Quick, think of a video game. Any game. Got one in mind? Does it have photo-real graphics that test the capabilities of the new-gen consoles in an open-world game? Or perhaps it has pixel art reminiscent of retro JRPGs in a 2D world. Or is it a hand-drawn platformer? Whatever the art style is, they all have one thing in common: the gameplay relies on the graphics. Without those, you wouldn’t likely get far.
The Vale, a new action-adventure game from Falling Squirrel and Creative Bytes Studios, takes everything you know about video games and tosses it out. Designed to be fully playable by blind people, The Vale puts you in the role of Alex, a young noblewoman who has been blind since birth. The game takes you on a quest to return to your home after having been ambushed by soldiers of an invading army.
You have a companion, you have weapons you’ll use in combat, you have your main quest and side quests to complete, and you’ll do it all without sight. The only graphics to speak of are little orbs of light that tell you the time of day and whether you’re experiencing a flashback of Alex’s memory or you’re in the present day story.
The crux of combat and exploration is the game’s sound design. Players must listen for everything, from where an enemy is attacking based on their various noises to Alex’s stamina level. When traversing the world, Alex will make a quiet comment to herself if she bumps into something or her path is otherwise impeded. Relying on spatial audio makes all of this possible. Except for players like me who rely on subtitles and captions to understand dialogue and sound.
Unfortunately, The Vale is lacking any sort of subtitles or captions, so d/Deaf and hard of hearing players will have to pass on this title. The game also lacks remappable controls on console leaving many with motor control disabilities unable to play as well. While The Vale is said to be fully accessible for blind and low-vision players, it boasts no other features to include players with other disabilities.
But because it lacks captions, The Vale helps me understand just a fraction of the frustration sightless players experience as they try to access any other game. And I think that’s where the power of The Vale lies. It has the potential to foster empathy in an industry so often lacking it, particularly when it concerns accessibility. Going far beyond being a gimmicky “disability simulator,” The Vale is a full action-adventure game, complete with everything we think of when we consider these games, in which the protagonist just happens to be blind and you experience it from her perspective.
Immediately upon launching the game, players will see how much consideration (and budget) was given to making this experience accessible for blind players. The menu narration—spoken by an actual human voice actor and not the automated voice in every other game—isn’t something you have to toggle on, it just is a narrated menu. The tutorial is fully narrated instead of just showing you tooltips that may or may not be in microscopic text tucked away in the corner of the screen. Even your inventory menu is fully narrated.
Imagine if major titles gave this much consideration to blind accessibility and approachable onboarding and hearing and motor control accessibility. We wouldn’t just have The Last of Us Part 2. We would have catalogues upon catalogues of games that could be fully enjoyed by everyone and Xbox’s belief that “gaming is for everyone” would come to fruition.
While I sincerely hope The Vale does well enough to allow for future patches to improve other areas of accessibility (I would like to be able to play it, after all) I also hope that The Vale indicates the future of accessible game design for blind players because there is so much to be learned from the design of this title.
A review copy of was provided by the developer / publisher.