People are often defined by their history. The events they’ve been part of, the people they’ve met, the places they’ve been to; they all leave their marks on a person. With every new experience comes a change in perspective and new ways to consider the situations you encounter. When you visit an impoverished village, do you consider the locals to be rude and ungracious when they refuse to answer your questions? Or does previous knowledge of their desperate situation help you to empathise with their anger? Perhaps more urgently, does an understanding of our own history help us avoid repeating past mistakes? And if we lack that understanding, are we simply doomed to repeat our past disasters in endless cycles?
The people of Iox believe the latter to be inevitable. They believe in ‘The Loop’, the idea that time is unavoidably cyclical. That past events are the present’s destiny. It’s a belief so deeply held that the religion of the Loop forms the basis of their society. It also explains their condescending attitude towards the game’s protagonist, Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist in a world that doesn’t believe in history.
Aliya has been summoned to the moon of Iox because her mentor, Professor Myari, needs her investigative skills to find the missing Professor of Robotics, Janniqi Renba. Renba went missing whilst exploring the Nebula, our game world and one of the most unique virtual environments I’ve ever inhabited. It’s a collection of moons and asteroids connected by a series of rivers that orbit the planetoids like the rings of Saturn. Aliya sails these celestial waterways on a ship called the Nightingale, another thing that makes Aliya unique among her peers, as they all believe that sailing dirties the soul.
Your first trip aboard the Nightingale is a serene and awe-inspiring journey across a prog-rock album cover. The purples and blues of the sky look like a cloudy sunset in the dead of summer. Unfortunately, the Nightingale is a tempestuous beast with sensitive turning and poor control. The journeys can become tedious, especially in slower waters, as travel time between planets can sometimes stretch to multiple minutes with little to entertain you on the journey. Fortunately, in the time between the game’s initial release and now, developer Inkle Studios, have implemented a fast travel feature. However, use it at your own risk, as occasionally some of the game’s best procedurally generated interactions happen while riding the waves.
As mentioned in my interview with the developers, Inkle are one of the best crafters of dialogue choices and branching narrative in the industry. In Heaven’s Vault, they have spared no opportunity to ply their trade. With every milestone met, every person spoken to and every artefact found, Inkle have taken great steps to ensure there is never a moment wasted to drop pieces of lore, backstory for characters, or to foreshadow events. There even seems to be a plethora of dialogue choices and character development to be discovered in the moments when you find yourself wandering around without aim.
On more than a few occasions I just set Aliya off in circles hoping the prompts would appear that would ignite a conversation with my travel partner, a helpful robot who Aliya named Six. I even extended the game’s much-maligned Nightingale sections, hoping to unlock more of these fascinating exchanges. I was rarely disappointed. There was one time I was meandering around one of the moons when suddenly, Aliya realises one of her actions, a simple act of kindness to a couple of desperate people, has an alarmingly large number of similarities with past events that led to the downfall of a once-great civilisation.
I was immediately awestruck by how the game connected Aliya with the people of her past, and used it to illustrate how she and her world have been influenced by history. Each event is documented on the game’s Timeline, a chronological tour of history from the formation of the Nebula’s earliest civilisations, all the way up to the time Aliya picked up a toothbrush she found in an ancient bathroom. It’s all the facts and theories you’ve made in your run – categorised by location, item and person – documented in one handy, easy-to-read biography of the universe.
This is the driving force behind Heaven’s Vault. It’s a world of lost ages, dead languages and civilisations that have lost touch with their history. Aliya uncovers the secrets lost to time by navigating her way around the Nebula, finding artefacts and piecing history together like a puzzle. The dedication to the art of archaeology is impressive. Archaeology isn’t a cut and dry science. Aliya may find pieces of the past and can join them together to form theories, but that’s all they are. Confirmations are rare and even sometimes later proven to be incorrect. Uncertainty is the scourge of the archaeologist, but Inkle do not shy away from it.
Aliya’s version of history will also be prejudiced by her experiences and the responses the player chooses for her. On two separate playthroughs, answering the same question in a different way could lead you to completely different conclusions, just as real historical studies are shaped not only by the facts historians have found, but how those historians have interpreted them. For all of the media in the last two centuries that has used archaeology as a backdrop for firework displays of the historically paranormal, Heaven’s Vault feels like the first videogame to ever accurately explore the concept. Or at least give it an honest try.
Heaven’s Vault never doles out information in one big exposition dump. The world-building is done at an extremely organic and rhythmic pace. It’s constantly spooling out little facts and theories, leading you on with a multi-branched trail of breadcrumbs. It could be anything from what god the local’s worshipped or what a building was used for, to how a group of slaves, condemned to die in a closed-off mine shaft, escaped their captivity and went on to overrun the capital. It’s the most exhilarating feeling in the game when you discover a new piece of information that opens up a whole new plethora of opportunities, new people to talk to, new dialogue options and a new perspective on everything you’ve learned so far.
But perhaps the game’s greatest mystery is the dead language ‘Ancient’. The centrepiece of the game, the decipherable hieroglyphic language is a stunning achievement in its scope and ambition. This is where the fantasy of archaeology is realised as confirming words and sentences make you feel like a true uncoverer of time’s most perplexing mysteries. The design of the language puzzle really hits the sweet spot of making the player feel like they are translating an ancient text. When figuring out a phrase you have to take into account the location you found it and the context in which it appears.
Do the words relate to other words you’ve already confirmed the translations of? If the words look the same there is more than a good chance they are related. Do the characters actually look like what you think they are describing? Then you may have it right, as Ancient as a language has a strong pictorial element to it. The word for water looks like water. The word for wind looks like wind. Combining these methods of translation means you always have some handle on the phrase you are translating and are never fully in the dark. It’s combining these elements into your thinking that makes decoding this puzzle feel so much like an actual translation exercise and such a satisfying experience.
In my second playthrough, the difficulty in translation upped considerably. The words turned into longer phrases and the phrases turned into full sentences. Fortunately, you already have the translations of the words you figured out in the previous run. It makes the new game plus version feel like the definitive way to play the game. Aliya is introduced to us as already having had some experience and interest in the language. It’s even claimed that Ancient is a hobby of hers. Yet the first time you play the game, she knows none of the words for certain. Starting with a basic knowledge of the language the second time around makes much more sense given her history studying these hieroglyphics, and your previous knowledge means the amount of correct answers start snowballing, making for a much more gratifying experience. It doesn’t stop at one playthrough either. Inkle are reporting that some gamer’s are on their sixth or seventh time through new game plus.
But all of these elements, the translation, the timeline, the archaeology and the constantly branching narrative are all in service to exploring one of gaming’s most evolved and complex protagonists. There are several ways to play as Aliya, with every choice seeming to take her in a slightly different direction, but the genius of Narrative Director John Ingold, is that each choice seems organic and true to her nature. There was never a moment when one of Aliya’s reactions or provocations did not feel fuelled by her own personal history, or the history of her people. Despite the sometimes ambiguous nature of some of the dialogue options I was tasked to choose from, I never thought Aliya took a sharp departure from the character I had spent hours growing.
Heaven’s Vault is an intricate game, made of many parts. Each part, from the characters, to the systems, to the individual lines of dialogue scattered throughout, are like the strokes of a paintbrush. To recognise it for the work of art it truly is, you have to stand back and take the picture in as a whole. The cohesion of these parts means that even after three playthroughs, Heaven’s Vault remains one of the most intriguing games I’ve ever played. I’m even planning to experience it for a fourth time. The fact that it can retain this much interest after so much wear is perhaps its biggest accomplishment. And as I’ve already laid out, that is a feat with some stiff competition.
Heaven’s Vault is out now on PS4 and Steam