The developer of Synersteel Games fights trauma with therapy, puzzles, and magic in the Valley of Shadow

The developer of Synersteel Games fights trauma with therapy, puzzles, and magic in the Valley of Sh ...

Anthony and Nicholas Vaccaro, the co-founders and owners of Synersteel Games, are developing a maiden voyage called Valley of Shadow, which lies at the core of a triple Venn diagram featuring fantasy, narrative puzzle, and autobiographical genres. Even among indie artists, the Vaccaros are putting more of themselves into their passion project than most.

Valley of Shadow is by no means the sole example of a game that considers trauma, although few games emphasize the healing process as a component of the narrative, rather than presenting closure as a side effect.

Real Healing via Fictional Mechanics

Valley of Shadow went through several distinct development stages before coming to its current form. Late in 2017, the Vaccaro brothers began developing an open-world title with the aim of creating a colorful fantasy game.

"I didn't realize that I was grieving the family's setback until well into the development of this open-world game."

Nicholas, Anthony's brother, was a stronghold, urging him to draw on classic RPGs such as Morrowind and Fable. The result was an environment and tone that spoke of sadness, paired with mystical puzzles. At that point, the player's overarching goal became clear: you must overcome the same trauma that shaped the game.

Anthony still needed to find one more piece of the puzzle, and that is how he might translate puzzle solving to an explicit healing experience with video mechanics. It all came down to one of the most fundamental gaming mechanics: collectibles.

Excavating Memories

Valley of Shadow features genuine (albeit digitalized) autobiographical artifacts as a key part of its narrative, which is one strategy for re-establishing continuity after trauma.

"So, you're bringing things back to the hub world, and over time, those things became real artifacts: photographs, VHSs, and childhood trophies, the things that should go in a house."

Valley of Shadow has been compared to an artist's rendition of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves patients intentionally interacting with their past experiences to gain a sense of closure. It's not a flash fiction; it's a force of wonder and serenity in the face of trauma.

A Guiding Presence

Valley of Shadow has only one other character: Emma, Anthony's therapist, who is voiced by Anthony and Nick's sister Maria. Again, games have used interrogations to structure narratives before - Persona 5's interrogation interludes spring to mind - but Valley of Shadow leans heavily towards genuine therapy techniques. Even It Takes Two's lovable, yet loathesome Dr. Hakim is less antagonistic than a traditional marriage counselor.

After years of bizarre doctors and sadistic researchers filling video game narratives, it is refreshing to see a title that puts therapists and therapy as a whole in a favorable light. This is a novel approach.

Valley of Shadow is expected to be released in 2023.