Boldly she rode: How Heaven’s Vault reinvents adventure games
The Nebula of Heaven’s Vault unfolds with the calmness and precision of origami. It takes a while for the story to unfold, but it rewards patience and care. By the time you realize what’s really going on, you’d be hard pressed to stop exploring; just one more moon, one more artifact, one more translation. You have to know.
There’s a brilliant symmetry here between the hunger of a fiction reader–who has to find out what happens next–and that of the academic, who needs to fill the holes in her theory. Those seemingly disparate urges become one in Inkle’s latest game, a masterful adventure game-cum-RPG about archaeology in an ancient future.
And yet Heaven’s Vault is a game very much defined by the capricious pace of its galactic rivers, flowing with maddening slowness at times before sweeping you up in a breakneck rapid of revelations and discoveries. Like any game without a clear peer–one can make comparisons to Inkle’s own 80 Days, or to Myst, or to any number of visual novels, but the fit will always be imprecise at best–Heaven’s Vault is, of necessity, an experiment that doesn’t always succeed. Its pacing can exasperate and its lush 3D environments are often a dissonant hindrance as much as an asset.
But for all this Inkle created a masterwork that, if there is any justice left in gaming, will inspire much careful study and many flattering imitations. It is a reminder that the thing we once called “the adventure game” is far from dead. It has evolved with relevance to a new world, charting its course between the successes of other genres. That, too, is a fitting metaphor for Heaven’s Vault’s gameplay. You are, after all, spending much of the game piloting a Verne-esque space skiff along galactic rivers that hook around ominous asteroids and half moons.
You are Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist at the prestigious University of Iox who was fortunately plucked from orphanage-life on the impoverished moon of Elboreth. Your mentor tasks you with finding a colleague who’s gone missing, armed only with an elaborate brooch and its mysterious ancient inscription–as well as a snooty robot, Six. That kicks off a sequence of explorations and discoveries that spirals out into a new history of your strange world.
In the Nebula, essentially the ‘known world’ so far as this universe is concerned, Inkle has created a beautifully original setting that blends sci-fi and fantasy effortlessly and without a hint of cliche. It is, however, a bit hard to care about at first. The world is underpopulated and, in a stunning reversal of the usual state of affairs, the writing vastly outpaces the graphics. That is, in no small measure, to Inkle’s credit of course. The writing is simply superb, popping off the screen like the text of a Hugo-award winning novel. But it also means that those beautiful words describe something far more compelling that what is sometimes on screen.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison between Renaki and Elboreth. The former is a trading moon that the text tells you, repeatedly, is “rich,” while Elboreth is a slum whence Aliya was lucky to escape. Without that context, however, you could barely tell the two worlds apart. Graphically, they look quite similar. Elberoth feels sunny and pleasant. A shop you’re told is festooned with junk and endless bits of metal looks, instead, like a tidy salon. But for Renaki’s proliferation of market stalls, you’d hardly notice a difference between the two moons.
The Godsfeet slums of Elboreth at least have a distinct look but still don’t quite nail the grit attributed to them–I will happily credit Godsfeet’s bar, however, as beautifully unique. A tent pavilion festooned with rugs and crates has all the beauty and precarity of paradise among misery. It embodies what Heaven’s Vault does best in marrying its worldbuilding to its visuals.
There’s a tug of war between the beautiful care put into the paper cutout avatars that comprise every character–all hand drawn–and the 3D world they inhabit like papier mache ghosts. There are, certainly, moments where the three dimensionality pays off big time, like finding a landing pad that reminds one of the Arecibo radio telescope. But other times, it feels like it’s at cross-purposes with the game’s story. It struggles to convey the rich worldbuilding that comes through in the writing. The core worlds of the Iox Protectorate have some character (the university feels appropriately staid, Elboreth has seedy elements) but not enough leaps out and makes itself evident.
The archaeological sites, however, are another story. Literally.
As you explore, talk to people, investigate your colleague’s disappearance and follow in his footsteps, you learn about possible historical sites to explore, gradually narrowing down their locations. Each has a distinct character and flavor that is actively enhanced by the subtlety of the game’s graphics. The sites are set pieces. The Serpent’s Eye that evoked Arecibo, the Emperor’s Secret Garden, the desert hermitage, the Withered Palace with its dark secrets, all convey character and even emotion effortlessly.
It’s, perhaps, appropriate that Heaven’s Vault, a game seen through the eyes of an archaeologist, is a place that finds richness among the dead rather than the living.
It’s just that one has to care about the latter in order to understand why the former matters. There’s a bit of a leap of faith involved in getting from the game’s opening act to its spiritual/scientific heart. It is, however, unequivocally worth it. Part of what carries you there is the game’s core mechanic.
Front and center in the game’s marketing is the fact that you have to translate an ancient hieroglyphic language in order to advance. This is the center of the game’s puzzle-craft, and it is a surprisingly engaging challenge. Many RPGs and adventure games have had glyphic puzzles, but Heaven’s Vault imaginatively spools them out into a whole conlang’s worth of a game. The “a-ha” moment of figuring out the logic of certain glyphs is incredible, and the linguistic care that went into the game is evident. Learning what glyphs make up the word for “person” will help you understand everything from “Empress” to “robot,” for instance; but to give too many examples would have the effect of spoiling the game. That is a testament to how integrated and well-designed this translation system is.
It’s therefore quite shocking that the UI supports it so poorly. Your record of accumulated sentences and translations is folded into an otherwise beautiful and fascinating timeline interface (which documents every move you make in the game and the entire historical record you begin to accumulate). The timeline is gorgeous and can prompt long stretches of perusal as you begin to satisfyingly fill in those gaps of decades and centuries. But it’s a horrible way to store your translations.
Throughout the game you see Aliya scribbling in a notebook. It should be a diegetic part of the interface, complete with a dictionary of the words you learn. You can get by without such an aid, but the absence of such a thing is baffling in a game built on translation.
These quibbles should be recognized as just that, however. These are the flaws that emerge from bold brushstrokes. It shouldn’t be understated: Inkle has done something radically original here, a breath of fresh air in a game industry all but stultified by unimaginative impersonations and safe bets. Heaven’s Vault has room to grow, and build on both its successes and its mistakes. More importantly, it can inspire others to try similar things: creating a nonviolent, branching narrative with wide-open decision-making and imaginative mechanics in a world that feels truly original. In every way that actually matters, Heaven's Vault succeeds and tells a stunningly beautiful story wrapped in layers and the loops you hear so much about throughout the game; the narrative becomes, in a strange way, an act of worship for the game's own theology. It will be a crime if this game's writing isn't somehow rewarded.
Aliya is striking. As a narrator you can almost hear the scratching of a quill as she writes an award-winning travelogue/memoir of her adventures. There are lines that feel eloquent and pulpy all at once. Recalling a ring of divine statues, she describes them as “a circle of stone gods staring each other down–each daring the others to blink first.” She casts an array of huddled monuments as the kind of cocktail party that a girl from the slums may shy away from: “stone markers huddled together, whispering nasty things about me.” Even if the graphics sometimes fail her, Aliya cannot help but make this game a masterpiece.
As much as I love a good Star Wars or Lord of the Rings knockoff, it’s invigorating to try something different. But best of all, Heaven’s Vault isn’t different for the sake of being different: its distinctions combine to tell a unique story that sends a jolt through you when you figure it out, much like the glyphs Aliya discovers on her journeys.