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Countless games have grand storylines about troubled kingdoms and royal families. But not many of them are quite like The Vale.
Coming to PC in August, The Vale is a role-playing game with a twist: You experience the story primarily through dialogue, sound effects, and music. Aside from floating particles against a black background, The Vale doesn’t rely on graphics to convey what’s happening. You move your character around based solely on 3D spatial audio cues (developer Falling Squirrel highly recommends that you wear headphones).
In The Vale, you play as the second-born child of the king (you can choose your gender), someone who, in keeping with game’s sparse presentation, happens to be blind. A conflict forces you to flee the castle, and you must learn how to survive by fighting and recruiting companions for your journey.
While the focus on audio means The Vale is a much smaller RPG than the likes of The Witcher 3, Falling Squirrel had a bigger reason for using the radio drama-like approach for its first game. The indie studio wants to make sure that The Vale is a comfortable and accessible experience for blind and visually impaired players, a community game developers often neglect.
“There’s no necessary visuals on the screen. I do certain things to accentuate stuff for sighted players, but you don’t need the screen at all,” said Falling Squirrel founder David Evans in an interview. “Essentially, you’re dropped into these 3D play spaces when you’re exploring. There’ll be a soundscape all set up in binaural audio where you can hear very distinctly where objects are in the world.”
Evans, who doesn’t have a visual impairment, originally designed The Vale as an audio experience because it’d be cheaper to make for a small team. With his experience as a writer in the TV and film industries — and as a cinematographer at the defunct Silicon Knights — he knew he could at least come up with a compelling story.
It wasn’t until he started working with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) that he considered how important a game like this could be for blind and low vision players.
“I reached out to the CNIB because I thought that’d be a great place to start with some of their accessibility experts. And then I immediately realized that there was a community that was making games like this — just not with bigger budgets or professional actors,” said Evans. “And people who really wanted the content. [Video games] is one of those big sectors of entertainment that’s kind of a barren wasteland for people with visual impairments.”
The CNIB introduced him to AudioGames.net, an online resource for finding and talking about audio games. The foundation also helped him set up play tests with people who were blind or had low vision. Many of them never touched a video game before. Others, Evans found, actually played a lot of games and eagerly gave him all sorts of feedback.
“I feel like there’s a huge opportunity to provide content [for this community]. … I really like the idea of making a game that has a group of people who are really excited for [it],” he said.
Exploring an invisible space
Being an audio game doesn’t mean that The Vale will be easy. While the story follows a straightforward path, you can discover additional side quests and secrets. For instance, you can gather information in towns by interacting with the local blacksmiths, food vendors, and animals (you can even recruit a dog as your companion).
As in old-school text adventure games, it’s important to pay attention to the smaller details, which will often lead to new quest lines. Evans hopes that role-playing as the blind prince or princess will help players become accustomed to the sound-based mechanics.
“From a story standpoint, I want to reward you for doing things [your] character would be best at, which would be hearing details. So I’m always forcing you to listen for details,” he said.
But Falling Squirrels doesn’t want players to get lost, either. So The Vale has what Evans called “easy-to-hear beacons” — such as a blacksmith yelling about his wares or a noisy tavern — that act like landmarks, quickly helping you orient yourself in the space. You’ll never find walls or other objects that block your way. And the tank-like controls minimizes the confusion as well: you have to lineup the sound to the object before the game allows you to move toward or away from it.
Falling Squirrel released a video that demonstrates how exploration works.
Combat is also rudimentary in this regard. You can hear enemies coming from the left, right, or center, and tell how far away they are from you — but they’ll never sneak up behind your character. In addition to having a sword and shield (for attacking and blocking, respectively), you’ll eventually learn some magical abilities.
Describing these sound mechanics in text is a bit tricky. Heck, I’m still a little confused after talking to Evans. But the developer insists it’ll feel more natural once you get your hands on a keyboard or controller.
Falling Squirrel still has some work left to do before August comes around. Among other things, it needs to record the rest of the game’s chapters, which involves a crew of about 15 to 20 actors (some of them play multiple characters). While he hopes sighted players will have fun with The Vale, his priority is on making sure that the visually impaired community can enjoy the game without much trouble.
“If there’s one thing I get right, I want it to be that I make a good experience for the community. And then hopefully all the different things I’ve been doing for years — in terms of storytelling, dramatic setup, and compelling combat — those things will come through,” said Evans.
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