Let’s get this out of the way first: Heaven’s Vault (inkle Studios, 16 April 2019, on Steam and PS4) is the best archaeological game I’ve ever played. It is also the best game I’ve ever played that has archaeology in it. It is the very best video game representation of archaeologists and of archaeology in any game I’ve studied. Tell you what: go buy the game now and while it’s downloading come back and read this spoiler-free review about why this is the case. I’ll wait.
Summary of Gameplay
The game’s action unfolds in a nebula. Its location is not important, nor is the time period in which it’s set. You play as archaeologist Aliya Elrasa. Your supervisor at the University of Iox tasks you with helping her resolve a mystery, and she sends a self-aware robot with you to be your chaperone, protector, foil, and personal data assistant. Over the course of the game, you visit sites, discover artifacts, talk to the locals, work with colleagues, sail the Nebula, and level up your skills at epigraphy (the science of studying inscriptions) all in the service of solving one mystery while uncovering several more. Archaeology holds the key to all of them.
The game’s artistic program is unique: you navigate a hand-drawn 2D character through lush 3D environments, stopping to investigate various areas and conversing with your robot, Six. There are elements of interactive fiction at work, and the game feels like a massive Twine game brought to life through inkle’s open source ink code, a graphic novel revealing itself to you line-by-line to a pitch-perfect soundtrack of piano, strings, and voice composed by Laurence Chapman, and believable settings crafted in Unity by Laura Dilloway, Sarah Hefford, and Anastasia Wyatt, settings new to the architectural and environmental vocabulary of heritage games. You’ve never played a game that looks like this, finally breaking the tired mold of photorealism but without sacrificing environmental immersion while maintaining a sense of wonder.
Everything you do and say as Aliya has consequences and affects future events and interactions. The first time I played the game (ca. 20 hours playing time for me, but your mileage may vary based on your own decision-making), I played as myself, answering and asking questions as I would in real life, behaving as an ethical (and hopefully kind) archaeologist. The second playthrough (and you can play the game as many times as you want to explore all possibilities), I played as a “bad archaeologist.” It felt awful, but I could do it, and the world and its interactions changed for me. The game has an ethical core.
At the heart of the game are fun translation exercises as you attempt to read and interpret hundreds of inscriptions that increase in complexity as you play, and reflect good and bad translation choices from previous attempts at other inscriptions. The translation interface is easy-to-use and drag-and-drop, and there are even cognates and glosses for you to help you think about new words in the language known as “Ancient.”
As you make discoveries and talk to people, you add events to a timeline and uncover new locations on a map of the Nebula. The more intense your research is, the easier it is to find places to visit. The more you talk to people and identify artifacts, the more robust your timeline becomes. By the end of the game you feel like you have mastered the Nebula’s history, and what a history it is.
The last thing to note generally about Heaven’s Vault is how peaceful it is. There is minimal violence (I can recall one instance, which was more comedy than anything). No blood. No one dies. There is no inappropriate language. There are no guns or weapons of any kind either for you to use or that can be used against you (although there is a ceremonial weapon that you find). This is not to say that the game is without conflict. Quite the opposite. Heaven’s Vault is nothing but conflict, which makes the narrative so exciting and adds so much to its replay value. The game is also beautiful to behold, and you may find yourself intentionally missing turns through the Nebula just to see more puffy clouds and to listen to the lament of a soaring violin.
But what about the archaeology?
Tropes: There are none. For the first time, we’re getting an archaeology game whose main character is a person without superpowers or superathleticism. The archaeologist is not a cishet white middle-aged male. As Aliya, you are dressed appropriately for fieldwork with head-covering, long sleeves, and long, sturdy trousers. There’s no pith helmet or fedora. No whip. No sidearm. Your research is tied to a university, and your supervisor does not send you out to collect artifacts for the museum (although Iox’s curator is aggressive about collecting…). You spend a lot of time in the library. You occasionally have to make a small jump or vault to get somewhere. The physics are real. None of the artifacts are magical. There are no spells, monsters, or absolute evil. You have the option to loot and the option to sell what you find, but there are consequences, as opposed to the “treasure” trope of theft-and-commerce. You can choose to be independent, or you can choose to form relationships, which can both help and hurt you. There are no cookie-cutter characters or dumb NPCs. The worlds feel vibrant and alive, and the characters behave as people would, including the character you play. What a relief.
The archaeologist’s most important tool is her brain, and Heaven’s Vault places critical thinking front-and-center. The questions she asks reflect the archaeological research questions archaeologists ask when in contact with a new place, a new structure, a new artifact, a new inscription. What is this? Why is it here? Who made it? Who lives/lived here? Who wrote this, and what does it say, and can context for all these things help with interpretation both singly and in an entangled way? Dates are of secondary importance but derive from context, iconography, and materials. There are surface finds, but there is no active excavation (although there are places in the Nebula that have been excavated). There is no surveying, but there are helpful telescopes.
As an archaeologist in the real world, you quickly find that people are the most valuable resource and the same axiom rings true in Heaven’s Vault. You’ll find that the university librarian can be your best friend and confidante and that the antiquities dealer can be helpful, too, up to a point. Sharing a drink with the bartender in your hometown can lead you places you might have missed (something known as “tavern archaeology”), and a childhood partner-in-crime can help you with the science of the Nebula. Archaeology is a discipline of community, and in Heaven’s Vault, just as in life, those relationships must be built and maintained.
One other word about the people in the game. On at least one moon there is strong anti-colonial sentiment. Your presence is resented here by the indigenous population. It is possible to make amends, but it is difficult. You quickly learn about another culture, rich in history, art, and religion, and it is your choice how to behave as a guest on another world, especially when your current planet served as the oppressor of the people you now visit.
Heaven’s Vault is not without a sense of humor, as its archaeology-themed achievements demonstrate with titles such as “Tomb Reader” and “Reader of the Lost Marks.” These of course lead us to the real engine of the game: epigraphy. Yes, epigraphy. If ever there was a video game epigraphers would fight each other at a research conference to play, it is Heaven’s Vault.
Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions and the objects they are written on. In Heaven’s Vault it is your job to translate (as best as you can) what these inscriptions say. True to classical epigraphy, nearly every inscription found in the game is a fragment of “Ancient”, but these fragments can tell a wider story when taken together. Artifacts, buildings, and even landmarks can have inscriptions, and some are tough to notice. Many are tough to translate. Here is a video of one of the first inscriptions confronting Aliya:
One of Heaven’s Vault‘s greatest achievements is the creation of a script of glyphs, about 1,000 in all, that behave like a real, human language. There are even marks for inflection as well as for number, and if you play your cards right, you’ll get language lessons from the people you meet. By the end of the game, you will actually be able to read Ancient yourself, and the game preserves this knowledge the next time you play it. And as any good archaeologist will tell you, keep a notebook for a lexicon, for sketches, and other observations. The game is not unlike Myst or Riven in that respect, classics in the pantheon of adventure-puzzle games set on strange, beautiful worlds. Heaven’s Vault can rightfully take its place among them. Narrative Director Jon Ingold and Art and Code Director Joseph Humfrey are to be commended for their impressive work in making something truly special.
For an Archaeogaming interview of the game’s writer, Jon Ingold, click here.
For the April Fools Joke fake review of Heaven’s Vault, click here.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming