This is a guest post by David AJ Murrieta Flores, an academic art historian who specializes in avant-garde art from the mid-20th century. He has played videogames for most of his life, and has just recently started to write about them for websites such as fanbyte. You can find him on Twitter @captainfreakout.
Traces and Contexts
At the heart of Heaven’s Vault lies a richness of traces. Even the movement of the main character, Aliya Elasra, always leaves a trace behind, a phantasmatic connection between different moments in time, however small. All these elusive fragments that will never constitute a whole or even be whole themselves are embodied by the objects and phrases found across the various locations of the game, the contexts in which they acquire certain meanings. Of course, these meanings become subjected to different perspectives depending on who is looking and from where, activating their connective potential to suit the particularities of their position within the Nebula.
Four moons make up the inhabited part of this Nebula: Iox, Maersi, Renaki, and Elboreth. The first one is the center of the Ioxian Protectorate, the remains of a once powerful empire that still commands the everyday life of Maersi and Elboreth, keeping Renaki at a tense distance. Its authority is cemented in the University (knowledge) and the Temple of the Loop, the religious axis from which that knowledge is directed. Maersi is populated by farmers for whom the traces are subtle reminders of their place in this political landscape, and for whom the knowledge found in objects is secondary to that found in their orality. Elboreth, in contrast, is an urban place where the sky touches the earth – it is the home of a lumpenproletariat, host to a slave trade, built upon technology best understood by playful children, and where the traces run free amidst the people as commodities and rarities. Renaki is like a border city-state, a market hub where the influence of Iox is minimal, espousing its own rules for trade, a place in which the traces are entirely unimportant: only the commerce of useful things matters here.
As Aliya visits all these places to investigate the destiny of a lost archaeologist (the main thread of the game’s story), she begins to make connections with her own past, always in a dialectical relationship to her companion, the robot Six, with whom she constantly discusses and speculates about possible interpretations of all the traces they come in contact with. Her interactions with the various characters across the Nebula are representative not only of the ways in which the traces are granted meaning, but also of the ways in which they are put to use. Their interconnection, their interpretation, and their social role in the present can be conceived as history, and in the world of Heaven’s Vault it is as fundamental as the water that sustains its life. The reason is that history comes to fulfill relatively specific purposes, and it appropriately reflects three distinct levels at which becomes instrumentalized.
The Uses of History
For the people of Maersi, traces are fiercely protected – contact between them and Aliya is reduced to two persons, one of whom seems to fear for her life after offering some information that advances the main story. The lushness of its natural environment contrasts with the simplicity of its inhabitants, who guard history with silence, lest it be used against them. There is an understated distrust and resentment towards Iox and Ioxians, who Aliya comes to represent in the eyes of the character she mostly speaks to while there. Just like Aliya is a stand-in for the whole of Iox, so is the Maersian a stand-in for his people; the low-key confrontations between her inquiry and the Maersian’s reticence to speak become a stand-in for the imperial relationship between Iox and Maersi. The history of the farmers’ moon is protected from the University and the Temple because it is clear that they have no qualms about using knowledge for the purposes of domination.
While Aliya can be played as skeptical of the relationship between history and religion, the rest of the world is infused by their intersection, because, in the end, both share a common question: why are things like they are? In Maersi and for all the characters Aliya meets who explicitly profess the religion of the Loop, which is essentially a theory of eternal return in which the world ends and is reborn, that question gives history a mythical framework. The traces come together as a sacred understanding of the world’s structure, for which knowledge clearly and seamlessly means power, oriented not so much by the story of the world’s beginning (as in Mircea Eliade’s model of myth) but by its end. For Maersians, the way things are comes down to the responsibility of humans as much as the Loop, and the role of Iox as oppressors is the function of their control of every little avatar of history – every little object, every little phrase in a language it assumes dead (it is not – the Maersians know it). After all, Aliya can always donate everything she finds in her archaeological endeavors to the University’s Curators, growing their library of artifacts like so many an Imperial “metropolitan” museum. This means, however, that there is a political potential lurking below every interaction with the Maersian: the possibility for things to change because only the beginning and the endingof the world are determined, and the rest is up to humanity.
The community of Elboreth, shown as less customary and more diverse than Maersi, having no past to guard through silence or tradition because they are the lowest of the low, is much more keen on that aspect of history. The traces are tools and commodities (as are people), and the material wealth of the city’s buildings is a trace in itself that reaffirms to the Elborethans (to whom Aliya originally belongs) that society’s unequal divisions are concrete. Timor, the owner of a drinking joint in the moon’s slums and who is suggested to be the most powerful character around (in a sort of inverted social hierarchy, since he lives at the very base, the lowest level of the location), always reminds Aliya that even if she has scaled society’s pyramid, she still has the free spirit of someone who comes from nowhere. Regardless of the relatively Romantic interpretation of these characters’ underclass status, their approach to history is political precisely because it tends to be pragmatic: objects are traded, robots are distrusted (Timor points out they have no eyes, they look nowhere, and thus can look everywhere at once, the presence of Empire itself), and knowledge is meant for survival. As Aliya [spoiler], you have the chance to change the course of Elboreth’s place in the Nebula by giving Timor information of a nearby moon in which water abounds. It is a tomb of the once powerful Empire that preceded the Ioxian Protectorate, in which nothing was spared to make as rich and sumptuous as possible; it is inhabited only by the ghosts of emperors, and thus for the Elborethan it is an easy decision between preserving life or preserving death [spoiler ends]. Less interested in why things are like they are and more inclined to think how they can change, without hesitation Timor takes the opportunity to potentially shift the future of Elboreth, even if the end of history has been determined, even if it is as near as it has ever been.
Iox, in contrast, forcefully leans on both these positions towards history, exploiting its concentration of knowledge to attempt to lay down a map of time with it at the very core. As Aliya learns more about the Nebula, the timeline in which all events are recorded starts to widen, and the once important place of Iox starts to become smaller and smaller, displaced into peripheral status of a long duration that privileges no center. Nevertheless, it is in Iox’s interest to see religion and history within the same continuum, and the University, through the figure of Aliya’s supervisor, Miyari, constantly reminds us that historical knowledge is not only about the preservation of the past, but also of the present and its social landscape. The cyclical nature of the Loop does not mean, as it does for the Maersians, that there is some measure of human responsibility for history, but that history is responsible for the humanity that lives it. This does not lead, however, towards a materialist conception in which historical development is the grounds for human action; instead, its inflexibility is made nearly absolute through the mythical understanding of history’s course as sacred, as things being always in the right place. History reinforces the static character of the Protectorate’s society, and the University is uniquely charged with the centralization of all knowledge towards the end of preserving the predetermined course of history itself.
Is Our History Truly Our Own?
As Aliya struggles with her past and her embodiment of Iox’s identification with oppression and inequality before others, another question starts to emerge: if history has various purposes, as outlined above, who is it for, and for whom does it work? Midway through the game, in a discussion about the unregulated trade of archaeological objects in Elboreth, Aliya exclaims that “history belongs to everyone”. While apparently simple, this complex declaration has an interesting angle that plays differently across the game’s contexts – it is a declaration of property, of who owns history. All the traces that come together into objects, monuments, and ruins are someone’s property, and this outlook informs the uses of history to which every context subjects it. For the Maersians, history is a common good, something expressed in the everyday life of the community, something embodied by it and thus worthy of silence before its potential appropriation by invaders. The mechanism through which that property reproduces is simply the moon’s customs, the conceivably sacred cycles of farming corresponded by the monumental fixity of their goddess’ statue, which is of no interest to Iox, as evidenced by Aliya’s initial ignorance about it. What matters to Iox is not the beliefs of their subjects, but their everyday life.
That is why, for Iox, history is a public good. It is the property of the state, within which there are specialists who handle it, whether that is the University or the Temple. While rooted in everyday life, it is not really meant for it or the communities that give it meaning, but for the homogeneous narratives that put the Protectorate at the center of time. While communal history is personal, oral, and always relevant, the history of “civilization” abstracts whatever grounded meanings the traces might have in order to project them widely into a story that transcends the common, that leaps beyond specificity into generality. This is similar to what Enlightenment Europeans did when they created the concept of a “universal history” – with Europe at the center of time, they developed a theory in which the entirety of humanity is catching up to “civilization” itself. The reproduction of this property is the archive, where history objectifiedcomes to be stored, preserved, classified, rationalized by someone who is authorizedto give it a meaning that will also transcend the common and the individual, which is to say a meaning that will be “objective”.
For Elborethans, and for the market moon of Renaki, history is private property: that it belongs to everyone really means to each, individually, and not to the community or to the “civilization”. It circulates not through custom (Maersi) or through authority (Iox) but, put simply, through markets, through systems of exchange. Aliya can trade an object for a fruit in Renaki – she might be wary of these things having entirely different values, but the trader reminds Aliya of the relativity of worth, of the implicit accord that in the absence of a (public, authorized) mediator like money allows them to see an artifact as being of equal value, of equaluse, as a fruit. Tapi, an old acquaintance of Aliya and the main connection to the black market of archaeological pieces, is suggested to have stolen a bunch of his merchandise, but he himself is a connoisseurand cares well enough for everything passing through his hands. The circulation of history here is not restricted to the commons or to the state, but to anyone who enters the market. Still, it is suggested by Tapi that most of his pieces are bought by collectors, and thus, as is usual with markets, the mechanism through which this history passes on, while in principle open to anyone, ends up mostly favoring a select few.
Thus, that everyone that history is for has different meanings and different mechanisms depending on social position – what in the “real world” we’d call the intersection of race, class, and gender in each society. That social position also relates directly to the purpose that history serves: to make community, to bond everyone to silence in the face of exploitation; to justify the exploitation and craft narratives that homogenize the various differences within Empire; to remind you, individually, that things have not always been like they are, and that this vague symbolic thing is as valuable, as precious, as a piece of fruit. I avoided as much as I could to link Heaven’s Vault with concrete historical examples because I believe it does a great job by itself to represent the importance of history even at times when it appears like a lesser matter – the end of the world in the game, the end of the world in “real life”. History might belong to everyone, but we must be careful of who that we, who that they, who that everyonehas come to be, since they all were just traces once upon a time.