Heaven’s Vault is a stunning achievement in innovative game design and non-linear narrative, woven through a story about the importance of understanding history.
Usually when a game has a translation element, it’s limited to decoding a cipher: the words are all English (or whatever language you’re playing in), with letters substituting one another or new symbols that directly correspond to the alphabet you already know. As soon as you figure out the pattern or learn what symbol equals what letter, you can “translate” anything.
But not Heaven’s Vault. This is a game with a whole new language—”Ancient”—with its own rules, letters, words, and spellings that don’t neatly match up to anything else. It’s a dead language, too, found only on ancient artifacts and etched into dusty old ruins scattered about the Nebula in which the game takes place. Nobody understands Ancient anymore, let alone speaks it fluently enough to be able to pass on that knowledge. Frankly, there are few who care at all—Ancient is the past, in a world where people are only really interested in the present and the future.
There is one person does who does care, however: Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist who has dedicated her life to understanding the ancient civilization of the Nebula. There’s a lot that goes into that sort of work, but most of all, it’s about trying to understand the Ancient language through trial and error, educated guesswork, contextual clues, problem-solving, and the constant mapping and re-mapping of things you thought you knew.
This linguistic study forms one of the backbones of Heaven’s Vault. You start with next to no knowledge of Ancient, so your “translations” are mostly guesswork—Aliya knows enough to be able to identify different words, while context and the loosely pictographic nature of the Ancient script lets her come up with a few possible translations for each, but you’re mostly just taking a stab in the dark.
But as you find new inscriptions, the dark you’re stabbing into gets ever so slightly brighter. You encounter a word you’ve seen before in a different context, which helps to either confirm your earlier guess or rule it out, until you eventually manage to narrow down a reasonably reliable translation. As your dictionary of known words grows, it provides additional clues for new words you discover—similar groupings of letters suggesting a shared root, and therefore a related meaning, or grammatical patterns that narrow down what a particular word could possibly be in the context of those around it. This growing understanding also means you can revisit those old translations with new knowledge to improve their accuracy, and build your understanding even further.
It’s a fascinating experience, and while I’m no expert in ancient languages, I have to imagine it mirrors the real-life process of understanding lost languages reasonably well. When you have no textbooks or teachers to learn from, all you can do is try to figure it out on your own with whatever clues you can find. Heaven’s Vault does an incredible job of capturing that process, giving you plenty of space and material with which to play around, guess wrong, guess right, and refine your understanding, while also ensuring that you never run into any true dead ends.
While Aliya’s focus is on understanding the ancient past, Heaven’s Vault is as much about making sense of the present. When a roboticist from Aliya’s university goes missing, she’s the one who’s tasked with trying to find out what happened to him (there’s a lot of skills overlap between archaeology and detective work, I guess), setting her on a journey of discovery—both of the the Nebula’s ancient mysteries and of the current civilizations dirty secrets, and most of all, the threads that tie all those things together. It’s a journey through the impacts of colonisation on a whole system, and the inequalities and disenfranchisement it breeds. It’s journey of philosophical questions about personhood and identity in the context of a world where robots and space flight is commonplace but history runs deep. It’s a journey about truth—not just about uncovering it, but about the questions of what “truth” really is, and who controls it.
This all comes through a non-linear narrative that’s almost as ingenious as Heaven’s Vault‘s translation system. Typically, a “branching story” means exactly that: a story that follows a linear path, but that diverges at certain points based on major decisions or the cumulative effect of smaller ones. The storytelling in Heaven’s Vault is more like a web: there’s myriad different things that can happen in myriad different ways, based on all sorts of different factors. Dialogue choices are common, but there are also so many other choices that you make without even realising it: what objects you discover, who you talk to and when, how you approach your Ancient translations and what paths your unique assortment of incomplete knowledge sends you down.
All of these little details, big and small, affect how the story in Heaven’s Vault unfolds. While there are a couple of different endings, this isn’t really a game about having a bunch different outcomes as a consequence of the choices you make. Rather, it’s about the path you take to get there, who you meet along the way and the interactions you share with them, the places your journey ends up taking you, and how all these things put those endings into context. A lot of games claim a unique experience every time you play, but Heaven’s Vault is one that truly lives up to that claim: there are so many factors that influence the narrative in so many ways, both grand and subtle, that it’d be practically impossible for two players to encounter the same version of events.
This is, as you’d expect, most apparent in repeat playthroughs, when you can see the game taking different turns to what you remember, and when the translation puzzles grow increasingly complex to build on the knowledge that carries over New Game Plus style. But playing through Heaven’s Vault a second time (and maybe a third, and maybe a fourth…) is far more significant than simply a chance to explore different branches of an infinitely-branching story; it’s where Heaven’s Vault makes its strongest statement about the questions of truth and history that drive the entire game. If the language system is the game’s functional nod to archaeological study, the way the story unfolds on repeat playthroughs—and the significance of those repeats—is a philosophical statement about the study of history, both its importance and its flaws.
Heaven’s Vault is truly remarkable. A complex, satisfying, authentic system of translating a forgotten language and a truly open-ended narrative structure in which your every action affects how the story plays out make for an deeply enjoyable game, but it’s how Heaven’s Vault puts those things into context that’s truly impressive. This isn’t just a gamified take on archaeology, but a deep dive into the role it plays in understanding a world and its history, and what “uncovering the truth” really means.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.