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Harmonium: The Musical embraces the Deaf community to create something special

A screenshot from Harmonium: The Musical.
The Odd Gentleman
Summer Gaming Marathon Feature Image
This story is part of our Summer Gaming Marathon series.

Netflix showed up at Summer Game Fest this year to show off games like the supernatural island life game Cozy Grove: Camp Spirit and action RPG The Dragon Prince: Xadia, but the game at its booth that stuck with me the most was an adventure game about Deaf culture called Harmonium: The Musical. First teased at The Game Awards 2023, this new game from King’s Quest developer The Odd Gentlemen tells the story of a young girl named Melody from a musically-attuned family who becomes deaf at the age of 6.

From there, Melody goes on a journey to find her path as a deaf musician, which transports her to the magical, musical world of Harmonium. Creative Director Matt Korba tells Digital Trends that The Odd Gentlemen wants to be an “interactive Pixar and tell stories that even Pixar’s not telling,” and it’s kicking that initiative off by collaborating with members of the Deaf community to create Harmonium: The Musical, an adventure with hues of Coco and Alice in Wonderland that seems like it will be something special.

‘A slice of life from the Deaf community’

From the moment you see Harmonium, it’s clear just how respectful the game is toward the community it is portraying. It doesn’t feel like Harmonium is talking down to its audience about its subject matter. While it isn’t afraid to highlight some of the struggles the Deaf community faces, like Melody dealing with her father’s inconsiderate mashing of piano keys interfering with her hearing aid, it’s also empowering as the game demonstrates that Melody does not have to give up her love of music because of her deafness.

Harmonium The Sign Language Musical | Reveal Trailer | Game Awards 2023

The primary way The Odd Gentlemen achieved this was through collaboration with deaf developers and the Deaf community at large. He specifically credits Morgan Baker, a deaf game designer who worked at The Odd Gentlemen and is now game accessibility lead at EA, with helping the studio nail down Harmonium’s design early on in development. They also heavily worked with Matt and Kay Daigle, the authors behind the comic strip That Deaf Guy.

The Daigles were also there to show me the Harmonium demo, and Matt offered more insight into how his own experiences influenced the game. That ranges from his childhood, when he was the only deaf person in a musical family, to adulthood, where he still sometimes needs to learn different kinds of sign language if he goes to another country. These experiences informed Melody’s relationship with her family as well as the creation and inclusion of a special Harmonium sign language used in many puzzles.

Deaf and singing proud in Harominum: The Musical.
The Odd Gentelmen

Oftentimes people don’t know about us, so this game is a great introduction for people who are unfamiliar with the Deaf experience,” Daigle explained to Digital Trends. “Some people think it’s a myth that deaf people can enjoy music, and I’m here to say it’s not. There’s a variety of deaf people out there who can feel music in different ways. We wanted to bring about an authentic story that included so many different perspectives of deaf people, not just one. We really tried to give a slice of life from the Deaf community.”

‘This is going to be silly if deaf people can’t play’

I went hands-on with some of Harmonium: The Musical, and its presentation and puzzles felt very unique. The game is still vibrant and full of music, but most dialogue happens through sign language. Korba tells us that Harmonium will have traditional adventure game inventory puzzles, but the demo I checked out featured some puzzles more uniquely tailored for this game as they were based around players controlling a deaf character. This most often meant I had to visually interpret what another character was doing and translate that into gameplay.

The most complex example had me interpreting gestures, which the game says are part of Harmonium sign language, in order to determine the symbols to turn parts of a machine to in order to activate it. Korba tells me that this was one of the first sign-language-based puzzles that The Odd Gentlemen designed and that positive feedback from deaf and hearing players meant they kept tailoring the design that way. “This is going to be silly if deaf people can’t play,” Korba told me outright.

A mechancial part of Harmonium.
The Odd Gentelmen

The developers are also keeping those with cognitive and mobility disabilities in mind with Harmonium’s design and accessibility options. More subtle examples include that I could easily move by simply tapping anywhere on my tablet’s touchscreen, and it was possible to see every gesture required for a puzzle as many times as needed. Keeping accessibility and approachability at the front of the mind had a clear impact on how The Odd Gentlemen designed Harmonium’s puzzles and created the Harmonium sign language.

“You slow it down a bit and use visual descriptions called classifiers,” Korba explained. “Morgan and Matt would describe something to me and people at the studio who don’t know sign language, but we could watch them and get it. Everyone can pretty much understand “circle,” so we started simple and built on that. The gameplay is something that hasn’t really been seen and required collaboration because it would’ve been designed differently with just hearing developers or just deaf developers.”

A puzzle in Harmonium.
The Odd Gentlemen

Ultimately, Harmonium really feels like it’s going to be something special when it finally releases. It sharply portrays its deaf protagonist in a respectful and creative way and finds ways to keep the game true to that premise from narrative to gameplay. It feels like the type of game anyone can play. I’m left thinking about one specific comment Korba made during my demo: “We’ve always been interested in making cozy and family-friendly games for a wide audience, so if we’re not including people with disabilities or letting people access the game in different ways, that’s not really the widest possible audience we can capture.”

Harmonium: The Musical is in development for PC, Xbox, and mobile devices. It will be available through the Xbox Game Pass and Netflix game subscriptions when it launches.

Tomas Franzese
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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