Heaven's Vault is an 'interactive graphic novel'
Inkle Studios, best known for creating interactive text games like 80 Days and Sorcery, demoed a very different kind of game at GDC this year. While 80 Days and Sorcery did have unique visual styles and user interfaces that enhanced their Jules-Verne-y and fantasy adventure themes, respectively, they were basically just very cool interactive text adventures. Inkle writer and designer John Ingold told me that "it felt for us like we could just keep making text games in the manner of 80 Days... but we wanted to see if there were some problem out there in the wider world the we could solve." The result is Heaven's Vault, an adventure game with a 2D character avatar and explorable interior and exterior 3D environments. But it's still running, actually, on the same text-game engine that powered 80 Days!
Heaven's Vault stars a space archaeologist, El, a citizen of a kind of fantastical space civilization inside a green nebula. The menu for the game showed El's ship traveling on a winding river of starlight between towering, seafoam-green pillars of nebula fog; when we began playing, those paths took us to a desert planet filled with alien temples and forgotten standing-stones covered in ancient inscriptions. By the end of all this I was feeling some echoes of Star Wars-- there weren't any space cowboys or light-sword samurai, but Heaven's Vault also seems to be a fantastical kind of science fiction, less about space physics and more about spirituality, myths, and giant temples buried in alien sand.
And unlike Star Wars, the game's protagonist, El, is not in any way an action hero. She's an archaeologist affiliated with a university on one of the game's populated planets. El has a sidekick robot, Six, who consists of a bare armature body with wheels for feet and a holographic human head that makes him look rather like a shocked ghost. El and Six have been sent by the university where El works to discover ancient tombs and artifacts on a variety of abandoned alien planets. Unlike most of the archaeologists we see in videogames, El has no interest in breaking things, leaping around, or fighting. She's more like a detective-- hunting peacefully for clues and discussing her discoveries with Six. Some actions in the game actually tire her out-- she's got a limited stamina bar which restricts her ability to do many difficult tasks in a row.
Most of her time is apparently spent deciphering the fragments alien script she finds on ruins and artifacts in on the game's abandoned, ruin-filled alien planets. The alien script is pictographic, combining symbols to form compound words, which allows the language to provide the basis for a series of logic puzzles where the player must compare known words to unknown compounds, or pick words apart to identify what their components mean. During my playthrough, we found a word I guessed meant "Temple," then confirmed my guess in other inscriptions. I was then shown a word which used some of the same pictographic elements as the word "temple," which I guessed meant "place"; from "temple," we also deciphered "God" and "of." Although the puzzles were very accommodating-- always pushing me toward the correct interpretation-- they were pretty satisfying to get right.
As El slowly builds out her dictionary of deciphered words, she'll be able to read longer and more complicated sentences, and she'll have the tools she needs to figure out what new words actually mean. Ingold told me that his team developed this entire language with inspiration from Chinese (for the pictographs) and German (for the word structure), and that some of the symbols in it are actually very similar to Chinese characters with identical meanings. If players don't enjoy the language-deciphering part of the game, however, they can actually just skip it and proceed with the story anyway. The language puzzles are actually quite forgiving, however. "There's no punishment for failure. It will sort of gently guide you to the correct solution."
In previous Inkle games, writers didn't have to worry about how precisely their text would be arranged in a 3D space. Heaven's Vault required Inkle to come up with a workflow that would allow artists and writers to work together to create the planets that make up the game's story sections. The process begins with a writer creating a short summary of a plot section. Next, "We'll break that down to some broad, chunky locations." Those 'chunky' locations could include stuff like 'by the tomb' 'near the statue,' and so on: places where the writer expects story stuff to happen and clues to be hidden. The writer then chooses what you interact with in those places and begins writing the actual game text. "It's very much like writing for a classic text adventure."
Unlike a classic text adventure, however, El and Six actually walk across the environment together from one place to another. It's not quite like a 'character action game," like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, where the player pilots an avatar around wherever they please. It's actually node-based, and when a player selects a destination node somewhere in the environment, the characters will walk there using a crossfaded series of 2D animation frames that slowly fade away behind them. The result is something that looks rather like a graphic novel with 3D environments for backgrounds. However, this also means that the writers must create things for El and Six to say to one another as they walk around. Ingold called this "the tricky bit," because it requires the writer to know how far it will take the characters to get from one place to another, and how many opportunities they'll have to talk.
They figure this out by meeting up with an artist and blocking out the 3D environment of the level together. They'll greybox a level out, then figure out where the line of sight are, in what order it will be possible to encounter the various objects, and so forth. This will create the need for even more writing, becuase they'll have to add additional conversations to take care of any obvious situations that arise from the circumstances created by the level's layout. Can the characters see one part of the level from another part? Can they now access some of the points of interest in a different order? The writer has to flesh the script out to take care of all of this. "Once we're reasonably happy with it," Ingold says, "the artist takes it back and makes it beautiful."
Heaven's Vault is so different from Inkle's previous work that I am, actually, extremely impressed they're making it. Like Ingold said, they could have just kept on making extremely nice text adventures. ("81 Days," as he put it to me.) Heaven's Vault is certainly a text adventure, but the 3D space its story inhabits forces its story to work on a very different scale and with a very different pace. I hope we get to see more of it very soon!