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The RPS Advent Calendar 2019, Dec 9th

Winner of the Sassiest Robot Award

We're racing down the river rapids of the RPS Advent Calendar now, aren't we? Door number nine is marked with some kind of unknown language. Can you figure it out?

It's Heaven's Vault!

Alice Bee: Heaven's Vault is supposedly an archaeological science fiction adventure game. You, the archaeologist Aliya, uncover the secrets of the ancient Empire that existed years ago, aided by a robot friend called Six. But really it is a language game, because the language of the Empire influences how Aliya understands it.

Languages are secret and amazing things. It's wonderful to see the similarities and differences between European languages influenced by Latin, where you can trace common root meanings, and languages like Irish. Ireland was never successfully invaded by the Romans, so Irish has very different grammatical structure and vowel sounds to, e.g., English, which is why a lot of British news readers plump for "the Irish Prime Minister" rather than learning how to say Taoiseach properly.

But languages are also evolving, amazing puzzles (charted by people like Mark Forsyth). Imagine a non-native speaker having to figure out that the noise "iuno", which can be hummed without even opening your mouth, means "I do not know."

It's logical, then, that a game that contains an entire fictional language to decipher, even become semi-fluent in, must be a delight. The ancient, partly pictorial language in Heaven's Vault is only part of the mystery of its universe, but it is the key to understanding it - which makes it quite an important part. It's intimately tied to the context and history of the culture that spoke it. So, because all the little cities and worlds are connected by rivers that flow through the sky, the world for river is, sort of, "water that is up".

Stars are "things that give off light from up". An eye is a "thing that receives light". "But" is "not and". And this is based on my interpretation of the meanings! Other people read and understand it slightly differently! Brendy and I both had physical note books where we wrote down our interpretations of words and meanings.

There is a plot - a mystery, involving the rivers, and the empire, and robot. But the language engrossed me for hours.

Katharine: I, too, got lost in the words and language of Heaven's Vault this year. I didn't make a physical notebook like Alice and Brendy, but the meanings and interpretations of this strange, mysterious dialect occupied my thoughts day and night. It's one of the only games I've played this year where I've been actively thinking about it every moment I get. The kind of game you itch to get back to, sneaking in a quick bit before work, half an hour at lunch, before descending wholeheartedly into it for the rest of the evening.

It's also probably the first game where I've wanted to start a New Game+ almost immediately. Normally I have to put a bit of distance between multiple playthroughs of games I really like, if only so I can half forget all the big spoilers and enjoy it afresh the next time I come to play it. But Heaven's Vault doesn't need that, because it's already (sort of) built-in.

I thought, for instance, that with all the newfound knowledge I'd accrued by the end of what I thought was a pretty extensive playthrough I'd be able to breeze through the early parts of my New Game+, but no. The language in Heaven's Vault evolves every time you play it, with sentences becoming more complex and more meaningful to give you even greater insight into its rich and wonderfully realised history. In fact, I recently found out that you can play it four times and still not see everything. That's incredible, and considerably more generous than it has any right to be.

The mystery sitting at the heart of its ancient past is an immensely satisfying knot to unpick in its own right, too. As your understanding of certain words, objects and locations change and adapt to new information over time, you do end up feeling like a proper archaeologist by the end of it, peeling and brushing back the layers of a world that's been meticulously crafted but whose ultimate aim and purpose is always just beyond your grasp.

There's never a "wrong" answer in Heaven's Vault. Sure, Aliya will sometimes revise her makeshift dictionary to include the "correct" interpretation of a word, but it's all done in a very natural and organic way that never makes you feel like a fool for thinking otherwise. Instead, it put me in the same of detective boots as Return Of The Obra Dinn did last year. Rather than the game giving you a nudge or a wink or a stern raised eyebrow about which dots you should be connecting on your giant metaphorical cork board of mysteries to solve, it's all down to what you, the player, make of it based on your own experiences of it. It gives you the space to draw your own conclusions about this curious set of planets you inhabit, and for me, that's all I could ever really ask for.

Looking for a different door? Head back to the RPS Advent Calendar 2019!

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