Inkle’s Heaven’s Vault: a stunning sci-fi archaeology adventure

With 80 Days and Sorcery, Inkle have made some of our favourite games of recent years, but Heaven’s Vault [official site] might just be their greatest achievement yet. It’s early days, of course, but a half hour play session at GDC has already convinced me that this science fiction adventure is a very exciting thing indeed. It’s a game about exploring the past, in the future, through archaeology and translation, and it has a remarkable sense of wonder.

When people say something looks better in motion, they’re often also saying, “wow, that doesn’t look all that great in stills, does it? Please don’t judge the stills.” With Heaven’s Vault, I found the stills so attractive that I was dreading getting a closer look and seeing the art lose its appeal when glued onto a game.

But, no, Heaven’s Vault looks better in motion. Those painted figures shimmer across the landscape, using just a few frames as they transition from one place to the next, fading in and out of view as they move. It’s an elegant solution, allowing the quality of the artwork to survive animation, while also condensing some of the long treks from place to place into a smaller timeframe than they’d need if every step were modeled. Heaven’s Vault isn’t a walking simulator, but the ambulating industry could learn a lot from its methods.

It’s not an interactive fiction game either, though Inkle haven’t entirely pulled up their roots. That said, Inkle’s games have never been traditional interactive fiction, despite their wordiness. The later releases in the Sorcery series moved away from their game book origins, introducing complex systems and rules. Even 80 Days, which feels like the purest of narrative adventures, has resource management and makes strong use of art alongside its text.

Heaven’s Vault moves all of those aspects forward. It’s still a game built around words, perhaps more so than anything else in the Inkle catalogue, but it plays like a graphic novel. The build that I played has just one location, an apparently lifeless desert planet, but there are many places to go. By the time I reached the demo’s cut-off point, having climbed to the point of exhaustion in thin air, I felt like an explorer, stepping into the unknown at every turn.

Lead character Aliya Elasra is an explorer of a sort. She’s an archaeologist, working out of a university, exploring the Nebula, a network or rivers flowing between moons. The old meets the new in this sailing through space, and in Aliya’s explorations, which involve dusting down surfaces to read ancient inscriptions as well as asking a trundling robot companion for advice. That robot, Six, fits into the mould of the impatient, ultra-logical companion, used for laughs as well as assistance. The dialogue between the pair is well-written, Aliya driven by intellectual curiosity and a hint of something more personal, while Six is a reluctant and sometimes cruel source of advice.

Movement is between nodes, though a less restrictive mode is also planned. You’re free to look around though, while standing at a node, and in doing so can highlight items or areas of interest. Clicking – or pushing a button – moves Aliya to the target area or object, and there may then be other options, to investigate, ask Six for input, or observe from a distance. Those are just examples of the basics. During my brief time with the game I also dropped a stone down a well and crept into an abandoned (?) building.

And all along the way, I was solving puzzles. Or failing to solve them. More on that in a second; first, a reassurance that these aren’t block-switching puzzles or Towers of Hanoir or crosswords or Sudoku. Puzzles it the wrong word entirely really, so let’s scrap it. You’re not solving puzzles, you’re translating an alien language.

Oh, but of course, that’ll involve doing a Word Search or a Jumble or playing Scrabble or doing Word Tetris, won’t it? No it absolutely will not. You translate by paying attention to the context of inscriptions, combining that with knowledge of the language’s symbols that you’ve already built up, and then make educated guesses. If you’re anything like me, some of those guesses will be terrible. Fortunately, you probably won’t have the game’s writers watching you make those terrible guesses.

The very first choice in the game is between “Temple” and “Port”. Words in this language are often compound, a few symbols crunched together to create new meaning. That makes it easier to figure out what individual symbols in a cluster might mean if you’re sure of the definition of at least one of them. The interface handily marks out possible translations of those symbols and definite meanings, based on your previous work.

In this instance, I knew nothing. The symbols in question are written on a stone that is either a marker, pointing the way, or part of an actual ruin. It’s partly submerged in the planet’s red sand. Given all that sand, stretching from one horizon to the next, and the arid rocks that littered the surface, I figured this was definitely a port. In the middle of a desert, on a planet that might never have been home to even the tiniest drop of water.

No matter. As I tried to explain, realising I’d made a blunder when Six snarked in the background, I’d thought that the place might have been a port for the moonriver ships. I don’t know how any of this works and even though the demo segment had clearly been selected as a gentle introduction, the lack of context as to how the Nebula works, as a social and geographical place as well as its history, had left me floundering a little.

Thankfully, Heaven’s Vault doesn’t lock doors or paths if you muddle through the translations. Brilliantly, the words you choose will become part of the conversation between Six and Aliya, so I might see a reference to “the port back there”, or, later, “home from water”. As soon as you read something like that last phrase, you can be sure you’ve made a mistake somewhere. Inkle have decided that the syntax and word order of the translated language should fit with English norms (I wonder how this game about translation will work in translation?), so if it looks like nonsense it probably is. The one exception to this is articles (the/a/an), which have been consigned to the scrapheap.

I find it hard to imagine how the game as a whole will work, having only experienced one aspect of it with this slice of planetary exploration, but I love that it’s possible to carry a false assumption around, for a while at least. It feels true to the process of understanding history – if we mistake an action figure for an idol to be worshiped, our understanding of an entire society might be altered. Here, incorrect translations won’t prevent progress and you won’t be able to build too far on a false foundation; instead, you’ll be able to consider your mistakes and the corrections to those mistakes.

Though there is a definite sense of progress, and even a stamina meter of a sort to measure strenuous activity, Heaven’s Vault isn’t a game about Jonesing through some ruins and Crofting explosive solutions to the obstacles in your way. It’s a game about building up a picture of history, of societies that no longer exist, and figuring out what they can tell us about ourselves. While I’m not expecting a story as personal as Arrival’s sci-fi translation gave us, I’d be surprised if we don’t learn about Aliya as she learns about the Nebula and its previous inhabitants. We’re also going to learn more about those moon rivers and how robots like Six work, and how they came to be, and maybe where the gods have gone, or how they left the world.

In short, Inkle are doing Big Picture sci-fi here. Translation, exploration and conversation will be the heart of the game, and having had a brief taste of all three, I’m as delighted as I hoped to be. Inkle haven’t put a foot wrong so far and Heaven’s Vault looks like such an intelligent expansion of the core ideas that have run through their previous work that it feels like both a natural progression and a bold step forward.

We’re so accustomed to science fiction games that are about conquest or survival that the sense of mystery and discovery can seem like a secondary aspect of the genre. Heaven’s Vault looks less Lucasarts and more Le Guin, and spending half an hour in its company has me anticipating the full version more than almost any other game. I might not understand everything it’s trying to tell me, but as learning processes go, it’s a hell of an exciting one.

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18 Comments

  1. Kolbex says:

    Sounds fabulous.

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    alison says:

    This sounds terrific.

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    Grizzly says:

    I can only add to what the others have said: This sounds great! Inkle’s original twists to the works it has adapted have been grand, so I am very excited to see them work with something wholly of their own.

    Although I do wonder still: Can this be played on a smaller phone? Sorcery and 80 days worked great on my Motorola, but this game does look as if it fully needs a bigger screen, be it a pad or a monitor.

  4. Ivan Ulyanov says:

    Did someone say Le Guin? When can I have it, and why isn’t it “right now”?

    This looks and sounds very much like the kind of game I desperately want to exist. Keep up the good [non-violent] fight, Inkle!

    • joningold says:

      We love le Guin. The Hainish books are definitely in the DNA here.

  5. caff says:

    I am respectively super-hyped!

  6. Paul B says:

    Add me to the list of those looking forward to this coming out. Sounds great!

  7. Rainshine says:

    Sometimes I want to fly around the universe and shoot ships or asteroids and make money and buy bigger ships.
    And sometimes I want to walk around planets and see the beauty in them and find out about them.
    So far, the only game that I’ve played that lets me really do the latter is Kerbal. Hopefully this will too!

  8. Gomer_Pyle says:

    I cannot wait for this!

  9. Rizlar says:

    God damn and yes.

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    goodpoints says:

    Well given that “Darmok” is my favorite Star Trek episode, this looks like something right up my alley. Universal Translators, including those implied by the omission of language barriers, are one of the absolute worst sci-fi tropes.

    Also the art looks beautiful, I actually mistook the header image for something from The Banner Saga 3 at first glance.

    • joningold says:

      We were definitely inspired by the Banner Saga’s look and feel. Our first prototypes, before we introduced real movement, were framed a lot like their conversations too!

  11. gunny1993 says:

    Oh golly gosh, language and communication based science fiction is my absolute favourite. Damn, might have to have a re-read of The Dispossessed, Babel 17 and Flowers for Algernon.

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    cpt_freakout says:

    Looks great, can’t wait!

  13. Sin Vega says:

    Inkle consistently making games that we as a society can actually be proud of, instead of having to mumble excuses. This is how it’s supposed to be!

    Also, this animation style. Am I wrong in thinking it sounds like The Last Express? Because while the animation wasn’t the fundamental part, we definitely need more games like that, too.

    INKLE IF YOU’RE READING PLEASE DO A SEQUEL TO LAST EXPRESS SET IN STELLA’S BAR (link to valexandrov.com)

    Please

    I’ll be your friend

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      Seyda Neen says:

      Just wanted to join in and express love for The Last Express. What a cool game. Heaven’s Vault also looks very cool.

    • Sic says:

      The Last Express was the first thing that popped into my mind as well.

      Brilliant game.

      • joningold says:

        We love The Last Express, and it’s definitely an inspiration – and not just for the art style, but also for the tight writing, the awesome pacing… maybe not the puzzles so much. Still, an absolute gem.