*Note: because I did not do a lot of screenshotting while I was playing, images of the game in this post came from promotional images and mostly show the PS4 version.
Heaven’s Vault presents itself as a game about archaeology. In a certain sense this is true, but let’s get this out of the way right now – this is not an accurate representation of how archaeology goes. But it is a kind of loose approximation that gets you into archaeological and historical thinking. In that sense, Heaven’s Vault should appeal to people who work in pre-modern studies, which is a pretty big achievement. It should also appeal to fans of Star Wars and Portal for its sassy robot, and Firefly and Star Trek for its aesthetic and theme of exploration. In fact, Star Trek’s version of archaeology – the one that prompts Captain Picard to wear his extremely daring leisure outfit – is probably the closest to the kind of archaeology the game presents. In Heaven’s Vault, archaeology is a long string of coherent and easily separable clues that fuel a philosophical discussion on the nature of time and death, and what history even is, leading to an interesting conclusion if not a satisfying answer.
In Heaven’s Vault you play as Aliya Elasra, a “history specialist” archaeologist based at the University of Iox, who originally comes from the slums of Elboreth, a moon colony of Iox. Your advisor, Myari, has given you a task to find her colleague, another Elborethian named Janniqi Renba, who has gone missing after sending an intriguing ancient artifact back to Iox from a recent expedition. Along with your robot, Six, your search for this colleague leads you through your Nebula to previously unknown moons, uncovering Iox’s imperial past.
The gameplay is touted as translation, and it is, but in a simplistic way that makes it enjoyable and forgiving. Most of your archaeological finds consist of inscriptions in Ancient, the sadly uncreatively-named former language of the people who used to populate the Nebula. Your colleagues believe that Ancient is only a written language, although you see hints in your world that some Ancient words are still in use. Surprisingly, for an archaeologist and historian who has studied this, you don’t know basically any of Ancient before you go out into the field – frankly, that’s the most realistic thing about the game. The language is an alphabet of symbols and near-pictograms – it reminds me a lot of Japanese and Chinese in its use of radicals, or smaller symbols that indicate part of the meaning of a word. Because of these radicals, when you see a word that has some parts that look similar to a word you’ve already seen, you can guess its meaning or its syntactical use. But because your puzzle-solving relies on this guessing, you usually have to complete a few translations to be sure of the meaning of a given word, and you can always go back and fix mistakes. The game doesn’t require you to accurately complete a translation, so how many you do and how well you do them is up to you – you learn enough contextual clues that you can advance the story anyway, and what you learn from translations just enriches the historical narrative you’re uncovering.
It’s the historical narrative that I wish the game had given me more of. Iox as it exists in Aliya’s time calls itself a “protector” of various neighboring moons, which the people on those moons know means “colonizer”. But in its past, Iox was certainly an empire, and Aliya’s exploration uncovers both its imperial past and some bits of the pre-empire days. But because the story of the Empire largely serves Aliya’s narrative, you don’t get much information about this society, other than the fact that they wrote books, they built some big monuments to their gods, and they believed wholeheartedly in a form of reincarnation that Ioxians still call the Great Loop. I kept hoping the game would give me more about the Empire and how people lived – why they built these grand buildings, the relationship between the modern colonies and their ancient predecessors, and where the Emperors first came from. A an aside, the scale of time in this game really bugs me. 350 years old is “ancient” but sometimes you find a site that the robot estimates to be 2500 years old and Aliya seems unfazed. The game’s philosophy of time kind of accounts for this, but not totally.
Maybe in a different version of the game, you get more of this. The game narrative unfolds based on text exchanges you have with other characters, and I can see from my unclaimed achievements that there are plenty of things I didn’t do – an entire moon I didn’t discover, a few characters I never met, a pet gecko I never had the opportunity to buy. But what I did do was translate – I reached the highest achievements for completing translations and learning words in Ancient. At one point I even found a massive book that claimed to tell the entire history of the Empire, and I actually translated a significant portion of it (I would have done more if I had realized I was about to head into the endgame and wouldn’t have more time with it). And all of these translations didn’t even begin to answer my questions about this past society.
It makes sense that the game’s focus isn’t on the Ioxian Empire itself, because what it clearly cares about is their ideas about reincarnation. Reincarnation is a huge theme in this game, and the developers extend its philosophy well past religion into modern Iox’s ideas about history and what is worth studying. The game insinuates that Ioxians don’t really study history, and that Aliya is sort of alone in her endeavors because she is from Elboreth and doesn’t follow the Great Loop philosophy – to the extent that she is religious, she believes in one goddess from a pre-imperial pantheon, but mostly just invokes her name whenever she gets startled. The reason that Ioxians don’t study history is because the Great Loop philosophy contradicts a need for an understanding of the past. It’s not just that people are born into another life, but that time itself is perfectly cyclical and events will unfold from one age to the next. So Ioxians care about what has happened before, but not why or how – they just want to know enough to prepare for them to happen again.
It’s this kind of utilitarian view of history that I find most interesting, and most true to life. As a historian, it’s hard for me to escape people justifying the value of my work only in terms of how it can predict future outcomes. The invocation of “those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it” rankles me, as if history is a finite truth of set variables that can be reapplied to new situations with predictable outcomes. In short, history is not science, despite what the game trailer claims – there are no reproducible results. In Aliya’s view within the game, because she believes that people die permanently, she sees history as the foundation to the present, and understands things to change from one era to the next. Because they change, recurring events can have new outcomes and can happen in different ways, and so it is worth her investigative time to explore why and how things happened, and who people were in the past. I love this meditation on the nature of historical study – it allows for a kind of history that is both important in the present and important on its own terms in the past. I think it’s a beautiful exploration of what history is and why it has value.
This respect for history also feeds into the way the game presents archaeology. Finally, a pop-culture presentation of archaeology that doesn’t amount to profit-driven grave robbing. Oh, there’s grave robbing. Archaeology is grave robbing. But Aliya doesn’t (or, depending on how you play her, doesn’t have to) care about the monetary value of these items. She also doesn’t insist on putting everything she finds in a museum. In an interesting playground of archaeological ethics, you have the option to sell, trade, preserve, or keep everything you find. You can hoard all your items in your search for new things. You can show them to friends who will in turn show you similar things they’ve found, adding more examples to your understanding and helping you locate new moons. When you do this, you have the option to sell items to your antiquities-dealing friend, or give them to the curators at your university. Both seem equally pointless, but you can stick to your code anyway – and if you don’t do it, they might be less willing to share with you in the future. And at one point in the game, you have the option to straight up sell an artifact (one of your most important) for information, and if you don’t do it, you never get the option again. The game doesn’t force you to be an antiquities hunter or a pedantic mantra-loving grave-robber, or even a perfectly upstanding member of the AIA – it allows you to decide what you think is most important. You can be loyal to your university, you can help your friends in poverty, you can chase the story, or you can do any combination of the three. It allows you the freedom to determine your goals and your methods and I think could be interpreted as a pretty compelling criticism of archaeological ethics.
The game also has some interpretable ethics on colonialism and slavery. It should be immediately obvious that Aliya’s world operates on a global (or Nebula-wide) class system that is a nearly direct parallel to our own. And the same way that your real-world privilege could stop you from seeing real-world inequality, the extent to which you explore inequality in the game is largely your choice as both a player and a character. Aliya and some other Elborethians read as broadly Arab – their clothes, their features, their names – and Elboreth has a distinctly Oriental (and I mean that in the generalizing sense that it conjures) look, complete with tent cities and a desert landscape. But the game gives you the choice to ignore these things, by offering ancient sites with similar architecture, and an in-game explanation for the desert ecology. If you are satisfied by these explanations, it’s because you don’t care to look deeper at why it would be that high-class ancient buildings now host a slum society, or why the more disadvantaged people live in the more dire ecology.
The game even offers a different view of oppression, by showing you the colony on Maersi, a farming moon where the people are explicitly hostile to colonization and understand that they are being exploited for their resources. The game is not really about this exploitation, but I think your choices will allow it to be if you push it. For instance, Elboreth has a “labor market”, in which laborers can be sold for work – it’s not straight chattel slavery, since these people seem to have some kind of bodily autonomy, but it’s pretty close. And you can choose to ignore this, or pick a fight with the auctioneer, or buy a worker’s time for information. I think if you want to, you could make most of your gameplay narrative about exploited labor.
And the game does occasionally throw this theme directly in your face, to see if you’ll take the bait (although I didn’t enough to see how far it goes). The most prevalent theme of this exploited labor is in the robots. Your only constant companion in the game is a robot whom you name Six, since it’s the sixth robot you’ve had, after you destroyed all your past robots through a total disregard for their safety. You can chose to be more or less callous with Six, and treat it as a tool, a nuisance, or a companion. Six will respond accordingly, and can be hostile or friendly. Six will even directly comment on the fact that it is a slave, and that its owners have override keys that force it to obey certain commands. You can choose to liberate Six at various points in the game, or you can let it be little more than your computer. Also, a side note on gender in the game – Six is explicitly genderless, although some other robots are not for reasons that are spoilers. Six also makes a point that when you are referring to statues of gods, some of them lack gender and should, because “what would a god do with it?” This isn’t a theme in the game in the same way that slavery and colonialism are, but it’s a nice nod.
I have some ambivalence about the use of Orientalism in the game, though. I think the statement about colonialism is well-made, and the connection between slavery and robotics is similarly important (and the game should probably be thanking Janelle Monae for making this connection so damn cool). And it’s great to see an Arab woman as the default playable character, especially in a game about archaeology. I like that she’s capable and adventurous without magically being the greatest at everything – she’s very human, and that makes her fun to play. Archaeological ethics in the real world frequently brush away the politics of cultural patrimony and the murky area of people stealing the objects that they literally live on top of. We often allow the answer to be simply that history is worth preserving and we can’t let even the people who live where the history once was to choose whether or not to preserve it. To have the playable character have a compelling reason, a present cultural pull, to not respect the archaeological record, is really an incredible form of representation. But I’m also struggling with whether the game is still a bit exploitative of Orientalist tropes. There are definitely a couple of racist associations – Elborethians are known as thieves and non-believers, and the game doesn’t really do a lot not to present them that way. Certainly you can choose not to steal or sell your artifacts, and your friends on Elboreth all give their reasons for living the way they do, but because the game boils it down to personal choice it doesn’t really refute those generalizations or flesh out the characters in a way that would neutralize the association. You also don’t really have the chance to change anyone’s mind – apart from Aliya and Six, characters think and behave according to a set script, and so you can elicit a desired response from them, but you can’t get them to be any less racist or any more free. I haven’t yet explored the game’s Start+ option, which I think allows a second playthrough with some of your experience from the first one preserved, but I don’t think it changes this aspect of the game.
In a similar let-down to how far the game goes with representation, the debate about the implications of reincarnation are kind of abruptly dropped, depending on your interpretation of the ending. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that the endgame becomes more interested in how the Nebula operates than why. And Aliya’s sudden shift ends up answering a question that wasn’t really a question until just then. You could interpret what happens next as a statement toward the debate on reincarnation, but it really just seems like a point toward an entirely different issue. So I would have liked to see a bit more consistency across the narrative of the game, and maybe some more thematic foreshadowing of this ending issue to make the ending feel a little less like a deviation.
A couple final notes on gameplay. Most of what you do isn’t translation, it’s traveling, looking for artifacts, and talking to people. These have varying levels of enjoyability. Travel and conversation get more enjoyable over the course of the game. Early on, it doesn’t seem like your different conversation options make much of a difference, but as the different choices for Aliya’s personality – and the effect it has on other characters – reveal themselves, it’s fun to play with her relationships. Oddly untrue to my real life, I found checking in with my adviser to be a waste of time and stopped doing it, but very true to actual historical research, a trip to the library or a conversation with a local was always worthwhile.
Traveling is also a bit of a pain early on. When you travel between moons, you move along Rivers, or currents of water that crisscross the Nebula. You get directions from your robot and you can see your path on a map. Sometimes this travel is pretty tedious, even though the depictions of the rivers and the Nebula are pretty cool. Once you have covered a certain path, you have the option to fast-travel by giving the robot the controls. When you are exploring new worlds, though, it starts to be its own puzzle to decide what route to take, since you can’t see that part of the map yet and you need to hunt the area for clues. Traveling on the ground, though, is always irritating. The controls are pretty janky (full disclosure, I played on PC with a trackpad, as I do most games), even after turning the mouse sensitivity all the way down, so I ended up moving back and forth down the same street or between rooms a lot because I couldn’t easily control where I was going.
This is also one area where the visuals of the game are not great, and read a little like a cheap game from the 90s. Aliya’s walking is distractingly awkward and unnatural-looking, made worse by the face that she floats over the ground without feet in order to lower the game’s processing. The Nebula travel has a similar awkwardness, with your boat often passing into the water like a paper cutout. The jankiness of the controls also makes looking for artifacts somewhat irritating, since clues only pop up when you are looking at them from the right angle and distance. But the environments themselves are really cool looking and varied throughout the game, so it’s a joy to explore despite the control issues. As for sound, I didn’t find the music compelling enough to leave it on throughout gameplay, opting for my own in the background instead, and Aliya’s voiceovers were only rarely interesting or insightful – a lot of her observations sounded like bad poetry, with a lot of forced similes.
Overall, I found this game a lot more compelling than I expected to. I think it has a lot of interesting things to say about history, archaeology, and society. I like its aesthetic and it’s fun to play. If you spend a decent amount of time and don’t get too involved in anything, it’s 10-15 hours, but I think it could be more or less, and I’m pretty interested in trying Start+ to do more translating and see if I can find some of the things I missed last time. I think it’s a worthwhile play for any fan of exploratory science fiction, a fun and easy puzzle game, and a lovely point-and-click. Check it out and enjoy!