The Vale: Shadow of the Crown, an action-adventure game set in a medieval-style realm, offers players a unique experience. Unlike other games, The Vale doesn’t rely on graphics but tells its entire story through audio. Players embark on a quest with Alex, a courageous and blind princess, and her companion Shepherd, as they strive to save their realm from destruction. While the game features a title card representing the main character, most of the visuals consist of a dark screen with animated abstract wisps that change color with the environment.
Designed to cater to blind or low-vision players, The Vale stands out for its captivating narrative and storytelling, which doesn’t rely on a typical narrator. The emphasis on story and accessibility makes it one of the most exceptional digital experiences of 2021. This innovative approach exemplifies the gaming industry’s commitment to making games accessible to all players.
A New Perspective
Although The Vale represents a significant milestone for accessibility, its creator and Falling Squirrel studio director, Dave Evans, admits that the game’s inception wasn’t entirely altruistic. With a background in writing for film and television but lacking in design experience, Evans sought to explore narrative and character development on a manageable scale. The initial inspiration behind an audio-based game was driven by this desire.
Evans collaborated with Martin Courcelles, an accessibility consultant at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), to shape The Vale’s concept. Their discussions delved deeper than merely improving audio quality for blind and low-vision players. They considered terminology and language usage within the blind community, questioning whether terms like “see” and “look” were applicable in conversations.
The Power of Audio Storytelling
Falling Squirrel faced the challenge of seamlessly integrating character development, actions, and narrative elements in The Vale. Evans strategically created a limited number of weapons and gear to guide players towards the blacksmith and facilitate a deeper understanding of his character.
While audio description remains the most widely accepted accommodation for blind or low-vision players, Evans aimed for a more immersive experience. He wanted the unfolding of events to happen naturally, enabling players to express emotions and thoughts that they might not physically feel. This presented an ongoing challenge throughout the game’s development.
Driving Forces for Change
SightlessKombat, an anonymous sightless gamer and accessibility consultant, played a crucial role in testing The Vale. He offered valuable feedback at various stages of the game’s development. SightlessKombat highlighted how blind characters are often portrayed as either evil or one-dimensional. In contrast, Alex is a blind character who triumphs over adversity, empowering players as they witness her slaying enemies who underestimate her abilities.
Yet, SightlessKombat acknowledged the frustration of finding truly accessible options in the gaming world. He described the experience as depressing, recounting his struggle to even navigate the user agreement in games like Battlefield 2042. The inability to access popular cultural experiences like Phasmophobia, Among Us, Apex Legends, and Fortnite due to inaccessibility compounds this frustration.
The release of The Last of Us Part 2 in 2020, widely regarded as one of the most accessible games ever made, set a new standard for AAA developers. Fully blind players, like SightlessKombat, enjoyed and completed the game with minimal assistance. Major game releases in 2021, such as Far Cry 6 and Halo Infinite, have continued the push for accessibility by prominently featuring accessibility menus upon installation. Forza Horizon 5 even includes on-screen interpreters for American Sign Language and British Sign Language.
Lukáš Hosnedl, another sightless accessibility consultant for The Vale, recognized the additional effort required to make open-world games accessible but suggested straightforward changes to accommodate low-vision players. Implementing magnification, color-blind modes, and high contrast can vastly improve accessibility without excessive modifications.
Building Accessible Games
Both SightlessKombat and Courcelles emphasized the importance of early research and collaboration with advocacy organizations for people with disabilities. Deep engagement with the community is vital, going beyond superficial presentations of accessibility features. Developers should actively seek feedback and involve disabled players in testing builds, even if the game already meets accessibility standards. This ongoing dialogue can lead to new discoveries and further improvements.
By combining storytelling, character development, and accessible gameplay, Evans hopes to transport all players, sighted or not, to new and immersive experiences. He believes that making games more accessible benefits everyone’s gaming journey.
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