Accessibility in games is an important topic that has been receiving a lot more well-deserved attention over the past few years, in large part thanks to accessibility advocates and large companies taking up the mantle.
But we still have a long way to go — as recent discussions over the difficulty and accessibility of games like Elden Ring have highlighted — and part of that is understanding that so many parts of the video game media cycle are inaccessible to huge swathes of the population. There are many things that a lot of us, who have never had to deal with disabilities or difficulties, take for granted, like being able to distinguish between colours in a game, being able to see other people's screenshots on social media, and being able to play games without subtitles (or minuscule, unreadable subtitles, which is just as bad).
Today, we're just covering a small part of the accessibility in games discussion, and that's something you might never have thought about: Audio descriptions, which are a bit like subtitles in the sense that they allow people to appreciate audiovisual content even if they can't fully experience it.
We spoke to a company called Descriptive Video Works about what they do, which is to provide audio descriptions for video games — a service aimed at players and viewers with low vision or blindness, which involves writing a script that describes what is happening on the screen in as great detail as possible, while still matching the pace. There's a few examples in the videos scattered throughout this interview — all of which were done by Descriptive Video Works!
Nintendo Life: Have you seen an increase in major video game studios looking for audio descriptions?
Rhys Lloyd, Head of Descriptive Video Works: There has definitely been an increase in discussions and conversations about it over the past year. While the number of studios actively engaged in the process remains quite limited, it is encouraging to see the industry taking the steps towards greater accessibility and inclusion. We’ve already seen more studios incorporating it into their trailers. It’s something our team at Descriptive Video Works helped deliver for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Far Cry 6, Immortals Fenyx Rising and many more AAA titles.
In-game audio description presents a slightly greater challenge, though we are actively engaged with a few studios in that area. I believe that while the ramp up may be slow, largely due to apprehension about how it can be incorporated smoothly into a game, the dam will break and there will be a flood of games that incorporate audio description in a year or two.
It just takes one or two studios to raise the bar and demonstrate that accessibility features like audio description can make a great game even better by allowing a broader set of gamers to enjoy the experience. This is something Naughty Dog demonstrated so well with The Last of Us Part II.
What goes into making audio descriptions for games and their trailers?
Audio Description for game trailers works in much the same way as it does for television and movies. At Descriptive Video Works, we receive a game trailer (often with very little time before the launch date) and two concurrent processes begin.
We have to be cognizant of using language that evokes the atmosphere and environment of the game
We have a describer set about reviewing the material and writing the script for the recording. In a trailer, which often features lots of cuts and rapid changes in the world of the game, we have to be cognizant of using language that evokes the atmosphere and environment of the game but also to avoid writing over any dialogue, voice over or key sound effects in the trailer. In order to achieve this, it takes talented and experienced describers and the team at Descriptive Video Works are the best in the business – many of them have over a decade of experience writing audio description and they all have a deep passion for what they do.
The other concurrent process is casting the narrator – on which we collaborate with the studio partner. Casting for audio description is a somewhat counterintuitive process as it involves counter-casting the main voices in the game or trailer. If the trailer has predominantly male voices or a male lead, then we will most often cast a female narrator to offer an auditory counterpoint that helps the viewer to identify the description from the primary content. It’s also important to match the vocal style and sound of a game. We have a diverse and talented set of narrators that can cover anything from a gritty narrative to action packed sports, or a playful kid’s game.
Once the script has been created, it goes into the recording studio where one of our engineers collaborates with the narrator to record the descriptions, all while viewing the content in time with the recording. Lastly, it goes to the mixing stage where one of our engineers will take the final print master audio of the trailer and incorporate the newly recorded audio description track.
There is a real art to achieving a great audio description mix, as it needs to achieve the subtle yet important result of elevating and supplementing the original content without ever overwhelming it
It’s a lot more than just setting the levels and editing the placement, there is a real art to achieving a great audio description mix, as it needs to achieve the subtle yet important result of elevating and supplementing the original content without ever overwhelming it. Our mixing team are true artists in this area with a wealth of experience and (again) a true passion for what we do. This final audio description mix is then returned to the client who handles the distribution.
In-game description of cutscenes and cinematics works similarly, with the main difference being that they are excerpts of a whole rather than a composed piece like a trailer. This presents some additional challenges for the describer; they need to be mindful of the entirety of the thread and arc of the game while handling dozens (or hundreds) of short scenes.
We also look forward to the day when narrative audio description can work in collaboration with text to speech. This will allow us to handle the description of truly dynamic aspects of gameplay and open the door to all games being able to be described. Right now, the most fast-paced multiplayer games (think Fortnite) remain elusive for us. We are not currently working on this area, however, we have had a number of encouraging discussions with clients about it. I can envision a day in the not too distant future when we will see this implemented.
How do you make sure to preserve the original writers' and designers' intent and style?
In all the work that we do, Descriptive Video Works endeavour to collaborate with the creative team. We have found the gaming studios very open to this level of collaboration and discussion. This can take multiple forms – whether it be consulting with the developers about key design elements or features that they would like to see incorporated into our trailer description or deep discussions about narrator voice matching with the creative team for in game description.
Right now, the most fast-paced multiplayer games (think Fortnite) remain elusive for us.
While it is commonly viewed as a visual medium, there is so much precision that goes into the auditory experience of gaming and it’s vital that audio description tracks are respectful of that existing precision and act to elevate the game rather than overwhelm it. With our gaming customers, we have also noted that they are very keen to incorporate a script review prior to the recording session and for us that’s been a very helpful exercise.
The developers know their game far better than we do and they can help us spot important elements to include. It also serves the purpose of increasing their awareness about what audio description is and (we hope) increases their level of emotional investment in the process.
What are the challenges of doing live audio descriptions?
Live audio description is its own white-knuckle roller coaster ride. In the best case scenarios, there is a set format and the describer will get a rundown of who the main participants are. but in a lot of cases there are restrictions on how much information is available up front.
If there are pre-recorded segments (like awards show nominee clips), our describers can study them in advance which is very helpful. However, most of the time, live AD narrators have no way of knowing when announcers or participants in the event will be speaking, so are doing their best on-the-fly assessment of when they can incorporate description.
It can be incredibly challenging – especially trailers with all of their quick cuts – but our live description team is a unique, experienced and truly brilliant group of accessibility specialists.
What are the most important factors in creating a high-quality audio description for gamers with visual impairments?
Familiarity with the game franchise or genre is immensely helpful, as is collaboration with the creative team that developed the game
There are numerous factors that go into creating a high-quality audio description experience for a game. Familiarity with the game franchise or genre is immensely helpful, as is collaboration with the creative team that developed the game. Other factors include team effort—from writing to recording, and mixing—to ensure the highest levels of technical and creative quality are achieved. Then lastly, a passion for making all types of media accessible.
At Descriptive Video Works, we tackle each project as a distinct entity and try to match the content to the best describer. If the content is related to sports, we enlist our describers who have a background in or passion for sports. Likewise if the content is action oriented, we enlist describers who specialize in that genre.
We are always mindful of the audience experience, working closely with an advisory council of blind and low vision people to ensure that our efforts are aligned with their needs and enjoyment.
What changes do you hope to see in accessibility in games in the future?
I look forward to a gaming world where the conversation isn’t “how do you incorporate audio description into a game?” but rather “how great is the audio description in that game!” I feel like accessibility in gaming is at a fantastic inflection point and there is a broad recognition of the value of including accessibility features in gaming.
Descriptive Video Works believes in-game audio description is the next step in these efforts, and we are seeing many studios agree. Developers and publishers alike are looking to adopt AD services and incorporate this into future releases.
Historically, audio description has been viewed as a feature of tv and movies but not for other forms of entertainment but the uptake in gaming is a really encouraging sign. At DVW, we have taken up a mantra of “Describe Everything” and see these developments aligning very much with that initiative.
Has audio description benefitted you or anyone you know in the past? Let us know in the comments!
Further Reading: 5 Accessibility Features That Every Game Should Have