Let me make it clear off the bat: I do not dream of the distant glimmer of nebulae peeking through the silent void. For me, outer space is multiple lifetimes of cryogenic foreplay punctuated by your inevitable death, perhaps winding-up a victim of faulty equipment. Outer space isn't the destination—it's the interminable car ride to the destination, only the radio isn't working and you've just listened to your last podcast. Outer space is a waiting room that kills you.
Thankfully, Inkle Studio's new sci-fi game isn't about outer space—it's about archaeology. Or rather, space archaeology. The Cambridge, UK-based developer is probably best known for developing Steve Jackson's Sorcery games, but it was the unexpected success of their 2014 globetrotting mobile game 80 Days—a novelistic tourism sim which challenges the player to trace the fastest possible route around the world in a steampunkified vision of the late 19th century—that gave the studio some much-needed breathing room.
"That was three years ago," says Jon Ingold, the studio's narrative director. "It was a process of exploration and experimentation. We wanted to take all the good stuff from the text-based storytelling that we've done and bring it to something more graphical without actually losing anything. And Heaven's Vault is our attempt at that."
As the team takes great pains to emphasize that the interactive demo is far from final, a rumbling announces the title screen. Immediately, a young woman in a blue shawl accompanied by a disarmingly lo-fi automaton dominates the screen. Her name is Aliya Elasra, and she's an archaeologist, but not of ancient Egypt or Sumeria; rather, she studies ancient alien civilizations, accompanied by her robot companion, Six.
"What we really didn't want to do was make a sci-fi game set in the blackness of space," says Joseph Humfrey, art and code director for the project. "We wanted something rich and dense. And that's why we set it in this green nebulae—it's almost like something you'd see out of the Hubble Telescope. We wanted it to feel more like a natural landscape, rather than something alien."
Like Inkle's previous games, the characters of this future are sketched in soft lines and subtle hues—a naturalistic style without a hint of forced grittiness. However, in a somewhat surprising development, the topography of these alien worlds is rendered in the full three-dimensions, with rolling hills and polygonal peaks that remind me of early PlayStation games like Spyro the Dragon. The combination of a playfield with depth populated by paper characters who grow and shrink to give the illusion of movement hasn't been commonplace since the days of Doom and Duke Nukem, but that doesn't seem to bother Humfrey.
"It was a natural decision for us, I think," he says. "Especially as a studio that relies so heavily on the written word, the expressiveness of 2D art is something that's really important to us."
"Even for a line as simple as a 'yes,' with 3D art, it's really hard to convey whether a character is happy, sad, or whatever other emotion," adds Ingold. "Unless you have a voice actor, and we usually don't, because we think that would negatively affect the pace of the game. So we went with this instead, and we're very happy with it. We wanted it to look like a graphic novel, and we've succeeded at that."
More than once, Ingold refers to the project as an "open-world," a "new kind of adventure game," and it's not hard to see why. Unlike her apparent genre compatriots like The Walking Dead's Lee Everett, she's not bound to the dramatic timing of an unseen hand. As such, Aliya's free exploration of this naturalistic nebulae forms an unexpectedly large part of Heaven's Vault. Surrounded by sparkling clouds of mist and misshapen lumps of space debris, your character's craft can sail in any direction on what the locals call "rivers of starlight"—essentially an open map similar to Wind Waker or Sunless Sea. According to Ingold and Humfrey, braving the forks and tributaries of these uncharted celestial trails will grant the player more sites to investigate, untethered by the contours of the plot that unfolds between expeditions, which centers on Aliya's academic career.
Textual cues translated from other locations give the player hints as to where the next motherlode might lie. This can sometimes necessitate drastic action, like attempting to ram your ship into a chemical cloud on a mere hunch. However, if your hunch is correct, then your scholarly duo dismount the ship and begin their investigation—and this is where much of the appeal of the game lies.
As Aliya and Six walk up a dusty gulch towards a fractured building lighted by mysterious glyphs, Ingold continues. "We were really inspired by [Jonathan Blow's] The Witness, in how it has chains of discovery. Basically, things you learn you will use later, but unlike The Witness, our puzzles are not abstract. We're calling it 'the translation mechanic.'"
The game prompts me to guess what this jumble of symbols means. Since Aliya is a professional, I get to choose from two educated guesses: 'temple' or 'port.' (I guessed temple, since I don't know what a spaceport looks like.) Unlike most puzzle games, however, Heaven's Vault doesn't dictate the right answer to you—instead, it just advises. As she encounters more of the same symbols, your professional protagonist will eventually grow more or less confident in your choices based on the multiple contexts, eventually confirming them when you've stumbled upon something insightful.
While this may sound simple, the language itself can be difficult to parse. Since it lacks spaces, you can't really tell where one concept ends and another begins. Essentially, you're painstakingly assembling a dictionary of words from a dead civilization, limited only by the cardiovascular limits of your player character—attempt to scale too many mountain passes, and Aliya will faint, leaving your robotic compatriot to carry you back to the ship. This provides a sense of palpable danger to these expeditions, but it also prevents the player from getting stuck wandering around for hours in the thin atmosphere of these craggy exoplanets. But, as Ingold is quick to remind me, this isn't a "hard game"—the penalty for these fainting spells are light, and are intended more as a slap on the wrist than a bloody "game over" screen.
For a devoted fan of 80 Days, Heaven's Vault looks like exactly what I want out of Inkle: a challenging, astonishing work made of words and choices that's not quite like anything else out there. As far as a release date, Inkle is coy.
"Definitely not this year," says Ingold, laughing. "Maybe early next year. It really depends on how long the game wants to be. This is our most 'video game' project yet, so we want to make what it needs to be."