The indie scene is full of amazing niche experiences, but few have managed to catch our eye quite like The Vale: Shadow of the Crown has. Developed by Falling Squirrel Inc, it’s being created from start to finish with blind and low vision gamers in mind – using audio cues and positional audio to help you navigate the game world and excellent voice acting to tell the story.
Featuring easy to use controls, it also gives sighted gamers an immersive experience as you travel through a lengthy (5+ hour) story as the game’s protagonist: a blind princess called Alex who slowly finds out more about the dark secrets of her kingdom and family. You can try out the game for yourself using a good sized demo on Steam, but as the game nears its release we also got in touch with David Evans at Falling Squirrel to find out more – here’s what we learned.
Trade shows have gone digital since last year – how has the process of getting feedback from the general audience been so far?
For audience feedback, the loss of in-person trade shows has not been an issue at all for us… the game is tricky to demo on noisy trade floors and we have a very enthusiastic community of blind and low vision gamers who have been playing our game from the start. Positive media and player feedback from online events like last summer’s Xbox Demo Event has us believing that the experience may also resonate with indie gamers in general. We also showcased the game at PAX West a few years ago, where it was interesting to see media either going with an advocacy narrative or focusing on the all-audio approach, which to them was very new. It’s actually a fairly well-tread game concept that’s very familiar to the blind community, but a lot of people aren’t aware of what came before it. Perhaps the way we’re doing it is making the concept more accessible to the sighted community.
Striking a careful balance is important in a game like The Vale. How do you make sure the 3D environment is forgiving enough to make sure people aren’t constantly getting stuck, yet feels real enough for those more comfortable with navigating without sight?
Great question. We followed a couple basic rules. Traversable spaces are always open… no interior corners or soundless obstacles in the playspace. The game has some hazards to avoid in some encounters though, and these hazards have distinct sounds and provide additional sound feedback when they’re close (such as the sound of wind rushing through a hole in the floor and the sound of debris rolling into a hole if the player gets too close).
As for sounds you are looking to navigate toward, there are two basic kinds, the first being “Beacons” that are easy to identify and locate. They represent locations like shops and taverns where players can use navigation as an element of agency (they choose quests to take and items to buy). Secondly, open areas have a layer of more subtle sounds that reward attention to detail and exploration… these elements yield rewards and optional opportunities. For instance, if you find a dog and feed him, he becomes your companion.
Community feedback from playtesters must have included some eye-openers for you – what have been some good examples of this?
We certainly have some examples of this, as the blind and low vision community has been very helpful. Some of their feedback included that:
- Reverb was very important to the experience, as they were very aware when the sound didn’t match the imagined setting.
- There were conventions in place from keyboard based audio games that had set expectations (wrapping menus, hot keys, etc). The layout of which is quite scattered as there is a tremendous comfort for most in the community, moving around a keyboard during game play. We did our best to straddle exceptions set by all audio and mainstream convention.
- There is a large section of the community that want this game to be very, very challenging. Having difficulty settings for the game was a must to straddle groups.
- As hard as it would be for me to navigate a complex open world in all audio… there is a desire to make the game more open. We sought to strike a balance in The Vale, but follow up titles will strive to create larger spaces for exploration.
- Ultimately the greatest desire for the (blind and low vision) community is to have more access to mainstream games.
When considering all of the branching narrative strands, how many hours of voice work did you have to record for the game?
The script was ambitious for an indie game, with around 6000 story lines plus combat and world voiceovers. We originally intended to have more branching in the game and the original playable character (Alex) was meant to be more empty-shell. At one point we started to record a male version of Alex so players could have more agency in character creation. Early thinking was that because the main character talks from inside the players head that it may create a disconnect when player and character gender is not aligned. In practice however, players would have to get used to any voice that was not their own anyway, and adoption of Alex’s voice seemed quick for most players regardless of gender. As we felt more confident that Alex should exert a personality within the first person experience, her volume of lines grew to the point that it was not practical for us to record 2 versions of Alex. As we had already recorded much of the work with a fantastic Actor, Karen Knox, we never looked back.
For sighted players, the novelty aspect will be a big draw and then the story will keep them immersed once they start playing. When the novelty wears off, what do you think will be the lasting effect on this group?
We will be looking to provide new elements of novelty on our coming projects, whether it be with narrative or new mechanics… regardless of whether or not our follow up projects are audio based. I can see a number of possibilities for our next project: the expansions of mechanics we’ve developed on the Vale in the creation of another audio focused project; or taking the lessons we’ve learned about accessibility and applying those to a more traditional visual experience. There, the visuals have the potential to distract you, even if there is spatial audio in the game – such as in The Last of Us Part 2. I like to exploit the audio experience mechanically to reinforce the effect that audio can have, creating an intimacy that draws you in that’s hard to create on a flat screen, no matter how good the visuals are.
Have you considered multiplayer options or spin-offs for The Vale? We’ve seen some exciting combat games in VR that use audio to great effect.
VR is an obvious place to go with the potential that head tracking would have in locating sounds in 360 degrees, and gesture based sword controls. Another thing we will likely prototype is PVP arena combat. Not sure exactly what the game version or DLC would look like, but we know we’ll have willing partners to develop with when the time comes.
Where in its development cycle is The Vale at the moment?
We’re actually very close to the end now, as we are launching the game on Xbox and PC on August 19 2021.