Photograph of a mysterious stone stairway leading into the pitch-black opening of a tomb-like underground structure, apparently excavated from a red-dusty field in the middle of nowhere.
“IMG_2329”by dodvan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Heaven’s Vault struggles to contain itself. Packed so full of stuff, so much story it wants to tell, the game bulges at its seams while presenting the tale of an archaeologist’s quest to pinpoint her own place in the uncertain history of her surreal world. Sometimes those seams tear open, sending loose rivets of its own overtaxed structure pinging around your living room. Even at its best, the game resembles less a vault than a spilling cornucopia — and I feel I can hardly find fault with that. In spite of its self-unraveling nature, it has given me such a strange, ever-surprising, and thoroughly wonderful experience.

The game’s creative team at Inkle built Heaven’s Vault on their previous major effort — and major success — the beautiful and clever narrative sandbox called 80 Days. That game uses a wholly original, polished, and watertight UX to let the player build dozens of little travelogues. It invites you to repeat your globe-trotting adventure again and again, each iteration playable in its entirely within a single sitting, and always tantalizing with glimmers of roads not taken. Heaven’s Vault carries over many elements from 80 Days: the map that grows based on hard-earned in-game knowledge, the ever-shifting inventory of items useful as both situation-specific keys and generic trading goods, and the sense that moving forward down a certain path means leaving others behind.

To this, it adds its signature feature: a mini-game, reliably encountered several times at every location, where the player must decipher the faux-ideogrammatic language of an ancient civilization with a penchant for rampant graffiti. This fills the same thematic pace-setting role that battles or puzzle-rooms serve in countless other modern adventure games, and it feels great. The reward for chewing through these challenges mixes the satisfaction of collection (as your “dictionary” of known words grows slowly larger) with a sense of marching-forward narrative, no matter what happens. Aliya the archaeologist can bumble through scenes without correctly deciphering anything and cussing with frustration, or she can make insightful breakthroughs and carry these to deeper conclusions about her work and her world.

Either way, her story gets told, with every bit of Ancient script she runs across, translated or not, resulting in a new notch appearing on the timeline that she methodically updates during your travels with her. This timeline presents the single most 80 Days-esque part of the game’s original UI, a simple and beautiful interactive view (if a little tricky to manage with a PS4 controller) that not only organizes all the information Aliya collects, but also shows — without her having to say a word — how her mind works, the way she views the world and its contents, and the fractal way that she sees her own lifetime and experiences as just another fold inside an infinitely crinkly global history. It sits in its own nook in the world-line, alongside that of every other person, place, and thing she encounters. I knew I loved the game the moment this struck me.

And getting to this moment required me, the player, to overcome all the places where the game clearly chafes against its own real-world container. Instead of the completely abstract, map-centric travel and exploration of 80 Days which used a stack of still, stylized images to suggest the player’s changing location and the people found there, Heaven’s Vault uses a point-and-click-adventure-ish interface where the archaeologist and her robot sidekick can roam around 3D-rendered cities and fields, looking for people to talk to and artifacts to unearth. Unusually, the game renders both these characters and everyone else they meet as two-dimensional, very casually animated drawings — each frame of every person or animal very obviously and laboriously hand-painted — who literally drift through the world.

It makes for a striking effect, and I recognize some amount of it as intentional. The people leave no footprints (or robotic tread-marks) as they walk, and raise no dust. (Indeed, the game doesn’t even show Aliya’s feet, just fading her legs out at the ankles.) Against a very light ambient-sound backdrop, everyone glides around in complete silence, even when speaking or otherwise engaging in noisy activity. Aliya leaves ghostly after-images of herself as she moves, and people always feel free to just pass right through one another. I took much of this as playing right into the main character’s worldview, of all the people — herself included — acting as mere blips in a permanent history that stretches back farther than anyone knows. They all live in “The Nebula”, you see: a dreamy, sci-fantasy setting of tiny, disparate worlds floating through a luminous cloud of unknowable size, navigable by a network of sky-flowing space-rivers. The protagonist is a graduate student at a named university, but nobody knows how the university got there. It has statues and sculptures whose origins and meanings faculty argue over. It fits that the people of such a place would appear, to my earth-bound eye, to flit about like mist.

But these mixed-dimensional exploratory scenes manage to trip over themselves in less intentional ways. From time to time the camera will wander off behind a wall, or allow one speaker in a conversation to drift out of frame entirely — dragging their word-balloons with them. Quite frequently, characters will vanish entirely for a second while walking around, typically when the game needs to swap in an image of them facing a different direction. Once, early in my playthrough, the main character lay down to rest, and the sparkling effect that normally indicates that the player can control her got somehow stuck to her crotch for the length of a cutscene. And so on: many wobbly, scraping interface glitches like these keep coming, and they do seem out of character for an Inkle game, which I associate with more abstract but mirror-polished experiences. But I understood quickly that these came as the perhaps inevitable result of a tiny team with a small budget making something very, very large. Even when I came to this conclusion, and decided to forgive the game its foibles, I had no idea its true size.

I have completed a single playthrough of Heaven’s Vault, where I found myself surprised again and again at the depths of my excavation; this game feels way bigger on the inside. Or maybe I was just digging in circles, looping around the Nebula like any of the swirling Ancient glyphs I never tired of collecting? I had a magnificient and compelling time either way, and when I finally caught up with an ending, I almost immediately started a new game. (The “New Game Plus” mode, here, lets you carry over all your earned linguistic knowledge from your past playthroughs). I know from friends who have completed the game before me that it contains plenty more for me discover still, with entire alternate histories you cannot see except by replaying, choosing different paths and adopting different attitudes.

And this is where I found the other uncomfortable tension in the game’s scaffolding: because any beginning-to-end voyage through Aliya’s story takes so long, the work of several real-time hours, and because the game gives you only one, automatically updated saved-game slot, Heaven’s Vault precludes the sort of gimme-more accretive play that makes 80 Days so good. At least twice so far in my second playthrough, I have missed a chance to do something I wanted to: once because I failed to act quickly enough, and another time because I simply forgot my own plans temporarily. I own both these errors, but the lack of any ability to rewind stings. Playing through the game once has transformed the poor protagonist into an unwitting future historian, now more shy about trudging ahead into rather-less-unknown lands, while I the player feel quite reluctant to restart the story from the beginning just to see if I can nail a one-try-only timing challenge that occurs a fair distance in.

But what hubris I have, trying to control multiple histories! I can accept that this may run quite counter to the lessons that Aliya learned, while she and I spent hours together defining her story — and the story of my defining it — all knotted up and flowing in one direction only, the way history does, like a current in a cloud. Heaven’s Vault presents a thoroughly unique and memorable experience, and I hope that more people get the chance play it.

Disclosure: I purchased this game for myself. I played its PlayStation 4 edition, shortly after its initial release. It’s also available for PC via Steam.

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