By Melanie Ashford
When I sat down to play Horizon Zero Dawn, the first thing I did was check the menu and switch the captions on. It’s my favorite thing about gaming — accessibility is everywhere across the industry these days, and uncaptioned games are now a rarity. I suffer from moderate-severe hearing loss, and playing video games, even one as good as Horizon Zero Dawn, is a different experience for me than it is for hearing players.
Accessibility and Horizon Zero Dawn
Apart from the essential captions, numerous aspects of video games can be stumbling blocks for anyone with a hearing disability. I wear hearing aids in both ears and rely heavily on lipreading. The lipreading isn’t usually an issue, unless you play games with live actors, as lipreading computer-animations doesn’t really work. However, games without captions are inaccessible.
Horizon Zero Dawn didn’t disappoint on the captions front — the captions were precise, well-timed, and there were no gaps or out-of-sync moments. A pet peeve of hard-of-hearing gamers is asynchronous subtitles; they’re confusing, irritating, and often spoil chunks of a game. I can never decide whether the sections without captions are more upsetting than the sections that display the captions too early and ruin the storyline.
Another potentially surprising element to accessibility for hard of hearing gamers is the tinnitus issue. Many people with hearing loss suffer from ringing, buzzing, or whooshing in the ears. It’s usually caused by a lack of sound for the brain to process. Tinnitus affects around 30% of people with hearing loss, and for me, it’s a big problem. The one accessibility problem I had with Horizon Zero Dawn was the ambient background noise. I wish it worked for me, as the vibe it must have given the game would have been epic. However, I found the gentle nature sounds too quiet and wished there was at least an option for some louder background music. The problem with hearing loss is that too much quietness can cause tinnitus, and once it sets in, it’s hard to shake off. My audiologist helps correct my tinnitus by advising me to get as much sound into my ears as possible, so music, TV, the radio, anything to give my brain something to process.
Aloy’s Focus and Hearing Aids
One thing that drew me to Aloy was her Focus. As a hearing aid user, I developed a strong connection to the red-headed heroine because she was wearing an earpiece. I know it had nothing to do with her hearing and that Aloy isn’t deaf, but you never see video game characters with hearing aids or anything even remotely resembling them. Aloy’s earpiece made me feel seen, in however small a way. Finally, there was a game character who was a bit like me.
I loved that the Focus aided Aloy in navigating the world around her and how it helped her access information that would have been inaccessible to her otherwise. My relationship with my hearing aids is a bit like this — they reveal the world’s secrets, such as conversation, audio files online, and traffic sounds. They help me navigate my quieter, more muffled world in the same way that Aloy’s Focus lets her track animals and communicate with others.
Aloy’s earpiece made me feel seen, in however small a way. Finally, there was a game character who was a bit like me.
Many people choose to hide their hearing aids, but I have always worn mine with pride. They let people know I’m hard-of-hearing, which makes my life easier, and they work to enhance my life. I’m grateful for them, and they are my new best friends. Aloy forms a close connection with her Focus throughout Horizon Zero Dawn, and we see this tiny piece of metal slowly mean more and more to her.
[SPOILERS] The moment Aloy loses her Focus and has to watch it destroyed in front of her is one of my worst nightmares. The loss of one or both my hearing aids is a lot like losing one or both arms, or maybe a leg. They’re a part of me, a part of my body, and a crucial tool for my survival. Without them, I lose the ability to navigate and connect with others, just like Aloy did. [/SPOILERS]
Isolation, Loneliness, and Aloy
A big part of being deaf or hard-of-hearing is the isolation and the lack of human connection. Losing your hearing draws an impenetrable blanket between you and the rest of the world. Where there used to be conversations and laughter, now there are muffled sounds and confusion. Many people don’t have the time or the patience to try to communicate with me, especially on a long-term basis, and I spend a lot of time on my own as a result.
Aloy’s role as “other-than” in Horizon Zero Dawn is a lot like any disabled person’s story.
Aloy is ostracized from her tribe from the very beginning, and even when she earns her place in the tribe, she is forever seen as an outsider, as someone no one trusts or likes. My hard-of-hearing experience is a lot like this, and I always feel like I don’t belong. I don’t go to some events because I can’t hear while there, so it feels pointless going. Deafness and hearing loss are among the most isolating conditions, as it affects your basic communication abilities.
Watching Aloy find her place in a new tribe and create powerful connections with other characters is inspiring, but it was her loneliness that drew me to her. Aloy’s role as “other-than” in Horizon Zero Dawn is a lot like any disabled person’s story.
The concept of the Focus is a genius idea, and I identified with it on a level you wouldn’t expect. Aloy is an inspiration to me, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. With much of Horizon Forbidden West underwater, I wonder what that will reflect about the hard-of-hearing experience. As far as I know, I’m still not allowed to scuba dive because of my ears, but if Aloy can with her Focus, maybe there’s hope for me too.
Mel is a hard-of-hearing writer from Wales, UK. She lives with a French Bulldog and a tortoiseshell cat. @ashford_mel