The Vale Impression and Interview
As brief as the demo was, it transported me to a new headspace where I had to develop skills to survive.
The Vale is a non-visual action RPG created by Falling Squirrel. Although the team’s members have worked on multiple AAA titles, this is its first work as a studio. The game tells the story of Alex, the second-born princess of a noble family, who is assigned to a post on the borderlands. Along the way to her post, she’s attacked by an invading army. Barely surviving, Alex finds herself in position to influence a tense political situation and gain control over her life. The journey is unique to other, similar stories because Alex is blind. Playing the game requires navigating Alex’s surroundings with binaural audio, aided by optional haptic feedback from a controller. Good headphones are recommended.
Interacting without visual cues was difficult at first, but by the end of the demo it made a lot more sense. In exploration mode I navigated a small town using the intensity and directionality of a babbling river and a creaking mill to reach my objective. The left stick controlled my walking, while the right stick controlled Alex’s walking stick. During the battle tutorial, an introduction to the path of self-defense, the left stick shifted to control my shield and the right stick controlled my sword. Using the sound of my tutor’s shifting leather, clinking metal, and heavy breathing, I shielded myself from his attacks and struck true. In the final combat, I was blocking and countering several enemies. Their attacks came from the left, right, and directly in front. I kept my shield up, listened for an opening, and then swung while my foes recovered. Dave Evans, studio director of Falling Squirrel, encouraged me to experiment with both fast, precise attacks and a more guarded system of blocking and countering.
Evans explained that “The game is all about listening for details, so the guttural sound they make usually distinguishes the type of attack they’ll make, while any kind of movement tells you when the attack starts.” Attacks take time, so victory requires striking while the enemy is distracted or recovering from a heavy attack. In the long run, success also requires pattern recognition, as some foes (although none that were in the demo) do multi-hit attacks.
As brief as the demo was, it transported me to a new headspace where I had to develop skills to survive. I didn’t get a chance to take Alex hunting, but did spend a little time talking with Dave Evans and Jamie Roboz about their process for creating the game.
Zach Welhouse, RPGamer: What is Falling Squirrel’s connection to blind and low-vision communities?
Dave Evans, Falling Squirrel: Almost as soon as we started looking into making this game we realized there was a huge online community for audio games, and it was mostly was from the blind and low-vision community. Online we have a really, really passionate community that plays all of our demos. Compared to a lot of other indie games we’ve worked on, we have a huge rate of return for what we put out online.
Jamie Roboz, Falling Squirrel: That’s Audiogames.net.
DE: Additionally, we have a consultant, Martin Courcelles, who used to work as a technology advisor for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) as well as the Ontario Gambling Commission. Everything goes through him. We’ve run a number of playtests through the CNIB and we have our content featured on accessible media stations as well. It’s definitely our primary target, and we really try to keep that at the forefront of development.
ZW: What encouraged you to create such an accessibility-focused game as Falling Squirrel’s first release?
DE: I’m big into narrative. I was a cinematic director for AAA titles, and when I moved to indie games I was still writing stories. I wanted to play with bigger worlds, bigger stories, and more characters. Initially it was the expense. I thought, “Wow. If I did an audio game, I could do a lot of different things and take a lot more risks without a producer saying I couldn’t because it was too expensive.”
The original idea did have a blind protagonist in mind. From a sighted player’s standpoint, I thought it would be a really interesting experience. Even before we partnered with the CNIB I saw the potential for this to be a very different experience in the terms of intimacy. Especially in third-person perspective games, you often feel removed from fighting. Here you’re hearing the enemy’s footsteps and the crinkling of their armor. In cinema, it’s not just listening to plot development, you’re actually hearing a character walk up and whispering in your ear. That’s a bit different than most visual experiences.
JR: When we started looking at it more, we realized this community really wanted experience in a game that would be on par with any mainstream game for sighted players. The games that do exist currently didn’t have either that production value or the same design experience. Dave has a lot of experience in AAA, and we’ve both worked with indies as well. We feel that Falling Squirrel is prepared to deliver the experience the community wants.
ZW: I noticed the depth of the sound in the opening scene. I was also thinking about how if it were a more traditional game, I would be taking notes. I was feeling more immersed in that sense, but also more disoriented. I wanted to slow down and take in every detail.
DE: For pacing purposes, we are cognizant of that. It’s similar to VR in that you can’t maintain that kind of intensity the whole time [laughs]. There are exploration sections very quickly. You’ll fight, but then there will be moments where you can catch your breath, listen to details, and take your time.
The exploration sections aren’t hard to navigate. It’s not like you’re going through mazes or anything. You can hear the beacons, like the tavern where you get quests and the blacksmith shop. Interacting with the blacksmith isn’t table-based, he has a few items he’s trying to sell you. It’s a simple interaction where you either buy it or you don’t. It feels like a conversation.
The little exploration “rewards” you get out of the game are details. You’ll hear a crow in the woods as you’re doing something else and it leads to a dead body where you get some loot. Or you hear a dog whimpering in the corner in a tavern and you can pet him and feed him and he’ll follow you for the rest of the game.
ZW: So you’re getting a shout-out on Can You Pet the Dog?
DE: Yeah [laughs]. You can pet the dog. And travel with him. That’s the best example of a producer stepping in and saying, “We have to do AI for the dog, we have to model a dog, we gotta have animation for the dog.” And instead we have the exchange where you pet the dog and then every time it makes sense for the dog to do something he will bark and Alex says, “Quiet, boy!” or whatever [laughs]. The dog is always there, but it’s not an expensive thing to add to the game.
ZW: I’ve heard similar responses from writers of interactive fiction and text-based games.
DE: Yeah. It’s so convenient because the limit is also contextual. You can’t see. It’s not like we’re pulling something away because of production. You are a blind character. This is the experience at its height.
ZW: I’m surprised to hear about earning gold and making purchases. How do you handle the inventory system?
DE: There’s been a lot of talk. We spent a lot of time on that [laughs].
JR: Initially we wanted to make certain things as fully featured as possible. But the more we talked about it, developed and tested, the more we realized we had to find a happy medium between the tropes and features of an RPG and what would work for us. Like, instead of finding piles of loot to sell, like in a dungeon crawler, where you sell maybe 85%, keep 10%, and wear 5%, you only have a few choices for gear upgrades but they’re all very significant. There’s not a lot of clutter or having to go through a menu that’s reading out a bunch of statistics. That kind of philosophy influenced how we went about everything from navigation to the quests.
DE: Choices are simple but substantial. Basically, you build up a gold pool to upgrade your weapons or switch to another style of fighting. You could say, “I’m going to stop investing in my sword upgrades and go over to heavy weapons.” You have play style agency, but it’s spread out so it feels more like a story choice than playing with little details.
When you’re in a blacksmith shop, that’s your opportunity to consider your “inventory screen”. You don’t pull up an inventory screen. You go to the blacksmith to manage your inventory.
ZW: Earlier we were talking about quests and the narrative. Is it fair to talk about the story in terms of how it branches?
DE: Yeah, a little bit. We haven’t been talking about this much, but I’ve taken a lot of care in making a narrative that has a through-line everyone is going to get and enjoy. But especially near the end of the game there are a number of choices you make, primarily based on who you travel with and places you explore, that bring in a tiny bit of that faction-based stuff.
I haven’t gone crazy with it, but I like that you have some agency in the story. The through-line is the most important thing. The game is mostly about a character who is second-born to the throne and has been alienated. The whole journey of her coming back home is her introduction to potentially being a leader and having the confidence to be more than a second child. She has the skills, she has the empathy, she knows how to listen to people, she has a life experience that makes her more empathetic.
In today’s world, I feel there’s a thematic element that understanding people makes a good leader. There are also a lot of characters you meet and side-quests that you can take to reinforce this idea of Alex as a leader.
ZW: How does this play out conversationally?
DE: We haven’t gone with dialogue trees per se, but there are a couple things I like here. I like making decisions based on what I do, not necessarily how I talk. Plus, Alex is a fairly well-realized character. She’s not an empty shell, so Alex is going to be Alex as she interacts with characters. It’s similar to The Witcher, where you can contextually do things, but Geralt is Geralt.
For example, exploration is one of the ways you can get quests. You can get a bunch of quests at the tavern, but you may also hear things elsewhere. I reward people who are willing to work for it with side things that feed into the loop of collecting gold or an item. At the tavern I treat it like a montage. Rather than being a real-time experience where you bump around into people, you cycle through with cross-fading and hear all the different conversations. When you rest on one you like, you can listen more and either take it or not. After taking most quests you are warped directly into the gameplay, like a dungeon or a combat scenario.
You don’t get a lot out of open exploration in a game without visuals. Picture Horizon Zero Dawn, a big, open, beautiful world you get to see, but then very quickly you’re teleporting between everywhere you want to go, right? [In The Vale] everything’s about intimacy, so I might as well jump you past that so you don’t have to stumble around. There’s an efficiency to that. Like it or hate it, that’s the commitment we made to getting you to what’s important.
ZW: That makes sense.
DE: It’s still on rails where you’re not going to choose to intimidate versus charm them: it’s really about what you care about as a player, what you want to do, and how much time you want to spend in a hub world. There’s usually a gating quest you can find pretty quickly. Some have a little mystery where you’re “I don’t know how to get past this, so I’ll have to try a couple of quests and see how they fit together,” but by and large you’ll get it quickly and it’s a question of how much do you want to do in this world. It all reinforces the idea of whether Alex is a leader. Does she like to help people? This gets reinforced in other sections of the game where characters start to comment on whether you’re helping people or if you’re just going through the game really quickly.
ZW: Does that mean it’s not going to be very popular with the speedrunning community?
JR: Actually, we had a speedrunner tell us it would likely be pretty popular. We just got some constructive feedback about adding visuals that would help a sighted audience watching the stream.
DE: The interesting thing to me is that even though you jump around for a lot of the quest, when you go to a village you have to hear the cues. If you’re a speedrunner, you still have to hear, line yourself up, and run to them. When you jump into a quest there are a lot of exploration aspects. You’d have to quickly run around. The speed at which you end a fight is also important.
With that we finished our tea and said our goodbyes. Since then, Falling Squirrel has presented at Reboot Develop RED, where it won the “Special Selection” prize and was shortlisted for “Best Audio”. RPGamer would once again like to thank Dave Evans, Jamie Roboz, and Falling Squirrel for letting us check out and discuss The Vale. The Vale will be released for PC in early 2020.