Understanding the Process Behind Creating and Designing Subtitles in Video Games

A small look behind-the-scenes of subtitle creation and design in video games, and a look at how much time they take up in the developmental timeline.
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Being deaf, I’ve often made jokes about bad subtitles that are too small to read. Just in the past few years we’ve seen a few examples of how games have stumbled when it comes to implementing proper subtitles, such as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus with its tiny subtitles that blend, or walls of text in Fallout 4. But deep down, hidden by my humor, is a part of me that feels devastated that a game I’ve been really excited to play is going to be awkward to enjoy properly. Maybe I’m unable to see the tiny text from the couch, maybe that text blends into the darkness, or maybe there are no subtitles at all.

The point is, being deaf, I’m physically unable to follow instructions or a story that everyone else can follow easily. It isn’t just me: there are other gamers out there who struggle just as much with a range of reasons for desiring decent subtitles in video games. Yet subtitles are still a feature in video games that seem neglected, not only leading to upset consumers, but even a loss of sales.

Since the news broke about Activision’s statement regarding the lack of subtitles in Toys for Bob’s Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I’ve felt obliged to keep the conversation going, largely due to the public’s reaction, but also due to my own interest on the topic. The day after that statement was made, I looked at why the backlash that Activision received was an important discussion, with several players speaking out about why subtitles are important to them.

Scattered around the replies from players on our tweet, there were people with experience in subtitle creation joining in with the discussion. Having read these comments, I had started to feel like the process to create subtitles could be easy and simple, which would not only give both Activision and Toys for Bob a bad image, but one that came across as both insensitive and lazy.

I wanted to find out more about subtitle creation and see how difficult it truly is because I’m both genuinely interested in learning about the process and also want to share with readers what the subtitle creation process entails during the development of a video game. With Spyro Reignited Trilogy’s lack of cutscene subtitles during gameplay as the main point of discussion, I consulted with various developers at companies of various levels to find out how the process works globally.

These conversations began with Todd Colby, who originally voiced his opinions on Activision’s statement through Twitter in response to my news post on Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Colby previously worked as a UI artist at Telltale Games and 343 Industries and agreed to answer some questions I had. I started by asking him how subtitles were discussed among his teams and what the process was behind creating them while at both Telltale Games and 343 Industries:

He also explained that players should be given the opportunity to alter subtitle sizes and that the text should have an outline of some sort to stand them out from a bright background. This is something I agree with wholeheartedly. Life is Strange 2 totally surprised me (in a good way) at first when I performed my usual ritual of booting a new game up and locating the options to turn subtitles on. Instead of a simple on/off switch, I was presented with several options for text sizes, and even the type of background I wanted to see against the text.

From these conversations with developers at various levels, it’s clear that subtitle implementation is a fairly well-documented and straightforward process that is seen as a standard by most studios. Both the Unity and Unreal engines have plenty of methods to create subtitles quickly and easily and, providing you have a script, I can only assume the process is even more simple.

While Activision’s comments are what initially sparked my investigation, other large companies do still fail to implement subtitles nicely. Bethesda, as an example I noted earlier, has had terrible subtitles in most of their games like Fallout 4. Despite some of the less effective implementation of subtitles in some AAA releases, it’s also good to see that subtitles are usually quite well-discussed through many development teams. Discussions on font styles, borders, backgrounds, and more have come into the conversation, as they should.

It’s a shame that subtitles still aren’t largely adjustable for individual players, but we’re starting to see that change with recent titles such as Marvel’s Spider-Man, Madden NFL 19, Life is Strange 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, and God of War. All of these titles are introducing tons of accessibility options that allow you to choose a text background, speaker names, and (sometimes) the ability to change text sizes.

Some of these have launched with the accessibility options intact, while titles such as God of War had to implement options through a patch after players addressed them being too small. Hopefully, this post-launch approach for accessibility will also be the case with Spyro Reignited Trilogy as with Activision’s comment that they “care about the fans’ experience especially with respect to accessibility for people with different abilities, and will evaluate going forward” being a good sign.

It’s safe to say that subtitles are actually deemed an important part in video games, and developers do actively discuss how they look, and if they are serving their purpose well. It’s also incredibly important to remember what Todd Colby said regarding them often being pushed aside to fix game-breaking bugs and for us to continue to discuss how important of a feature they should be in the game development process going forward. However, it’s still always a punch in the gut when a game launches with terrible subtitles, or no subtitles at all, forcing players that need them to wait until a patch comes.

Ben Bayliss :Based in the UK and adores venturing through FPS horrors and taking photos in pretty much anything with a functioning photo mode.