The Written Image: Heaven’s Vault

From the November/December 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Finding the right words is a matter of a civilization’s survival in Heaven’s Vault, an adventure video game centered on translation. Released in April 2019 by the Cambridge, England–based company inkle, Heaven’s Vault stars character Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist tasked with locating a missing robotics professor and uncovering a lost chapter of her society’s history. This archaeological sleuthing requires players to translate the runes of an ancient language. Accurate translation unearths more of the game’s story, while mistranslation leads to false starts and dead ends. The glyphs of the game are inspired by Ancient Egyptian and Chinese pictographs; players learn to join them into larger words, much as the German language builds complex words from smaller ones.

Heaven’s Vault is the latest in a lineup of video games from inkle founders Joseph Humfrey and Jon Ingold that structure gameplay around interactive narrative, allowing players to push a game’s story in any number of directions. These forking narratives are made possible by inkle’s scripting language, ink, which can be downloaded from inkle and used by anyone to code interactive stories of their own. The sophisticated storytelling of Heaven’s Vault has not gone unnoticed: It is on the official reading list for the next Nebula awards, which added a category for Best Game Writing in 2018. The game, which was originally released on PS4 and Steam, will be available for Nintendo Switch in 2020.