Piercing The Vale: A Look Inside the Audio-based Action-RPG From Falling Squirrel
The agonizing sound of screams. Horses stampeding. Arrows whizzing past your ears as your semi-conscious brain attempts to make sense of what’s happening around you. Where is Uncle? The sky is now a dark void where it had once been your only semblance of light in the unforgiving darkness. Your name is Alex — an heir to the throne, though, not the first-born son of the recently deceased King. As a blind royal in a besieged, unfamiliar land, you must fight your way back to honor and kingdom. Welcome to The Vale.
Image Caption: Title screen for The Vale game, depicting a darkened view of a distant, hilly landscape with a river running through the middle.
I recently had the opportunity to play the demo of The Vale — a lovely action-adventure game with a strong narrative, exceptional voice acting, and very impressive use of binaural audio being created with support by — and for — visually impaired communities. As a sighted gamer, it was definitely one of the most unique adventure games I’ve had the pleasure of trying out, even though I experienced only a small taste of the adventure.
For myself, sound design and execution have always been incredibly important in my opinion of a game’s success. From my days as a young mall rat playing Dance Dance Revolution, to fighting for my life against some very angry Monster Hunter World creatures, being able to recognize and understand the specific noises, rhythms, and patterns of sound have been key factors in my triumph in all sorts of video games. I respect it, but for some folks, it’s a point of necessity to be able to enjoy the experience.
After beating the demo on its normal difficulty, I interviewed Dave Evans, studio director of Falling Squirrel, the studio behind The Vale. Dave has an extensive career in games as a cinematics director, narrative director, and game design teacher at a university in Ontario. Dave simply had a dream to build a truly wonderful narrative experience, and as such, came up with the idea to do an audio-driven game, utilizing audio mechanics. Thanks to some of the advances in binaural audio in recent years and some of the methodology used in virtual reality games, Dave felt the tools were available and more than ready to tackle the challenge. His dream involved creating an expansive world and he realized the opportunity was ripe for the taking, even without the graphics that one might think are needed in the action-adventure genre.
An incredible amount of energy and unbridled passion goes into creating the graphics for a video game. Every next-gen console’s marketing revolves around the graphical capabilities. The PCMR folks are always working towards their ultra-quality 144 Hz 4K experience, and you’ll hear plenty about whatever amazing breakthrough in ray-tracing lighting that is making its way into that new, or old, game engine.
But what if a video game just…didn’t involve these things? Would it even still be a video game?
There’s an accepted phrase for it: audio-based video game. Dave found himself working in this space of audio games before he truly realized the opportunity that he was building for himself and his studio. In part of The Vale’s development efforts, Dave connected with the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) and was presented with insight into just how much hunger there is for quality audio-based games. Through the CNIB, he met Martin Courcelles — an accessible technologies specialist — who has been a constant source of feedback, insight, and consultation into bettering The Vale for a visually impaired audience, largely thanks to his work experience and his personal interest in gaming.
Image Caption: Martin Courcelles, smiling to the camera while sitting at a desk in an open-floor office environment, working on a laptop utilizing a Braille display and input adapter.
Alongside the support of CNIB and Martin, Dave also connected with the community over at Audiogames.net. Dave explains that the users there have been fabulously helpful, supportive of The Vale, and exceptionally friendly overall. However, with this much community support, Dave welcomed a new challenge: diversity.
Individuals with disabilities come from all walks of life with different backgrounds, interests, cultures, emotions, and needs. You know — normal people. While Dave was diving deep into the advocacy aspect of the work being done on The Vale, he began to understand that despite all of the support, it would be hard to please everyone, especially with any one specific narrative. Such is the dilemma of any creator — games, or otherwise. Luckily, some tropes tend to just work!
You step back into the shoes of Alex, The Vale’s protagonist. It’s some time after the incident depicted earlier, and you’re now exploring an unfamiliar village. While you can’t literally see the village, it comes to life in a way you wouldn’t believe. The sounds of livestock shuffling to and fro. A very rambunctious chicken. Just past the four-legged citizens of the village, you can hear the rhythmic hammering of metal on metal. A blacksmith, probably. Ahead and a bit off to your right is a woman belting out about her fresh bread, tonics, and ointments that are for sale. You catch another voice shouting through hers, a bit muted as it’s coming from behind you. You think you hear something about fine silks? Oh, and a string instrument being played nearby. A merchant with a nearby street performer? What you do know is that you need some of that ointment, but you need some coin to get it. Maybe that fine silk hawker would be interested in the cloak on your back?
The voice acting in The Vale is absolutely superb. While there is some benefit in the number of available resources to get some quality voice talent, it can certainly be difficult to find the right folks for such a unique project. That didn’t stop Dave and the Falling Squirrel team from bringing on Canadian broadcast personality Ramya Amuthan and voice actress Tanja Milojevic, both of whom are visually impaired and very active in visual impairment advocacy in their own ways. Not only are they bringing their voices to the game, but also their insights into how The Vale can truly make some noise for its advocacy position.
Image Caption: Ramya Amuthan, wearing large over-the-ear headphones, sitting in front of a high-quality microphone that’s in an anti-vibration mount and seems to be about to speak.
The Vale is a noisy game in the best way possible. You’re not overloaded with machine gun fire, nor are a bunch of NPCs walking by saying hello to you at an awkwardly long distance, as if you’re the Dragonborn or something. The world you’re in feels very much alive. It’s active, it’s moving, and it’s breathing. But it’s also, at times, very dangerous. This is where the fun begins.
One might think that attacking a blind person is a bit unfair, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for some wolves or the barbaric raiders in The Vale. Luckily, Alex knows how to masterfully handle a sword. Do you remember the uncle mentioned before? He taught Alex how to fight, and it plays out as part of the narrative, disguising a tutorial for the player on how to counter-attack enemies coming at you. Without the distraction of what someone else may be able to see, it’s evident that winding up a weapon swing makes armor rustle, a heated barbarian may scream with his oncoming hit, or a bear might be slowly stomping off to your side to try and take a bite from a new angle. For you to land a good hit, you need to catch these enemies off guard by swinging into their attacks, all without turning yourself around to hit them.
Admittedly, the combat left me a bit panicky and confused sometimes. While fighting multiple enemy raiders at once, I found they would attack pretty relentlessly, so I had to make sure my counters and shield blocks could handle them without taking myself out. I found it very doable on normal difficulty and was later suggested I give the hard difficulty a go.
Note: I’m not so good at the Hard difficulty just yet. The hardest difficulty is definitely doable, I’m just awful. I just wished to note that the challenge is there if you want it to be. I particularly found myself doing better with my eyes closed, which gave me the idea that this might be a great game experience to enjoy while lying in bed.
In my interviews, I like to ask the interviewee if they’re familiar with AbleGamers, our cause, and our developer resources. This time around, Dave said he was in fact familiar with our work. When he began pitching the game and started seeking community feedback on it, Dave said that there would always be someone mentioning The AbleGamers Charity. So hey, thanks for that, reader.
To wrap things up, I asked Dave if there are any other insights he wanted to share with other developers. He says that connecting with the community is absolutely vital; they’ll be able to help you steer your project into something great, as a passionate community will come with an inherent knowledge of what they need. From there, you help build that with them. Little things, too, make all the difference in the world. Having a voiceover narrator for the game’s menu options and regularly reminding you how to navigate and close a pause or chat menu was insanely helpful to help train me to play without my eyes. Also, don’t allow your concerns about the market to be a roadblock in your project. In Dave’s experience with The Vale so far, a niche community will find you if you build something for them, as there’s evidently a very active demand for that kind of support and representation.
Does The Vale sound good to you? Then give the Falling Squirrel studio a follow on Facebook and Twitter. You can sign up to potentially get your hands on The Vale’s demo here on the Falling Squirrel’s website. Otherwise, if you just wish to wait for the full game, then keep an eye on The Vale’s itch.io or Steam store pages. Be sure to let me know what you think and thanks for your support of the AbleGamers Charity as we keep up the cause so everyone can game!
Kevin is a games & tech industry marketing nerd with an affinity for duct tape and playing an orc in every game he can. You absolutely should @ him on Twitter @norumu.