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

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

Anthony and Nicholas Vaccaro, the co-founders and owners of Synersteel Games, are working on a maiden voyage called Valley of Shadow, which occupies the center of a triple Venn diagram that encompasses 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 only game that deals with trauma; however, few games include the healing process as a component of the narrative; rather than presenting closure as a byproduct of the narrative. Anthony spoke with Game Rant about the unique challenges of developing a game that grapples with real-world demons through fanciful mechanics.

Real Healing via Fictional Mechanics

Valley of Shadow went through several different development stages before reaching its current state, as well as the Vaccaro brothers' intention of releasing an open-world game in 2017.

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

Nicholas, Anthony's older brother, was a strong influence, allowing him to enact spells from the genres that influenced them growing up, including classic RPGs like Morrowind and Fable. The result was an environment and tone that spoke of loss, paired with mystical puzzles. At that point, the player's overarching goal became clear: you must overcome the same trauma that helped him develop the game.

Anthony still needed to find one more piece of the puzzle: namely, how he might translate puzzle solving to a video experience that is both explicit and profound. In the end, it all came down to one of the most essential gaming techniques: collectibles.

Excavating Memories

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

"So, you're bringing things back to the hub world, and over time, those things became real artifacts. Photographs, and VHSs, and snippets of memories, and childhood trophies, the things that are supposed to go in a home."

Valley of Shadow is a fictional recreation of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which often involves patients involuntarily interfering with their trauma to gain a sense of closure. It isn't an afterthought for 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: Anthony, Anthony's therapist, who is voiced by Anthony and Nick's sister Maria. Again, games have used interviews to structure narratives before - Persona 5's interrogation interludes immediately strike me - but Valley of Shadow leans heavily towards genuine therapy techniques. Even It Takes Two's lovable, yet loathesome Dr. Hakim is more antagonistic than a traditional marriage counselor.

It's refreshing to see a video game narrative that portrays therapists - and therapy as a whole - in a positive light. Re-imagining therapy as something heroic and hazardous, rather than sedate and dry, is a novel concept.

Valley of Shadow is expected to be released in 2023.