Heaven’s Vault is about the thrill and uncertainty of lost knowledge—about connecting to the past and to other people. It’s also about something I’ve never seen a videogame tackle in such detail before: the art of translation, of deciphering old languages and actually listening to what they tell us.
The first artifact you receive in Heaven’s Vault is a broach. It has a brief inscription in a long-forgotten tongue. Protagonist Aliya Elasra specializes in the study of this language. Reaching into her knowledge, you’re given an opportunity to translate it, choosing between a handful of words for each part of the inscription to try to find the most coherent answer. There’s no win or lose here, just your best guesswork. Later, more complex translations will be influenced by your past work, already-translated words appearing whenever you see them. Context you get later on can convince you to re-translate these, and over time, as you discover more artifacts, a more coherent understanding of this old language emerges from your corpus of translated texts.
The decoding at the core of Heaven’s Vault is an elegant, simple system, one wrapped in a truly beautiful game. Developed by Inkle Studios, who created the award-winning 80 Days, it’s an adventure game, heavy with thoughtful dialogue and striking artwork, a game designed to draw you into its narrative and teach you about its world. Aliya lives in a lush universe of sci-fi mysteries, exploring a nebula of lost moons and desolate colonies in search of a former colleague, a friend of her mentor, gone missing. Beside her she has a robot named Six, and a vessel somewhere between a spaceship and a sail barge to traverse the gaseous currents of space.
Every moment in this game is suffuse with a quiet, reverent sense of mystery. The translation mechanic places Heaven’s Vault in stark contrast with other games about archaeology, like, say, Tomb Raider, which are typically about stealing and exploiting the past. This game, instead, is about understanding it, growing your comprehension of a lost reality just as rich as your own. It’s suffuse with intellectual curiosity, and with the possibility of learning to connect with other people in the same way you do with the mysteries of the past.
Inkle Studios has proved, within just a few years, that it has a real mastery within its chosen format. Heaven’s Vault is one of the most enthralling narrative-driven adventure games I’ve played in a long time. It captures the intellectual curiosity and creativity required in actual academic study, and it does so within an imaginative, lush sci-fi space. Finally, a good reason to get lost in translation.
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