How a musical indie game went against the grain to explore the Deaf experience

2024-07-03 09:00


Screenshot from Harmonium: The Musical featuring Harper, a fairy character from the land of Harmonium who is deaf.
Image: That Odd Gentlemen

Harmonium: The Musical took a lot of time and resources, but according to its developers, it was worth it.

Before I even touched the demo of Harmonium: The Musical at Summer Game Fest earlier this month, I started bawling. It’s about a young deaf girl, Melody, who wishes to participate in the musical traditions of her hearing family. That desire leads her to an adventure in the magical land of Harmonium where music and sign language are the primary means of communication. But what really got me about this game is the dedication from its development team to not only make this game but make it right — with all of the costs and risks that entails.

Harmonium is the latest project from The Odd Gentlemen, an LA-based studio known for its revival of the Sierra Entertainment point-and-click adventure classic King’s Quest. Studio founder Matt Korba told The Verge that Harmonium was inspired by theater troupes like Deaf West that incorporate sign language into their productions. But in developing Harmonium, Korba said he wanted a game that went beyond what he felt most studios do when tackling representation. “Usually on projects like this, the script will be written in English, and [developers will hire] a consultant at the last minute that knows sign language, and they’ll just translate,” Korba said.

Screenshot from Harmonium The Musical featuring the character Melody, a young deaf Filipino girl standing next to the text “Deaf and signing proud.” image: The Odd Gentelmen

To Korba, Harmonium required a “ground-up approach” that, from day one, integrated the people with the same lived experiences as the characters created for the game. That included engaging the Southern California Association for the Deaf and recruiting deaf developers and artists. This led Korba to Matt Daigle, a deaf artist, performer, and graphic designer notable for creating the international symbol for breastfeeding and his webcomic That Deaf Guy depicting the everyday life of a mixed-hearing family. He also found Søren Bro Sparre, a deaf animator from Denmark whose hiring introduced the challenge of communicating not only in English and American Sign Language but in Danish Sign Language as well.

For Daigle, Harmonium is a way to share more of Deaf culture, including dispelling what he called the cultural myth that music isn’t for deaf people. “I relate to Melody because I grew up in a family of musicians, and I played the clarinet,” Daigle signed in our interview with helpful translation from his interpreter. “It’s good to show that a person who was hearing who became deaf can still enjoy music, and that deaf people enjoy everything in their own way.”

Though Daigle’s role was to inform Melody as a deaf character, there were other elements of her character that he could not speak to. Melody is Filipino, Korba explained, and her experiences as a person are influenced by her cultural heritage as well as her deafness.

“As we got deeper into development, we realized there was a cross-cultural difference,” Korba said. “We had to laser focus and try to find people with lived experience and the [right] background, so we ended up finding two actresses who are both deaf and Filipino that we use for reference accuracy.”

That level of specificity took work; the game’s story had to be rewritten three times. But Korba also explained that all those little steps taken in service to authenticity made the game better than what it would have been without it.

“One of our early passes on the script had a lot of deaf struggles in it,” Korba said. Originally, Melody’s father wasn’t going to use sign language, emulating a common problem between deaf children and their hearing parents. But in testing this story with deaf participants, they found that despite the fact this was a common scenario for deaf people, they rejected it anyway, telling the developer that “I don’t want to see that in a video game.”

Screenshot from Harmonium: The Musical featuring a young Filipino girl communicating in sign language with her father. Image: The Odd Gentlemen
Melody signs with her father, who, in the original script, did not use sign language.

He said their deaf playtesters explained that they didn’t want their children to grow up expecting to always struggle with their hearing loved ones. “We discovered it’s okay to show challenges, but you also have to show the benefits.”

That benefit is something Daigle explained as “Deaf Gain” — a philosophy that shifts the perspective on deaf people to the unique things they can do versus what they can’t. “This is about people speaking with their eyes,” Daigle signed. In the opening moments of Harmonium’s demo, for instance, Melody is stuck inside practicing for a recital when her friend stops by to speak to her through her living room window — something only deaf people can do.

Screenshot from Harmonium: The Musical featuring a small caucasian child wearing a hearing aid holding up a can of paint and a flyer that reads, “Melody’s Big Show.” Image: The Odd Gentlemen
Melody’s deaf friend Matt communicates with her through a window.

Hearing about all the things it took to bring Harmonium to life, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Isn’t this all prohibitively expensive?” Game development is time-consuming and expensive as it is, even without Harmonium’s level of specificity. Expensive games that take a long time to make face a significant challenge to recoup that cost and make a profit. And even then, merely being profitable isn’t enough to ensure a studio’s survival.

Daigle and Korba credited their partners at Xbox and Netflix who encouraged their team to continue down their unique, if complicated, path even though it ran contrary to modern game development sensibilities. “We have had time to let those things incubate and develop, bringing them to an audience that includes everybody,” Daigle signed. “Does that sound expensive? It sure is. But it’s worth it.”

The video game industry has been beset with unprecedented layoffs, studio closures, and project cancellations. Publishers are largely choosing to spend money on developing massive, live-service, multiplayer, multi-platform games from recognizable IPs, leaving smaller studios and games to languish for lack of funding. Meanwhile, underneath it all is a vigorous and virulent current of toxicity that seeks to amplify the fringe notion that in order for the video games industry to survive this upheaval, they must appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Given all this, it feels like a miracle a game like Harmonium exists — and its developers know it. “We all just did it one step at a time,” Korba said. “And everyone’s like, ‘How did you get here?’ I don’t really know.”

Harmonium is but one example of how diversity and inclusion combined with authentically and empathetically executed scope results in better games — the kind audiences will embrace.

I’m not deaf or Filipino, but I could still connect with Melody and her story. I grinned like an idiot when I solved one of Harmonium’s puzzles, matching Melody’s signed descriptions to their correct instruments so I could open a locked door. I laughed when Daigle explained some of the Deaf humor in the game, like a joke about a deaf tree that wouldn’t fall unless someone signed “timber.” And it all made me cry because even though it would have been easier, cheaper, and safer for the developers at The Odd Gentlemen to not include any of these things, they did it anyway.

“We’re not just building a game for deaf people,” Daigle signed, “but a game that is fun and engaging for everybody.”

Harmonium: The Musical launches in early 2025 on Netflix and Xbox Game Pass.