It’s not that hard to understand the plight of the deaf gamer – just try playing Dead Space with the sound turned off.
EA’s new sci-fi horror game is a showcase for big-budget production values, seething with smoky atmosphere and gory detail – all in the service of scaring the shit out of you. It’s obvious that the publisher spared no expense. EA produced a comic book series. It released an animated movie prequel. It localized for Polish speakers. Step onto the deck of USG Ishimura without the aid of headphones or speakers, however, and the game falls apart. Without sound, you don’t hear music cues, the swell of dissonant strings that alerts you to danger. Without sound, you don’t hear the monster leaping out of the ventilation duct behind you. Without sound, you don’t hear the whiz of passing poison darts, much less where they’re coming from.
Dead Space without sound is fundamentally broken. Carefully crafted moments of tension and release are replaced by endless frustration. The game becomes nonsense, a disconnected mess of monster muggings and seemingly random events. For many people with partial or total hearing loss, this is what it’s like to game today. Though hearing players may not often notice, the leaps in graphics technology developers have made over the past decade have been accompanied by similar leaps in audio. And with every passing year, as clever game designers seek ways to remove clutter from the display, more important gameplay information moves off the screen and into the soundscape. Though these innovations create a more engrossing and immediate experience for most of us, the deaf are pushed further out of our ranks.
How can modern, sound-dependent games like Dead Space be made accessible for the deaf? It’s not a hard problem to solve. Back in 2004, a ragtag group of unpaid amateurs figured it out in their free time. Well, not entirely amateur – the group was led by Reid Kimball, currently a game designer with Buzz Monkey Software in Eugene, Oregon. Kimball has partial hearing loss and had, over the years, grown tired of the increasing obstacles placed in his path when gaming. He wanted to create a closed-captioning system for games, a system that would subtitle not just the dialogue, but all the sounds in a game that convey important information. The trouble was, he couldn’t find a team of people to help. That help eventually came from an unlikely source: a message board flame war.
“Somebody had started a conversation about how Doom 3 wasn’t subtitled at all, and they wondered if somebody could help,” says Kimball. “People started posting on the board with really insensitive, nasty things, saying that deaf people shouldn’t be playing Doom because Doom is all about sound and atmosphere.”
The incident motivated Kimball to get the ball rolling, and the anger stirred up in the thread helped him recruit programmers. “Pretty soon we got other people from all over the world who wanted to help out with the mod,” says Kimball. id Software, the game’s developer, obliged the mod team with dialogue scripts and lists of sound files. In the end, the system Kimball and his global teammates devised was simple: Text files associated with important sounds popped up with the audio, color-coded to distinguish between speech and sound effect, aggressive threat and ambient spookiness. To deal with the lack of echolocation, the team created a radar system that tracked monsters as blips. A game that was once unapproachable for deaf players was now completely accessible. The mod was a hit. “The response has been really amazing,” says Kimball. “I would estimate that it’s gotten over 20,000 downloads. I haven’t gotten one negative e-mail.”
So if a team of amateurs can do it, why isn’t closed captioning an industry standard? For the most part, the issue flies under the radar. “What I’ve found is that developers aren’t doing this out of pure intent,” says Kimball. “They’re just not aware of it.” Besides his normal game design duties, Kimball is also a member of the Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, which promotes game accessibility for the disabled as part of the International Game Developers Association. Over the years, he’s spoken to many developers about the frustrations of deaf gamers. People are listening. In September, mega-publisher Ubisoft announced that it would include subtitles in all in-house games. It’s not full captioning, but it is a first step.
One company, however, is ahead of the curve. Valve Software, makers of the Half-Life series, made closed captioning standard in all it games with the release of Half-Life 2. Kimball interviewed series scribe and sci-fi author Marc Laidlaw about the process in 2006. “After [the original] Half-Life shipped, I started getting a trickle of letters from deaf gamers pointing out that scenes reliant on audio were completely incomprehensible to them, and I felt terrible,” says Laidlaw. “I went to Jay Stelly, one of our chief programmers, and he explained that it was not at all a hard problem to solve and that it made sense to solve it right away.” The system Valve ended up with employed full closed-captioning, and was integrated into the Source engine, the heart of all of Valve’s games. “The expense of doing it was very small and there was no negative aspect to it,” says Laidlaw. “The embarrassing thing is that it never occurred to us until after we had shipped the first Half-Life.” All told, creating the captioning system took Valve about two weeks.
People can have all kinds of disabilities that keep them from gaming. They can lack the muscle coordination to press buttons. They can have no hands at all. They can have weak or colorblind sight. They can be blind entirely. How can game developers ever hope to make games truly accessible to all? Kimball believes it’s possible. “I feel like closed-captioning is solved,” says Kimball. “No one really has to invent or be innovative in that space, so we can move on to other areas like mobility or sight. I feel like we can just concentrate on one area at a time until we solve it. It’s like this with everything in game development. A few years ago, normal mapping was a huge challenge. Now it’s in every game. It’s standard. I think eventually we’ll get there.”
Robert Ashley is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.