Heaven’s Vault: Story and Setting

I’ve been commenting a lot on the gameplay of Heaven’s Vault, but I haven’t said much about the story or setting. I’ll be getting into spoilers here, although there’s still a lot I’m not certain about yet.

The story is two-layered: there’s the lost history of the nebula and its empires, and there’s the story of Aliya’s investigation into that history. Such a structure is not unusual in adventure games, but usually there isn’t a whole lot of thought put into how the two layers relate to each other. In HV, it’s easy to see how Aliya’s story reflects and continues the history of the nebula.

That’s because both layers have a lot to do with class tensions. Aliya was born in the slums on a moon called Elboreth (which always makes me think of Nethack). Her mentor Myari found her there and, for reasons best known to herself, decided to take her away to the university at Iox, the capital of both the modern Protectorate and the Empire that preceded it. So she has roots on Elboreth, and has old friends there, but at the same time she’s spent enough time on Iox that strangers immediately identify her as Ioxian, and resent her for it. When people call her Ioxian, you generally have the opportunity to insist that you’re from Elboreth. I haven’t bothered. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t where she’s from, but how she lives now, and it’s clear that she enjoys a degree of privilege that most people do not.

Meanwhile, the history that we uncover is one of oppression and rebellion. That’s a more typical scenario for a sci-fi epic, I suppose. You always have evil empires and rebel alliances, not protagonists who are passive beneficiaries of social injustice. And yet it’s not so simple here. When the ancient empire fell, it was simply replaced by another empire. Elboreth, we learn, was once the seat of power, long ago. The popular religion holds that history is cyclical, and it’s easy to see a basis for that in how empires keep rising on the corpses of previous empires.

And I haven’t even gotten into the robots, the ultimate expression of this cycle of power and oppression. Robots are, in this milieu, an ancient and forgotten technology. That is, robots are still in use, but no one builds them any more; they just dig them up and reactivate them. The robot that Aliya calls “Six”, assigned to her as caretaker and watchdog on her expeditions, is clearly self-willed, and willing to argue with Aliya about her decisions, but ultimately submissive and deferential, addressing her as “Mistress” and following her orders (to the extent that they don’t conflict with Myari’s orders to keep her safe). But there are indications of human/robot conflicts in previous times, and times when the robots were in charge of human laborers. One of the ancient machines we encounter regards Aliya as Six’s property. Not that this necessarily means robot overlords per se — we learn very early on that it’s possible for human minds to take over robots, and eventually we find that dying royalty could achieve a sort of immortality by putting recordings of their brains into robot bodies. As a result, the past isn’t truly dead. It’s just dormant, waiting to be found and reawakened. I’ve managed to recover the mind of an empress, and she’s bossing me around like her empire never fell. Six definitely had a life before reactivation that it can’t remember, outside of a few fragments and vague recognitions. Perhaps all the robots pressed into service on Iox were princes once.

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