“There’s none so blind as those who will not listen.” – Neil Gaiman
Developer: Falling Squirrel
The Vale is a story-driven, action-adventure in which the player takes on the role of the recently appointed warden of a small keep on the outskirts of the kingdom over which her brother reigns. Blind from birth and sheltered for much of her childhood, she eagerly welcomes her exile as an opportunity for adventure.
As an audio-based game, The Vale intends to breathe new life into medieval combat and provide a truly novel and immersive experience for visually impaired and sighted gamers alike. It utilises 3D audio and haptic controller feedback to deliver visceral gameplay that shatters the barrier between player and character.
The original idea was to have a blind protagonist, with the audio-only aspect making for a novel experience that allowed the focus to remain on the narrative design and storytelling techniques. The developers did not set out to make a game for visually impaired players, but soon realised its potential and met with an accessibility consultant and partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).
Rachael (played using Razer Kraken 7.1 V2 with Razer Synapse virtual surround and a PDP Afterglow wired controller for Xbox One)
The Vale is an audio-based RPG that boasts branching narrative, diverse combat, and a range of quests, soundscape locations, audio cutscenes and fully voiced characters. The explorable areas are walled in and contain only objects that make noise, animals, vendors, or a blacksmiths anvil, this, in turn, acts as the navigation system. As a sighted player, the experience felt somewhat alien at first but I quickly became accustomed to this and was able to fully immerse myself in the game.
There are simple controls, most of the gameplay requires only the use of the two joypads, with a small number of mechanics such as in-game choices, using the triggers. Choices explicitly made by the player include things such as combat style, weapons, armour, optional side-quests and locations. However, The Vale also includes a number of narrative dictated action scenarios.
Combat felt more organic than I expected and was easy to pick up since tutorials occur in the form of flashbacks throughout the demo. I played the game on normal mode which provided a little challenge. Incoming attacks came at a slower pace than might be expected, while this detracted from the realism, it allows space to hear and understand what is going on and was still very satisfying gameplay.
David (played using Samsung wired earbuds and a wired Xbox 360 controller)
The Vale is all about moving and interacting with a world through only sound. While it may appear difficult on paper, the game eases you in to getting used to Alex’s blindness. Every spot of interest makes a sound, enemy movements are indicated by footsteps, and their attacks have tells allowing you to react appropriately.
You may not see the action going on, but hearing it unfold and letting your imagination fill in the gaps is actually quite fun. The chinks and clangs of swords and armor are satisfying, and the various grunts the enemies make when you interrupt their attacks are relieving.
Narrative and Styling
Alex and her story make for an immersive and exciting narrative, delivered mainly through dialogue and flashbacks. The story progresses at a good pace, it is purposeful and without self-indulgence. It is also interspersed with interactions, combat and other activity, further engaging the player.
The Vale features some very impressive audio, all menu options, actions and in game choices are voiced, an important feature for the visually impaired. Additionally, each of the characters, including side characters are fully voiced and distinctive, making them recognisable despite the lack of visuals, though a few of the more dramatic scenarios were a little flat due to only very brief moments of underacting. The various soundscape environments were a personal highlight of the game 3D, realised in 3D they are navigatable, realistic and highly believable.
There are some supporting visuals in The Vale, this is mainly made of floating specks of colour that shift to accentuate combat and emotional scenes. I preferred to play the game with my eyes closed and as such found the visuals to be mostly superfluous, however I understand that they may provide a needed anchor for some sighted players to fully engage with the unfamilar game format.
As the game includes nearly no visuals, the audio is superb. While the fights are music to the ears, the sounds surrounding Alex help flesh out the world in addition to helping her go places, from the sounds of bugs and owls, to the running rivers, to the various traders shouting about their wares. The voice acting is particularly excellent, with each character having a distinct voice and clearly spoken dialogue.
While the specks of light were a nice touch over pure blackness, I found them to be a little too helpful for sighted players. They turn and move with Alex’s movement, and quite helpfully indicate when she runs into a wall (there are less specks when facing walls), which can help you go around Alex’s blindness and takes away from the immersion.
Playing The Vale demo was a fun experience, providing everything you might expect from an action RPG in an innovative and accessible way. While Falling Squirrel acknowledges the great strides that have been made in terms of videogame accessibility, they also recognise that most efforts for visually impaired players still exclude fully blind players and as such are hoping to pioneer mechanics that could be used to create audio-only modes or ports for popular existing games. The intentions are admirable and the game certainly demonstrates the possibility well, managing to be an exciting and engaging experience for sighted and blind players alike.
Even as a sighted player myself, I found The Vale to be an amazingly fresh experience. In a sea of games that rely on visuals to work, or text-based RPGs such as SanctuaryRPG, this is the only one I can think of that can be played through just sound. The fact that the game is also fun on top of being accessible to blind players is admirable.