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

A few years ago, London-based deaf and hard of hearing teacher Cameron Akitt was invited to Playground Games to attend a workshop on the upcoming Forza Horizon 5. Over the course of two days, he interacted with numerous designers. in the Playground about his experience playing games with subtitles and subtitles in video games.

At some point during the workshops, he gave feedback that he never expected to see implemented. He suggested that Playground could go beyond subtitles and captioning and include American Sign Language and British Sign Language as supported languages ​​in their game.

“Subtitles and captions are fine,” Akitt says to IGN. “But if you use sign language as your first language, if you are deaf and culturally deaf, and your family members are deaf and you only sign, then English is your second or even third language, and reading in your second or third language is a debilitating experience. At the best of times, and if that’s the only way to enjoy the game, then it’s not peak enjoyment.”

Akitt tells me that when he first mentioned this Playground, he understood that it was a kind of pie in the sky, an unlimited budget, like a magic wand. He went home after the workshops and didn’t think about it until about two years later he got an email from Playground. He was implementing a feature he proposed in Forza Horizon 5 and the team wanted him back as a consultant to help bring it to life.

Now, on March 1, Akita’s proposal is finally being implemented. Forza Horizon 5 will receive a free in-game update that adds ASL and BSL language support to all cutscenes, and actors from the deaf and hard of hearing communities will appear on screen to fully caption scenes.

Speaking to IGN along with Akitt, Forza Horizon creative director Mike Brown said that their conversations with Akitt “lit the lights” for the Playground. “As an English language user, I have always assumed that subtitles are the solution to this problem,” he says. “And it was only from talking to Cameron that I learned that subtitles are a solution, but not the best solution.”

So Brown did. He approved the feature “very early” in Forza Horizon 5’s development, initially thinking the team would enable it at launch as a language option like any other. But actually implementing this feature proved more difficult than Brown expected.

It wasn’t that the actual technology for implementing a person signing a game reel was complex, Brown explains. Actually, this part was easier than he thought. Instead, the numerous challenges that Playground had to overcome in order to implement this feature came about almost entirely because it is one of the first, if not the first, video game developers to attempt to implement such a thing on such a scale.

Since no one had done it before, there were no pre-made processes, people, or pipelines, as is the case with other language variants. Everything Playground did—finding actors, hiring consultants, translating English scripts into ASL and BSL, and so on—involved building every system and connection from scratch.

“No one provides this service to offer sign language for video games. We had to create all these relationships ourselves.”

“If, for example, we wanted to add an additional spoken voice language to the game—let’s say we wanted to add Hungarian as a voice language—there are companies that provide this service,” Brown says. “There will be people to whom I can pay a certain amount of money, send them all my dialogues, and get back the translated dialogues. That’s all.

“No one provides this service to offer sign language for video games. And so we had to create all these relationships ourselves. We had to find these interpreters… we had to make all these relationships, make all these contacts, find people who could provide us with a sign language actor or a sign language interpreter, and build it. I think we were the first to do it.”

This was one complication. The other was that the translation from English to ASL and BSL is by no means a direct 1:1 translation. As Akitt explains, ASL and BSL have their own grammatical structures, which are influenced by facial expression, lip pattern, and body language in the same way that spoken words are affected by the tone of voice. All this must be taken into account when interpreting the scenario.

And this is even more complicated in video games, where scripts written for spoken language dialog cannot always be effectively translated into ASL or BSL. According to Brown, there were several lines where what the game was asking the player to do was not immediately obvious in the written English script, meaning that the intent had to be explained to a sign language translator so they could then translate effectively. And Akita adds that it’s gotten even more complex with some more video game-specific concepts and terms.

Forza Horizon 5 ASL/BSl Screenshots

“Vocabulary already exists in oral languages, so if you translate from English to French, French will have an equivalent word or an equivalent idiom that expresses this concept,” Akita says. “Generally speaking, there is so much new vocabulary in video games that you have to think about how you are going to express something. You need to come up with signs, agree on what they will be, connect with community members, see what they sign, to try to come to a consensus.

“When Overwatch came out, my dear friends and I loved it, but we needed to agree on signs for maps, characters, ultimate abilities, Overwatch league teams, and everything else. So we are physically harmonizing a lexicon in BSL that never existed. And that takes time.”

And then – yes, there was more! – There is an additional complication of  Forza Horizon 5 being set in Mexico, with Mexican terms and phrases interspersed in spoken and written scripts. “How do you sign Mexican vocabulary in English?” Akita asks. “Do you sign the Mexican word with an English sign or translate it directly? So many nuances.”

One notable option I asked Akitt and Brown about was to keep the implementation of sign language in cutscenes – you won’t see an on-screen translator signing radio dialog while you’re driving. Brown admits that technical limitations affect this, but both he and Akita agree that even if they could intelligently add something, it wouldn’t really be all that helpful for players who might accidentally crash into anything while trying to watch the game. interpreter.

The main thing is the cool novelty we have in our campaign and availability; they are equally important.

But Brown says it’s okay.  The dialog during normal gameplay is written to be irrelevant in the first place – just in case the player, regardless of language choice, drives off a cliff when this happens.

“I already have philosophical views on the type of messaging with players in different scenarios,” Brown says. “So when you’re actually driving, I’m already writing down phrases like, ‘Great job. You’re doing great!”… rather than “Hey, you need this particular thing right now”, because when you’re in control and trying to play the game, even as an English-speaking user who can hear that dialog, normally, it’s still a  problem. “.

Brown mentions that the main reason this feature was made possible for Playground was that accessibility was one of the main pillars of Forza Horizon 5’s development from the very beginning. If sign language interpretation was an afterthought or something that was suggested and merged towards the end, this might never have happened. But because Playground asked these questions very, very early on, it had time to gather resources, talk to numerous consultants, and dedicate energy, time, and budget to it, along with other important accessibility features.

“When something is the backbone of a game, that is, as the word implies, the supporting structure of that game that we can’t cut out,” says Brown, “we can’t get to the point where it’s become a little too expensive, and we can’t do it anymore. These are things that the leadership team has determined are critical to the game and therefore the team must support them.

“Another example of this is our Expeditions, which is one of our key new campaign features, one of the best and most fun experiences you get when you play the game. This is a key initiative for the game. And when you put accessibility next to that and say, “These are two things that are equally important to the game: the main, cool new thing that we have in our campaign, and accessibility. They are equally important.” He then sets the tone for the team and sets expectations for what we have in mind.

“It’s not something we do because it sounds a little nice and it’s a little good news. It’s a thing because we really believe it’s really important to the game and very important to our players. And that’s how I tell my team to think about it.”

“It’s not… a Playground Games secret. We want it to be in as many games as possible.”

With so many challenges to overcome and a feature coming tomorrow, Brown is very optimistic that the next time his team or anyone else wants to do something like this, it won’t be that hard because Playground has already laid the groundwork. He says that with the network of connections, it has become much easier to communicate with the right people and ensure that sign language is still included in future updates. And while he can’t confirm plans for future games on either the Playground or, more broadly, Xbox, he encourages any developer or publisher that wants to do something similar in their games to give him a call.

“We’ve laid the groundwork here, and we’ve made a lot of those connections, and we’re ready to help any developer who needs help with that too,” he says. “I think we will pick up the phone and provide all the information that we learned. It’s not something we consider a Playground Games secret that we want to keep to ourselves. We really want this to be in as many games as possible. And we will help in any way we can.”

Akita told me that he is looking forward to hearing feedback from deaf and hard of hearing players about this feature and what the community thinks of it. “I think this is going to be a really helpful tip for both Playground and any studio looking to the future and thinking, ‘We’d love to do something like this.’ Who can we talk to in the community and what feedback do they have? It’s like any design, it’s a process of iteration and it can only get better.”

Brown adds that over the course of development, he found that his own way of interpreting sign language in Forza Horizon 5 had changed. According to him, initially, he treated it as a language variant, like any other. But now he sees it as a function of inclusiveness as well.

“This allows people who use gestures as their first language to feel like they are represented in the game in the same way that people of different nationalities are represented in the game. [or] people with prosthetic limbs can represent themselves in the game,” he says. “People who speak sign as their first language feel that the game is for them. They are included in this game and they are featured in the game. And that’s something I actually found very powerful.”

Rebecca Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.


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