Deciphering Heaven’s Vault with Inkle Studios (Interview)

When I first saw Heaven’s Vault, it exactly was one year ago, in exactly the same convention centre, for exactly the same event. It was in the PlayStation booth in Tobacco Dock at EGX Rezzed 2018 where they were showing off the capabilities of the PS4 Pro and the clean, crisp, colourful images that it could generate. Only it wasn’t using big-budget 3D games like God of War or Horizon: Zero Dawn to do it. They were using bright and vibrant 2D games like Swords of Ditto, Guacamelee! 2 and Adventure Pals; games which looked like Saturday morning cartoon shows come to life.

Next to them was Heaven’s Vault, which is just as gorgeous as but in a uniquely different way. The world was 3D but the characters were all 2D, making them stand out like the cut-out figures in a pop-up book. The animation style too was like nothing else I’ve ever seen before. The way the main character moved across the screen – all keyframes, fading in and out across the landscape – was a sight to behold.

The close-ups of the game’s central character Aliya, were so textured you could even see the kinds of details you would expect to see on a chalk pavement picture. I would later become captivated with all of the game’s characters and the world they inhabited, the timeline and the hieroglyphics that this game would no doubt become famous for, but the character art and animation are what first drew me into this tale about archaeologists in space.

This was a game with half a dozen show-stopping elements, all within one of the most intriguing sci-fi environments I’ve ever seen. It was so captivating I made sure that this year I got an audience with two of its developers from Inkle Studios, Narrative Director Jon Ingold, and Gameplay Director Joe Humphrey. Inkle are known as the makers of narrative text adventures such as 80 Days and the Sorcery series. I spoke with these fine and enterprising gentlemen about as much of the game as I could fit into fifteen minutes.

The hieroglyphic language at the heart of Heaven’s Vault is one the reasons I gave it Game of Show at EGX Rezzed 2018. What were the challenges in creating a language that is essentially a code that the player would have to break throughout the game?

Jon: So, I think it’s fair to say that designing the language of Heaven’s Vault is the hardest game design thing that either of us have ever done. It took about two years of making prototypes to find anything that worked at all. We had many versions that were too hard, or too weird or too easy and too led-by-the-nose, and then through a mixture of research and little experiments, we found something that felt just right. That when you were doing it you felt like you were reading something that you sort of understood, but didn’t quite understand. As soon as we found that we pretty much just backed off and said, ‘Right, don’t change anything. You’re not allowed to change it.’

Joe: In the office, among us, we’re learning a few languages. At the moment I’m learning German. It was definitely the moment when I saw two words in Ancient [the name of Heaven’s Vault’s decipherable language] that I realised were related, it sparked a revelation in my mind. That’s when I realised that we were onto something because it really felt like translation.

Jon: It’s when you look at a word and you say, ‘I think this must be something to do with this other something.’ It’s one of the options and you know its right even though the game is saying ‘it might be right, it might not be.’ That’s incredibly satisfying.

Joe: I can’t remember at what point we decided to make it a really soft puzzle because we designed it initially as a cryptographic puzzle where you basically break a code, and then it slowly morphed into this much more linguistic puzzle where, when you feed in your answers, you can feed in the wrong answer and whatever you choose as your translation will feed into the narrative and that will feed into the choices and the dialogue that comes up next.

Inkle are one of the best studios for dialogue choices and branching narrative. Some of the most intriguing character choices you can make with the lead character of Heaven’s Vault, Aliya, suggests this sense of anger in her. I was wondering if the source of that anger is predetermined or would end up being decided by the player?

Jon: That’s a really interesting question. You see, I wouldn’t say that she was angry. I would say that she’s determined and misunderstood. For me, the key thing about her is that she was born on the Moon of Elboreth which is quite a poor place, and she was elevated up to Iox, which is quite a rich place. Everyone else there who was born on Iox, lives on Iox, have always been on Iox. So she’s a fish out of water. Then I was talking to my wife about it and she said, ‘Oh, you’ve just written yourself, haven’t you?’

I was like, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘Well you grew up in Manchester, went to a comprehensive and then you ended up going to University at Cambridge.’ I was like, ‘Oh Christ!’ I have actually made myself, and I think that’s by design. I think that sense that she has always got to prove why she’s in the place that she’s in, I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. The sense that they’re in an environment and they don’t know how they got there and they’re not convinced that they should be there.

So it’s hard to get out from under the expectation. You just have to keep proving yourself the whole time. Even when you’re right. Even when other people are wrong about something and you’re right about something, it’s never quite good enough. That, I think, ties into the relationships she has within the university, especially with her supervisor who is sort of a mother figure and sort of not. That’s quite a fun dynamic.

It’s what drives her. You have to ask the question, why is this woman flying off around the Nebula disappearing off to the broken old rivers of space exploring crazy old ruins? What’s driving her to do that? It’s not because she wants a bigger research grant with a nicer office, so what is it? Trying to understand how things came to be and ultimately how she got to be where she is; I think that’s the core of her character for me. So I wouldn’t see it exactly as anger.

Joe: There’s an interesting question about the narrative design as well. It’s a choice based narrative, so the player can choose what she says and she needs to have her own story that’s authored, and how you balance that is really tricky and requires the right process.

Jon: I’ve always liked the idea that the character has a past right up until the moment the game starts and then from there it’s, given this past, how are you going to take it forwards from that?

Joe: Even beyond that, I find that even when you have a standard three-choice dialogue prompt, there’s a real art to making those choices so that the player feels tempted to make the choice that feels in character for the protagonist.

Archaeology is one of the more contentious fields of study in the 21st Century. At best it is a furthering of our understanding of ourselves and our history, and at worst it’s a bunch of rich colonisers taking from poorer civilisations and charging a fiver for a gander at the loot. What I noticed is that there’s space in the dialogue options for Aliya to be both of those things.

Jon: Yeah, when we were writing the game, one of the first questions that I really tried to tackle with was, ‘What’s the point of archaeology? What does it mean to be an archaeologist? What matters to the archaeologist?’ And there are all these questions of what right does an archaeologist have to be taking things, to be classifying things, to be deciding what they are, to be removing them or even preserving them?

These are really live, ethical questions for the working archaeologist, but at the same time I didn’t want to create a world in which those decisions were taken for you in a vanilla, wouldn’t-it-be-nice sort of way, when the reality is that archaeologists, in the field do have to preserve stuff that would otherwise be destroyed.

We’ve seen it in the last few years, a huge amount of artefacts at sites are being destroyed in places like Syria. A lot of archaeologists could be looking at that and thinking that they could have done something about it, but now it’s too late. Was it their responsibility to do it? Maybe not. Was anyone else doing it? No. If you can get the player to explore and just see a little bit of that argument from both sides, then we’re doing something really interesting with our subject matter.

One of the most interesting things in the game is the Timeline. A linear tour of the Nebula’s history, which categorises each event, theory and discovery with its relevant era, place and person. What were the challenges in creating something like that?

Joe: It’s been interesting. There’s been a couple of features like that in the game where it’s felt like we wanted to create things that an archaeologist would do, and translation came out of that. The Timeline is another thing. We started with the idea that we should just be able to see a record of all of the history that you’ve discovered and we’ll increasingly populate it with discoveries that you find.

But then over time we realised, if you’ve got a timeline, maybe if we just allow you to zoom in and out, like Google Maps, why don’t you keep track of everything that the player’s been doing? Something that has everything they’ve discovered, plus all of the inscriptions that they’ve found. So it also acts like a log, like an inventory, all of these things at once. Plus, it’s kind of cool being able to zoom in and out. That is just a nice, neat effect.

Jon: I really like the way it punches home that idea that everything we do is affected by things that have happened before and everything that has happened before has the capacity to affect the future. That comes right down to what I, the player, have done in this game, and I’m being influenced by things that happened before the game started. That’s really powerful.

Joe: Something that’s quite nice about the overall structure of the game is that as your current self is moving forwards into the future, what you’re actually exploring is going further and further into the past. So there’s this nice symmetry into the way Aliya explores forwards while investigating backwards.

I love the way her own personal history is right next to the history of entire civilisations. It says so much about how we’ve been connected to and shaped by past events.

Joe: Another thing that we wanted to enable on the Timeline is that feeling when you go into Wikipedia and you just keep clicking links and you just keep digging this hole of research. You end up with a million tabs open in your browser and you’re just reading and reading, and hopefully, we’ve created that same sensation on the Timeline.

You go in, in order to check one little detail, and you switch filters and you look at all of the timeline events that relate to a particular time or a particular person and then it all just hyperlinks around and you might be able to discover something that you can only find on the timeline that might be about Aliya’s history or about the whole Nebula. So that’s one of the nice little nuggets that you can get out of the game.

The last question I have is about that astonishing art style that you’ve created for the game. It’s one of the things that really gravitated me towards Heaven’s Vault. Seeing the characters fade in and out of existence as a method of animation is one of the most unique things I’ve seen in a video game. What was the inspiration behind it?

Joe: Yeah, so we started creating a 2D graphic novel essentially. Off of the back of 80 Days we wanted to make something that was a bit more visual but we didn’t quite have the ambition of the game that we really ended up making. So we were going to make an interactive graphic novel that was going to be 2D and we loved the aesthetic of hand-drawn 2D character art, so we were always going to do that, but for the sake of pragmatism we thought, ‘Oh, let’s create these 3D environments.’

Beautifully, but simply constructed, so that we can position the camera from different angles and create these interactive scenes that can change based on the character’s choices. But after we created that system we had a good large set of hand-drawn frames that are drawn from lots of different angles and when you move the camera around you saw it dynamically change like a shifting painting. Seeing the character from different angles just got really exciting, so we made a full-on 3D game.

Jon: For me, the root of the 2D art style comes right back down to the narrative, because we really are all about the narrative at Inkle. We want to make a game with people in it and we want them to be people you can relate to. You don’t want to get lumbered in the uncanny valley. 3D characters can be excellent, but they can be very hard to produce and they’re very hard to produce in scale. 2D art is very expressive and people don’t read it as uncanny valley even if you have a very abstracted art style. So it let us make a game which had lots of genuine human beings in it. So as soon as Joe had the idea, I was just like, ‘That is the only solution we can possibly do here, so we better do it well.’

Joe: A nice little graphical flourish I’m still really keen on is when she stands still and then moves away, there’s a frame that’s left of her standing in the world, with just a moment before it fades out, and I love how that ties into the theme of history and archaeology. As she’s exploring she’s actually creating a history of her own and there was a moment where she was standing right there looking out at the view before she moved on and then that moment faded. Just tying the graphical art style in with the theme of the game is really exciting.   

Heaven’s Vault is out now on PS4 and Steam.

 

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