammatical structures that are affected by facial expressions, lip pattern, and body language in the same way that your speech is influenced by tone of voice. All of those things have to be taken into account when interpreting a script.

And that becomes even more difficult in video games, where scripts written for conversation in a spoken language may not necessarily translate efficiently to ASL or BSL. Brown says that there are some lines the game requires players to do that are not immediately obvious in the English text, meaning the purpose needs to be explained to a sign language interpreter so they can then can be translated effectively. And Akitt adds that this gets even more complicated with some video game-specific concepts and terms.

Screenshot of Forza Horizon 5 ASL / BSl . On-Screen Interpreter

“With spoken language, vocabulary already exists that if you translate from English to French, French will have an equivalent word or an equivalent idiom expressing this concept,” says Akitt. “Again, in video games, there’s a lot of new vocabulary so you have to think about how you’re going to say something. You need to show signs, agree on signs, check with members of the community, see what they are signing to try and reach consensus.

“When Overwatch came out, me and my deaf friends loved it, but we had to agree on the markers for the map, for the characters, for the ultimate abilities, for the alliance teams. Overwatch and everything. So we’re physically agreeing on a BSL vocabulary that never existed. And that takes time.”

And then – yes, there’s so much more! – there’s the added complexity of Forza Horizon 5 set in Mexico, with Mexican terms and phrases interspersed in the spoken and written script. “How do you sign Mexican vocabulary in English?” Akitt asked. “Do you sign the English accent of the Mexican word or do you translate it directly? There are many shades. ”

One notable option I asked Akitt and Brown is to keep the sign language implementation for the cutscenes – you won’t see an on-screen interpreter sign radio dialogue while you’re driving. Brown admits there are technical limitations to that, but he and Akitt both agree that even if it was something they could reasonably add, it wouldn’t really be useful to the player. , who might accidentally hit something when trying to see the interpreter.

The main, new thing we have in our campaign and accessibility; they are of equal importance.

But Brown says it’s okay. The dialogue delivered during normal gameplay is written as unimportant from the start – in case the player, regardless of their language choice, is driving off the cliff when it happens.

“I have had philosophical views on what kind of messages are sent to players in different situations,” says Brown. “So when you’re actually in control of the car, I’ve got scripts ready for things like, ‘Good job. You are doing great! ‘… not, ‘Hey, you need this particular thing right now’, because when you’re in control and actually you’re trying to play the game, even as a language user You can hear that dialogue normally, it’s still a challenge. ”

Brown mentions that the main reason this feature was usable for Playground in the first place is that accessibility has been one of the core pillars of Forza Horizon 5’s development since its inception. . If the interpretation of sign language had been an afterthought or something suggested and put together near the end, it might never have happened. But because Playground asked these questions early on, Playground had time to gather resources, talk to multiple consultants, and spend energy, time, and budget on it and features. other important accessibility.

“When something is the mainstay of the game, which is, as the word suggests, a support structure of this game that we just can’t cut out,” Brown said, “we just can’t get to the point. which it’s a bit too expensive and we can’t do it anymore. Those are the things that the management has determined are important to the game and therefore the team must work towards it.

“Another example of that is our expeditions, which are one of our major new campaign features, one of the best, most fun experiences you’ll ever have playing through. That’s the main initiative of the game. And when you put accessibility alongside that and say, ‘Here are two things of equal importance to the game: the main, new thing that we have in our campaign and reach. They’re equally important.” Then it sets the tone for the group and sets expectations for what we want to say.

“This isn’t what we’re doing because it sounds a bit cool and it’s a good news story. That’s one thing because we really believe it’s really important to the game and it’s really important to our players. And that’s how I tell my team to think about it. ”

“This is not… a Playground Games secret. This is something we want to have in as many games as possible.”

With so many challenges passed and the feature continuing to roll out tomorrow, Brown is optimistic that the next time his team or anyone else wants to do something like this, it won’t be too late. difficult because Playground laid the foundation. With a network of connections, he says, it’s much easier to talk to the right people and ensure that sign language continues to be included in future updates. And while he can’t confirm plans for future games at Playground or more broadly at Xbox, he does encourage any developer or publisher who wants to do something similar. in their game call him up.

“We’ve been successful here and we’ve made a lot of these relationships, and we’re here to assist any developer who needs help with this,” he said. “I think we’ll pick up the phone and we’ll give all the information we’ve learned. This is not something we consider a Playground Games secret that we prefer to keep to ourselves. This is something we want to have in as many games as possible. And we will assist in any way we can. ”

Akitt told me he’s looking forward to seeing other deaf and hard of hearing players’ feedback on the feature and the community that created it. “I think that would be really helpful feedback for Playground or any studio that looks into the future and thinks, ‘We want to do something like this. Who can we talk to from the community and what response did they have? ‘ It’s like any design, it’s an iterative process and can only get better.”

Brown adds that, during development, he noticed that his own view of Forza Horizon 5’s interpretation of sign language had changed. Initially, he said, he treated it as a language choice like any other language choice. But now, he considers it also an included feature.

“It allows people who use sign as their first language to feel like they are represented in the game in the same way that people of different ethnicities are represented in the game, [or] people with prosthetics can represent themselves in the game,” he said. “People who speak sign as the first language feel as if the game is for them. They are included in this game and they are represented in the game. And that’s something that I actually find very powerful. “

Rebekah Valentine is an IGN news reporter. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine. How Playground Created Forza Horizon 5’s Breakthrough Sign Language Support

Fry Electronics Team

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