Heaven’s Vault: Language

I said before that Heaven’s Vault involves deciphering an alien language, but that’s not quite accurate. The inscriptions you find on random walls were (as far as we know at the start of the story, at least) inscribed by ordinary humans. It’s just that the writing system is ancient and largely forgotten, used only before a dark age in the nebula’s history. I even recall some early mention of a deliberate forgetting, a point at which a new empire declared itself to be the start of history and destroyed all records of what had gone before, although I didn’t have enough context at the time to register whether that was the start of the Ancient Empire (the earliest era tracked by the in-game timeline) or of the Modern Era. There certainly seem to be people around who are fanatical enough to gladly burn books, which makes both your investigations and the secrecy of your findings particularly urgent.

Moreover, the language encoded by this writing seems to be ordinary English. Each sequence of glyphs corresponds exactly to a single English word, even in its idiomatic uses. Word order is exactly as in English. It’s not so much a language as a word-level cipher. This disappoints me a little, but I suppose it’s all a concession to keeping things simple enough to not distract from the story.

I’ve encountered a few cases of words in an unknown language, mostly spoken by ancient machines. Is this supposed to be the same language as the inscriptions? Probably, but it feels a little strange, because I’m really thinking of the inscriptions as representing English at this point. It’s one thing to say “The ancients spoke English, but they had their own writing system”, another to say “Actually they had their own talking system for English too”.

Learning the language is a matter of guesswork. Whenever you find an inscription, you get to make a stab at picking out possible translations for each word out of a short list provided for you. Sometimes your guesses are informed by context: when you find an inscription on a well, and one of the possible translations of a word is “water”, it’s a pretty safe bet. When you’ve seen a word a certain number of times, the game may tell you that you’re certain that your guess was correct. Or it may say that it seems wrong now and make you guess again. The exact mechanics are obscure, but it has one very profound effect on the experience of the game: You want to find as many inscriptions as possible.

And the joyous part is that inscriptions are basically everywhere. Individually unimportant though they may be, usually only a few words in length, but each one you find feels like a treasure. A broken hand tool with a new word on it is more to be prized than a jewel without an inscription. Exploring a new site is a mixture of narrative and gameplay, and this word hunt is the gamish half.

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