Heaven's Vault: Inkle's game about a nebula-riding archaeologist
Thusfar, Inkle Studios’ signature style has been to make the pages of a novel come to life, with blocks of literary text surrounded by evocative game interfaces that had distinct aesthetic sensibilities. But flush with the success of 80 Days, the team has sought to move on to a new challenge.
“Where do we want to go next?” asked studio co-founder Jon Ingold as I spoke to him at GDC. Answering his own question he showed me the title screen for their freshly announced project Heaven’s Vault. “We started from the idea of an interactive graphic novel and how that would work, bringing together an adventure game sensibility with Inkle’s text flow style.”
The result is a game whose title screen shows a shrouded skiff riding on energy streams through an emerald nebula. Ingold told me that he and his team wanted to do a science fiction game without it looking too much like the other sci-fi games out there. The result, based on what little I saw, is something that looks like a stellar fantasia.
You play Aliya "El" Elasra, an interplanetary archeologist trying to uncover the mysteries of a lost spacefaring civilization. Her sidekick, a taciturn and grumpy robot nicknamed Six, accompanies El on her adventures. The nebula you pilot through is the world map of the game, where you direct your spaceship from one planet to the next. But it also serves another purpose. The massive nebula clouds take the role of mountains, while great highways of energy work like rivers. The familiarity bridges the gap between what we normally think of as sci-fi and fantasy.
At the center of this nebula, and the game itself, is the poor slumworld of Elbereth where El was born, and the loftily elegant world of Iox--a dichotomy Ingold likened to the Eloi and Morlocks. These worlds are home bases where you can build relationships, get or advance quests, and develop El’s character as you return time after time.
For the nebula itself, Ingold describes an open environment where you’re not limited to the energy rivers and can go off and “crash through the clouds” to other locations and moons. But my hands-on preview focused on a planetside mission where I was trying to discover a lost temple on a rusty, Mars-like moon.
The world was fully 3D, while the characters were 2D paper cutouts. Their animation gave the impression of an interactive comic that proceeds frame by frame. Co-founder Joseph Humfrey emphasized that the comic book style allows them to capture expression much more reliably than something that would inevitably stray into uncanny valley; Ingold noted that this was also extra necessary as there was less text on screen to give a novel-style character description, a-la 80 Days.
But it was on this dusty planet that the game’s core mechanic truly shone.
There is an entire language to learn, based on cuneiform, where you piece together an ancient script bit by bit. You uncover the language’s building blocks across all the worlds you explore, guessing at meanings and using context clues to piece together phrases and sentences. You’re never quite sure if you’ve gotten the translation exactly right, but the grammar clicks into place as you explore; in my own brief preview, I discovered the glyphs for “Temple,” ultimately leading me to the place they described. How you translate certain words or phrases affects the dialogue--bits of which are voice acted; El’s voice is a deep, rich Oxfordshire accent that speaks in retrospective.
These peaceful discoveries seem to comprise a goodly chunk of play--though Ingold said that there will be more densely populated worlds with deeper dialogue, marketplaces, schools, and relationships for El to run around in. The translation serves, however, as the primary puzzle mechanic of this adventure game--which is interesting, as they are less contrived than the standard fare of such titles. “We wanted to find a way to make puzzles that weren’t abstract, but were narratively meaningful,” said Ingold. Humfrey added, “We want to create that beautiful moment of realization when you discover what something means and how it fits in narratively.”
As to the ancient language, it’s rather thoroughly developed, but not quite at Tolkienesque levels. “The job of a game designer,” Ingold said, “is not to replicate the experience, but to replicate the feeling of the experience.” This philosophy, he said, was applied to the language, to give it as much linguistic and grammatical flavoring as possible so that the player could suspend their disbelief, without laboring to create a Quenya or Esperanto-like whole-cloth language. Still, if this game is successful it’s hard to imagine there won’t be fans who put in the extra work to at least bring it up to the level of Klingon.
For her part, El isn’t a “Lara Croft-style” character, in Humfrey’s phrase. She’s simply an intrepid academic who isn’t quite built for the harsh environments she explores and suffers fatigue as a result. Her blood oxygen level drops as you climb to higher elevations, for instance. In especially high-risk areas, you fight a rapidly descending health bar; in my case, El was badly affected by the metallic dust she encountered in a ruin. But the pressure is never so intense that you feel like the world is about to swallow you, rather it inspires deliberate care about what you look at and which dialogue options you choose.
Though the phrase “open world” came up during my preview, Ingold was careful to set expectations. Planetside, you explore the 3D environment by choosing among various branching paths. You have a fuller range of movement in space, but the real “openness” lies in the nature of the narrative. The story, as described by Ingold and Humfrey, sounds like a ball of wax comprised of your growing knowledge of the language and the ancient civilization El is researching. You can piece it all together in your own way, and there aren’t really any wrong ways to go down the path of accumulating that understanding. Even if you go down branches with mistaken translations of a word or phrase, there is always a way for El to (eventually) correct her mistake. In short, the game appears to be less linear than one might fear.
The next big milestone for development will be the public debut of a vertical slice of the game sometime in September. The hope is that players will be able to do the following: You begin on the lush world of Iox at El’s university, receive a quest that requires exploration of a far-flung moon, travel through space to reach it, explore the moon and gather knowledge, then return to Iox and see the results of your endeavors. That basic summary gives a sense of the game’s overall rhythm, though like any good score there are supposed to be many variations on that particular theme.
It’s impossible to give a firm verdict based on the all-too-brief hands-on preview I was given, but I can say I’m intrigued at what may come next. It’s a departure from Inkle’s signature style, certainly, looking a bit more like a “traditional” video game with an on-screen avatar whose movements you direct. One consequence of that is that I didn’t quite see a clear aesthetic emerge. 80 Days was defined by Victorian silhouettes and stodgy portraiture, while Sorcery had a clear storybook/boardgame feel to it. Inkle masterfully framed the novel-like text that was at the center of their games. But Heaven’s Vault no longer centers that, and thus hasn’t quite found its distinctive “look” yet. It’s very early on, of course, so there’s plenty of time left for one to emerge.
All told, Aliya’s interplanetary detective story holds a great deal of promise. It’s nice to see a game about an archeologist who’s not a superhuman puncher-of-bad-guys, but a scrupulous academic who simply wants to find cool things whilst keeping her robot happy. For my part, I’m most eager to see how her character develops over the course of the story, especially on her return trips to Elbereth’s slums.
On the strength of Inkle’s past work, I feel more than a little optimistic about where this is all going, even if it’s all a bit nebulous right now (sorry, I had to).