I grew up across the street from ruins not ancient, but old. These ruins, the San Francisco Monastery, are part of the Spanish colonial heritage of Santo Domingo. As a child, I wandered through the battered remnants and explored. I stepped upon stone pathways and summer grass. These ruins are a constant reminder of the omnipresence of the past; it is never gone even if it’s out of mind. While playing the archaeological science fiction adventure game Heaven’s Vault a haiku by the great monk and poet Matsuo Bashō comes to mind:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams– Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings [Shambala] pg. 23
In Heaven’s Vault, the player is assigned the exhilarating task of investigating what befell a great empire.
Released in April 2019, Heaven’s Vault is a game about history, exploration, and translation. Deciphering an ancient language is the crux of Heaven’s Vault’s gameplay. Players guide Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist with a troubled past, and her robot sidekick Six through an immersive and delightful world known as the Nebula that is beautifully realized through a mix of two-dimensional hand-drawn animation and three-dimensional backgrounds. In Heaven’s Vault, learning an ancient language is akin to discovering and shaping history; you decide how it is written and interpreted.
Heaven’s Vault is a wild-goose chase to decipher glyphs of an ancient language, simply known as “Ancient”. This language, created by Inkle, the game’s famed developer, is inspired by ancient Egyptian and Chinese scripts. Though fictional, the language is complex and functional. Similar to German, it is composed of “words… formed out of smaller ‘atoms.‘” To incorporate Ancient into the game, Inkle utilizes their narrative scripting software called Ink. Inkle describes Ink as “primarily designed for professional game development, though it can also be used to write and share choice-based interactive fiction.”
At the beginning of the game, understanding Ancient is difficult due to there being few clues for translating the language into English. Through continual play, you develop familiarity with the glyphs and build a glossary of words. By constructing the meaning of words, the player mirrors how archaeologists decipher scripted languages. The experience is not dissimilar to learning a new language or trying to immerse oneself into a new culture.
Indeed, the experience can be mystifying, but eventually through trial and error, patience, and perseverance one inches forward towards an understanding. The progression afforded to the player is fulfilling. In one session I struggled to find the meaning of a word as simple as “the”. Nevertheless, I kept at it and eventually, by the end of my playthrough, I was translating lengthy sentences with ease. In a moment of satisfaction, I almost felt as if I were akin to classist Alice Elizabeth Kober.
Playing in the Nebula
Heaven’s Vault offers iterative gameplay and narrative in a non-linear fashion. The game offers plenty of challenges through its puzzles and charms with its mysterious world where the ultimate reward is knowledge. The paths often lead to distinct destinations. I enjoyed exploring the environments and different locales. During my time in the Nebula, I was thorough and made the effort to not miss any artifacts, sites, or dialogue options. I wanted to know as much as possible about this world, its history, and its inhabitants. Inkle created a world that summons curiosity with its secrets and splendor. I was a traveler on a marvelous adventure.
Heaven’s Vault dialogue is intricately complex and thrilling. It goes to places that one needs to experience to believe. Aliya and the non-playable characters (NPCs) that inhabit the Nebula can lie, joke, and even ignore each other. The dialogue can be humorous and tense all in the same conversation. Talking to NPCs often leads to opportunity, accruement of knowledge and information, and discovery. When in doubt, converse with a character, and a path will open.
The made-up language uses parts of speech and identifying this is key to getting better at the game. The scripts to decipher become more difficult as the game progresses. Translations can be corrected later by accessing a timeline that details the history of the Nebula, which expands as one progresses. This creates a satisfying gameplay loop, whereby conversing and exploring generates options all while the player becomes more proficient at performing tasks essential to advancing the narrative.
There is a great emphasis on language as the center of narrative and gameplay in Heaven’s Vault. All paths lead to the opportunity to communicate. And through communication, the player discovers more about the world. Language is omnipresent and through its utilization, as a gameplay mechanic, it holds otherwise disparate parts together, such as the use of sailing on the Nightingale, Aliya’s ship, as the main means of traversing through the Nebula.
Sailing in this game can become cumbersome and frustrating. The game’s sailing sequences were inspired by the adventure game, Firewatch. They are the weakest part of the gameplay. Fortunately, there is an option that allows players to have the robot Six pilot the ship for them, thus making travel faster.
Further replays of the game reward players with clarity, increase the enjoyment of the narrative and gratification via language fluency. To get the most out of the game it is important to play it several times in order to get all the correct definitions of glyphs and uncover aspects of the story that were opaque at the beginning.
Heaven’s Vault boasts marvelous art direction. Inkle has incorporated history and the study of the past in the games’ aesthetics. For example, Alina leaves a silhouette of her frame as she walks. This adds both visual flares but also demarcates where she has been. The games’ presentation consists of a cell shade aesthetic that is visually pleasing, detailed, and colorful.
The music, composed by Laurence Chapman, is pleasant and cinematic. Its sweeping flourishes accompany the player on this epic adventure. Exploring the Nebula with a soaring accompaniment of strings playing evocative music heightens the sense of grandeur when one discovers long-forgotten places.
Creating a Past that Never Was
When exploring and participating in cultural emergence and traveling to faraway lands in reality, we are very much like Aliya Elasra. The only difference is that we do not have a robot sidekick. The writing in Heaven’s Vault is layered and evocative. It conjures introspection. When I finished the game, I remembered how, as a child, I observed a performance of King Lear in the ruins of San Francisco. Alone with my thoughts, I wondered what these ruins were like when they still held their structural integrity and brimmed with life. Did Shakespearean figures walk through the monastery? With falsehoods and educated assumptions I, like Lear, was creating narratives and images of the past as I imagined it. The player as Aliya can do the same in Heaven’s Vault.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack.– King Lear, The Complete Works [Oxford] pgs. 232-234
Heaven’s Vault is an achievement in interactive storytelling. While playing, one ventures into a foreign place. Translation and uncovering the history of that world is the closest that I have come in a video game to experiencing cultural immersion and the discomfort that the process requires one to endure and overcome. Heaven’s Vault offers consistent and well-earned gratification. With patience and effort, the world becomes familiar.
- Bashō, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings. Translated by Sam Hamill. Shambala. 2019.
- Graft, Kris. “How Inkle Developed Its Own Ancient Language for Heaven’s Vault“. Game Developer. 17 April 2019.
- Ingold, Jon. “Designing A Lost Language for Heaven’s Vault“. Rezzed Sessions. EGX Rezzed. 2019.
- Ingold, Jon. “Heaven’s Vault: Creating a Dynamic Detective Story”. GDC 2018.
- Inkle. Ink.
- Inkle. Heaven’s Vault. Official Site. 2019.
- Humfrey, Joseph. “Creating Interactive Film Scripts for 3D Adventures with Ink” GDC. 2017.
- UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “Colonial City of Santo Domingo“.
- Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Oxford University Press. 1988.