Game studio Falling Squirrel is developing a narratively driven game that players have never seen before and never will. That's because their game, The Vale, is a purely auditory experience: there is no visual component of to the game whatsoever. Players will navigate through an open world, interact with different characters, and engage in combat all without ever being able to see the world around them.
For our ongoing series about accessibility and audio games, we spoke with several members of the Falling Squirrel team to learn more about The Vale and their journey in creating the first game designed specifically for both a sighted and a visually impaired audience.
How The Vale Came To Be
The Vale is a concept born out of necessity. When Falling Squirrel founder David Evans decided to shift away from his game cinematography career to focus on designing his own games, the narratively-driven game ideas he had were, for a indie studio just starting out, cost prohibitive. That's when genius struck, as David explains:
At a certain point I wanted to do some stuff with narrative that was probably pretty expensive, the idea of having a lot of characters or tangential story lines that a producer would normally shut you down on. I thought, what if I made an audio based game? Really just try out interesting narrative functions and mechanics.
As an audio only game, it made sense to David for the character to also be blind, and while originally conceived as an interesting experience for sighted players, it became apparent to David that he an opportunity to make a uniquely accessible game for the visually impaired.
Falling Squirrel then partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who immediately latched onto the idea. David explained why The Vale stood out to the community:
I went to the CNIB and they were very receptive and excited that someone was making something that aspired to be AAA quality. It's pretty few and far between when it comes to big projects. There are quite a few audio games, but they're little games; twitchy games, puzzle games, racing games, very simple stuff. I'm quite happy to add to the very small library they have.
It was almost immediately apparent the enormous value that the visually impaired community could bring to the game, both in ensuring accessibility is achieved but also to help Falling Squirrel create a simulated experience of being blind that feels authentic and avoids tropes and cliches. David is committed to making The Vale both a novel experience for sighted gamers as well as an accessible game for non-sighted players.
Building An Accessible Game For The Visually Impaired
As pioneers in this space, Falling Squirrel is faced with some unique challenges. Many of the players testing the game and providing feedback for the developers have never played video games before, for some it never occurred to them that games could be for them, too.
To help these players get acclimated to the game more easily without having the burden of learning the intricacies of controllers as well, almost all of the interactions in The Vale are mapped to the shoulder buttons. All of the tutorials and UI in the game are done through voice and audio cues, naturally, so communicating left/right trigger to the player is a lot easier than directing them towards specific face buttons. Combat is left and right hand oriented for shield and sword respectively, so this input method works out to be a lot more intuitive for new gamers.
Outside of combat, the player is free to navigate through the world and must orient their location based on the sounds around them. When entering a new town, for example, the sound of a blacksmith working, a tavern, a dog barking, and people conversing will guide the player around and help build an image of the town in their mind. Unsurprisingly, this comes very naturally to non-sighted players as it approximates their real life experience. Sighted players, on the other hand, have somewhat of a learning curve to overcome.
To help guide the player in and out of combat and around the world, a companion character follows the player, semi-narrating the game and providing context about the world around them. As David explained:
You have a companion with you who is injured...there's a whole story about this character that you uncover throughout the game. You're their fighter and they're your eyes essentially.
All of these elements combine to make The Vale accessible to players both sighted and visually impaired of all experience levels. Falling Squirrel has found that overall, players are finding the game to be incredibly intuitive.
The Vale Is Only The Beginning
Bringing gaming to the visually impaired community is David's focus with The Vale specifically, but he also sees the opportunity he has to open the doors for more high quality, accessible experiences. The Vale has the potential to not only fulfill the need of content-starved blind gamers, but also to create a demand in the community for people that never considered that they too could be gamers. By encouraging visually impaired people to pick up a controller (something many of them have none done before) and experience the game, The Vale is opening the door for more rich, accessible content in the future.
What kind of experiences might we see down the line? I asked David the question everyone is probably wondering at this point: With the experience of The Vale under his belt, could he make a Daredevil game? "I would think so, ya," he said "I'm a pretty big fan of that show, too." There's a lot of potential in the world of audio gaming, and The Vale is leading the way.
If you'd like to learn more about The Vale, you can wishlist the game on Steam. Falling Squirell will be bring The Vale to PAX West later this month.
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