The Vale: Shadow of the Crown raised the bar for accessibility in 2021

The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is an action-adventure game that takes players through medieval-style villages in a fictional realm. There are quests to take up and bandits to thwart through battle. That may sound like a lot of other games, but The Vale has one key twist: There are no graphics. The entire game is told through audio.

The story centers around Alex — a feisty, intensely brave, and blind princess  — and her companion, Shepherd, and their journey to save their realm from destruction. There’s a title card illustrating the main character, but the game’s visuals are largely a dark screen with animated abstract wisps that change colors and move when the environment changes.

It’s designed to be accessible to blind or low-vision players and has an engaging narrative and storytelling that doesn’t require the stereotypical narrator. The Vale’s emphasis on story and accessibility above all else is what makes it one of 2021’s most special digital experiences. And it’s just one example of the way the industry is making games more accessible to all players.

A new vision

While The Vale is a milestone for accessibility, with the game even gaining a nomination at this year’s Game Awards, its creator and Falling Squirrel studio director Dave Evans admits that the initial impetus for creating an audio-based game wasn’t completely “altruistic.” Much of his working experience was in writing for film and television, but he didn’t have any design experience. Evans tells Digital Trends he wanted to “specifically play with narrative and character development on a scale I could afford.”

A black screen with particles in The Vale: Shadow of the Crown.

Evans traveled to Toronto and met Martin Courcelles, an accessibility consultant then working at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

“Our first conversation was essentially sitting in the cafeteria talking about a game that was not in existence, and how they would approach it, and what they would focus on,” Courcelles, who became blind at age four due to retinoblastoma, tells Digital Trends.

The consultation was deeper than simply how to make the audio sound crisper for blind and low-vision players. There were questions about terminology, such as if the blind community used words like “see” and “look” in conversation.

“We look and see in a different fashion, but we still do it,” Courcelles said.

Audio storytelling

Putting character development, actions, and narrative elements in silos just wasn’t an option for Falling Squirrel’s first game. For example, Evans created a limited amount of weapons and gear to use as an opportunity to lead players toward the blacksmith and get to know his character.

Evans said one of the most accepted forms of accommodation for people who are blind or have low vision is audio description. But simply having that feature and a narrator wasn’t good enough.

“I wanted to be more immersive, so I really did want everything to unfold in the moment,” Evans says. “That was the biggest challenge of always figuring out a way that the player could very naturally say things, express things that maybe the player couldn’t feel.”

A menu screen in The Vale: Shadow of the Crown.

Gathering information from the blind and low-vision community was vital to developing Alex, who needed assistance from her companion in navigating physical spaces, but was never down on herself about being blind. She was raised to believe her disability was never limiting in the way she experienced the world around her.

Pushing for change

SightlessKombat (who asked Digital Trends to keep his name anonymous) is a sightless gamer who acts as an accessibility consultant on games. He tested The Vale at various stages of its development cycle, offering feedback.

“A lot of the time, blind characters are seemingly portrayed as either evil, or just flat and one dimensional,” he tells Digital Trends. Alex isn’t riddled by fear due to her lack of sight. In fact, it felt empowering to slay enemies who underestimate her.

“(The Vale) is very enthralling,” SightlessKombat said. “It draws you in.”

SightlessKombat, who’s been blind since birth, regularly livestreams video games, often with a buddy. The hunt for truly accessible options hasn’t been as successful as he’d like. He says the experience of playing video games can be depressing. He recalls trying to play Battlefield 2042 and not even being able to get past the user agreement.

“It’s a deep frustration,” he says. “That is really the crux of it, because you’re locked out of all these popular cultural experiences.” Some of these popular, but inaccessible games include Phasmophobia, Among Us, Apex Legends, and Fortnite.

The Last of Us Part II
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Last year’s groundbreaking release of The Last of Us Part 2, considered one of the most accessible games ever, set a new bar, particularly for AAA developers. Fully blind players like SightlessKombat have been able to enjoy and complete the game with little to no assistance. That push for accessibility in major games continued in 2021. Recent releases like Far Cry 6 and Halo Infinite go directly to the accessibility menu when players first install the games. Forza Horizon 5 has on-screen interpreters of American Sign Language and British Sign Language.

Lukáš Hosnedl, another sightless accessibility consultant for The Vale, recognizes that making games accessible can require a lot of extra work, particularly open-world games. Still, Hosnedl notes there are simple changes developers can make to accommodate a low-vision player.

“It’s mostly enough to just add some magnification, color blind modes, high contrast,” Hosnedl said. “You don’t need to come up with several dozen more extra sounds.”

What studios can do

SightlessKombat and Courcelles both emphasize the need for early research in the adoption of accessibility features, even if a game is years away from completion. Hosnedl says that developers should take the route Evans did and go directly to an organization advocating for people with disabilities and get them involved. The key solution is to make sure the game creation process involves deep engagement with the community and not just a surface-level presentation.

“You need to actually meet up and talk and show the real deal to them (and) how it’s done,” Hosnedl says.

SightlessKombat went one step further, urging studios to let disabled players test builds regardless of how accessible the game is, whether remotely or in person. That could lead to new discoveries that push developers to add more accessibility considerations early. Plus, games are simply better when you reach out for different perspectives.

“The more feedback you have, the better your game can end up being because of those different lived experiences,” he said. “Because as much as we may have the same perspectives, the fact of the matter is we’ve lived differently, which then shapes our feedback and our opinions on what we’re doing.”

Evans hopes combining storytelling, character development, and accessible gameplay transports all players, sighted or not, somewhere they’ve never been to before — a place that’s “more immersive and communicative.”

“Making games more accessible generally adds value to everyone’s experience,” he says.

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