The Xbox Summer Fest Demo Event was a great way of allowing gamers the chance to check out early versions of some of the most hotly anticipated Xbox titles. One of those that stood out amongst all the rest was that of The Vale: Shadow of the Crown. Developed in close consultation with the Canadian Institute for the Blind, The Vale is an audio experience that will have you fighting off enemies, exploring worlds, and losing yourself in a rich narrative. We just had to find out more about how this highly intriguing, hugely immersive title came about, and thankfully the founder and Studio Director of Falling Squirrel – David Evans – was more than happy to take our questions.
Hi, please could you introduce yourself. What is your role at Falling Squirrel and on The Vale: Shadow of the Crown
I’m Dave Evans, Studio Director at Falling Squirrel and I am the writer, creative director and game designer on The Vale.
So, sell it to us. Why should Xbox and PC players be playing The Vale?
Its novelty. Games with the kind of sweeping backdrop we have (a princess on a 500 mile journey home) are generally inspired by big open spaces and ingame movement over large distances. The Vale in it’s combat, exploration and narrative is about the intimate and the detailed.
Combat is close: you can hear the enemy breathing when they are worn down, their weight shifting as they are about to attack.
Exploration is about details: The player can easily navigate to locations of importance like the black smith or village tavern, but they are rewarded for locating details in the soundscape: a whimpering dog could become a companion, a villager on the street could reveal the location of hidden treasure.
Your connection with characters is intimate. You experience Alex’s journing from inside her head in a way that is more akin to VR than standard first person experiences. Spatial audio and a masterful performance by Karen Knox pulls the player into Alex’s experience and there is no barrier to how close companions and enemies can feel.
Could you tell us more about the narrative? How did this come to fruition and what has been the inspiration behind it?
Before I considered the game’s potential as an accessible experience for the blind and low vision community, I was simply intrigued by the idea of playing as blind character. The idea that for someone without sight can navigate the world with confidence… There was something empowering about that idea that I thought would be a valuable experience for a sighted game.
And how about the characters within – how were they created?
Alex is completely comfortable with her blindness at the start of the game, this, I hope is relatable for blind and low vision players and exciting and empowering for sighted players. Alex’s blindness is meant to very quickly fade away as a defining trait, as we follow the story about a woman who is building confidence as a leader.
Alex’s mentors and companions: The kindly shepherd that accompanies her on her journey; Her ambitious older brother, the king; Her trainer and tough-love uncle; The wise, albeit salty elderly couple that introduces Alex to the realm’s darkest secrets; They All provide Alex with different versions of what leadership is and should be.
It was also important that these characters span different cultures, ages and genders as to add to the scope of the world and diversity in models of leadership.
The Vale is sold on the back of being an ‘audio-based video game’. How have you gone about ensuring that the overall experience will be appealing to all?
We’ve held 3 playtesting events at the CNIB (Canadian Nation Institute for the Blind) and we have a community of about 300 people who have played the game and provided amazingly helpful feedback.
These playtests highlighted one of our biggest challenges to making a game not only for both sighted and blind players but also for a diversity of players within the blind and low vision community.
Target audiences for games usually have shared tastes in genre and game challenge level. We are hoping to make a game that will satisfy members of the blind community who have been playing games all their lives, as well as those coming to games for the first time. We will have to carefully consider game mechanics, controls and difficulty settings that will straddle this enormous gulf in game familiarity.
A related challenge: most blind gamers pick up spatial navigation quicker than sighted gamers. Similar to the ability gulf described above, we need to design a game that is challenging yet not frustrating for both sighted non-sighted groups.
The game industry is dominated by visuals. Graphic capabilities drive game hardware and AAA game sales, and visual novelty often help indie games punch through the noise. How do you market a game with next to no visuals?
How has it been working with the Canadian Institute for the Blind? Would this game have become a possibility without their input?
The short answer is, no. But I extend this to the blind community at large, a community that the CNIB was instrumental in connecting us with. The blind community were our first focus testers. They inspired elements of the narrative. They helped me find actors within the community to portray characters in the game. They help a sighted developer steer clear of tired narrative tropes that follow blind characters in popular media.
In terms of replayability, what is there to keep gamers going back to The Vale for more?
During the development of the Vale, it became clear to me that a robust narrative was going to be the key to ensuring that we could carry a 5 hour audio experience.
This is likely going to be the kind of game you come back to, to relive the experience and has all the rewards and limitations of narrative focused experiences. With that said, there are some elements of path choice, branching narrative, and player equipment choices (that change playstyle) that will warrant a second playthrough.
The most promising element of replay for many players will be the difficulty settings. The game plays VERY differently between the three settings. My hope is that most players will understand the game in stride by playing on NORMAL and then return to the game to challenge themselves on the HARD setting.
We’re pretty sure that the voice acting is going to play a huge role in The Vale. How has it been in ensuring this is fitting of the overall experience? Could you talk us through how the recording sessions worked with the actors, and how the process was different compared to a visual game?
The majority of recording sessions were run similarly to what I did in AAA. I’ve always taken recording very seriously, provided actors with scripts well and advanced and solicited their input on the writing. I cast close to type, which is not always an obvious thing to do in the world of voice acting. Many actors cover a variety of accents and can be cast to do multiple roles spanning several cultures. For economic reasons I would have my main actors cover off some smaller roles in accents they were comfortable with, but buy-and-large I was able to rely on the actor’s intimate familiarity with the various cultures we were evoking (fantasy versions of Middle East, Europe and Britain). We even recorded a good chunk of the VO in London to ensure accent authenticity for British characters.
For the visually impaired actors in the cast, I was introduced to what I thought was an impossibly difficult method of performance. Two of our actors were able to record with the guidance of a text reader… where they would be hearing the lines read robotically and instantaneously saying the lines in character. I was personally astounded as to how well this worked. For both actors, it was a technique that took a year or so to master.
We guess the audio was always going to take centre stage, but have you ever toyed with adding any type of visual element too?
At one point I thought of being a purist and going the other way; to have no visuals at all. However the particles proved to help sighted players understand how they are moving in the 3D space; when they are turning on the spot versus moving forward are backward. Most blind players were not confused by this… and once the basic movement was understood by sighted gamers… most preferred to play the game with eyes closed.
Ultimately we decided not to take visuals beyond these simple particles.. We do not want players to feel like they are missing anything if they choose to close their eyes while playing.
I would hope and expect most players will close their eyes when playing. It aids immersion and makes sections of the game more meditative. For me personally it’s a VR experience without the nausea. The particle animation and colour shifts do reflect elements of the environment and player mood (snow, rain, battle, burning village), but everything that matters is present in the soundscape and particle changes merely serve to break visual monotony for those who choose to play with their eyes open.
What has been the initial, and then on-going, reaction to those who have found out that The Vale is an audio-only experience?
The most common reaction is a great one: “I can’t believe this actually works!”.
If the game start to garner broader interest and recommendations I suspect there will be a few games that will try it and won’t be able to get past the lack of visuals
If you could give one tip to any player getting ready to settle down with The Vale, what would it be?
Close your eyes.
How has The Vale gone down with gamers since it was provided as part of the Xbox Summer Game Fest Demo event? Did you find that this increased its recognition in the gaming world?
It could not have gone better. People who are open to the idea of playing an extended audio based experience seem to be assured by the demo that this is going to work… That the narrative is there, the performances are there and that the gameplay is fun and exciting.
My biggest concern was that interest in the game would come because of the obvious novelty but the game itself would not do the idea justice. It’s sometimes hard for a Canadian to admit, but I think we’ve done a good job.
When and on what formats will we be seeing The Vale: Shadow of the Crown?
Hopefully late summer… if covid pushes production into the fall we may have to launch in the new year… We’ll have to see. We will also be launching on PC. I would love to explore a VR version of the game to throw head tracking into the mix and be able to proclaim that VR headsets can be transformed into expensive blindfolds. This, however, will all be considered after launch.
And finally, where do you see The Vale going after launch? Are there plans for expansion or a sequel?
I would love to keep building out the world of The Vale… in particular I would love to develop a standard visual game set in the world of The Vale that pulls all the inclusivity forward into this new title. We’ll have to see.
Huge thanks go out to David for sparing us some of his time in order to chat about The Vale: Shadow of the Crown. You can follow Falling Squirrel over on Twitter to be kept up-to-date with how the game develops. Or of course, keep an eye on these pages and we’ll be sure to update you in the build-up to launch of The Vale on Xbox One and PC.