Out this week, inkle's new game Heaven’s Vault casts players as intergalactic archaeologist Aliyah, sailing through a sci-fi universe in your creaky, wind-powered spaceship in an odd mix of high fantasy and steampunk trappings.
Rather than exploring ancient tombs and fighting monsters, the lens through which most video games have explored the archaeology profession, you (along with your robot, Six) are tracking down a missing scientist by deciphering what appears to be a true to life, functioning ancient language.
A narrative adventure largely driven by translating a fictional language, Heaven’s Vault is something new for inkle, creators of popular narrative adventure games like Around the World in 80 Days and Sorcery! However, the team didn’t initially intend to build this detailed fictional language and glyph system for players to explore. Rather, the language system started as an...inkling of an idea that the developers just couldn’t shake.
“For this game, we thought, ‘Let's do a game about science fiction archaeology, and then we just began to ask questions about if you were to make that game and it wasn't going to suck, what would you put in it to give the player something interesting to do,” says inkle narrative director Jon Ingold.
Making an archaeology game
Inkle first developed a puzzle mechanic that proved best suited for sifting through an ancient language. The team actually worked through a number of prototypes, including a difficult-to-parse cryptography puzzle over the course of two years. Many didn’t pan out, but the idea of translating and a decrypting language seemed to stick throughout the whole process.
“Partly it feels, on a headline note, kind of cool and appropriate for the world. It feels like the sort of thing this character ought to be doing,” says Ingold. “Also it was inherently narrative. It would give something for the players to do that just made complete narrative sense in a way that pulling levers and sliding blocks around, which is sort of a traditional thing for archaeological games to revolve around, doesn't make any narrative sense at all.”
The team eventually settled on the translation mechanic as it stands now in the final version of Heaven’s Vault. Players are presented with an inscription in Ancient, the game’s language. The inscription is broken down by word, and the player is presented with a number of different words in English that could fit the meaning.
Symbols with related meanings can be intuited from symbols you’ve already translated, and the idea is that eventually players will even begin to master Ancient’s underlying grammar. Learning a new language is no small task, but inkle opted for simplicity when designing Ancient.
"The Guitar Hero of linguistics"
“We start from a process of wanting the player to feel like they're translating something rather than wanting to create a language with all of its subtleties and complexities and richnesses,” Ingold explains.
Ancient is, instead, what Joseph Humfrey, inkle’s art and code director, dubs the “Guitar Hero of linguistics”. Much like Guitar Hero is more of an analogue to becoming a guitar prodigy, Heaven’s Vault mimics the process of learning a language, presenting players with easy to parse chunks of symbols and providing words in English that could serve as potential translations.
Taking another page from Guitar Hero's design ,the team opted to err on the side of simplicity when it came to adding a linguistic layer to Heaven’s Vault’s puzzles.
“It makes you feel like you're translating languages while not actually being as difficult as actually translating hieroglyphs,” Ingold says. “It feels funny to admit that sometimes, but I think it's really important actually. It's hard to argue that Guitar Hero was a bad design for guitar playing. It was a very good design.”
With the core puzzle mechanic in place, the team then wanted to ensure that their “language” captured the feel of reading a language you only vaguely understand.
However, where reading a real foreign language presents countless ways to get a translation wrong, Ancient, deep down, has perhaps 5 possibilities for error. Instead, the way you translate any inscription feeds back into the story. The game will encourage players if you’re close to the most correct meaning, or eliminate meanings to choose from if you are off track, but there is no fail state.
Creating linguistic puzzles that are open to interpretation
“We love the idea that all of the translations are kind of a correct answer to what can happen next in the story even if there is one literally correct translation,” Humfrey explains. “They all feed back into the story, and that just means the game's pace is preserved. It's always your story. It's always moving on and you don't have this frustrating period of having to wait until the computer says yes before you can continue.”
Creating puzzles that are open to interpretation is no small task, though. The difficulty curve was one of the hardest challenges the development team had to solve. Not only are the translations open-ended, Heaven’s Vault itself is non-linear. Players are free to explore wherever they like, in any order they like. The team didn’t want players stumbling on easy puzzles late in the game, or long, grammatically complex inscriptions right off the bat. To balance the puzzles and make the gameplay feel natural, as if you were actually unearthing ancient artifacts in real life, the puzzles are not hard-coded in the world.
Instead, the game tracks players translations and words they have in their dictionaries, and will pull an inscription and artifact that suits the player’s individual progress and location. Then, as you work out the puzzle, the system will respond based on your translation. If you translate an inscription that is about, say, the Empire, Aliyah will comment on the Empire. It’s highly open-ended, and inkle went through a lot of testing to ensure the system worked in the final product.
“There are lots of specific overrides for when you translate something that's really specific and tied into the narrative, and Aliyah can pull that line of dialogue in pretty much anytime she uses it across the game,” Ingold explains. “A lot of it is about having this pattern set up and then just testing and playing and testing and playing and as more possibilities sort of fall out of the system, we try to put in dialogue that responds to that intelligently. So ideally, you never get a response that doesn't make sense.”
Inkle turned to procedural generation, in part, to make this system possible. The procedural elements of Heaven’s Vault work within ink, the studio’s own open source engine. Ink is a markup language that allows developers to design complex narrative structures. Game designers can then build their own code around their ink syntax to build out their game’s story. Being able to work within their own engine, which was designed specifically to handle complex, branching narratives, Humfrey says, has made a huge difference in bringing Heaven’s Vault to life:
“We used ink in Sorcery! and 80 Days and all of our previous games, but in those contexts it was much more of a standard branching structure, albeit written in our scripting language. As we moved onto Heaven's Vault, we basically used the same overall structure and we have developed the language further, but what's coming out in terms of the game engine, it's sort of like an interactive film script, and so as you make choices, it produces another little section of film script, which it then follows.”
Inkle adapted their ink engine to account for the many pathways that could be generated, pushing what ink was built to do. While Inkle used the engine to develop complex branching narratives that branch or drop off, and pick back up when you need them in their previous games, they’re doing something new in Heaven’s Vault.
“There was definitely a point at the start of the project when I was worried that ink wasn't going to be up to the task of the kind of free form 3D environment where you can basically go from anywhere to anywhere anytime. Because that's nothing like a branching tree structure, actually,” recalls Ingold.
“And it's quite a lot of work to get it to do that, but I'm super glad that we did, because the payoff is at the end of the project when actually we can redraft whole scenes and restructure things and add in new lines of dialogue, and completely alter the way scenes work extremely quickly and efficiently.”
While inkle takes a much needed rest after the release of Heaven’s Vault, the studio is excited about the ways ink has evolved through the game’s development. They’re excited to continue mixing and matching procedural content with handcrafted writing, which they only started to explore in Heaven’s Vault.
“We do a little bit of this in Heaven's Vault,” says Ingold. “Every time we do it, it's just wonderful, because you get something that looks like it must have been made by a system, because procedural content always smells like procedural content. But then it follows up with this really specific, really unique beat or a little joke or something about that, and that feels like magic.”