Heaven’s Vault: Ending

Heaven’s Vault is a slow, quiet game, and it has a slow, quiet ending. At least, that’s what the ending I got was like. It’s clear that there’s some branching, including a last-second binary choice. I wouldn’t describe the earlier parts of the game as branching, because it’s far more free than that — it’s more like you have a whole lot of opportunities and can follow up on them as you please. But eventually you start to run out of goals to pursue, either because you’ve completed them or rendered them uncompletable, and the story funnels you towards the Vault, one way or another. And when it does, it starts to feel like you’re going down a path to inevitability, especially when you make the trip to the final destination, knowing you won’t be able to go back home until the story is complete, if ever.

Inevitability is also suggested by the way that the narrative starts near the end in a sort of flash-forward prologue, then jumps back in time to the beginning. When you land on that final site, you recognize it, and know exactly what your robot is going to say. Weirdly, though, the prologue wasn’t quite accurate in my play-through. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that my earlier choices had resulted in a visible change that the prologue didn’t reflect. Past a certain point, I felt like the game wasn’t quite anticipating that I’d do the things the way I had done them, that I was getting bits of the story out of the order the author wanted, solving problems before they were posed and finding basic explanations of concepts I was already very familiar with. Earlier parts didn’t feel like this, despite being more freeform — perhaps just because I had less personal history to get tangled up.

This feeling was largely the reason I took the final plunge past the point of no return when I did, despite still having a great many untranslated inscriptions that I probably could have resolved if I kept puttering around longer. Searching random ruins and shipwrecks while out sailing is basically this game’s version of grinding, and, as always with grinding, you eventually just have to decide you’ve done enough of it. The game did try to impel me towards the conclusion with ominous warnings about a coming darkness, but it never felt urgent. Indeed, I tended to forget about the darkness whenever it wasn’t being mentioned. It seemed a little superfluous. The prospect of learning the secrets at the heart of the world is compelling enough motivation in itself.

After completing the game, there’s a New Game+ mode, which seems very appropriate for a work so concerned with the idea that history is cyclical. In a combat-based RPG, New Game+ would typically mean starting over with the stats and/or equipment you ended the game with, but also with tougher monsters. Here, it means starting over with all your accumulated knowledge of the ancient language, but also with longer and more complicated inscriptions. This actually makes things make more sense, story-wise; the first time around, we’re told that Aliya has been studying the language, but she literally knows none of its words whatsoever. Moreover, this is a game that demands to be played multiple times. I know there are sub-plots I never even glimpsed in my first pass, as well as goals that I tried and failed to accomplish. (You can’t always revisit sites that you were forced to leave before you got what you wanted from them.) Refreshing the word-hunting in this way should help to keep replays interesting.

At any rate, it’s a lovely game, and makes me a little jealous that I didn’t get to work on it. Before moving on, there’s just one more thing I’d like to comment on, and that’s the title. Spoiler alert, because we don’t learn just what “Heaven’s Vault” really means until the very end. We’re told it’s a place, and we’re told it’s a ship, but what we ultimately learn is that the word “vault” refers to part of the ship’s functionality, that it’s “vault” not in the sense of “room for storing valuables”, or even in the sense of “chamber with arched ceiling”, but in the sense of “jump”. And that’s a step over the line into “To Serve Man” territory. “Heaven’s Vault” is a translation from the ancient language, which is made of glyphs representing semantic units, not phonemes. This particular kind of ambiguity, of words with multiple unrelated meanings, shouldn’t be possible in this writing system at all, let alone with the same specific double meanings as English. On the other hand, examining the word that gets translated as “vault” shows that the glyphs say exactly what it turns out they mean. It was always “Heaven’s Jump” all along, and you had the clues you needed to realize this. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone in the game ever actually interprets it incorrectly, however misleading it is to the player. It’s just a weird trick to pull, especially at the end of such a generally thoughtful and mature piece.

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.

Heaven’s Vault: Separation of Knowledge

At this point, the passages I’m translating are getting longer and longer, but, due to my earlier translation efforts, have more and more words already filled in. Moreover, I have enough words with definite translations that I’m noticing patterns. Glyphs seem to be not phonetic letters but lexemes. That is, specific glyphs have meanings. There’s one that, if I see it included in a word, I know that the word indicates a place. Another glyph indicates negation. Sometimes recognizing these things is enough to positively identify the correct translation from the list that the game gives me without any other context. The frustrating thing, though, is that the game has no way of acknowledging my certainty. It only knows about Aliya’s certainty, which is formed only after seeing a word in enough different contexts. But Aliya’s certainy is only very loosely related to mine.

When you first make a guess about a word, that guess will show up in any further translations with a question mark by it. When Aliya is satisfied and the guess locks in, the question mark goes away. This is useful, but it doesn’t acknowledge the difference between words that I took a wild guess at and words that I’m very certain about but haven’t seen enough instances of for Aliya to share my certainty. What I really want is a third status. Lacking it, I’m considering taking a stab at completely eliminating the wild-guess category. Taking paper and pencil and making a comprehensive lexicon of glyphs I’ve seen in the hope of figuring out what they all mean. The game gives you enough context-specific help that I haven’t really needed to take external notes yet, but it may be time to start. Not because I need to in order to finish the game, but just for my own satisfaction.

There’s a similar separation of player knowledge and character knowledge going on at the story level. The game has a repeated pattern of Aliya coming to realizations about the true purpose of sites or buildings. A minor example: At one point, you find a building with rows of benches facing a central platform with a statue of a goddess. Clearly a temple of some kind, says Aliya. But the statue strangely turns out to be made of wood painted to look like stone, which is a bit of a mystery, until she finds a fake sword in a prop chest and realizes: It’s not a temple, it’s a theater! Oftentimes Aliya’s observations run ahead of my own, with the effect that her dialogue explains the site to me, makes it so that I don’t have to figure things out. But occasionally I’m a step or two ahead of her. When I first saw that “temple”, my immediate thought was that it looked like a theater, or possibly a lecture hall. I’ve just been through a site, which I won’t describe in this post, that combined these two things oddly: Aliyah made some deductions that I don’t think I would have thought of on my own, but at the same time didn’t piece them together with the part that I thought was obvious.

I’ve commented before about frustration in games like Phoenix Wright where it’s impossible to act on deductions that you’ve made but the player character hasn’t. Heaven’s Vault avoids this by giving the player a great deal of freedom of action. So I’m going to just call these moments “dramatic irony” and leave it at that.

Heaven’s Vault: Choice and Abundance

To elaborate on what I was saying in the last post: The sense of abundance is a major part of the feel of Heaven’s Vault. It isn’t just that there are inscriptions everywhere, it’s specifically that it feels like there are more inscriptions than you need. That you can miss a few here and there and it’s okay, because, with occasional exceptions, they’re not individually important. The moment-to-moment gameplay is like an adventure game, but this is a radical departure from the usual adventure game world view, in which each and every little thing is crucially, individually important — perhaps not to every path through the story, but to some branch.

It isn’t just the inscriptions, either. There’s a whole system for finding clues to the locations of sites. When you have a vague idea of where some artifacts came from, you get a greyed-in region on the world map. As you find more artifacts, chunks of the region get carved away. Understand that this is rather abstract; you’re not told how or why each artifact reduces the search area, just that it does. Again, each clue is individually inessential. The player gets to decide just how much precision they desire before doing the rest of the search manually.

Mind you, even knowing this, I’m trying to be thorough in scouring each site for artifacts and inscriptions. Maybe it’s partly just ingrained habit from other adventure games, but, like I was saying before, most of the joy in the game is in finding stuff. Usually there comes a point in my explorations where my robot companion points out that I’ve already made whatever discovery is necessary to advance the story and asks, repeatedly, if I’d like to return to the ship now. And I’m always telling him “No, I’m not finished here”. As long as there are rooms I haven’t poked around in, I’m not done. I want as much of that abundance as I can find. But once I’ve poked around to my satisfaction, it’s comforting to know that anything I missed was probably unimportant.

And that extends to narrative choices as well. Choice often brings a sense of anxiety in games, a worry that you’re cutting yourself off from opportunities if you choose wrong. Here, I know for sure that I’m cutting myself off from opportunities, but I’m not particularly worried, because it seems like there are going to be plenty of others. The story starts with a character named Myari sending you on a mission. Some time back, I made a major discovery relevant to that mission, one that Myari would want reported to her. And ever since then, the game has reminded me, every time that I board my ship, that I should do so, that giving my report to Myari is, essentially, my primary mission now and the thing that advances the plot. But I’m pretty well advanced in the game now, and I haven’t gone back to Myari. I was unsatisfied with the mission’s resolution, so I decided to check out some more details first, and that led to more things to follow up on, and so forth. I’m basically doing the same thing that I do when exploring a site, but at the story level: continuing to search thoroughly even though the game has given me permission to move forward.

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.

Heaven’s Vault: Animation Style

While I’m still collecting data on the story and language, let’s describe the visual style of Heaven’s Vault a little. It’s peculiar. The environments are modeled in 3D, and a little stylized but reasonably detailed. Characters, however, are sprites. In other words, it’s basically like a Doom-era FPS, except a great deal more hi-res. And that’s strange. Sprites limit the number of different views you can have of a thing. Your basic Doom monster can be viewed from eight different angles. HV seems to have more angles than that — I counted ten for Aliya — but it’s still few enough to cause very noticeable pops. Similarly, walking around means moving smoothly through the world, but only shifting poses once per second or so.

Moreover, Aliya frequently leaves afterimages behind. You’ll just be walking around, and at a place where you paused or changed direction, you’ll get a spare image of her that slowly fades away. I don’t know what causes this. It may be linked to optional dialogue or something. Regardless, the effect is to emphasize that the rendering of characters isn’t meant to be realistic.

This whole approach seems less strange in conversations, where it reminds me of the static images commonly used in Visual Novels: typically one person on the left side of the screen, one on the right, each changing only to express emotion. The difference is that HV positions the characters in 3D space. It strikes me that much of the animation style is a result of trying to reconcile that VN-like or comic-like style, with its static shots of 2D characters, with free movement through a 3D world.

But such reconciliation only goes so far. There’s still a large visual contrast between the sprites and the world they live in. This may well be deliberate and thematic. It’s a subject/object distinction, for one thing. The people are part of your society, even the ones who hate and distrust you. The world is not. It’s far older than your society, and has its own distinct character that’s foreign enough to be an object of study.

Heaven’s Vault

Heaven’s Vault, Inkle’s latest, was released back in April, and I’ve been meaning to get started at it since. To be honest, I’ve never actually completed an Inkle game — not even 80 Days, which I’ve started numerous times. But HV has that one extra element that promised to be more compelling: the deciphering of an alien language. As people familiar with my own IF works could guess, this is a matter of some interest to me.

Not that I’ve seen a lot of stuff to translate yet. I’m still in the early stages, and presumably will have more to say about the translation mechanics later. For now, I’ll just say that it seems to be manageable without external note-taking. The game takes notes for you, organizing and indexing them in various ways. In fact, it does an impressive job of that generally. You’ll be talking to your robot sidekick and an offhand mention of something in the player character’s past will provoke an unobtrusive pop-up letting you know that it’s been added to the timeline of past events. Much has been made of the game’s eagerness to remind you of where the plot stands and what your goals are.

The management of history is particularly relevant to the story because that’s the player character’s job. You play the part of Aliya, a historian and archeologist, simultaneously looking for a missing roboticist and investigating the forgotten past of the game’s sci-fi setting. That setting is a peculiar one, apparently consisting of moons connected by airborne rivers that you navigate in a sort of mini-game. The player’s piecemeal discovery of the details of this world parallels Aliya’s discovery of its past and its past’s language.

The game’s dominant mode of interaction is conversation, but it often makes this simultaneous with freeform exploration, like in Firewatch, or even with navigating the rivers, like in Wheels of Aurelia but with rivers instead of roads. That is, there are places where you enter a distinct dialog mode and are forced to make a choice (or let it time out), but there are also places where it just prompts you to optionally press a button to start or continue an ongoing conversation. In the latter case, you don’t get much choice over what you say; the prompts are along the lines of “Remark” or “Query?”, and the game is essentially just asking you whether you want more world-building right now or not. I pretty much always do.

More tomorrow!