Localizing Visual Novels for Deaf Teens

Olga Deputatova

Olga Deputatova is a localization
manager at Tortuga Social Ltd.

Olga Deputatova

aming is one of the few industries that have been virtually unaffected by the pandemic. This is due in part to the nature of the products but also to the nature of the work itself, which allows us to switch almost seamlessly into remote mode and continue working at full capacity from home. However, none of us can (or should) remain on the sidelines during a global crisis, a time when it is especially important to reach out and help others. Of course, it’s up to us to operate that way on an ongoing basis, not just as a one-off action during a pandemic.

Our company, Tortuga Social, began with games for social networks as the name may suggest. We started with Facebook, Draugiem, Nasza klasa, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Moi Mir, Fotostrana, and so on. But we also actively develop the social direction of games. For example, we hold open webinars for kids creating their own games, we organize outings to our offices, and we conduct free training sessions for beginner programmers.

The company was founded in 2009 by three gaming enthusiasts who created their first games at home. The company has grown quite rapidly, and now has 87 employees living in 14 cities across four countries. Our team has released more than ten successful projects, including Jolly Roger, Vikings, and Avataria. Our user numbers have topped 80,000,000, and this figure keeps on growing. Our products are available in nine languages: Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish.

However, in the fall of 2019, we decided we could go even further and ventured into the localization of games for teenagers who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

In its simplest definition, deafness is “the condition of having no or very limited functional hearing,” according to Brad A. Stach’s Comprehensive Dictionary of Audiology. But how large is the worldwide Deaf community?

english language users compared to other languages infographic

According to WHO statistics, over 5% of the world’s population — 432 million adults and 34 million children — have disabling hearing loss. It’s estimated that by 2050, over 900 million people — one in ten — will experience disabling hearing loss. 

What challenges related to social interaction and psychological processes do Deaf teens encounter? They may experience challenges in a number of areas. First of all, building social networks. Secondly, emotional and motivational understanding of self and others: it can prove challenging for them to identify emotions and to verbalize them. The personal emotional experience of Deaf teens who have experienced underdevelopment of speech and limited communication with others can be significantly restricted. And as with all developing children, they may also struggle with self-control and self-direction. 

According to Rosemary Calderon and Mark T. Greenberg’s Social and Emotional Development of Deaf Children: Family, School, and Program Effects, communication difficulties in teenagers contribute to emotional fragility, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of frustration. 

With all this in mind, we decided to start localizing visual novels for Deaf teens — our Novelize project.

The visual novel is an interactive literary genre that originated in Japan, featuring a text-based story with a literary and interactive narrative style aided by static or sprite-based visuals. These novels are segmented books in which a player makes choices that crucially affect the story’s progress. Graphics are always accompanied by text representing the author’s or the characters’ speech.

Why visual novels?

To start with, they are technically appropriate. Our visual novels include no voiced dialogue, as all the graphics are accompanied by printed text. Scenarios and emotions are fully revealed in both text and graphics; facial expressions support and strengthen the perception and appropriate interpretation of the situation and ambience. The text is segmented in a way that makes it easy to read. The main text does not disappear until you tap the screen: the reader determines how long to pause on a given text segment. Additionally, the text is written in a clear, contrastive, large font.

Through visual novels, we can engage teens in reading. In today’s world, it is difficult to completely isolate kids from their electronics — so let that time be dedicated as much as possible to reading. There are, of course, books for every taste: fiction, romance, mystery, and the list goes on. The range of novels runs from fairy tales to crime stories to K-pop. The reader can start with a favorite genre and branch out from there.

Visual novels can also help teens socialize through the game. The choices that players make in the game affect plot development. First, they learn to make a choice — for example, whether or not to help another character; to ask for help from friends or cope on their own — and then the consequences of that choice become clear.

All the characters in our novels are based on realistic prototypes that may be encountered in life. In theory, the player should be able to transfer the experience of interacting with that kind of person to the real world. The game is essentially a simulation of real life: the player has faithful friends but may also meet traitors and backstabbers. An important part of the stories is the relationship with family. In some novels you have pets: you take care of them, sometimes you have to save them, and other times they come to your rescue.

Players gradually form a positive attitude of themselves as they always take center stage in the story. The main character tackles various challenges, but always comes out on top. Thus, step by step, the readers form an active attitude toward their own lives and the perception of themselves as master of their own destiny.

Peer relationships, decision-making, problem-solving, and the development of social interactions are all tackled in the genre. Players read conversations about feelings, family attitudes to behavior, schooling, and friendship patterns, and eventually transfer what they have experienced in the book to themselves. Through these novels, the players become more aware of their own behavior, how they present themselves, and how they impact others.

Having defined the project, we started looking for recommendations on localizing novels for Deaf players. We were unable to find any suitable ready-made processes and decided to develop our own. Of course, we are constantly refining these processes as we progress in our work, but now is as good a time as any to share our results to date and offer some best practices and strategy tips.

Project setup and preparatory phase

To begin with, perform immersive research into the culture of the selected countries. We highly recommend The Culture Map by Erin Meyer as an introduction to the idiosyncrasies of information perception and other elements of cultural diversity between people in various countries. Then study research conducted by psychologists and teachers in relevant countries on specific features of information perception, emotional development, and the challenges faced by hard of hearing and Deaf teenagers. The next step is selecting data relevant to the project. Meanwhile, involve consultants specializing in this area — psychologists, teachers who work with Deaf teens, and so on.

Moreover, perform an extra review of the text. Remove any ambiguities, and check that there are no jokes about people with disabilities or other forms of discrimination. Take into account age-appropriateness and requirements for the relevant country. Considering our audience, we completely excluded swear words, scenes of violence, blood, names of alcoholic drinks, and so on. The main information will come through the text, so it must be perfect. We opted to use and avoid specific terms based on this list:

Accessibility Guidelines

Game accessibility guidelines
(a collaborative, company-neutral effort)

Accessible Player Experiences (powered by AbleGamers Charity)

Guidelines for the development of entertaining software for people with multiple learning disabilities (UPS project)

SIG Top Ten (put together by IGDA Game Accessibility SIG volunteers)
Accessibility Reference Guides (from Can I Play That?)


Accessibility checklist (from Game Accessibility)


Software Reviews
(DAGERSystem Gaming Enabled)
Accessibility Reviews (from Can I Play That?)
Accessibility Review (from The Art of Autism)


Reviewing Guide (from Can I Play That?)

Graphics should reflect real emotions specific to the situation — anger, joy, sadness — and not mislead the reader in any way. At the same time, ensure that background music does not affect the understanding of the situation and the atmosphere of the book. Play the game on mute, and if the absence of sound cues causes difficulty, find a way to represent them visually by another means — icons or text. No essential information should be conveyed by sound alone. If the music matters, provide either captions that function as subtitles and represent sounds rather than speech or visuals to illustrate significant background music. Transmitting all sounds through text is usually neither appropriate nor necessary, but everything that is essential (wind whistling, door creaks) should be displayed in one way or another. If subtitles are used, they should be presented in a clear and easy-to-read manner. Font size, contrast, and the amount of text on screen at any one time are of vital importance. 

Also, ensure that none of the text disappears automatically. For people born deaf, the language in the subtitles is often not their first language, so they may have some difficulty with it. A player must be given enough time to read and absorb the text.

For our project, it was decided not to add characters who literally sign, because there are greater regional differences in sign languages than in spoken languages. If characters use American Sign Language (ASL), Deaf British players will not understand them. It is better to make clear via the plot that a given character is Deaf and customize their speech through the use of italics or a specific color to differentiate it from sound speech.

Once all the preparatory work has been performed, it is time to select localization specialists. Tell them about the project and gauge how they react. How congenial is this topic to them? Do they want to work for this audience?

It is essential to interact with Deaf teens, since they are the target audience.

Understand how much interest the project potentially has for them. Involve them as testers and reviewers. Start looking for them early on in the project lifecycle, because this process will take time.

To summarize, each novel has to be meticulously fine-tuned to meet the needs of Deaf players.
To be sure we were on the right path, we consulted a good number of game accessibility guidelines and checklists(see box).

The next stage was the selection of specialists. In today’s world, we are acutely aware of the importance of carefully coordinating a team of remote specialists to keep the process on track even during self-isolation and other possible disruptions.


First of all, before the project, the language skills of all translators are tested. During the project, translators gradually go through several stages of selection. At each stage, we retain only those translators who are willing to use all the reference materials, continually refine their skills, and follow the editors’ recommendations. In addition, we always apply automatic spelling and grammar checks. Furthermore, we do not work through language service providers, because we prefer to communicate directly with our freelance translators so that all issues can be resolved expeditiously.

Since we cannot verify the skillsets of native speakers, we select editors following certain formal criteria. To begin with, all editors are American English speakers and residents of the United States. Next, they are members of the American Translators Association (ATA) and they are ATA-certified in Russian to US English translation. And last but not least, they have verifiable experience in translating and editing works of fiction.

There are several reasons for insisting that an editor be a native speaker. Above all, they have a subtle sense of cultural nuances. Our editors carry out comprehensive and in-depth research to clarify details for our books, being in a position to consult with colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers in various specialized fields. Another point is that they can detect the negative connotations of names or terms with objectionable associations. Our editors help find euphemisms for swear words, alcoholic drinks, and that sort of thing. They write well-grounded reports on translation quality and help select translators at all stages of the project. Besides this, they can check whether our novels would appeal to the local audience by bouncing ideas off their own children and other young relatives and friends. Additionally, editors review our localization kit.

Localization process

In creating reference materials, we are guided by the principle of “the more detailed, the better.” The kit includes a style guide, a glossary of given names and proper names, American English vs. British English guides, and glossaries of specific terms. For example, in our medieval fantasy book The Chronicles of Altea, we have created a unique world with its own terminology and personal and place names. As one of the editors pointed out, “When you persist in using the same term repeatedly in your book, the reader gets used to it and it becomes part of this created world.” And editor Liv Bliss added that we can always respond to questions on terminology choices by simply saying, “It’s Altea, dude!”

To round out the reference material, we have illustrations of characters, a plot summary for each book, string length restrictions, and so on. We include guidelines for rendering choice options and author’s speech, as these contain features that are peculiar to visual novels.

Our linguistic localization process follows a traditional approach. During the first stage, reference materials are compiled with the editors’ involvement. Then, translators and editors familiarize themselves with the reference materials for each book. Next, the first episodes are translated and edited. After that, mistakes, errors, and cultural elements are reviewed and discussed with the team and reference materials are updated based on the editors’ recommendations on style, tone, common errors, and vocabulary selection for each book, as well as comments they entered directly into the Smartcat platform during editing. After this, summarized recommendations are sent to all translators. Lastly, there is an editorial report on the quality of every translator’s work, and less skilled translators are removed from the project. In subsequent episodes, we begin with step three (translation and editing)
and go from there.

What should be added to the traditional localization process with respect to Deaf teenagers?

First of all, involving specialists — medical experts, psychologists, specialists from the National Association of the Deaf in the USA, which has its own youth section
(, ASL interpreters, visual content experts, and so on. Secondly, identifying practical tips and best practices.

For our project, we created an animated character who signs in ASL, inviting teens to read the novels
and explaining that they are barrier-free games suitable for Deaf players. Our interactive representative’s Russian name can be rendered as “Muse Make-It-Clear,” while her English/ASL name is still a subject of hot debate.

Engaging a dedicated community manager who communicates with Deaf players and posts videos in sign language about the novels is also crucial. In general, you should put together a special support team so that players can ask questions via text or video in ASL.

This brings up a fascinating connection between ASL and Russian sign language that certainly does not exist between the respective spoken languages. American and Russian Deaf people are more likely to understand each other without an intermediary than, for example, Deaf people from the USA and Great Britain. There are also several exciting apps that convert speech or text into ASL.

Make the game available for viewing on game accessibility review sites such as Can I Play That or DAGER System. Then, involve Deaf players as testers/reviewers of game accessibility. Further, encourage Deaf gamers to play through special Deaf communities on Facebook, Deaf associations, and events.
As previously mentioned, you should afford all players the opportunity to “be” a Deaf character. That said, an entire game that has only Deaf characters may not be advisable.

Finally, ensure that players know whether a game is suitable for them prior to purchase. This can be achieved through information provided on the packaging, on the game’s website, or in feature listings. We suggest creating a special graphic symbol to mark games containing

Deaf-friendly and barrier-free content that will make it easier for Deaf and hard of hearing gamers to make
informed purchasing decisions. Here are some downloadable disability access symbols, but at the time
of writing, Tortuga had yet to make a final decision on this point: and

Certainly, this list can and should be extended with new ways of creating a barrier-free environment for Deaf teenagers, in which entertaining games help them progress in their socialization and feel an enhanced confidence in themselves and their future.

Although several of our titles have already been localized and successfully released in a number of countries, we feel especially enthusiastic about this project, and for good reason. We aren’t just localizing a game; we are giving Deaf teens a chance to fully enjoy visual novels.

We all have to move beyond tokenism, discovering new ways of promoting the rights of Deaf people and their access to a wider world of experience and technologies. By combining our efforts, we can enrich and enlarge the deaf-friendly universe.