Developer Interviews #3: Falling Squirrel’s ‘The Vale’

The Vale: Shadow of The Crown is an upcoming action-adventure title with a unique twist: it’s an audio-only experience. The player takes the role of a blind princess who must make her way home after being attacked on the road by an invading army. This journey will reveal truths about your land, your people and your own family.

The Vale was featured in the Xbox Summer Games Fest Demo Event and I got the chance to ask studio director Dave Evans some questions. Let’s jump in and find out more about the game!

Credit: Falling Squirrel

So firstly before we start talking about The Vale, I was wondering what the team at Falling Squirrel have worked on before? What previous experience do they have in game development?

‘The Vale is our first project as a studio.  I’ve been working freelance under the name Falling Squirrel ever since I left AAA back in 2012.  The Vale has come together with the help of a number of devs from in and around Toronto, all of us with our own small game studios who band together to work on each other’s projects. ‘

Founder Dave Evans has over 20 years of combined game and film industry experience. He founded Falling Squirrel in 2013 to pursue new opportunities in indie game development. After working on Rollers of the Realm, Falling Squirrel are now focused on developing ‘The Vale’ which they describe as ‘an interactive digital audio game that addresses accessibility issues for the visually impaired.’

Founder Dave Evans – Credit: Falling Squirrel

Now, about The Vale. This is an experience unlike any I’ve played before. Instead of seeing, the world is built up in our minds through the noise around the main character and the people she speaks to. What inspired you to make this game and tell it in such an unexpected way?

‘The original idea was simply to make an audio-based game that featured a blind main character.  I felt a blind princess, lost in the medieval barrens, was a compelling starting point for an adventure; a mix of familiar tropes set against an unconventional perspective.

Audio-based mechanics would also provide gamers with a novel experience and, without visuals, I could focus my energy on elements of game development that I was most experienced in; namely narrative storytelling and directing actors. 

We did, however, realize right away that our game could also provide much-needed content for the blind community, but it was not until we partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and met our accessibility consultant, Martin Courcelles, that we learned just how eager many in the blind and low vision community were to play video games.’

Accessibility Consultant Martin Courcelles – Credit: Falling Squirrel

What advice would you give to players who are unsure about playing The Vale because of its differences to other games? Are there any tips to make navigation easier, or did you want to get these difficulties across in the game?

‘In testing with both blind and sighted communities early on in development we came to realize that blind players picked up navigation much quicker than sighted players. Coming in with less assumptions about how the game would play, they tended to listen to, and follow tutorial instruction more carefully. 

For example, the game’s only persistent visual feature (floating particles) is mainly 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 basic movement was understood by sighted gamers… most preferred to play the game with eyes closed.’

Credit: Falling Squirrel

‘Essentially the game in stride is meant to make simple, primary objectives like navigating to the town blacksmith, easy to execute.  You aim yourself in the direction of the banging anvil and move toward the sound on an unobstructed path,  all the while taking in the atmospheric soundscape of a medieval village.  However, within the soundscape, there are more subtle sounds you can navigate to that reward players with a keen ear. 

Hearing a whimpering dog or less obvious town villager might reward the player with an optional quest or new companion.  The truly challenging aspects of the game (on harder difficulty settings at least) are elements of combat. Moments of life or death that our main character Alex must brave.  You are playing as a blind character with sword training so you should feel like you can handle a sword and are quite comfortable navigating a space without sight. Players will hopefully forget about the main character blindness altogether at some point in the experience.’

Credit: Falling Squirrel

How much did you flesh out the world, knowing that the player wouldn’t be able to see anything? Could you make the game with sight implemented and it still be playable, or is it built purely on the sounds that surround the character?

‘The visual aspects under the hood of the game are rudimentary but built out “physically“ nonetheless. The player and enemies are objects scaled to the environment around them — swords, shields and projectiles are all collided objects moving around in 3D space.  This was in support of binaural audio plugins and audio systems that simulate rotational direction, height, and distance. Maintaining world scale and speeds made it easier to achieve realistic environments. If you’ve always wanted to adventure as a box headed ball wielding a rectangle and square, we’ve got the game for you!’

Do you think there’s more that could be done for player accessibility in the world of game development. Do you hope to see more of this in the future?

‘Yes. I’d like to see developers who have tons of amazing audio content in their games consider ways of delivering it to new audiences who are, thus far, locked out from enjoying it.  I think of “story only” modes in games like the Witcher 3 and the Uncharted Series and wonder if there is anything we might be doing with The Vale that would point the way for an audio-only mode in a bigger game title.’

Credit: Falling Squirrel

What’s next for the team after finishing The Vale? Any plans for the future?

‘I am working on two unannounced projects at the moment. This is the “Falling Squirrel helps the devs that helped us” part of our production cycle. These are story-driven projects I’m very excited about… and I’m hoping we’ll be able to add blind-accessible features to at least one of these projects. Furthermore, if the Vale: Shadow of the Crown is as successful as we hope it could be, that would also bode well for us making more games in the audio genre… or perhaps return to the world of The Vale with a broader visual game that continues to support and develop accessible mechanics.’

When do you hope to release The Vale?

‘Our final voiceover sessions have been COVID-delayed, but we are hoping to get back into the studio in time to have the game together later this year.’

The Vale will release on Xbox and Steam hopefully by the end of the year. In the meantime, you can check out the trailer below! Follow Falling Squirrel on Twitter here and facebook here.

Credit: Falling Squirrel

If you enjoyed this interview then I’ve got good news. There are more interviews to come with devs from around the world! Subscribe to the mailing list to get them straight to your inbox!

For all the latest Xbox news go check out Generation Xbox, and for all your other gaming news stick here at The Games Freak. Share your thoughts in the comments section below, or over on my social media channels!

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