Subtitles in Videogames

Last Thursday’s episode of Game Grumps featured a brief rant from Arin Hanson on the topic of subtitles in videogames. “What’s there to say about subtitles?” you might ask, but I actually think there’s some worthwhile discussion to be had.

My aversion to subtitles in games has been subtle, but growing lately, though I never put together any coherent stance against them. It took Arin’s comment before my neurons started firing. Sometimes you don’t even realize you have an opinion until someone else shares their own — because you didn’t think it was worth having an opinion on that particular, insignificant subject.

Turns out, this about sums up my opinion: I like text dialogue. I like voiced dialogue. But when you put them together, it doesn’t really float my boat.

Many games and gamers seem to assume subtitles are just a given, but I’ve never understood this. Which is not to say I think subtitles are bad; just that they’re conditional. You can’t argue that they’re not awfully handy when you’re trying to play a game late at night without waking the family, or when your sister brings her kids over and they forget what indoor voices are. They’re not just handy, but potentially necessary, for players with varying degrees of hearing loss. So, subtitles are a good thing. All I would argue for is that they are off under normal circumstances — or, at the very least, that there is an option to turn them off.

Here’s why.

The issue is almost entirely one of distraction. As Arin points out, receiving information from two sources simultaneously, even when it’s the same information, can make it harder to get the message. Not all players will feel this way; in fact, if you read the comments on the above video, you’ll see some voices defending subtitles, and if they work for you, that’s cool. I certainly don’t find the phenomenon to be as disorienting as Arin does, but I do understand where he’s coming from. You’re basically taking in dialogue by way of two different sensory organs, and it can be overwhelming.

Where things really get zany is when that dialogue falls out of sync. If the player reads faster than the voice actor speaks, suddenly we have an even bigger problem. Whether you skip ahead because of a tedious performance or get carried away accidentally, the result is kind of like the clashing inputs of a dubbed live action film or one of those internet videos with the audio delayed a second or two. You can even spoil yourself for a twist in the conversation if the subtitles aren’t intelligently broken up to avoid this.

In my own experience, the above concerns are second to another, more pressing one: while all the action in a game is focused toward the center of the player’s view, if there are words on the screen, my eyes are invariably drawn to them. In the case of subtitles, that means my eyes are sucked directly into the black hole that is the very bottom of the screen, exactly where they shouldn’t be. Which means my attention is yanked away, either from the action I should really be paying attention to, or from the face of the character who is speaking to me. The latter was less of a problem in older games; playing Deus Ex, you’re not missing out on much meat in a conversation if you’re not looking at the uncanny, robotic movements that passed as facial animations in 2000. In a game like L.A. Noire, on the other hand, you’re missing a lot. With the capacity for emotion in the performances of virtual actors skyrocketing, as time goes on, the distraction of subtitles will result in the erosion of more and more potential connection with characters because more and more of the emotion in those interactions is conveyed through facial expression and body language.

One final point if you’ll allow it, and this one may be a stretch, but stick with me for a minute: if so much of the voice acting that occurs in videogames can take place while the player is looking elsewhere, what does that say about our treatment of the characters and storytelling in our games, or of the voice actors who give those characters and story life? Videogames are still a long way off from being respected as a storytelling medium, but maybe one of the contributing factors is how little respect and attention we give to characters when they speak to us. And we do that for all sorts of reasons, from impatience to disinterest, but that’s on us — not game developers.

We don’t watch films in English with English subtitles. Why do we do that with games? Down with subtitles! Let characters speak for themselves!

Anywho, I’m sure you can tell I think subtitles are silly. What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Subtitles in Videogames

  1. I think there are some valid points here. I don’t agree with it all (as you might guess!) but I am glad you point out that the availability of subtitles does provide vital access for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition I can’t help but think reading text in any language is easier for anyone if the audio is not your first language or is a translation. When I read subtitles it doesn’t mean I ignore the voice, it acts as confirmation that I have heard the dialogue correctly. That is a reassurance, not an annoyance for me. The more you use subtitles the easier it is/less of a distraction it becomes and I have learnt to read fast often slightly ahead of the audio so I can hear what is being said without full concentration on audio alone but other aspects of a game (or movie, or series).

    • I’m a bit ashamed that I forgot to mention their usefulness among people not as familiar with the language as I am. I apologize for leaving such an obvious point out.

      To your other point, I’ve dealt with subtitles in videogames for so long that I couldn’t comment on whether I’ve gotten more used to them over time. Probably. As used to them as I’ve likely gotten, I just can’t get over the fact that my eyes can only be in one place at a time. Even if I can train myself to switch between the text and the action fast enough that I don’t miss anything, it’s still a split-second break in my connection with the game, if that makes sense.

      On the other hand, if I can’t make out a word or two in dialogue, I like to think of it like those occasional words you happen to miss in real conversation. Often it doesn’t get in the way, because you can fill in the blank by its context.

      I will happily admit, though, that everything I’ve said on the subject may just be a personal problem. The last thing I want to do is deprive anyone of something that helps them understand or enjoy their media.

      PS: I just love that there is a blog called i heart subtitles.

  2. They aren’t subtitles, they’re captions, and your bafflement, ire, and putative distraction will dissipate if you watch everything everywhere with captions (not subtitles) for at least two weeks.

    But thanks for playing.

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