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Opinion Videogame subtitles could learn a lot from comic book lettering

Jan 11, 2019
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Being a comics letterer is not a real job. Or at least, that’s what most people believe. After all, letterers only have to make balloons and fill them with the words written by someone else. It sounds so simple – a job a computer should be able to do automatically. I mean, they basically do already, ‘cos these days letterers don’t even have to write the text by hand anymore! They only need to know how to draw circles and copy-paste words in Photoshop.

This notion is, of course, wrong. You never notice when a letterer has done a good job, because their goal is to remain unseen. They work hard so your eyes can fly effortlessly over the page, always knowing who said what and where to look next. Explore a lettering site like Blambot and shudder in fear at the number of rules needed to make a single balloon look good, from the distance between text and balloons borders to the shape of the balloons themselves. Lettering is a difficult job that mixes composition, typography and design, but we only notice it when it’s done badly. It’s truly a pity we don’t take it more seriously, because videogames would benefit from a deeper understanding of this invisible art.


Some good lettering by Tom Orzechowski. Notice the way he conveys different tones by playing with fonts and balloon shapes.

We’ve all stumbled upon games where the text was… off. Games where the font was too small, too ornate, or just felt disharmonious in a way that was difficult to place. In the worst cases, bad text can make a game almost impossible to play. And big titles aren’t immune from this: The Outer Worlds was recently patched to fix the game’s minuscule font size. Death Stranding also suffered from similar issues — though it should be all fixed up for its arrival on PC.



Voiced games with subtitles you can toggle on or off are some of the worst offenders, because subtitles fill the screen with text that isn’t thought of as being a full part of the game experience. Their design ends up feeling very much like an afterthought. This article written by Max Deryagin in 2017 is still a painfully relevant catalogue of all the crimes regularly perpetrated against my poor myopic eyes: small font, poor contrast, incredibly long lines.

There is no direct equivalent to comic letterers in games development. Instead, you have UI artists, UX artists, and a myriad of technical questions to answer. Is this interface readable in all the screen resolutions that our game supports? Does our text engine support text from right to left, for Arabic localisation? Will this menu look terrible once it’s translated into a language with longer words, like German? Developers spend so much time making sure text is readable at all, they then can’t make sure it looks good. Every solution more complex than a message window at the bottom of the screen requires so much additional work.

Tales Of Vesperia is an example of what happens when you want your game to look like a comic, but you can’t afford to give text the same care as everything else. In TOV, balloons automatically pop over speakers’ heads, with no regard for framing and composition. Sometimes a character moves while talking, and the speech balloon tail sprouts from their butt. Faces get covered by them in the middle of conversations that are supposed to be dramatic or important to the story.



How to fix this, then? Well, by hand-placing every bit of speech in every cutscene. An exhausting, time-consuming job nobody would want to do… Except for ROUTE 59, developers of Necrobarista.


We've got a list of the best games coming out this year, both indie and big budget AAA affairs.
Necrobarista is a visual novel about a supernatural cafe in Melbourne where the dead can have one last cup of coffee before moving on. It looks like an anime and it reads like a manga, with every click bringing you a new animated panel to read. It’s difficult to describe, because there’s nothing quite else like it.

“I approached my script as if I was writing a play,” explains Damon Reece, friend in freelancing and Lead Writer of Necrobarista. “My script has a lot of stage directions in it. Then Kevin [Chen, the game’s director] draws the storyboard, breaking my script in shots. Each “shot” contains information about composition, camera work and dialogue lines, which gets hand-placed in every shot.” Once the storyboard is done, the team recreate the scenes in the game engine and iterate on them – posing characters and faces, tweaking animations and composition. The end result is absurdly stylish, half anime and half futurist poetry.


Necrobarista’s approach has more in common with the way animated films are made than with traditional visual novels. It’s highly unusual for a video game team to put so much care into the way text and images blend into each other. All too often, narrative designers work without even knowing how the words they have written will appear in-game, and I know this because I work as a narrative designer when I’m not busy writing here. My life is made of spreadsheets, and despair.

If you play a game where dialogues look weirdly nice, it’s probably because some kind programmer wrote an internal tool that allowed writers to become their own letterers. Tools like Yarn Spinner made by Secret Labs for the developers of Night In The Woods. Yarn Spinner not only allows you to write dialogue, but also to control balloon size, position and formatting. Basic stuff, but it allows writers to decide how much importance to give to each line, and to compose expressive shots like this:



But not all lessons learned from comics should be applied to videogames. Different mediums have different needs, and our brain interprets them in different ways. Consider the work of Todd Klein, Sandman’s main letterer.

Sandman is a comic about immensely powerful personifications of metaphysical concepts, and Klein created different balloon styles to capture each character’s voice — like the wobbly, colourful balloons associated with Delirium. When, in later Sandman comics, other characters’ fonts were digitised, Klein still hand lettered each of Delirium’s balloons to make them look properly messy.


At some point in the past I set bread to be stockpiled - possibly because the Pope turned up to ask for a bunch, like he…
The end result is beautiful. I also suspect it wouldn’t work well in videogames. In comics, dialogue is an integral part of the picture, as text and drawings work together or melt into each other for different effects. In videogames, all text is considered part of the UI — a level of menus and abstraction imposed over the game, not part of it. Windows with different colours and shapes would easily get misinterpreted by our brains as “something that is not a dialogue window”, making dialogue more confusing instead of giving it more character.

I can only think of a handful of occasions where UI text elements are treated with the same level of importance as everything else in the scenes of a game. The moment when a character’s hair blows over a dialogue box in Tangle Tower. The way the message box of May I Take Your Order? cracks the moment an Eldritch being appears. The way Badeline’s hair in Celeste dangles out of the message window. The dynamic, shattering text in Katana Zero.


When you want your dialogue boxes to be a part of your world, you have to reconsider the relationship between images and text, and change your workflow to accommodate that. It’s what the developers at Vivid Foundry are doing with Solace State. Solace State is a cyberpunk visual novel about mass surveillance, hackers, and a city fractured by inequality. Instead of using message boxes, the game’s text is written directly over the walls of environments that unfold like origami.


“When I go through to the script, I start writing out stage direction of what I’d want the camera to show,” explains Tanya Kan, executive producer, director and main writer. “During this entire time I’m gathering mood board pieces for art. What kind of buildings and architectural style I want, what kind of story I think their walls are whispering. But it’s only after the first good draft of the script that I typically go in and doodle thumbnails.”



Kan says that level design only happens after the first solid draft because, at that stage, she’s already started designing in 3D, and planned out suitable placement for each chunk of diegetic text. “Usually at this stage I go back and forth between the 3D models and the diegetic text, having a good idea of what is surrounding a piece of text at all times, because eventually the camera will pan,” she explains. “And that transition itself tells a story. What buildings I put next to each other, what walls and objects I put next to each other, is important.”


Solace State’s twisting city reminded me of a short comic called Abstraction, by Shintaro Kago — an author I recommend you to absolutely not Google unless you have a strong stomach and a love for body horror.
In Abstraction, a simple comic page gets turned like a 3D object, revealing its grotesque interiors: giant busts cut to fit the space of a panel, giant hands poking from other panels, speech balloons taped over the scenes like signs.



This is a useful metaphor for how sometimes you need to make an abomination of your code just to make sure a bunch of text on a screen looks nice.
 

KOMANI

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Nov 5, 2013
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Artist manipulates the readers’ eyes. It’s the artist’s composition, which also includes word ballon/caption placement.
I really don’t see how you can connect the two. Video Games and Comics have two different focal points.
 
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Oct 26, 2018
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I don't care so much about video game font style.

I care more about text size. I play on a 4k 65" TV. I don't even sit that far away, yet some games have text so small, it doesn't make sense.

Either they expect me to sit 6ft away, or they expect all gamers to have 80" tvs????
 

Miles708

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I don't care so much about video game font style.

I care more about text size. I play on a 4k 65" TV. I don't even sit that far away, yet some games have text so small, it doesn't make sense.

Either they expect me to sit 6ft away, or they expect all gamers to have 80" tvs????

I don't want to waste all OP's work but, yes, this is the important point.
Lettering and composition can be fine, but first thing should be actually be able to read the damn thing. Tales of Vesperia is bad not because baloons go over each other's heads, but because the font is small and the contrast is not enough.

Night In The Woods work because someone luckily took the time to actually read their subtitles, before shipping the game. But if the choice were to choos between stylish baloons and boring but readable text, the choice must not be the style. Boring is good.
I'm sure no one in CD Projekt took time to read their HUD on a regular tv (hey: regular doesn't mean 60'' TV while sitting 20cm away).

Your example with Solace State is very cool, but only if the designers take time to fit text in LARGE spaces, and give me the time to actually read it. If this is not the case, please scrap the idea.
 
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Wolfgang Jr

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What I want to know is why hasn't the HDMI standard developed some code that can tell the console what size the TV is? and the game adjusts the subtitle text accordingly.
 
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Miles708

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What I want to know is why hasn't the HDMI standard developed some code that can tell the console what size the TV is? and the game adjusts the subtitle text accordingly.

Oooh, nice idea!
Just tell the console the size of your TV, and have the software adjust the font accordingly.
 

MoreJRPG

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Oct 24, 2017
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Yeah well, that would be great, I recently play Wolfenstein: New Collosus and not only the game is crappy, but the SUBTITLES, holy shit:
That's an absolute joke, you'd think they tested this before release.
 

M1chl

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That's an absolute joke, you'd think they tested this before release.
Well probably don't and it's especially ridiculous, because for that game you need combo of English and German language knowledge... But probably the wokeness was more important...
 

NeoIkaruGAF

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I'm partly convinced that the minuscule font size of so many games is a scheme to sell glasses. to people who'd normally not need them. Shit's downright ridiculous at times.
 

Fictive

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Oooh, nice idea!
Just tell the console the size of your TV, and have the software adjust the font accordingly.
Closest response I’ve seen in a game is a setting where highlighting an option with the cursor enlarges the current selection/menu object.

It is very much possible, much in the same way responsive web design as taken off in the past decade.
 
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DiscoJer

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As someone who is hard of hearing, I just want to be able to understand what is going on, I don't want artistic, comic book crap
 

DunDunDunpachi

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Unique lettering to help identify the speaker and to convey emotion would be great. I also love when games just use emotive blips and bloops to convey emotion (good example: Golden Sun)


Creative subtitles and funny-sounding voice noises are sufficient in place of real voice acting.
 
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Shin

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The NPC in green was so irrelevant and ugly that Square had no choice but to censor him too.

 

Wolfgang Jr

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Oooh, nice idea!
Just tell the console the size of your TV, and have the software adjust the font accordingly.
I remember the Xbox 360 let you set the size of your TV in the settings but I don't know if it did anything. Did the later gens keep this setting/option?
 
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Unique lettering to help identify the speaker and to convey emotion would be great. I also love when games just use emotive blips and bloops to convey emotion (good example: Golden Sun)


Creative subtitles and funny-sounding voice noises are sufficient in place of real voice acting.
The two first golden sun games is such a collective masterpiece. They knew what they were doing when they made them.
 
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gela94

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Death Stranding was one of these offenders till they fixed it with an update. This kind of shit makes me stop playing the game.
 

sunnysideup

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fuck plipblop sounds whey text is presented. That shit is annoying as hell.

I do like more stylised fonts though, standard fonts are ugly and look unprofessional.

Love the old c64 font that most lucasarts games and oldschool jrpg games use.
 

AV

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I play on a 4k 65" TV.

they expect me to sit 6ft away?

For 4K? Yeah, they actually kinda do. 6ft is ideal at 65", any more and you're going to start losing details. Obviously you'll still be able to see it but if you're reading subtitles in a game that's running at 4K, then yeah, I'd expect you will struggle at 8+ feet.