Heaven’s Vault is a new, archaeological digital game (available Spring 2019 from inkle Studios) that breaks many boundaries in how archaeology and archaeologists have been portrayed. In the game, players:
…uncover a forgotten past and decipher a lost language in this open-world narrative adventure game. Join archaeologist Aliya Elasra and her robot sidekick Six as they investigate The Nebula, an ancient network of scattered moons. Discover lost sites, freely explore ancient ruins and translate inscriptions to reveal the secrets of the Nebula’s past. Decipher an entire hieroglyphic language in a puzzle mechanic with a unique narrative twist: every inscription you find has a meaning, and the translations you choose feed back into story, changing Aliya’s ideas about what she’s found. But be warned – you won’t ever be sure if your translations are correct.
I want to thank inkle’s Narrative Director, Jon Ingold, for taking time away from his busy development schedule to answer my emailed interview questions. Ingold’s focus at inkle is on content, working from the initial outline, through the development of the authoring tools, to the writing and scripting of final content for all of the studio’s games. Archaeologists and anthropologists will know the Ingold name. Jon’s father is Prof. Tim Ingold, a pioneer in how people perceive their environment, technology, and language, themes that appear in the game.
Before getting to the interview, you absolutely must watch this game trailer to get a sense of Heaven’s Vault:
ARCHAEOGAMING: What made you want to create an archaeology game (or do you consider Heaven’s Vault to be a game that happens to have archaeology in it)? Do either you or Joe Humfrey (Art and Code Director) have a background in archaeology?
INGOLD: Confessions first. Neither of us are archaeologists: though both Joseph and I have academic families, the disciplines there are art history, social science, anthropology and economics.
The seed of the game was a single phrase that got stuck: “space archaeology”.
It attracted us because it brought together a lot of different elements we liked. Archaeology is detective work, after a fashion, so we could make a detective game – but without the grimness of murder and violence; and without the pressure of “failing to solve” a mystery.
We like exploring spaces in games, and wanted to make a 3D world after our previous games were mostly text-driven. But to explore, you need something to find, and archaeologists are not necessarily treasure hunters, but they are finders.
But real-world archaeology presents a storytelling challenge because the broad strokes are very well known by now: players are not going to experience wonder and discovery as they find a lost Egyptian tomb; we have all seen them already. We would need to go deep into detail for that to work, but our thing is big, sweeping narratives. Going to sci-fi resolves that, just as the use of alternative history in 80 Days allowed us to make travel exciting even though we are now all globetrotters.
As a theme, it also felt right for the time. The project began about four years ago, when sci-fi was just beginning to move from J.J. Abram’s Star Trek—a world of medical white and metal blue curves—back to the more scrappy desert-punk feel of Star Wars. There’s a few more games in this space now—Sable and Valley of the Gods are notable examples, but Bioware’s Anthem has a desert-punk vibes to it too—but I feel we called that pretty well.
Finally, I found a book, in a second-hand sale-rack in Jesus College, Cambridge, called Citadels of Mystery; a book from the 1960s theorising about various famous archaeological sites. It has a chapter about Rongorongo in Easter Island, which accuses the local chief of inventing the script entirely to impress his people. There’s a section about how the river Euphrates moved, leaving the ancient city of Ur to the dust. There’s a chapter on Macchu Picchu which suggests it was developed as a “test village” for people to try living on higher land, but it failed.
I have no idea if any of these ideas are currently in vogue or thoroughly debunked, but for my purposes it doesn’t matter. Old science books are an amazing source of inspiration: they are robustly thought through, but sometimes schlocky; they’re willing to credit theories that seem wild now. My grandfather passed me down a book on the solar system from the ’20s which casually describes the canals of Mars and how the locals might sail on them. I find that more invigorating than any number of photos of dry Marsian mountains.
ARCHAEOGAMING: You’re the son of Tim Ingold who is this mythical folk hero to many contemporary archaeologists, most of whom have read his “Materials against Materiality.” Did his work influence your own work as you developed the game? Did you bounce ideas off of him? Did he ever ask you to put a rock on your desk and pour water over it?
INGOLD: This is the first time I’ve ever been asked about my father in an interview, and I’m wary of trying to comment here in too much detail: your readers undoubtedly appreciate and understand my Dad’s work intellectually far more than I do. I was a child for a lot of it, after all.
But obviously, my Dad has been an influence on my thinking all of my life, in ways I’ve noticed and ways I haven’t. Working in the digital medium, I’ve found his emphasis on gesture and process, over input and output, really significant: our industry has a tendency to disappear into the technology as though the technology was, itself, important, and not merely some nicely-aligned rocks for people to sit on.
And the idea of cultural relativity—which still seems shocking to some people, even some popular academics—you sort of get for free. The child of an anthropologist doesn’t have the liberty of thinking they live in the ur-culture.
I will say, however, that the anthropological anecdote that’s been in my mind most often while writing Heaven’s Vault was about a friend of my father’s, Robert Storrie. We were going to an early opening of an exhibition at the British Museum where my wife was working, and we stopped in front of a cloak made, I think, of feathers. It was a fine object, beautifully crafted. Robert read out the museum card beneath:
This cape was believed to have magical properties, and was able to protect the wearer from the evil forces at large in the world outside the house.
“So,” Robert continued, turning to me, “it’s a coat.”
The plaque was quite accurate. We just don’t understand coats.
ARCHAEOGAMING: Your archaeologist is a woman of color, which is I think is unique in the history of video games featuring archaeology/history/anthropology. She also doesn’t show any of the traditional archaeological tropes regarding the way she dresses and acts in the field (thank you!). What drove your decision to have a WoC protagonist, and how did you decide to present her so realistically (i.e., sensible clothes, no weapons, etc.)? Without giving away any spoilers, what tools did you give her to use in the field?
INGOLD: After we’d decided on the broad theme of archaeology I faced a question before I could start writing: what’s the point of archaeology? Why does it matter? And for a story it’s not good enough to say, it helps us to understand the world. A story needs to encompass some change and growth. Philip Marlowe might solve the case, but that’s never the point of a Raymond Chandler book. So what can an archaeologist do?
I read about the Golden Age of archaeology and, frankly, hated it. It seemed to me to make archaeology a weird, racist sport for rich people. I rewatched Indiana Jones and noted that it’s a film with no archaeology in it, but it is about a man rediscovering his faith in God in an evil world and is pretty good.
Looking to wider pop-culture, archaeologists either unleash monsters through their hubris (not very archaeology), or they discover Ancient Alien Superweapons That Change Everything (Imperialism.)
Then I came across an article about the work of Dr Monica Hanna, an Egyptian Egyptologist, and that was the article I had needed to read.
It outlines how Dr Hanna has been working in Egypt to tackle an increase in the looting of antiquities in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising. She’s said that the people of Egypt view ancient Egypt as not belonging to them, but rather to their government—so to steal artefacts and sell them is to steal from a corrupt state, and not from themselves. She’s worked, amongst other things, to try and get people to see that the ancient history of Egypt is their history.
The idea I took from that was: archaeology is modern myth-making. We live in a scientific age: we believe only what we can evidence, and prove (or I thought we did three years ago, anyway). But as people we still need myths. We need to know who we are, whether we like it or not, and these stories shape our expectations and actions. America’s current descent into chaos is deeply tied to its belief in itself as a pioneer, fringe, wilderness country. Britain’s equally pitiful descent stems from our belief that we are all kings and queens and knights in armour. The story we tell about the past determines what we think is normal, and what is possible—and an archaeologist offers to develop that story from a solid, evidential basis.
So in our story, Aliya Elasra can alter the future of the world where she lives by changing the stories that people accept about where they came from.
Having been on that journey, I wanted our archaeologist to reference Dr Hanna herself, and we based our early character sketches on her—in, I hope, a respectful way. That took us towards things like realistic clothing, sensible shoes, a notebook: early sketches had steampunk goggles, or a magic wand-style widget, and with every pass these fell away again, and I couldn’t be happier with where we ended up. The game is, ultimately, about people, even if the setting is fictionalised.
You asked about tools for the field: she has a pencil and paper, and a robot. While for the longest time I wanted her to carry a small brush, it never worked from a gameplay point of view. Archaeologists may decide she is not a terribly plausible archaeologist, I fear; to which I can only say, I have a maths degree, and have never seen a plausible mathematician in any fiction. We all have our crosses to bear.
ARCHAEOGAMING: In nearly every game with archaeology in it, archaeology is mostly window-dressing that provides a backdrop for action and to advance the game’s narrative. How did you find a balance between creating a believable, archaeological world and keeping the game entertaining?
INGOLD: Once we began writing, most of the time was spent on exactly this question—why is archaeology exciting? We’d build more dramatic—and generally destructive – sequences, and then strip them out again, as we found we could make other, quieter elements shine if we only gave them room to breathe.
A few core ideas helped us though: firstly, the idea of inscriptions—textual finds, which form a puzzle for the player to solve but also convey genuine narrative: each was written by someone, for some reason. We suspected that mixing the logical progression of games like The Witness with non-contrived, narrative reasons for puzzles to exist in the first place would be a compelling cocktail; we can report back that it is.
Secondly; the idea of detective work. As Aliya explores an environment, the observations she makes about what she sees and finds are fed into her conversations with the robot, through which they develop working theories about what a place was, what happened to it, and how it was connected to the other sites in the game. None of this is abstracted away—there’s no UI of puzzle pieces or bits of string—and every deduction in the game is done in real dialogue between thinking, feeling characters (who don’t ever repeat themselves).
When you come to understand a location in that level of detail, it feels, we think, shockingly robust.
ARCHAEOGAMING: I’m avoiding talking about the language in the game (I understand there will be another interview about that once the game launches), but are there other instances of procedural generation in the game for environments, quests, or cultures?
INGOLD: We use procedural generation a bit, to solve specific content problems—if there’s some text you’ll see maybe twice, maybe a hundred times, we tend to proceduralise it so that it won’t become repetitive. That goes for little things too, like the words one character will use to another, which might be driven by their current relationship. If Aliya gets too annoyed with Six, she’ll stop calling it “Six” and start calling it “robot”, that sort of thing.
And we don’t have quests. I feel very strongly about this: Heaven’s Vault tells a story, which is highly dynamic, player directed, flexible—and it is singular. Everything you do is a meaningful part of everything you’re doing, regardless of which bits you do, or don’t do, or the order you do them in. Experience Points are Not A Thing. We tie things together with coherent narrative or they don’t happen. This was very hard to do and it works a peach.
ARCHAEOGAMING: When dealing with complex systems (both organic and synthetic), we often hear of emergent behavior. Did anything surprise you as you were developing and play-testing the game, any unexpected outcomes?
INGOLD: The conversation system at the heart of the game is constantly surprising us. It’s not quite procedural in the way people normally mean, but it is content mediated by a system: while all the lines are ultimately human-authored, they reword themselves based on state, and they are released to the player contextually, in a way that responds to the player’s exact game (and knowledge) state, and isn’t pre-scripted. Think of it like a bucket of paper slips, and the game will pull out the ones it thinks make most sense right now.
What that means is when we play, we genuinely never know what Six or El are going to say next, and sometimes lines (and typos) are pulled up from what we wrote years ago and had forgotten about. We find ourselves doing archaeology of our own game’s corpus as we playtest. We have a demo level we’ve taken to shows and showed journalists, and I’ve seen some new dialogue, or link, every single time (of hundreds) that I’ve played through it.
The exact way the plot lands is often surprising too; we see testers doing things in unexpected orders, and coming to things in curious ways and combinations. But the game is built to survive and incorporate that kind of variation.
So I wouldn’t say I get surprised by what the game does, exactly; the system does what it was designed to do: but I am rather proud of it, wobbling along and mostly staying upright.
ARCHAEOGAMING: Ethics continually informs the archaeologist in her practice. Does Heaven’s Vault place its protagonist into ethically questionable situations when interacting with sites, artifacts, or other people/life-forms, and if so, does making the unethical/morally gray choice (or the ethical choice) have repercussions as the game progresses?
INGOLD: You can’t really write a story about archaeology without considering the objects themselves as simply objects, rather than evidence. Artefacts in the Nebula are rare and valuable, and so are routinely used as a form of currency. Aliya can engage with this, or studiously avoid it, or vary her approach depending on circumstance.
There are some direct consequences but—as with ethics in the real world—a lot of the consequences are internal or social: people will change their opinion of Aliya, and Aliya’s options will vary, depending on what kind of character she performs as.
I suspect what we do here barely scratches the surface of a real archaeologist’s experience of these issues, however. Our Nebula isn’t a mono-culture, but the real world is something else again.
ARCHAEOGAMING: Archaeogaming is not only about how games portray archaeology and archaeologists; it is also about treating the games themselves as archaeological sites and artifacts. Does inkle have plans to archive/preserve the game post-launch, as well as the materials used to create it (storyboards, digital assets, unused audio, internal email, etc.)? Do you think that will ever be made open access or open source through the Internet Archive, or donated to a games museum for archival and research purposes?
INGOLD: Digital objects are so horribly ephemeral: it’s bad enough that I have no idea if my children will ever be able to play 80 Days or Heaven’s Vault for themselves by the time they’re old enough to appreciate them.
But I must admit, I’m wary of releasing too much—games, like films and theatre—rely on a lot of magic to hold together. Nothing would dispel the magic of a journey around the world in 80 Days like seeing the scripts themselves in all their finiteness. I wouldn’t want to risk that; I’ve worked too hard. So I guess that’s the showman in me: I want people to come in through the front entrance, and not sneak in ’round the back. If you want to uncover our secrets, you’re going to have to dig.
NOTE: All images are copyright inkle Studios and are used by permission. Additional images and video can be found on the Heaven’s Vault Press page.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming