On March 1, Forza Horizon 5 will receive a free in-game update adding ASL and BSL language support to all of its cutscenes, with actors from the deaf and hard of hearing communities appearing on screen to sign the scenes in full. We spoke to the team about the difficult, rewarding process of...
A few years ago, a London-based teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, Cameron Akitt was brought to Playground Games to participate in a workshop for the in-development Forza Horizon 5. Over two days, he spoke to numerous designers within Playground about his experience playing games with subtitling and captioning in video games.
At one point during the workshops, he gave a piece of feedback that he never expected to see implemented. He suggested that Playground could take a step beyond subtitles and captions, and include American Sign Language and British Sign Language as supported languages within their game.
“Subtitles and captions are okay,” Akitt says, speaking to IGN. “But if you are a sign language-first language user, if you are deaf and culturally deaf and your family's deaf and you only sign, then English is your second or even your third language, and reading in your second or third language is an exhausting experience at the best of times, and if that's the only way you can enjoy a game, then it's not peak enjoyment."
Akitt tells me that when he originally mentioned it to Playground, he understood it to be a bit of a pie-in-the-sky, unlimited budget, magic wand type of suggestion. He went home after the workshops and didn’t think much of it, until around two years later he got an email from Playground. It was implementing his suggested feature into Forza Horizon 5, and the team wanted him to return as a consultant to help make it happen.
Forza Horizon 5 ASL Sign Language Feature Clip
Now, on March 1, Akitt’s suggestion is being realized at last. Forza Horizon 5 will receive a free in-game update adding ASL and BSL language support to all of its cutscenes, with actors from the deaf and hard of hearing communities appearing on screen to sign the scenes in full.
Speaking to IGN alongside Akitt, Forza Horizon creative director Mike Brown says that their conversations with Akitt “turned on a light” for Playground. “As an English first language user, I'd always just assumed that subtitles were the solution to that problem,” he says. “And it was only from speaking to Cameron that I learned that subtitles were a solution, but were not the best solution.”
So Brown committed. He greenlit the feature “very early on” in Forza Horizon 5’s development, originally thinking the team would include it at launch as a language option like any other. But actually getting the feature implemented proved to be more complex and difficult than Brown ever expected.
It wasn’t that the actual tech of implementing a person signing over a game cutscene was challenging, Brown explains. In fact, that part was easier than he thought. Instead, the numerous challenges Playground had to overcome to implement the feature came up almost entirely because it's one of the first, if not the first, video game developer to try and incorporate such a thing at this scale.
Because no one’s done it before, there weren’t processes, people, or pipelines in place already as there are with other language options. Everything Playground did – finding actors, hiring consultants, interpreting English scripts into ASL and BSL, and so forth – involved building every system and connection from the ground up.
"Nobody is providing that service to offer sign language for video games. We had to create all of those relationships ourselves."
“If, for example, we wanted to add an additional spoken voiceover language to the game – let's say we wanted to add Hungarian as a voiceover language – companies exist in order to provide that service,” Brown says. "There'll be people that I can pay a certain amount of money, send them all of my dialogue and get back translated dialogue. And that'll be it.
“Nobody is providing that service to offer sign language for video games. And so we had to create all of those relationships ourselves. We had to find those interpreters… we had to make all those relationships, make all those contacts, find people that could provide us with a sign language actor or sign language interpreter and build it out. I think we were the first people to do that.”
That was one complication. Another was that translating English into ASL and BSL isn’t a direct, 1:1 translation by any stretch. As Akitt explains, ASL and BSL have their own grammatical structures that are influenced by facial expressions, lip patterns, and body language in the same way spoken words are influenced by tone of voice. All that must be taken into account when interpreting a script.
And that’s made even more difficult in video games, where scripts written for spoken language dialogue might not necessarily translate effectively into ASL or BSL. There were a number of lines, Brown says, where what the game was asking the player to do wasn’t immediately obvious in the written English script, meaning the intent needed to be explained to a sign language interpreter so they could then translate effectively. And Akitt adds that this became even more complex with certain more video game-specific concepts and terms.
“With oral languages, the vocabulary already exists that if you're translating from English to French, French will have an equivalent word or an equivalent idiom that expresses this concept,” Akitt says. “In sign, in video games so much of the vocabulary is new, that you have to think about how you're going to express something. You need to come up with signs, agree what the signs are going to be, check in with the members of the community, see what they're signing to try and get a consensus.
“When Overwatch came out, me and my deaf friends loved it, but we had to agree on signs for the maps, for the characters, for the ultimate abilities, for the Overwatch league teams and everything. So we're there physically agreeing on a lexicon in BSL that's never existed. And that takes time.”
And then – yes, there was more! – there’s the added complication of Forza Horizon 5 being set in Mexico, with Mexican terms and phrases interspersed in the spoken and written scripts. “How do you sign the Mexican vocabulary in English?” Akitt asks. “Do you sign the English sign of the Mexican word or do you translate it directly? There's so many nuances.”
One notable choice I asked Akitt and Brown about was keeping sign language implementation to cutscenes – you’re not going to see an interpreter on-screen signing the radio dialogue while you’re driving. Brown admits there are technical limitations influencing that, but he and Akitt both agree that even if it was something they could reasonably add, it wouldn’t actually be that useful to players, who might accidentally crash a car into something while trying to watch an interpreter.
The main, cool new thing that we have in our campaign, and accessibility; they are of equal importance.
But Brown says that’s okay. The dialogue delivered during regular gameplay is written to be inconsequential in the first place – just in case a player, regardless of their language choice, is driving off a cliff when it happens.
“I already have philosophical views about the type of messaging given to players at different scenarios,” Brown says. “So when you are actually driving the car, I already keep the scripts down to things like, ‘Great job. You're doing great!'... and not, ‘Hey, you need this specific thing right now,’ because when you're in control and you're actually trying to play the game, even as an English user who can hear that dialogue normally, it's still a challenge.”
Brown mentions that a key reason this feature was possible for Playground in the first place was because accessibility has been one of the core pillars of Forza Horizon 5’s development since the start. Had sign language interpretation been an afterthought or something suggested and thrown together near the end, it might never have happened. But because Playground was asking these questions very, very early on, it had the time to gather resources, speak with numerous consultants, and devote energy, time, and budget to it alongside other critical accessibility features.
“When something is a pillar of the game, that is, as the word suggests, a supportive structure of this game that we can't cut,” Brown says, “we can't get to a point where it got a little bit too expensive and we can't do it anymore. Those are things that the leadership team has defined as being of critical importance to the game and therefore the team has to get behind it.
"Another example of that is our expeditions, which are one of our key new campaign features, one of the best, most fun experiences you have when you're playing through the game. That's a key initiative for the game. And when you put accessibility next to that and say, ‘These are two things that are of equal importance to the game: the main, cool new thing that we have in our campaign, and accessibility. They are of equal importance.’ Then it sets the tone for the team and it sets the expectation of what we mean.
“This isn't a thing that we're doing because it sounds a bit nice and it's a little bit of a good news story. It's a thing because we actually believe it's really important to the game and it's really important to our players. And that is the way that I tell my team to think about it.”
"This is not... a Playground Games secret. This is something that we want to be in as many games as possible."
With so many challenges overcome and the feature on its way tomorrow, Brown is very optimistic that the next time his team or anyone else wants to do something like this, it won’t be nearly so difficult, because Playground has already laid the foundation. He says that with a network of connections in place, it’s already been much easier to talk to the right people and ensure that sign language continues to be included as a part of future updates. And while he can’t confirm plans for future games either at Playground or more widely at Xbox, he encourages any developer or publisher who wants to do something similar in their own games to call him up.
“We've broken ground here and we've made a lot of these connections and we are available to assist any developer that needs help with this as well,” he says. “I think we will pick up the phone and we will provide all of the information that we've learned. This is not a thing that we consider a Playground Games secret that we want to keep for ourselves. This is very much something that we want to be in as many games as possible. And we will assist in any way that we can.”
Akitt tells me he’s looking forward to seeing what feedback other deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers give on the feature, and what the community makes of it. “I think that'll be really useful feedback either for Playground or any studio that looks into the future and thinks, ‘We'd like to do something like this. Who can we talk to from the community and what feedback do they have?’ It's like any design, it's a process of iteration, and it can only ever get better.”
Brown adds that, over the course of development, he found that his own perspective on Forza Horizon 5’s sign language interpretation has shifted. Initially, he says, he treated it as a language option like any other. But now, he sees it also as an inclusivity feature.
“It allows people who use sign as their first language to feel like they're represented in the game in the same way that people of different ethnicities are represented in the game, [or] people with prosthetic limbs can represent themselves in the game,” he says. “People who speak sign as a first language are feeling as though the game is for them. They are included in this game, and they're represented within the game. And that's the thing that I've actually found to be very powerful.”