Even though I went to a grubby comp, I did Latin at school, and in one of the first exams I translated the word ‘taberna’ as ‘small shop’. This is technically correct. I doggedly translated a story where Caecillius declares to his wife Metella that he wants to go down the little shop, and Metella is all like “You’re always going down the little shop, Caecillius!”, and then Caecillius is all like “This argument has made me need to go down the little shop even more!”
An alternative translation for ‘taberna’ is ‘pub’. Context is key.
In Heaven’s Vault, the new translate-‘em-up from Inkle, this can happen quite often. If you translate one cluster of curlicues as ‘give’, then you’ll be reminded of that association when you come to translate other words that are similar. In Ancient, the language in Heaven’s Vault, the words are compounds, so if you’re not paying attention to what you found and where you found it, it’s possible to take a running jump at a translation and absolutely stack it. I translated a word early on as ‘banished’ and it screwed me for the next few hours.
You’re not translating in a void. Context, you see. You’re Aliya, an archaeologist and historian working for a university. The context is that the known universe is a nebula full of moons — more like floating islands, really — connected by coiling rivers that form an endless loop in space. The rivers deliver water and oxygen, so are incredibly culturally significant. The dominant religion is belief in the Loop, the idea that, like the rivers, everything eventually flows back around to happen again. Aliya is seen as a bit of a soft-science pervert for even believing history is a thing at all.
Aliya is sent to track down another missing scholar, and in the process uncovers the preceding ages of the Nebula. Heaven’s Vault is built around a history thousands of years old that you can pick your way back through. And the way you do that is through archaeology. Aliya and her robot pal, Six, follow the trail of history around the Nebula, discovering new moons and lost ruins. The worlds are solid and three dimensional, and the people are 2D, ghostly and fading at the knees, and leave brief impressions of themselves when they pause. A good visual metaphor but it makes you literally lose perspective sometimes.
But oh, the places you’ll go, as they say. You find a lush jungle miles from anywhere. There’s a mysterious palace with an underground store room. There’s a library where a fire used up nearly all the oxygen on the moon. And all these places are part of a rich, complicated history that leads Aliya to her final destination. As you untangle the past of the Nebula it becomes frustrating to see the present. Belief in the Loop is used by some to claim they’re reborn emperors, and stops others from rebelling against oppressive rule. But because you’re the first person to discover these things, to really dig into them, the feeling of hold-your-breath excitement is staggering. Violins swell, and so does your heart!
Aliya hops between these worlds in a ship, half spacecraft, half sailboat, but as you go further afield sailing the rivers becomes tedious. It is unquestionably the worst bit of Heaven’s Vault, and the game is in desperate need of a more comprehensive fast travel system than the half a one it has. Sometimes you’re just forced you to take meandering five minute journey while a passenger delivers some expositional dialogue. The rivers are a big part of the Nebula’s context, but as part of the game I’d fade to black every time.
The pay off is getting to the archaeology. Curious players are rewarded for noodling around, finding buried artefacts or hidden inscriptions on statues. When you find new words to translate you feel like a mad scientist, an Oxford scholar, a genius word baller. Brendy has made himself a dictionary, where he’s scribbled what he calls PRIME SYMBOLS (“preposition? that? hyphen?”). I hold the shapes in my head and try and feel my way through: I know that this world means me or I, so when me or I is combined with many it means US.
This works for me because some of the words are almost pictograms. Water looks like the little waves of the Aquarius sign, things to do with the sky have a way to show it’s to do with something up high, and light — starlight, sunlight, seeing and looking — sort of looks like light. And it all makes sense! The context! Die is ‘do a not life’! Prow is something like ‘pointy bit at the front of a ship’! Heaven’s Vault is so good at making you feel smarter than you are
I can’t over emphasise how wonderful it is when you begin to recognise words without the game helping you. The thrill when you figure out the this little mark means ‘do’ and is also used to denote a verb, that this shape on its own means ‘of’ but also makes a word a possessive, that a particular symbol makes the symbol after it a negative.
I wish I could say I enjoyed it all that much. The ending, when it comes, will feel more or less abrupt depending on how much noodling around you’ve done. Aliya occasionally gets spoken flavour lines when you land somewhere new, but for the most part the game feels lonely because speech appears without even a dootdootdoot noise, and the dialogue options don’t always warn you if you’re about to be really mean to someone. (Especially Six. Aliya doesn’t like robots, but I wanted to avoid her actively being a dick to them.) Some conversations trigger incorrectly, too.
Brendy had to make his own dictionary because there isn’t one in the game, which is a crying shame, and the jigsawing the game makes you do when approaching a complicated translation is frustrating. I often found myself knowing full well what a word was, because it was a modified version of one I already had nailed, but because I hadn’t technically encountered it before I couldn’t dial it in as a certainty. Likewise, when you’re presented with a new sentence you have to break it up into its constituent words, and you can’t hard lock in things you know are correct there either. I was told to go to the Withering Palace, we followed the directions to the Withering Palace, and those two words fucking mean Withering Palace, so don’t make me juggle possibilities for the rest of the sentence first.
But my goodness, it’s hard to care about the problems when you’ve banged out a correct translation first time. You pull at threads and you tease out the meaning of a whole civilisation, the most satisfying unravelling imaginable. And I already know that there are secrets I didn’t properly uncover, because it was a bit of history I didn’t chase down far enough. I want to know where the six ancient gods came from. I want to know about the fall of the Holy Empire. I want to know about the rivers, and the teleportation ‘hoppers’, and the robots. I want to be able to read the shit out of those old words.
The thing is, the problems are there. I don’t know if I can recommend this to someone who isn’t a word nerd. But at the same time, what Inkle have achieved in Heaven’s Vault is tremendous. I don’t know what to compare it to, because there isn’t anything. I can’t remember what the Ancient for love is, but I know it contains the word for heart, which contains the word for life.