About a year ago, one of our beloved editors sent me a link to a Verge article about a cool new language-y game from the folks who did 80 Days. In the article, pull-quoted and all, the developers say that although the then-upcoming game, Heaven’s Vault, is full of linguistics and decoding, they don’t “think this is a game that linguists are necessarily going to like.” This rubbed me, an (admittedly ex-)linguist, the wrong way, but ultimately may have been a shrewd publicity move: I vowed then and there that I would play this game, and I would have opinions about it comma dammit.

Heaven’s Vault

April 16, 2019

Sidequest was provided with a copy of Heaven’s Vault for PS4 in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Before we continue, I need to tell you something about linguists: we are starving. There is a wide, rampant inferiority complex among academic linguistic communities: because everyone thinks they know how to do our job, there is a sense that our job is not particularly important (there is also a rampant superiority complex among linguists, because everyone is wrong). We think language is the coolest shit in the known universe, and we are incredibly happy to tinker with it, to put things together in new and strange ways, to solve puzzles and decode meaning using the buckets of data that people create just by saying stuff and going about their day. We want everybody to think the nuts and bolts of language are as cool as we do, but we also want people to recognize the work that goes into really understanding how those nuts and bolts fit together.

This means that everything the Verge article said about language in Heaven’s Vault was enticing to me, a linguist. The game promised to be built around a linguistic core, a narrative unearthed as players piece together an ancient language through pattern recognition, iteration, and just a bit of luck. Players would guide Aliya Elasra, linguistic archeologist extraordinaire, through an interplanetary society full of history and conflict, and Aliya’s growing understanding of the language would slowly reveal her culture’s strange past and increasingly dysfunctional present. If Inkle could pull it off, Heaven’s Vault seemed like it might practically be made for me. I read the article, got a little mad, and got even more excited.

And it was thus, with a tone of unabashed exuberance piloted by just a touch of spite, that I entered the world of Heaven’s Vault in mid-April of 2019. Determined to get all I could out of the game, I joyously eschewed the plot-focused hints Aliya and her robot companion, Six, somewhat desperately offered me, opting instead to galavant around space and explore in search of inscriptions. Of course, given my extremely weird living situation (my job: in New York City. My roommate’s PS4: in Pittsburgh) I only had three otherwise-busy days to play the game, so a freeform approach was… perhaps not the best move. I did not finish.

A screenshot of Six and Aliya on Iox. A notification towards the bottom left of the screen reads "Earlier today: Professor Myari wants me back on Iox?" Six is saying, "She is very anxious for your arrival." Aliya has three options for replies: "Am I in trouble?" "And who are you?" and "I don't need an escort." Heaven's Vault, Inkle, 2019.

And she’ll be anxious for a while.

I played enough, though, to know that Heaven’s Vault is a curious study in contrasts. While the act of decoding is tremendously fun, navigating the game’s environments to find inscriptions to work on can be slow and frustrating—especially in people-filled spaces like the market moon of Renaki and Aliya’s home moon of Elboreth. The UI for the game’s timeline and map is slick and smooth, and the environments that Aliya explores are beautiful, but if the game zooms in too much on character art it becomes jarringly, obviously pixelated.

Ultimately, though, the game is not about the act of wandering around the worlds but rather the conversations that Aliya and Six have while they explore; and the pixelation is ugly, but not actively destructive to my gameplay experience. The contrast that jarred me the most was between the procedural, iterative way that the game approaches confirmation and conclusion in Aliya’s linguistic decoding work and the impulsive, overly romantic way it has her commit to that work’s implications on the game’s larger historical narrative.

The nuts-and-bolts linguistics of Heaven’s Vault are everything I hoped they would be. The ancient language is made up of glyphs, each with their own meaning, and it stacks those meanings on top of each other to form words that are more than the sum of their parts. As the game goes on, players will begin to recognize the conceptual meaning of the glyphs—some of which are tied to object or action concepts (i.e. the idea of life/living, or the concept of water), and some of which signal part of speech (i.e. markers for nouns or verbs). So the glyph for life paired with the glyph that marks verbs would mean “to live,” while the glyph for life paired with the glyph that marks nouns and the glyph for negation might mean “death.”

A screenshot of the translation/decoding screen from Heaven's Vault. A glowing collection of glyphs sits in the middle of the screen. At the top of the screen players can see three related words and their translations, and at the bottom of the screen they can select a new translation for the glyph they've selected. Heaven's Vault, Inkle, 2019.

I earned… a lot of language trophies.

When I find inscriptions, the game swoops me into a sort of minigame screen where I can match translations to each word-group of glyphs. The possible translations appear at the bottom of the screen, and related words that I’ve already translated (or guessed at translations for) hover at the top for me to reference. Early on, all my translations were just guesses, based on context or the scraps of information I could collect from a word I’d translated a few minutes before; as the game continues and I see words again and again, Aliya confirms or denies my translations. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I’m right, but every guess is—and feels like—a step forward.

The brilliance of Heaven’s Vault’s language work is in that confirmation and denial. No matter what her verdict, Aliya taking a moment to evaluate my translations is always exciting. I feel a grim satisfaction when she adds one of my translations to the dictionary, but my favorite moments of the game are actually when she rejects my work. There’s something glorious in watching a line strike through a single word and knowing that, because I’d based an entire series of translations on the only unfamiliar glyph in that word, an entire house of linguistic cards is toppling down around me.

That toppling isn’t disappointing, because it’s still a step forward and the game treats it as such. The more you know what a word is not, the closer you are to figuring out what it is. For me, an unrepentant nerd with a sordid academic past, seeing that process—one in which being wrong is okay because the important thing is iteration, not lucky guesses—recognized in a game is incredibly fun and practically euphoric.

A screenshot of Aliya and Six inside Aliya's ship. The ship is cozily nautical, with portholes on the walls, rope strung up around the eaves, and crates everywhere. The lighting is warm. A notification in the bottom right of the screen reads "New site indicated... Indications of the Eye of the Cyclones somewhere in the Cyclones." Aliya is also speaking: "Having another artefact should help us to find the place." Heaven's Vault, Inkle, 2019.

Unfortunately, while the linguist in me is delighted by Heaven’s Vault, my inner rhetorician and researcher are less enthused. While Heaven’s Vault has put iteration and evidence-based conclusion at the heart of its decoding work, it doesn’t carry that emphasis up and out into the larger narrative. The game does lip service to the idea that history and cultural study are sciences, but Aliya’s practice—condoned by the narrative framing of the game itself—is less that of a scientist and more that of a student discovering investigative research for the first time.

Heaven’s Vault lets me characterize Aliya to a certain extent—my Aliya cares deeply about human agency, distrusts Iox (the university planet that trained her), and hoards artifacts like an archeological squirrel—but it seems to require that she be much more hasty and impulsive in committing to her conclusions than any researcher with integrity should be. When I found a crown in a box at a dilapidated outpost, Aliya crowed. “The man who died here was the emperor!” she said (paraphrased, of course—I didn’t think to take a screenshot). Six nodded sagely. The game did not question this conclusion, and began to base the rest of the moon’s plot around it.

Human history is made up of stories, and the science of history is based in ferreting out the right—or most likely—one. There are hundreds, thousands of stories that could lead to a crown being locked in a box across the room from a man (and how do we know the body belonged to a man?) who died lying in front of a fire. That Heaven’s Vault both casts Aliya as a determined—if authority-adverse—researcher and allows her to jump to her conclusions without even a nod to other possibilities is uncomfortable and, especially after the joy of the decoding sequences, deeply disappointing.

Maybe if I had translated the inscription on the crown differently, Aliya would have come to a different conclusion, and maybe that would have cast the rest of her discoveries on the desiccated, out-of-the-way moon in a different light. But that doesn’t actually matter. The content of her conclusion and all the assumptions that went into it aren’t the issue; rather, it’s the combination of the fact that her conclusion required those assumptions and the way the game just accepted it as fact and moved on.

It’s possible that Inkle is trying to make a point about Iox and the culture Aliya is half in, half out of with these assumptions. It’s possible that her tenuously woven narrative could fall to pieces around her later on in the story, like my sequence of translations did around me. But the seeds of that reversal weren’t laid in my path through the game, and that would be a worse story than one in which Aliya knowingly chooses to pursue possibly-incorrect theories and has to deal with the fallout when it happens. At least then Heaven’s Vault would have had me in the skin of a scientist with integrity, rather than a researcher who never really got past sophomore-year impulses to push evidence towards her own romantic ideas.

A screenshot of Aliya's ship traveling through the "waters," space highways that connect her system of moons. The ship is small in the foreground, and the player can see the gorgeous blues and greens of the nebula stretching out ahead. Lettering towards the top of the screen shows Six's dialogue: "Take the next right shortly, Mistress." Heaven's Vault, Inkle, 2019.

Despite my reservations about Aliya’s integrity, though, there is nothing I want to do more right now than to dive back into my Heaven’s Vault save. Slowly walking across moons can be frustrating when you have 72 hours to play a game and really want to know what happens to the weird kid you found in an abandoned marketplace moon, but between Six and Aliya’s comfortable banter and the rich environments, I’m never really bored. I want to stick my nose into corners, steal statuettes from gardens, and learn about the strange religion of the Loop. I want to maybe, someday, tell Six to stop being so weirdly classist and figure out why their programmers made them that way, and how that’s still impacting society. I want to know if I can do anything to change the broken parts of Aliya’s world, and my fingers ache to push translations around and learn the beautiful ancient language that’s cut into mantles and scrawled onto improbably-preserved scrolls throughout the game’s system of moons.

Heaven’s Vault has its issues, but it’s given me something I’ve never really hoped for: an experience that successfully gamifies and makes interesting the puzzle-solving aspects of learning about a language just as much as learning the language itself. There’s shorthand, sure, and decoding the Empire’s ancient language is way easier than learning a real-life dead language would be, but real language study is slow and hard and kind of sucks a lot of the time, and would definitely make a terrible video game. Heaven’s Vault lets me scratch the itch left by abandoning my academic linguistic career, and wraps it up in a story and world that I cannot wait to go back to.

Basically, what I’m saying is: don’t tell me what I enjoy, Inkle. This is so a game linguists are going to like.