The Valley: Shadow of the Crown is Falling Squirrel’s first full-fledged studio game effort. It plays like a video game, it looks like a video game, but it’s not.
How do you take a “video game experience” and communicate it to someone who cannot see at all? Paste insists on the convention of “video games” as one word – video games – something that I have always bristled against. But maybe, as publishers and developers, console makers, and companies like NVIDIA come up with more sophisticated and expensive graphics every minute, it’s no longer appropriate to separate the two. Video games, a discreet class where the game itself is inseparable from the urgency of visual transmission.
the valley has only the most superficial connection to “video” and then almost purely as kindness to sighted players. The instinctive response to “a video game without graphics” is obviously a textual adventure, but that would be wrong. While he certainly borrows ideas from textual adventures and video games themselves, the valley has much more in common with radio plays. This is an interactive audio drama.
An audio game. It is not the first, it is not the only one. But it’s the one that offers an online experience with great RPG / adventure titles like Skyrim Where The witcher. And while this may not be the AAA of games for the blind and visually impaired, it might just convey to AAA that there is both a market for games that cater to these players. and that there are also ways to build accessibility into existing games. which are designed around sighted players.
The principle is simple, almost by heart. Like video games of the genre, the valley rises from deep roots in early tabletop role-playing games. You play as Alex (second-born, female and blind, which in terms of medieval heritage is a losing ticket), a princess sent to the far reaches to rule a small dungeon. You come to a point when the nomadic barbarians who were not a problem before decide to surge in and sack the whole kingdom. So much for a quiet life off the beaten track. Unaided and strapped for resources, Alex sets out on her journey back to the seat of power in the kingdom from which she had just been hijacked.
It’s a charming country duo. And for a large part, I remembered the time in the early 90s when my stepdad picked up one of these Dungeons & Dragons starter sets at the local game store, and I spent a rainy weekend embarking on a busy duo campaign. It has a lot of charm and a game that is in some ways extremely advanced proof of concept – a perfect way to show how successful the game mechanics can be, without confusing players through narrative complications.
This is a medieval donkey fantasy campaign. Travel through a medieval European landscape, going from town to town to meet people (and what a variety of accents you will meet!) And help them, push them away and sometimes meet the supernatural. A classic hero’s quest for a blind girl, nothing more, nothing less. And it works because he understands how audio drama works in a way that the AAA studios that always pursue “movie games” don’t.
Where video games most often derive their influence from the theater scene, the valley relies on the recording booth of the radio series. This is a significant distinction, as the two construct the imaginary space for the participants in similar but distinct ways. As with theatrical performance, the goal of a radio drama is not pure 1: 1 simulation of the real world; instead, it communicates the story and the theme through sound. The place, movement and action that are generally to be seen are rendered as noise or converted into explanatory dialogue. Crucial thematic motifs and narratively important visual signifiers are also metamorphosed into sounds that may be more important than their “real world” counterpart suggests. Which isn’t to say the other games don’t (they do) but the attention here, as well as the criticality of getting it exactly, is at the center.
To succeed, the valley needs to nail its sound design and sound reproduction – and it does.
Navigate the world of the valley in combat is often a straightforward affair. Once you know what you’re fighting and the sounds it’s making, there’s not much you can do to obscure them. A barbarian armed with an ax will dominate the soundstage of a nocturnal forest.
Navigating a bustling medieval village (or town) is fundamentally different and much more difficult. In the natural spaces of the valley sounds are free to present themselves clearly, but in towns and villages they crash into buildings and fracture, bumping into each other. The town crier’s voice is muffled by the voracious babbling of rowdy tavern patrons spilling out onto the street like the city’s drunkard’s beer. The blacksmith’s hammer will clearly pierce through the dense, warm earth tones of people and animals, but fences with the horn of the church bell.
The quaint village is just as loud as a loud battlefield as you try to find your way back. Getting around the cities you come across is not as easy a premise as you might think, or as it is in other visual games. And it’s a poignant reminder of how chaotic, noisy and frustrating civilization can be.
Except for the fights. Combat doesn’t just work. the valley‘s absolutely ragged combat.
What is probably a complex scaffolding of positional audio technology and AI scripting becomes a simple matter of gestures, with the right stick controlling your shield and the left your weapon. Hold in one direction to block in that direction, flick in one direction to attack. You can swing multiple times and block and attack in almost simultaneous actions (a skill you’ll need to master in order to survive). Obviously, with both talking levers, the position stops. The fight is a ballet that takes place around the player. Each fight becomes a circular arena of steel, clashing limbs and teeth. Strangely, it never gets boring. The sense of movement shines through in the soundscape and the use of audio rather than the spatial appearance. The clatter of armor, the scattering of dirt, howls and growls and whistles are the only guides to the enemy position. Hear a sound and throw a combination of stabs in that direction until you hear wet sounds, then silence. Alex starts out with just a broken sword and some clothes, but doing quests and traveling will open up both new and more various Blacksmith goods and ways to buy them. It is, after all, an RPG and weapons have stats and those affect the drama and the outcome of your melees. I spent most of my game as a fast fighter, but had fun taking on a possessed bear while wielding a heavy ax. The versions aren’t as dramatic or involved as other heavyweight combat RPGs, but they are able to communicate the limited variety they have. In addition, developing a purely audio combat system capable of withstanding AAA video game battles is a tall order, and many battles in the valley are almost as satisfying as your first solo kill on Ornstein & Smough. And for players who have never had access to the genre of fantasy action combat that Dark Souls or Dragon’s Dogma offers, the valley offers a similar top-notch experience in a purely sound package. It’s a colossal feat, and for sighted players, it’s new enough to be truly refreshing. It’s also a proof of concept for the commercial games industry as a whole – these are games worth making, and the ideas and experimentation in it. the valley should be explored and developed in the same way as the valley explored and developed the ideas that came before it.
And maybe that’s enough for just one game to succeed. There is a part of me that wishes the valley delved into more than combat and some light positional audio navigation puzzles. What he does, he does well, and he leaves an open path where complex narrative structures are explored (the valley has a few ramifications, but like the early D&D adventure mods it’s pretty much on track), where simple puzzle shapes are complicated and developed. There is a lot of overhead to play entirely with new forms of audio puzzles. And while I would have liked it to have been in this game itself, maybe it’s crucial to make room for the next game – experimentation should never be final or definitive. But for now, Falling Squirrel has devised a brilliant next step with the valley.
The Valley: Shadow of the Crown was developed by Falling Squirrel and Creative Bytes Studios and published by Falling Squirrel. It is available for PC.
Dia Lacina is an Indigenous queer writer and photographer. She tweets too much to @dialacina.