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St. Catharines company designs computer game for the visually impaired

Recent advances in virtual reality technology have opened new doors to create audio games with an “incredible psychological effect of intimacy and fidelity,” Evans said.

Falling Squirrel forgoes visual graphics to provide a dense audio experience

Martin Courcelles, a former member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, formed a working relationship with Dave Evans and helped to test various early versions of the game. (Supplied)

Players can explore a medieval village, embark on a lengthy quest, and clash in a sword duel with an enemy in a new computer game from Falling Squirrel — all without ever having to glance at the screen.

The Vale is an all-audio PC game created for the visually impaired community by Dave Evans, the founder and creative director of the St. Catharines based independent video game company.

All-audio games can be just as immersive and entertaining as visually driven games, Evans said. It just requires isolating your sense of hearing.

All that's required to play the game is a controller and a pair of headphones, plus a certain amount of curiousity.

Storytelling in a new market

Evans started out as a filmmaker in Toronto, where he learned screenwriting and voice-over direction. He later decided to put his storytelling skills to use in game development.

He spent some time working at a Triple-A video game company, a classification denoting extremely high production standards.

Falling Squirrel founder and creative director Dave Evans was a filmmaker before he became interested in producing an all-audio game for the visually impaired community. (Supplied)

A lot of people who go into video game development have "artistic sensibilities," he explained, and are inclined to work on producing stellar visuals.

But Evans was interested in pursuing something other than visuals. So he started work on a new personal project — a challenge to develop a game devoid of visuals.

And that's when he discovered the smaller, developing niche market of all-audio games.

"I started understanding that there are people who could really use this," Evans said.

Evans wanted to develop a new game for visually impaired gamers — one with parallelled story depth to large-scale games such as Skyrim or Uncharted, which are popular with visual gamers.

A high fidelity adventure

Recent advances in virtual reality technology have opened new doors to create audio games with an "incredible psychological effect of intimacy and fidelity," Evans said.

Evans utilized what's known as binaural audio recording technology — the use of two microphones that mimic human ears — to replicate the intricacies of human hearing in 3D space.

The game is mainly focused on audio design, using binaural audio recording technology to replicate the intricacies of human hearing in 3D space. (Supplied)

Players can navigate at their own will in the 3D audio-space of the game, choosing to engage with or flee from life-like characters, enticing quests, and mortal dangers.

Sounds in the game grow louder and feel closer when you move towards them, and become faint, eventually disappearing, when you retreat.

With this dedicated attention to detail, he hopes the game will be able to produce moments that allow visually impaired players to relate.

At the same time, he hopes to create a gaming experience that will have sighted players saying, "I've never thought of [blindness] that way."

Close involvement with community

He reached out to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind during early development of the game. There, Evans found support by way of Martin Courcelles, a visually impaired gamer who helped test various versions of The Vale.

The two formed a close working relationship and Courcelles became a knowledgeable partner in the blind community for Evans, who is fully sighted.

Dave Evans explains the basics of The Vale to a game tester. The game is slated to be available to the public this June. (Supplied)

Courcelles introduced The Vale to visually impaired gamers who were enthusiastic to play and provide honest feedback.

Evans received thorough feedback about the game — which he worked to implement in new versions — from over 100 visually impaired game testers.

"[Evans] is trying to bring a more professional, movie-like experience through audio," said Martin, who now works on the accessibility team at OLG.

Financing hard to come by

There are already a number of all-audio games on the market for visually impaired gamers, but money is often hard to find to properly finance them.

As a result, indie studios end up developing most all-audio games, since big studios are reluctant to finance projects for such a small market.

The other issue indie developers run into is a lack of access to professional actors and sound designers, which can lead to players being taken out of the game experience.

Evans utilized his network of professional actors and sound design experts, plus his own experience with voice-over direction in making The Vale.

"It's really in a way a Trojan Horse for developing the mechanics so I can prove to other developers that it works … I'm hoping to remove barriers to make a case and say this is easier than you think," he said.

Steering clear of tropes

The Vale's main character is the second-born child of a medieval monarch who is visually impaired. However, he is not defined by his visual impairment. It's a trope present in other games centred around visually impaired characters. That was important to avoid for Evans in creating the game.

He focused more on the philosophy of listening —  a tenet he believes both visually impaired and sighted gamers can both get behind.

There is a layer of understanding, Evans explains, that you gain when you "limit yourself to listening to people."

"People should be listening more to each other, or people should try to experience [others'] experiences in order to understand them," he said.

The Vale is slated for release in June.

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