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Developer Dialogue: The Vale Interview @ PAX West 2019

The Vale is an upcoming title by Falling Squirrel Inc., a Canada-based that was created by Dave Evans to create story-driven experiences in the gaming industry. At PAX West 2019, I sat down with Dave and his friend and colleague Jamie Roboz to discuss their latest project that pushes the boundaries of games and the people who play them. The Vale is being developed as an audio-only experience for blind and sighted gamers alike. The game follows a sightless adventurer as she learns to defend herself and the castle of her elder brother.

Dave, Jamie, and I discussed at length the different features of the game and what it means to develop such a forward-thinking title:

Brandon: “So, how did you each get involved with Falling Squirrel and, subsequently, The Vale?”

Dave: “Yeah, we started the company to make this game, essentially. It’s technically a company I used to do service work. I used to work in AAA, and then I started working for IndieSpace, and I do a lot of narrative stuff, so that was kinda my incorporated entity. This is our first game we’ve made in house. Jamie has been on since basically the beginning of Falling Squirrel, and we basically wanted to make a story-driven game relatively inexpensively, and we thought, ‘Hey, if we remove the visuals…’ I’m a voice-over director, well, a mo-cap director, but I don’t do any mo-cap, and a writer, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can do most of the stuff on an all-audio game.’ Then we hooked up with the CNIB, which is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and I realized there’s a group of people out there that would love to have an accessible game that’s kind of a robust action-adventure game. So that’s basically when we decided to make the game. It was more than just a little experiment on our own to make a cool, contained, inexpensive game. It became, ‘Yeah, let’s make a really cool game for that community,’ and the novelty of the game, hopefully, will carry over to sighted gamers as well.”

B: “And Jamie, what’s your role in everything?”

Jamie: “I do the production work; I helped with securing the pre-production funding, doing our pitch presentations, market research, playing all the other audio games that exist, I deal with the CNIB, our community on AudioGames.net is probably the major hub online for a lot of the blind and low-vision players, and I helped with design.

 

The Vale Dave Evans

Dave Evans

B: “Great, so you kind of went into this a little, but when The Vale was originally brainstormed and pitched, it didn’t start off as a game for the blind, but that’s how it developed?”

D: “Pretty quickly we realized that that would be something…”

J: “Yeah, as soon as when we were trying to get funding for it, part of it involves market research, the more we did that, while there were maybe three or four games that were audio games that were big enough to penetrate a mainstream market, a lot of the other games existed kind of in the realm of hobbyists or amateur developers making it just for this community, and we realized the community has a really significant demand to have a product that has mainstream appeal and is of the quality of other mainstream games but is accessible for them. Like Dave said, it quickly had a lot more advocacy involved in it.”

B: “I’m very curious how you can have combat and exploring in a game with absolutely no visuals. Could you walk through the development process of how that works and how you could accomplish such a thing?”

D: “From a development standpoint, the first thing we realized is we didn’t want to make a maze game. It’s kind of a genre in the all-audio space, where you go through and you’re trying to feel your way through an area where there’re walls you can’t see, but we decided to make big open spaces that made contextual sense, like a big open market, with a ton of audio detail. It’s not as much about you navigating something you can’t understand or have to put together in your mind’s eye visually. It’s about listening to details, so the things that are meant to be easy to get to, like the tavern where you want to get your quests, or the blacksmith’s shop where you want to sell and buy items, those are beacons that are very obvious; the pounding of the anvil and the music in the tavern.”

B: “Those should stand out in a town.”

D: “Those are the beacons, yeah. Everything else are little details. It would be like a chicken walking around; they’re not important other than the fact that if you walk through it, it flies away. It feels alive, and there’s an atmospheric element to it, and an immersion element. Then there are things you can actually interact with: individual sellers you can interact with and potentially get quests from or buy stuff from, you can feed a dog and he’ll become your companion, and other little sort of secrets, as well as dungeons where you can hear enemies and hear a waterfall you’re going to. There are also other things in the space that could potentially be hazardous that make sound, or that could be rewarding and yield some sort of loot, or something.”

J: “The thing that was most important in that process was figuring out a way to meet what we wanted and have an experience that was cinematic, but also still had all of the gameplay options that you’re talking about. There are a lot of other games that either try to explain space without visuals in a grid, and actually describing in a robot voice where you are on this grid, or using audio beacons and stuff that’s not diegetic, and we really wanted to make sure that all the signifiers in our game added to the cinematic experience. That’s why there’re all of those audio queues in the soundscape that are big, that’s why the combat has you stationary, because making fully 3D combat where you can pivot in 360 directions and move around at the same time, while hopefully possible in the future, was just a lot to make functional while also being appealing.”

B: “What kinds of challenges unique to an audio-only game came along with developing The Vale?”

D: “The first one was the idea that we were making a game that we wanted to resonate with and be good for the visually impaired audience. We can also talk about what we’re doing to make it novel for the sighted audience, but in particular the visually impaired audience. We realized there’s quite a gulf in terms of ability levels and familiarity with games, so we have groups within the blind community that are very hardcore and into very difficult games to play, then there’re people in the blind community who were excited and are really playtesting to come and just see a game that’s for them having never played a game before. How do you bridge that gap with a game that can satisfy people who want challenge and also be potentially the first game a person has ever played, with a controller, in particular. That was one of the big challenges, and we’ve developed a difficulty level system that we’re hoping will bridge that gap, and we also learned a lot about how we needed to design the game so the challenge of the game were things that we could control. For instance, if we had a lot of unique positions for enemies to stand in, then we’d have to have precision when it comes to aiming that probably wouldn’t scale very well for difficulty level. Instead, we had to rely on how often the enemies attack, how overlapped the attacks are, and then buffing and changing the way damage works was the way we sort of did it, so that was a challenge and that was our solution.”

J: “Yeah, I think another one of our biggest challenges was in the design philosophy of the game. We wanted a game that was evocative of adventure game and RPG tropes and features, and I know initially we pitched the game as having the things it has now: there’s real-time combat, there’s gear and equipment, and there’s questing and exploration, but where we started and ended up with that was a journey as a result of it being an audio game. Instead of making an RPG or dungeon-crawler game that has hundreds of gear that you can pick up with a whole bunch of different statistics to track, and stat differences, and having to min/max character growth and gear, we paired down those choices so that the game would still have those features – there’s still weapons you can pick out that affect the way you play the game, there’s still armor upgrades – but we have made it a lot more streamlined for an all-audio interface; instead of having to go and sort through a whole menu of weapons, you go to a blacksmith and you have an in-character conversation with the blacksmith, so it’s this organic, cinematic experience that still provides that gameplay mechanic that people who like those kinds of games will be familiar with. That kind of philosophy of finding the middle ground where it’s in between something that works for an all-audio game but still has many of the mainstream aspects of a sighted game for the genre influenced a lot of our choices.”

B: “I like that idea of going to the blacksmith and having him tell you, because that kind of keeps you in the immersion of the game, as opposed to having a robotic voice come out and say, ‘Hey, this is what you have,’ it’s a lot better to have that in-game interaction.”

D: “Exactly, and we sort of decided that we take this potential disadvantage of not being able to have these big menu systems and say, ‘Well, make this a feature.’ You know what, you’re going to make choices in this game, but they’re going to be these substantial choices. When you make a choice of weapon you’re gonna use, that’s going to be a big difference, not one of these little differences incrementally. It’s going to be a big difference, it’s going to be a big choice, and it feels more like a narrative choice, I feel.”

B: “So, you mentioned how you could go into how you could optimize this game as best you could for also sighted players, so do you wanna speak more about how this can appeal to people who do have sight?”

D: “Yeah, I mean, the big one was, and this just naturally happens, we didn’t really have to do a lot to think about this group, it’s a character you’re not normally playing. For a sighted person to play a blind character… it’s a transportive experience, so just from a narrative standpoint it’s interesting. Again, another advantage we realized, or a novelty I wasn’t expecting, was how different the game feels. The experience is more intimate, I think, than other gaming experiences with visuals. When you’re surrounded by enemies, you’re understanding combat and what you need to do based on these little details in the world: the sound of somebody’s armor clinking, you know where they are by sort of their feet shifting on the ground, something that I’ve never really experienced or thought of when playing most visual games. The other aspect would be in a world, a big detailed world that you’re walking around in, we value your ability to pick out details in the world… there’s reward for the player that goes and listens for the little things in the world, like the dog that you can pet and befriend, or a character that’s selling something or begging for coin on the corner, you could talk to them and potentially get an additional quest if you take the time to listen.”

B: “Sometimes I end up thinking about this when I play a game or watch a movie, but you do kind of take advantage of just how much work went into Foley and the audio aspect of everything because everything besides a voice needs another recording of someone doing something in a booth. In The Vale, it’s not only more accentuated, but it’s celebrated.”

D: “For sure, I think that audio gets overlooked in games very often, in production and by people playing the game. First of all, as someone who has only been making visual games up to this point, I have a tremendous appreciation now for audio designers and audio design. I was a level designer working with visual assets. Now I’m a level designer really thinking about how audio works, and… gosh I hope I’ll be much more sensitive to audio engineers moving forward. I think it’s something that has value. And the thing I think is the most important is that because the game requires you to put on a headset, that’s really the big thing. There’s some games that are really well mixed audio wise, like Dead Space would be an example of a game where they do a lot with the audio, but you still have the option to take the headset off or you could play it in a loud room, and [The Vale] forces people to have to appreciate the audio, and I’ve started playing visual games now with a headset because of this game. I start listening and caring.”

J: “Yeah, that’s the thing that I really appreciate a lot: seeing people’s experience change when the visuals are taken away. I think it was one of the folks we had yesterday that said they could smell the shield of the main character and the leather, which I thought was the highest compliment, that someone would be so immersed in the game to have that… psychosomatic response, because that’s real. If you are thinking about it that hard and you have a queue that associates that smell in your brain, you do smell it whether it’s there or not.”

D: “I also like the fact that it’s kind of like VR, where when we were telling people how far they should play and moving them onto another section, a few people who had their eyes closed, we kinda had to bring them out. We had to go up and tap them on the shoulder, “You’re… we’re gonna go somewhere else now.”

B: “Yeah, that was me too!”

D: “Yeah, exactly! You were one of those! That’s an experience people have had, and I’m like, yeah that’s a little bit different than a lot of games.”

J: “Or some of the people we had that are really accustomed to playing a lot of VR games were doing a lot of head moving while playing, and it’s really nice to see all of those things, and I think all those examples really paint a good picture, or I guess a really good soundscape, as to people’s reception for how novel the experience is.”

D: “I’m still worried that someone on the showfloor is going to fall over, because they’re closing their eyes and he’s been standing there for fifteen minutes into it. I’m just waiting for someone to forget where they are and…”

J: ”We’ll get some pillows, but that sounds like mostly good publicity, as long as no one’s hurt.”

B: “Haha! Alright, so the last questions is: when does the game come out?!”

J: “Early 2020. If anybody wants to subscribe to our mailing list at FallingSquirrel.com/TheVale, we’ll have more info released there, and all our demos go out from that mailing list as well, so if anybody wants to get their hands on some of the game a little bit earlier than early 2020, definitely head there.”

B: “Thanks so much! It was great talking to you guys!”

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