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April 1, 2008Glenn Turner

Let's say you just bought your first DVD player and, to break it in, you bought a fistful of brand-new, off-the-shelf domestic DVDs. You crack open the first DVD, pop it in and nestle into your couch to revel in your new acquisition. After the previews have concluded, the film starts up with two characters fiercely arguing with each other. The picture's great, sound is excellent but, then you notice the subtitles are on, despite the fact that the spoken dialogue, as well as the subtitles, are in English.

"Whoops, I must have accidentally set the subtitling option incorrectly somehow!" You stop the film, go back to the main menu, specifically toggle the subtitles off and then recommence the film. When the film's ended, you put in the second DVD, pop some more popcorn, and plunk yourself down only to see more English language subtitles in another English-spoken film.

By now you're questioning the DVD player's preferences, checking the DVD player configuration, maybe even doing some online troubleshooting. You deduce that nothing's wrong and begrudgingly turn off the subtitles the same way as the first film. The third film gets popped in and, low-and-behold, it also has redundant English subtitles blaring throughout the film.

While this would be inexcusable behavior for the majority for DVD players, the far too many recent console games feature English subtitles for a native English-language game by default, and even occasionally lack the option to toggle them off. Perhaps there aren't more complaints about this because players are used to subtitles, that 100% voice acting is still rare in games, and that developers still often rely on the occasional subtitle for incidental dialogue (and vice versa – neglect to subtitle some incidental sound effects or dialogue). However I can't help but grouse: Redundant subtitling annoys the living hell out of me.

I have nothing against subtitles, and firmly believe they should be available for those that want or need them. When experiencing a work in a non-English language, I prefer them over dubbing, as bad dubbing detracts more from any work than poor subtitling. And I'm actually glad that this has become a 'problem', since it means that anyone who is hearing-impaired can enjoy (most) video game speech and sound just as much as I (sometimes) do. And I appreciate it existing as an option. However, subtitling does detract attention from the scene, both viewing and playing, especially if you're accustomed to reading them. The more conditioned you are to reading them, the more attuned you'll be to their presence, even in times when you don't need to read them.

Whenever I've been stuck watching English subtitles in an English-driven work, I spend too much time intentionally trying to divert my eyes from the bottom third of the screen, away from the subtitles themselves. It never works, it breaks my concentration, diverts my attention, and is generally aggravating. And whenever I encounter this behavior in a game, my first reaction is to immediately quit the game and restart sans subtitles. Unfortunately, sometimes that's simply not an option and I'm left grinding my teeth for the entire game.

Yes, I'm aware this tirade may come across as nitpicking, but it shows the lack of standardization for cross-game console settings. In a world where current-generation consoles are all online-aware and log each game-based accomplishment, there's no reason why any of them can't have system-wide, language-based options that allow us to deal with subtitles, and other common options, as we see fit. Each console has basic user accounts for each player. Why haven't similar steps been taken for the most basic of game preferences, not just subtitles but also right/left-handedness and other interface basics that we have to endlessly customize the same way each and every time we start up a new console game? While the Xbox 360 system settings allow some universal, user-based options (such as difficulty and color preferences, and even some genre-based options like Y-Axis in shooters and brake controls in racing games), the options are limited, and not necessarily supported by every game (which, arguably, defeats the point of the preferences in the first place).

Yes, universal user-settings on each console platform may be limited now, thanks to shortsightedness on console makers behalf, but it's still a prospect worth shooting for. We spend enough time with our consoles that they should know our habits, our likes and dislikes, our languages and our controller preferences. With more and more games going for broke within the first hour of gameplay, having to fiddle with settings and replay the first fifteen minutes in order to toggle the preferences just right is rather ridiculous. When we get standardization we won't be endlessly, worthlessly restarting each and every game in order to ensure that we're able to play it in accordance to our preferences. We'll have a more cohesive, seamless, personalized experience, which can only result in a more engrossing time for the player. And isn't that what we're looking for from our consoles?

5 comments for ‘Systemized Subtitling’

#1 Gingor Apr 1, 2008 04:18pm

I'm a fan of subtitles in games. You can just scan to find the next location/widget etc. than skip back to actually playing. Having to watch polygon models gurning at each other isn't my thing.

Games have to stop hiring 3rd rate actors to spout the substandard dialogue most have, and develop graphics that can convey emotions better. Until then I'll keep skipping talky cut-scenes.

Couldn't agree more about the universal settings, keep up the good work.

#2 Manveer Heir Apr 1, 2008 11:13pm

I agree with you on the universal settings. I actually keep subtitles on for most games. The reason is, often the dialog is obscured by the sound of explosions and firing, especially mid-mission. Usually the first step is to make sure the voice volume is maxed and make the SFX and Music lower, that way voice carries more. That doesn't always work however. So I end up going with subtitles so I can read what they are saying mid-mission. Rarely is this every anything cruicial, but I'm a sucker for the extra flavor bits you get.

#3 Servo Apr 1, 2008 11:34pm

I had a college roommate who would watch dubbed anime with English subtitles in order to spot discrepancies between the two. I never understood it, but he got some sort of pleasure from it.

I've always tried to disable subtitles, as I often find them distracting. Especially if there are discrepancies between what is said and what is written. Somewhere in the torturous experience that is Devil May Cry 2, the line "Demons never cry" is spoken when the subtitle reads "Devils never cry". Painfully bad, and I'm sure it happens in better games as well.

#4 Glenn Turner Apr 2, 2008 11:32am


That's a good point concerning sound effects trampling dialogue. It's hard for me to pinpoint how developers can address that sort of thing - on one hand, it can be argued that the sound engineers and mixers should be able to manage it so dialogue always pops, but that's not always realistic, or called for. Sometimes dialogue should be drowned out. But drowning out dialogue can cause the player to miss out on objectives, or just feel like they're missing out. Yup, definitely a tricky balancing act!

Servo: Agreed, you'd think they'd be able to keep such discrepancies to a minimum. At least occasionally it results in some laughs, right?

#5 WholeFnShow Apr 3, 2008 03:08am

I would prefer if I could, in good conscience, turn off subtitles all the time and simply go with the audio as if it were a video I was watching. Maybe it's just my picky impaired hearing, but it's happened far too many times that I just plain couldn't understand what was being said in a game because of volume, bad voice acting, or whatever and HAD to rely on subtitles.

It's a better safe than sorry type of situation for me nowadays. I'd rather not miss an important bit of dialogue for any reason since I'd have to replay the scene in order to catch it again. And that just plain ruins the running atmosphere of a game. The subtitles make sure I'm in tune with what's going on as much as possible as smoothly as possible, so I deals with 'em.