Subtitles in Video Games: The Best Practices

Font size, design as well as the amount of text displayed on the screen may have a major impact on how effectively subtitles work in a video game. Here are 12 golden rules to offer players the best possible experience as part of your next project.

Although they are often added in haste during the production stage, subtitles play a role in video games the importance of which should not be neglected. “More than 60% of the players activated the subtitles in Assassin’s Creed Origins,” pointed out Ian Hamilton to demonstrate the relevance of subtitles during a presentation he gave in San Francisco during the Game Developers Conference (GDC).

This accessibility measure benefits not only players who are deaf or hard of hearing, but also players who have no hearing problems whatsoever. “There are full of reasons for playing with the subtitles activated. Sometimes, there’s a lot of noise in the room, there may be a baby sleeping nearby or yet you may want to lower the volume to compensate for the noise of the explosions,” illustrated the consultant specialized in video game accessibility.

He judges the industry harshly. “No one does a decent job,” he believes. The good news is that other fields such as television have been doing it for years. That makes it possible to correctly establish how to create subtitles that are not only functional but also appreciated by the players.

1st good practice: font size
Subtitles should be displayed at a size of at least 46 pixels at a resolution of 1080p according to the criteria established for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom. The static text, in the interface for example, can be displayed in a smaller size, for example 32 pixels.

2nd good practice: amount of text
Once again, according to the BBC, set a limit of 38 characters per line and a maximum of two lines—or three if warranted by exceptional circumstances—on the screen at any given time.

3rd good practice: the choice of options
Developers should always offer the possibility of changing how the subtitles are displayed to enable players to, for example, widen the text. “That’s what’s good about digital supports. There is always a way to provide the players with options,” claims Ian Hamilton.

Modifiable parameters include the font, the size, the indication of which character is currently talking, the visual effects (such as a drop shadow) surrounding the text to make it easier to read, the presence of a box behind the text to improve contrast and the box’s degree of transparency.

4th good practice: accuracy
The subtitles should be an exact reflection of what is being said on the screen rather than of what the script contains. “You cannot rely on the fact that the actors are sticking to each and every letter of the text,” reminds the consultant.

5th good practice: subtitling from beginning to end
Several games provide the option of displaying the subtitles only after the opening. That’s a no-no. If the main menu is not accessible the moment the game begins, an invite at the bottom of the screen should then at least offer the possibility of displaying them [the subtitles] beforehand.

6th good practice: centre alignment
The subtitles must always be aligned at the centre of the bottom of the screen.

7th good practice: adding text from the bottom
The text should be added from the bottom when several lines must be displayed one after the other. Certain games instead focused on maintaining a constant position based on the characters (for example, to always have the hero displayed at the top), but the result was often confusing for the players, deems Ian Hamilton.

8th good practice: displaying the names of the characters
The dialogues should always be preceded by the names of the characters. “Certain games vary the formula, for example, by displaying a picture instead of a name, whereas others use different colours to display the text according to which characters is speaking. It’s OK to do so, but you then need to provide the option, in the game’s parameters, of also displaying the names,” stresses the consultant.

9th good practice: transcribing the important sounds
Effective subtitles identify not only the dialogues, but also the sound effects, which enable those who play the game without sound to feel the ambience and benefit from the same sound cues as the other players (in the same way as coded subtitles in the field of television).

10th good practice: indicating where the sounds are coming from
“It’s something that we rarely see in games, although it’s more common in other types of supports. In the case of the BBC, for example, an arrow points in the direction of a character that is not visible on the screen,” explains the consultant. That method should also be used for both dialogues and sound effects.

11th good practice: giving players enough time to read the subtitles
Each line of text must be displayed for at least one second, whereas a full subtitle must remain on the screen for a minimum of two and a half seconds.

“For that to be doable, the text sometimes needs to be edited, but you should limit it to the strict minimum,” advances Ian Hamilton. The BBC’s Subtitle Guidelines provide a host of advice on how to modify the text, including by reducing the number of times that a word is repeated (“no no no no no” for example). The goal must always be to strive to remain as faithful as possible to what is being said in the game.

12th good practice: the choice of a font that is easy to read
The chosen font should be clear and lineal (or, if you prefer, sans-serif). Also, the subtitles should be displayed in accordance with the rules of punctuation and never in all caps. In the event of a conflict with the game’s artistic director, providing the option in the parameters may prove to be a fair compromise.

Maxime Johnson
Maxime Johnson is an independent journalist who specializes in the analysis and observation of new technology. He writes a column for the Métro newspaper and for L’Actualité magazine. He also collaborates with several magazines including Protégez-vous and can be heard on the radio, namely during ICI Radio-Canada Première’s La sphère show.
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