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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Heaven's Vault: Exploring the Universe and Unlocking Its Mysteries via Word Puzzles

I feel like I’ve been focused lately, in addition to basics like the story or the gameplay, is how it feels to play a game, the experiences it instills in a player, sometimes even just random secondary connections to other things my mind draws. Like, Ikenfell was a fun fantasy RPG, but also a diorama, an intricately-constructed place and a complex portrayal of the residents. Chicory was an advanced coloring book, asking you to express yourself creatively in response to the story it was telling, but also a conversation about artistic creation. Monster Prom was a user-generated sitcom, somehow both comforting and unexpected. So the question then is: what is Heaven’s Vault? The obvious answer is something like a puzzle box, but that almost feels like it sells the game short; there’s so much more going on here, almost like a mini-history lesson or research session. And perhaps more interestingly for a video game (at least mechanically), for the main puzzle box comparison, it’s specifically a word puzzle that’s guarding the treasure within.

So let’s take it from the top: Heaven’s Vault is a game from developers Inkle Studios. Story-wise, it very fittingly combines the past and the present, as a game about doing archaeology across a federation of planets out in some galaxy far, far away (possibly also a long time ago, but we’ll get into that shortly). You play as Eliya Alasra, a historian at the University of Iox who is sent out by a shady administrator to search for a colleague who recently went missing while researching historical sites. The absentee researcher believed he found evidence of some sort of past disaster that could be returning to the Nebula soon, but also didn’t fill in the administration on what exactly he was doing or finding. All you have to go off of is original destination and his out-of-the-loop, former robotic assistant, Six.

It’s a great cold set-up, almost like a noir detective story crossed with an Indiana Jones film and set in space, one that immediately gives you narrative hooks and mysteries and strong characters to latch onto without giving away too much. And the ensuing game provides a lush backstory for both the characters and the world. The writers at Inkle have done a great job digging into all of it, and since the game is very open-ended and player-directed, you very likely will miss some of their hard work on your first playthrough; I certainly did. Thankfully, Heaven’s Vault allows you to carry through all your translation work into repeat playthroughs, and even gives you more complex and detailed writings to translate. You can get a pretty wide range of story beats depending on what all you know, what you can decipher, where you go, who you talk to, and whose trust you earn.

So that’s what we’re dealing with story-wise, but what about the gameplay? It’s an adventure game*, but it makes some key changes from the classics of the genre. First, the worlds in it are traversable, 3D-spaces, rather than 2D screens. You walk around these worlds talking to other people and looking for items, specifically archaeological artifacts.

*I guess the proper label is a graphic adventure game, as opposed to a text adventure game? I don’t hear that modifier nearly as much as “text adventure”, but it makes sense at least.

I know that this move technically doesn’t change the gameplay all that much fundamentally, but it still does feel like a big jump from the classics of the genre. These are some impressive landscapes to wander around, with nice scenic shots of bustling markets or alien horizons or ancient structures. And I think that seeing these locales as 3D spaces rather than backgrounds really does contribute to the sense of awe this game can inspire, in a way that even the nicest animations or pixel art couldn’t quite duplicate.*

*Although this game does use 2D animation for characters, rendering them as flat sprites in the world. It probably saved a lot of work on 3D modeling, and the close ups on the faces are nicely detailed for acting out scenes and on the whole well done. I’ve noticed a few games trying similar things, and honestly, I’m digging this growing trend of 2D art in 3D environments. It looks really nice when done well, and not at all as jarring as I was worried the contrast might be.

The other big change is the puzzle mechanic; the big question isn’t what you do with the items you pick up. Instead, you find them scattered across the environments via exploration (they are, to at least some extent, randomly placed) and translate the written language of the ancients (a fictitious language constructed for the game, complete with grammatical rules and consistent symbols) that most things are inscribed with. The game then shows you a few potential words that could slot into each string and sets you lose.

Learning to understand these writings is key to figuring out where to go or what to do next. And because this is a valid constructed language, there are multiple ways you can attack this problem, all of which can get you to the right place. It’s a lot less overwhelming than it might at first sound.

Once you’ve translated each bit, you get several things. First, like with real archaeological work, the findings will often help you determine what type of place you’re dealing with, since the locations are appropriately ancient and inscrutable. For instance, is the statue with an inscription on its base a warning, an invocation of the gods, a welcoming sign, a memorial, or something else entirely? Sometimes, they’ll also contain information about the ancient empire and the challenges they faced, which can be helpful in determining your next course of action. And finally, once you’ve found enough artifacts, Eliya and Six will be able to piece together new potential dig sites for you to seek out and explore.

Whether you’re searching for new planets to visit or returning to old ones to check in with characters, you reach new corners of the Nebula by sailing around in cosmic streams on a literal ship, since this game takes a more fantastical approach to its science fiction. It looks cool as hell, and it certainly works aesthetically, with the galaxy of Heaven’s Vault feeling ancient and worn down. Things have existed for millennia, empires have come and gone, and even the advanced tech has existed so long that most people don’t remember how it works. It certainly feels like a world that could be coming to its end after a long lifecycle, but maybe there’s also the chance for a new beginning breaking through.

From a gameplay standpoint, I know from looking around that the sailing was a point of contention for some players, especially prior to a patch that made it a little smoother. But honestly? I thoroughly enjoyed this part of Heaven’s Vault. Sailing around multi-colored spacescapes over a string section and lilting, siren-like vocals is A Mood. It can be a little dicey at first, trying to navigate the complex networks of paths with a mostly-obscured map. The game nudges you in the right direction mostly, although sometimes it gives you strange routes or doesn’t realize you’re intentionally exploring a little bit off the route.

But once you have your bearings and have plotted out some common paths to hubs, this section provides for nice opportunities to chat with Six about recent plot developments, find bonus artifacts, and just generally reflect on your leads. I get that it’s not going to be that pleasant for everyone, but I probably just did 95% of my sailing manually.

The last major gameplay mechanic is the branching narrative and the mechanics around that, which means we can move into the story. I won’t be discussing anything too spoiler intensive this time, though; partly because I think experiencing the story of Heaven’s Vault first-hand is at least a little important, but also because the game is… kind of hard to spoil?

There’s a lot going on here, and the large quantity of moving parts means that there are a lot of potential variations of the story that you can wander into (especially for your first time through), where a spoiler might just not happen, or story beats can go in a completely different order, or things might even go the opposite direction. As I alluded to earlier, my first playthrough actually wound up with me missing two or three planets entirely, but also finding one or two hard to access areas and storylines, just because of the specific way that I played it. And this isn’t even getting into how much your knowledge affects your understanding of things; starting my second playthrough immediately revealed interesting details that I missed at the start of my first time due to my lean dictionary and lack of context for the world.

There are only so many of those moving parts, so you’ll never go totally off-course, but the writers at Inkle planned for a good number of possible player reactions within those spaces. You have a very wide latitude in what order you tackle things, which can affect what you might see. Character interactions are even more notable for determining your path: each one allows you to direct the conversation and ask questions, and things keep a pretty natural flow. But that also means that a choice you make might also move the conversation past a point that you wanted to ask about. It’ll rarely be a completely missed opportunity, as each branch has at least some information to glean, but you also need to approach each decision with a sense of what you need to prioritize discussing.

The strong cast of characters and their function in this story is another strongpoint. Each one has information to offer you, a pretty clear angle to play, and things they’re holding back. And you may very well need to pick sides and help one in a way that moves another out of your influence. It’s a nice added dimension to finding the right path through those conversations. On top of that, you’re also “playing” Eliya, who comes into the story with her own distinct personality, a harsh, snarky loner who’s shaped by feeling out of place in both her old hometown slums and her newer, more-upscale academic setting, with a perpetual uncertainty about who she can totally trust. You can learn to manage that tense discomfort and bond with others, or you can play it up and make your own way, but it does require getting a sense for how she’ll deliver and direct the lines you pick for her in the branching conversations

Another aspect of the writing that particularly shines through, perhaps more than anything else, is the world the developers have built for this cast. And sure, some of that is the 3D worlds I mentioned earlier; the game’s locations do a pretty good job of telling a story. But there’s an entire history here, delivered via your investigations. The Nebula in Heaven’s Vault has lost a lot of its history for a variety of reasons, and Eliya’s digs turn up a lot of things that are even discoveries to an expert like her. She discusses these findings with other characters, marveling at each new discovery and trying to work through the implications for her world and how they got to this point.

But there is a very interesting approach to how Inkle has written and delivered the history for this universe. Naturally, it’s largely delivered in non-chronological chunks, as you would expect from a story told by exploring historical sites in a “random” order. But that does allow them to gesture at bigger themes, learning of similar events that you later find out are separated by centuries, and playing into a theme of cycles and the infinite. Or seeing cause-and-effect play out in reverse, and getting the sense that nothing ever really ends, it just leads into the next thing. It really feels like a historian’s approach to teaching or learning history, which is a nice touch narratively and thematically.

Overall, there’s a really full history here that’s been totally mapped out, complete with an ever-expanding timeline on your pause screen to accommodate your discoveries. It’s almost like a second map, and it’s just as exciting to play through the game to fill it out and learn what happened next back in the day. So in a way, it’s another solid way to connect the player to the main character via her passions.

There’s just something about Heaven’s Vault’s approach to language and puzzles and history and exploration and the infinite that is just so interesting and unique and singular, and it really pulled me in. It was another one of those rare games where I immediately started my second playthrough upon completing my first one, and even with my attention span wanting to do something different, I was considering a third playthrough right after that to try a new combination of events (it still might happen someday!). If any of that sounds appealing to you, I cannot recommend this game enough.

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