As the topic of accessibility in games has been brought to the forefront in the last few years, I've noticed that there isn't much innovation going on in terms of designing games for disabled people, rather than creating the game and adding accessibility options afterwards. Regardless of your thoughts on the content, the accessibility design of The Last of Us Part II last year was so impressive and robust that blind people were able to play and complete the game. But I began to think... why stop there?
Many more games are taking small steps, like creating a variety of colorblind and text options as well as customizable control sets. But where are the games designed from the ground up for blind gamers? A game called Blind Drive released earlier this year, and while it is impressive that there's nothing on the screen and a blind and sighted person could play it the same exact way, it's an arcade game that doesn't deliver something on the level of God of War or The Legend of Zelda. I began to wonder if such a thing would even be possible. And then, during an Xbox Steam festival, I stumbled onto a demo for The Vale: Shadow of the Crown. David Evans and Jamie Roboz at Falling Squirrel Studios were kind enough to sit down with me to discuss how and why they built a narrative-driven action-adventure game with absolutely no visuals.
"At first it was really about finding an inexpensive way to work with narrative," Evans admitted. "I have experience with actors, working with voice overs and things like that. And I thought this would be a good vehicle for advancing ideas I had cheaply, but within a few months I realized that this is something that would be interesting for the blind community. So I met up with the CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] and they put me in touch with some focus groups for some very early prototypes of the game."
It seems that the sighted community has been just as interested in the concept from when it was first conceived as the blind community, just out of pure curiosity for innovation. Over the last five years, they've worked to get grants from various charitable organizations and even Xbox to keep the project running. During that time, Falling Squirrel worked closely with the blind community in a variety of ways and couldn't be happier with the results. "It's a very welcoming community. It's virtually troll-free!" said Evans.
"We realized there was a niche that wasn't really being filled as well as it could be, with the blind and low vision community," Roboz added. "There is this almost fervent community that wants to play anything that is available or accessible... One of the most interesting things was going back and forth on making the protagonist blind."
"It's also a very diverse community," Evans said. "It needs to be readily playable by someone who's maybe never held a controller... and there's a very hardcore element of this community too, people who speedrun Zelda games and play Street Fighter. I think we've done a decent job of straddling that. I think it ultimately makes it a better game, in maybe a rare case. Sometimes you end up watering things down, but we were still able to make a very hard Hard Mode. I can't play it."
Falling Squirrel found inspiration for The Vale in the game Blind Legend, but found that a lot of games for blind gamers lacked either production value or the experience of a professional developer. While wading through a field of tech demos or less-than-high-quality games, they set out to make an experience that would be equitable to a AAA experience. "We're tried to make a quality experience where we've found that there aren't many," Roboz said.
I asked about any inspiration from Nintendo's launch title 1-2-Switch, which became popular in the blind community since it doesn't require players to look at a screen. "Very early on, we had thought of going to the Switch, because of the motion controls. Now Sony has hit that out of the park too with that amazing tactile function in the [DualSense] controller. I do have an interest in coming back to those controllers, and to the PS5 controller as well," said Evans.
The Vale is played by moving around an actual represented space, but with no visuals on screen. Instead, players utilize audio cues in a navigable space to find their way around, listening for a blacksmith's hammer or a ferry whistle and bumping into more than a few walls. In combat, players listen for tells such as the clinking of armor or the rustling of leaves to parry, block, and slash foes. This is, again, in a 3D space; different enemy types will attack from different sides, and the phenomenal sound design of The Vale provides just enough warning to duck and dodge attacks.
"[The Vale] basically follows the journey of the second-born princess, a young woman who's been exiled to the boonies by her father," Evans explained. "His dying wish was to have her set up to lord over a castle somewhere. She feels that this is connected to her blindness, that he never had an imagination for how a [blind] person could become an advisor or leader. Her caravan is attacked on the way out there, and she ends up having to make the journey home, about 500 miles... her uncle had been training her with a shield and sword, so she's an able combatant. And she has to find allies and make this arduous journey home."
I inquired if the developers come from more of a sound engineering background than from game development. "I do now," Evans laughed. "Other than being a voice actor/director in AAA games and live action, I felt comfortable and I felt [getting top tier actors] was the main thing. I'm really relying on people with way more experience than I have... We don't do a ton of foley [work], but I recorded my own dog, and I apologize for not being funny but to me it was like magic."
I followed up to ask about selecting and working with these voice actors. Evans found that he didn't know how to deliver a script to his two blind actors on set, and he assumed there might be a braille translator involved. He was surprised when the actors used robot-spoken audio of the written script to listen to and recite as they were saying the lines.
"Both women were absolutely phenomenal, and they both had similar methods of reading to playback. And it was relatively cold reads," he said. "I wanted to try and cast the main character in the [blind] community but I set too many requirements, like the accents and stuff. I did end up casting in London, because there were so many English accents needed. There's four actors from the [blind] community in the game and all of them play sighted characters, and the three blind characters in the game are all played by sighted actors. I think, I hope I did a decent job of representing."
Falling Squirrel intends to release The Vale on Steam and Xbox in the first half of 2021. Evans stated that they would love to explore the capabilities of the PS5 Dualsense as well as the Switch's Joy-Cons in the future with specialized versions. "And VR, I think it'd be very cool to get a VR version of the game. We've dubbed it the 'most expensive blindfold accessory,'" Roboz joked.
They're hoping to follow up The Vale with one of a few ideas they've been tossing around, such as an all-audio pinball RPG or a competitive online multiplayer game with no visuals. Further plans involve mobile ports for Android and iOS, as well as dubbing The Vale into different languages starting with German (which is almost like making a whole new game).
"People have asked me, is this a blind simulator? What is the draw for someone who is sighted?" Evans prompted as the discussion wound down. "It's very specifically not that. When you're playing this game, you're playing a character who can do incredible things. Her blindness becomes empowerment. There's an intimate nature to the game, hearing someone move close to you, hearing an enemy breathe down your neck. But there's also an exhilarating feeling being so good at fighting and just getting around... as a sighted person, you could never understand what it's like to be that character, but I think you can feel that empowerment."
I personally can't wait to get my hands on The Vale, close my eyes, hear the living world around me, and dive into an adventure as robust as blind and sighted gamers alike deserve.