When Forza Horizon 5 launched in 2021, our accessibility review saw the game as the most accessible in the series, but there was a planned feature missing from its launch. Speaking to Can I Play That in an interview about how the studio made accessibility a key project initiative, it was noted that Forza Horizon 5 was still yet to get sign language interpreters in an upcoming update, a first for the industry.
Can I Play That sat down once again to talk more about the feature with Mike Brown, creative director for Forza Horizon 5, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, and Cameron Akitt, a hard-of-hearing consultant who helped inspire the idea. We wanted to know more about how the idea came about, how it’s implemented, and why it’s a useful feature despite subtitles existing.
Cutscenes For Control
With the Forza Horizon 5 sign language feature launching on March 1, “it will just be for cutscenes only,” Brown tells us, “and there are a few reasons for that.”
Some of these reasons include technical and some of them design — one example of that is that gameplay can be quite taxing finding players driving at high speeds.
Brown details “as a general rule, we keep all of [gameplay] dialogue to be supportive,” with audible dialogue praising the player, “it’s never telling you what you have to do or really expanding the story and important way.”
Brown says that dropping important story beats in the middle of “what can be quite challenging gameplay” can be missed, and that “we as designers would not have a guarantee that players have really heard it, understood it, registered it. Whereas our cutscenes, of which there are several 100 in the game, that’s where we expand the story.”
Brown tells us that the feature does come with some customization available, allowing the position to be changed, and whether to have a background or no background behind them depending on the user’s preference for readability.
Additionally, the interpreters do a lot of “role shift” Akitt explains, revealing that the interpreters will physically shift to face another side to visually indicate when another character is talking should there be more than one during a scene.
“There isn’t really any. super-secret technology involved in it,” Brown explains when talking about the technical implementation of these overlaid interpreter videos, “Obviously, we’re playing a video and that has a file size, and there are bandwidth requirements in order to play that, which again is one of the reasons why it’s simpler to do that if it’s over a cutscene because it’s a controlled environment.”
Having this feature available during in-game driving with all dialogue, or even being online can mean that there are, “performance factors that may mean that having to then lay over a 70MB video on top of it that could cause technical issues.”
Brown highlights that having the Forza Horizon 5 sign language interpreter appear during cutscenes “isn’t that complicated.” However, “the challenge with this feature, I think, lives in that space of the actual logistics of capturing, interpreting the testing, and making sure it’s nothing has got lost in translation”
To elaborate, “having a talented actor to perform [the interpretation], having an interpreter in the session to read the English script, interpret that for the actor, and then have the actor perform it back and then for us or our testers to be able to look at that and check that it’s performed in an appropriate way.”
With the challenges focused around the process of capturing the sign language for Forza Horizon 5, Brown talks about how there isn’t really a company set up that specializes in providing interpretation for video games. “There isn’t someone that we can just go to and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got 6000 lines of script that we need to be translated into BSL, can we have it back in three weeks please?’ That doesn’t exist in the same way that it does for [localization].”
Brown explains, “we’ve had to go and build those relationships, find those actors, and find a recording studio that could have this setup that would allow us to do it. Because of that, it needed to be later on in development, we needed our script to be locked, recorded 100%, and not going to change before we commenced with this.”
Casting The Actors
When asked about how many interpreters are available throughout the game, we were told that there is one for BSL, and another for ASL. However, sometimes in a video game’s life, issues may arise with dialogue, perhaps problematic language, perhaps an error, and so we asked what happens should lines of dialogue be rewritten and replaced, would that same actor need to be available for consistency?
“That would be our default position, we want to keep the actors the same, and that’s true of all of the actors in the game,” Brown states.
Of course, there are moments where actors may leave the video game scene, leave the acting scene, or even, as Brown chuckles after assuring us it’s real, “[Travel to] India to start a yoga school.” In this case, actors are recast, but the general view is that “we want to have continuity with those actors, even in future titles.”
An Inclusive Sprint Started It All
Early in the game’s development, an Inclusive Sprint led by Xbox Game Studios accessibility lead Tara Voelker, saw Akitt invited to Playground Games. Akitt looks back on the experience and tells us that the invite came about, “because I’m a hard of hearing gamer, because sign language is my second language, I’m an avid gamer, and I did games design at university.”
The experience saw designers and producers talking to Akitt in a room where “really frank, honest conversations” were had, where the team learned more about what life and playing a game as hard of hearing player is like.
When asked what Akitt would do if there was unlimited money, time, and a magic wand available, the response was, “well, put sign language in because there are a lot of deaf gamers who only use sign language, and for whom subtitles are not a cure-all, they don’t fix every problem.”
A couple of years later, Playground Games reached back out to reveal that the studio was actually implementing the feature, Akitt says that it was incredible and “super, super exciting,” to be able to go and see how it was put together.
Why Sign When Subtitles?
When the feature was announced in 2021, outlets reported on it, but many social comments were confused about why it’s needed, especially given how the game has subtitles. Akitt explains that “I think it comes from a place of, well ignorance, but also just never having met deaf and hard of hearing people. I think what hearing people don’t tend to realize is. If you are like big D deaf, if your family is deaf, if you go to a deaf club and deaf school and you use BSL as your first language, that means English is probably a second, or maybe even like your third language.”
Having Forza Horizon 5 including sign language shifts the effort required to enjoy the medium, Akitt explains, “It’s tiring, being deaf and hard of hearing at the best of times. You’re constantly straining to listen, to focus, and to filter out background noise, and then to be looking at subtitles while you’re driving a car, and you know, all this stuff is tiring.”
Akitt continues, “If you can alleviate some of that burden for a deaf gamer whose primary language is sign language, then I think you’re going to enhance their ability to just enjoy that experience, which I think is really important.”
Lay-Flurrie highlights that we as a society have to appreciate that for many deaf people, sign language is their first language, and “captioning will never convey the complexity, semantics in motion, density that comes from sign.” They continue, “Captions puts the words on the page, it doesn’t convey any of that beauty.”
Important Feedback on Sign Language Rules
Another thing we saw when the Forza Horizon 5 sign language feature was announced was a few people raising concerns about interpreter clothing-to-skin contrast. The example video that was released to the public showed a white person wearing a white top, and some comments noted a rule regarding an interpreter wearing a contrasting top to improve readability, an example of that rule can be found on eTranslationServices and notes that interpreters “have to follow specific guidelines of behavior and appearance.”
“I work with interpreters every day at work, I’m a teacher of the deaf, I work with deaf children with lots of deaf colleagues,” Akitt explains, saying that there are rules such as, “never stand in front of a window because you become a silhouette and it’s hard to see your lip patterns. try and reduce the amount of visual noise of what you’re wearing.”
The challenge Akitt explains is that for the deaf and hard of hearing community, these standards are a given and second nature such as decluttering the table and removing visual barriers to provide more visual lines for lip reading and reading sign language.
“But like Mike was saying earlier, there isn’t really a service which offers this consultation, this localization, this support, to games studios,” he explains. “so that infrastructure and that knowledge kind of isn’t readily available and until you start to try it and delve into it.”
While the comments raise valid concerns, Akitt mentions, “I think it’s been nice seeing that kind of feedback because it shows that this is actually a very important topic to the deaf and hard of hearing community. I think that kind of feedback super, super useful for anyone going forward because that body of knowledge that we have isn’t widely known, and unless we kind of speak up, no one will know it and appreciate it.”
New Windows Into The Games Industry
While the logistics of the feature were highlighted by Brown earlier, we asked about whether it could be a feature achieved by other studios. The general understanding was that while it’s been proven to be possible now, the logistics surrounding it are time-intensive and subject-knowledge intensive. Akitt notes that what’s needed now is for “people in the industry with this subject knowledge to be able to maybe help lead and facilitate these conversations and these features for other studios going forward.”
And should this feature, or similar become something implemented at other studios, this gives “more windows and opportunities into the games industry” Akitt says, “especially [those] with an accessibility background and even thinking of it more as translation and localization.”
Brown says, “If there are any other developers who want us to share some knowledge, then we’re available. I’ll pick up the phone. We will be happy to help any other developers with what we’ve learned,” and hopes that other developers “do follow our suits.”
“I almost feel like it’s a diversity and representation feature” Brown continues, “As creators, we make our game, we make our cast from a diverse range of backgrounds so that different people can play the game and feel like they’re represented within the game. And I feel like this falls almost into that category where people from the deaf and hard of hearing community feel like this is a game that’s for them that they can be represented in.”
This representation is certainly felt, and when asked if they hope that the feature will inspire others to learn ASL or BSL on account of it being represented well, Lay-Flurrie let out an excited “Yes!”
“I hope so. I think that this is going to be another really important step forward for deaf representation, for people to understand and see the importance of sign language for the deaf.” Lay-Flurrie continues, telling us that sign language is an important language and that it should be learned.
The hope is that players see this “not just as an option, but take it further and learn how to communicate with us or some deaf folk.”
Expanding The Feature
Brown’s comments note that the Forza Horizon 5 sign language feature works in the game’s cutscenes because they’re controlled environments. We wanted to know whether they could see the feature expand to other genres, or even during gameplay. Brown reiterates the design challenges from earlier, saying that it’s trying to decide on what to communicate to the players without overwhelming them.
“I think there’s probably a path that games need to walk over the next 5-10 years to get to a place where all of the things that are game is trying to say to its players can be passed and understood and recognized by all players,” Brown says, saying that Playground Games is going to continue to learn and improve.
Lay-Flurrie says that “[The feature is] providing equity, inclusion, and accessibility for deaf gamers out there and so I’m excited that we’re taking this step, but I’m in many ways more excited about what happens after this and how the industry learns from this, how we learn from this, and how we take it further.”
For Akitt, it will be “really, really interesting” to see how different genres and story-heavy games handle a feature such as this. “I think it’ll be interesting when the community kind of sits down and mulls this over and thinks about, going forward, what other options might be cool for developers to think about,” Akitt explains, “and how will that feedback on the actual design of these games and these experiences?”
“I think that conversation is going to be really, really important to have and will only lead to more interesting things coming forward.”
A Stance Changing The Industry
“The disability divide, that bar, and social equity/inequity are in every part of society, and digital technology can really help to bridge some of that,” Lay-Flurrie tells us. “If you take that, and then you appreciate that play is an important part of life, it’s a human right, it’s something we all need to do, and you combine those. I think it’s been incredible, humbling to see how simple steps forward like adding sign language into Forza Horizon 5 could open doors for people with disabilities.”
Lay-Flurrie sees this as the “tip of the iceberg of what’s possible” and asks for the gaming industry “to keep going,” and to “keep slamming open those doors” and continue to innovate, seeing closed doors as an opportunity to innovate. They note that companies should bring in people with disabilities to help, explaining that “we are the experts at the end of the day.”
“I’m so grateful to the accessibility experts out there, you’re teaching me, I’m learning from you. I think it’s a really exciting time for gaming accessibility.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.