By Catherine Hill
If you’re a gamer, chances are you’ve played, seen, or at least heard of Heaven’s Vault, the newest game from Inkle Studios. In this adventure, players take on the role of an archaeologist in a distant nebula who travels from world to world deciphering bits of ancient text and finding artifacts in a quest to find a missing colleague. If you haven’t played Heaven’s Vault yet and want to avoid spoilers, this article isn’t for you. However, if you’ve played through it at least once or you just want to delve into one of the best representations of archaeology in the media to-date, read on.
For those who haven’t played it, Heaven’s Vault is built around a fairly simple concept; the player takes on the role of Aliya, an archaeologist, who is tasked by her boss at her university to travel through the nebula in search of a missing colleague, Janiqui Renba. Aliya is given a robot companion, Six, who is one of an entire race of sentient, subservient robots that exists in the nebula, though no one is sure where they came from, including the robots themselves. As Aliya and Six travel to various worlds and navigate the cosmic rivers that connect them, the two unearth ancient artifacts and snippets of text from various phases of the nebula’s past, including ‘The Ancients’ who were the first people to live in the nebula, a Pre-Empire transitionary period, and finally ‘The Empire’, a mysterious culture that developed out of The Ancients and eventually gave rise to the current civilization, a protectorate ruled by the planet Iox. Aliya and Six start to assemble these clues into a history of their nebula, uncovering shocking truths about both the origins of their universe and the creatures who have populated it as they go, including discovering more about the robots and why they were buried for thousands of years.
Their travels take Aliya and Six to many places, including moons and planets that are long forgotten and dried up, presently unable to support life of any kind, even though they clearly hold remnants of previous habitations. As the adventurers uncover more and more clues and continue to find new sites in the far reaches of their nebula, they eventually travel to the titular and mysterious ‘Heaven’s Vault’, which, according to the snippets of ancient text she has deciphered, holds the answers to all her questions about the nebula’s origins and history. The Vault, which sits atop a mountain, is revealed to be a buried spaceship, housing robots who ask her an insistent question; “Do you wish to vault?”
Aliya finally puts it all together — this spaceship, and the robots in it, are powering the universe. They crash-landed on this moon in ancient times, and their ship began creating the rivers which connect the moons across the nebula, directing water to them, and eventually giving rise to all life in the nebula. The ominous changes Aliya and Six have been encountering in their travels — the dried-up moons, the dying planets, the withering rivers — are all symptoms of the fact that the energies of the spaceship are running out. Therefore, the robots offer her a choice “Do you wish to vault?” By saying yes, the ship would ‘vault’ itself to a new location and try to start again, leaving all the planets (and people) in the nebula to die. But if Aliya says no, the rivers will all dry up and doom the nebula to complete annihilation anyways — the only difference is Aliya herself won’t get to escape. The game leaves this choice to the player, but gameplay ends here no matter what you say, which highlights what I take to be a central theme in Heaven’s Vault: the game’s value lies in the player’s journey, rather than in goals, destinations, or outcomes.
While much has been said already about the intriguing and entertaining nature of Heaven’s Vault’s main gameplay, the game’s unique process that allows players to decode ancient lines of text (Muncy 2019; Reinhard 2019a), and the striking art style and peaceful pace (Cross 2019; Dix 2019), I feel that something is missing from the conversation. While the commentary on the gameplay and text decipherment are true and doubtlessly contribute to the positive reception and reviews that the game has thus-far received, in my opinion other reviews have missed what is actually the game’s best aspect: it’s astoundingly realistic portrayal of archaeology and it’s advocacy for the importance of learning about the past. In fact, the game’s creator, Jon Ingold, has himself spoken in interviews about how he intended for the realistic portrayal of archaeology to be the point of the game:
“The purpose was to get the player into the mindset of an archaeologist. ‘You’re scraping back layers and layers of history and getting quite small, significant details emerging the deeper you go; some of which might completely pivot your theories about what happened to the Nebula.’” (Reinhard 2019b)
To this end, the main point of the game, as I see it, isn’t to collect artifacts or even to find the missing Renba, but is in fact to learn the history of the nebula; just as an archaeologist’s goal isn’t merely to collect artifacts but to understand the past through the lens of specific cultures or time periods and to place discoveries in their historical context, learning from material culture rather than just collecting it. Artifacts and translations, therefore, serve merely as tools in both Heaven’s Vault and archaeological excavation to further the end goal of discovery and learning, rather than obtaining the objects being the goal itself, as is often the case in fictional representations of archaeologists such as Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. These representations are often created through a lens of antiquarianism — that is, the early 20th century practices of explorers and gentleman scholars who pursued individual objects for their inherent value. Heaven’s Vault, however, approaches the past much closer to the way a modern archaeologist does and emphasizes context, details, and research. This requires players to act like true archaeologists, rather than antiquarians, in order to get the most out of the game.
It’s important to note that Heaven’s Vault is, in a way, a choose-your-own-adventure game, much in the same way that archaeological study can be. Players can choose to engage as much or as little as they want with other characters and this shapes how much the player learns about the history of the nebula. If one chooses to do minimal research and exploration, as long as they hit certain conversation points with other characters, they can progress the story to the end. However, they are likely to miss large sections of the story and not fully understand the significance of what they are searching for. This, of course, makes the game almost infinitely replayable, but more importantly, in this sense too, the game accurately reflects the process of archaeology — the more time you spend examining the little details of the past, the more there is to be revealed and ultimately, the deeper your understanding of the past becomes.
One of the core themes driving the plot of the game, and ultimately the game’s message to players, is the discrepancy between the Ioxian Protectorate’s cosmology and the past and the truths that Aliya discovers throughout the game. On Iox (and therefore most of the other inhabited moons in the nebula, which fall under the Ioxian Protectorate), the universe is thought to run on a cycle called The Loop. The basic idea of The Loop is that of a system of reincarnation, in which nothing and no one ever really dies, but simply leaves existence and waits to come back in a new body years later. In this way, it is thought that ‘history’ doesn’t really exist because it has all happened before and will all happen again. There is very little room to question the doctrine of The Loop on Iox, and at several points in the game Ioxians challenge Aliya’s profession as an archaeologist, telling her there’s no past to study, because everything in the past will soon be the present as people and events make their way around The Loop again. The more Aliya learns and travels, however, the more information she finds which directly contradicts The Loop. For one thing, if The Loop is real, how can Aliya come across more and more ancient dead rivers and moons as she travels? Shouldn’t they be reborn by now? What’s more, Aliya and Six eventually discover that during the days of the Empire, the consciousness of dying humans was transferred into the robots. Why would that be done if people simply come around The Loop again after dying?
The conflict between the Ioxian doctrine and the realities Aliya uncovers is at the heart of the plot of Heaven’s Vault, and this dichotomy serves as a metaphor for the inherent need to be aware of our past. Only by understanding the truth of our past can we truly know our place in the universe. In some places (depending on the player’s choices, of course), the game becomes quite direct with this theme of awareness, including one section of dialogue that stood out to me. A minor character asks Aliya why she even bothers with archaeology and retrieving ancient artifacts, which the character contends is essentially a fruitless endeavor. Aliya responds:
“It’s not about the things, it’s about the story. History belongs to everyone; it has to be protected and shared. Otherwise, when we die it’s like it never happened, and then we don’t know who we are.”
This quote, more than anything else that I encountered in the game, seems to embody Ingold’s goal of putting the player in the mindset of an archaeologist, and drives home the point of Heaven’s Vault: archeology is not solely about the artifacts or even the sites as much as it is a discipline dedicated to helping ourselves, as humans, understand our collective past and what that past can tell us about our place in the world. Just as Aliya finally comes to understand the true place of humans in her nebula, archaeology is the one of the best methods through which we can decide how we should interact with our world. By using the archaeological record to understand the intricacies of the past we are able to better interpret our lives and societies in historical context, which can then be used to inform our actions and help guide our futures (just as the player, as Aliya, must ultimately decide how the future for both herself and for the nebula will look). Knowing the true history of the nebula allows the player to make this choice from an informed standpoint, providing context for Aliya’s actions, no matter what choice the player ultimately makes.
This is where the true genius of Heaven’s Vault lies, in its ability to serve as a metaphor for the value of the past in understanding our present, and encouraging players to walk away from the game with a better appreciation of history and the ways in which it is beneficial to understanding one’s place in the world, just as archaeology does. Take for example the work of Michelle Hegmon, who has broadly studied the cultural changes and eventual disappearance of the Mimbres people of southwestern North America. After a long period of drought and big game die-off, the archaeological record shows a sharp decrease in the once rich artistic and material culture of the Mimbres people, which Hegmon and others have interpreted as a reorganization of society in response to extreme pressure (Nelson et al. 2006). This research has then been used to evaluate how our modern society might react to the eventual pressures of climate change and other stressors, allowing us to approach the inevitable challenges with knowledge and hopefully wisdom (O’Donnel 2015). Likewise, Aliya and Heaven’s Vault as a whole are exploring very similar themes of societal pressure, specifically revolving around climate deterioration. The fact that a game can represent the value of archaeology in such an accurate light and even attempt to impart the value of understanding history marks a turning point in not just the gaming world but in perceptions of archaeology in popular media all together.
Furthermore, I’d argue that Heaven’s Vault also, to an extent, helps provide players with the skills needed not only to engage with their own history, but also to think critically about the ways in which history is presented to them. As previously mentioned, to a large degree, the player can choose to engage with the plot line and artifacts as much or as little as they like, which means that most truly rewarding information comes from the player’s own attempts at deducing meaning from their findings. When it comes to the translations of ancient texts specifically, the game will only occasionally directly tell you if your translations are correct, which means the player has to really work to learn and decipher the various symbols. This challenge to find the facts hidden in the ancient texts clearly bolsters players’ puzzle-solving abilities and self-efficacy, but it is not the most critical way, in my opinion, that Heaven’s Vault imparts a lesson onto gamers.
Aliya is a bit of a rebel on Iox, not only because she is an archaeologist in a culture that thinks it doesn’t need to learn about the past, but also because she openly disagrees with and eventually challenges the notions of the Protectorate and The Loop. As Aliya finds more and more facts that directly contradict what she is being told by those in positions of power, she isn’t afraid to disagree. This is where the player, like an archaeologist, learns a skill that is necessary for anyone who wants to engage with the past. History is largely written by the ‘winners’, which makes every dominant historical narrative political in some way. Archaeology has proven itself to be a powerful tool for shedding light on the parts of society that have, intentionally or not, been forgotten or misinterpreted by society. Recent excavations at sites such as Mount Vernon and Monticello serve as one example, telling the stories of the enslaved communities associated with the settlements, rather than just the rich and powerful white inhabitants. At Mount Vernon, archaeologists have been conducting a survey of the unmarked slave cemetery in an attempt to get an accurate count of how many people are buried there and to pay tribute them, as well as to begin to understand the true extent to which slavery was prevalent at the estate and more accurately reflect its past (Downer 2015, see also “Why is Archaeology at the Slave Cemetery So Important”). In a slightly different vein, Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, has recently completed a reassessment of Mulberry Row, a section of the plantation which housed slaves during Jefferson’s period and beyond. This project in particular has been very successful in illuminating the material culture of day-to-day life for enslaved people during the colonial period, particularly the living arrangements and purchasing habits of enslaved individuals on the plantation, which were previously unknown (for more, see “Mulberry Row Assessment“).
Likewise, Heaven’s Vault also highlights the role of material culture in uncovering the realities of the past, and in particular, aspects of the past that have been glossed over or obscured. This is what, in my opinion, makes Heaven’s Vault the most accurate representation of archaeology in media to date. In an era of fake news and conspiracy theories, I think that this message — the idea of carefully researching, learning from the past, and then speaking out about the truths you discover — is Heaven’s Vault’s most important message to gamers.
Heaven’s Vault is easily one of the best media representations of archaeology and the importance of the past that exists today. From teaching players how to use diligent research skills and appreciate what the past can tell us, to encouraging gamers to use their knowledge to speak truth to power and ultimately decide the future, I truly cannot think of a better way to portray the most crucial aspects of archaeology as it really is — with no skimpy outfits or tomb raiding required. Heaven’s Vault was a joy to play, and I feel that I can truthfully congratulate Jon Ingold on achieving his goal — Heaven’s Vault definitely puts players into the mindset of a true archaeologist, and hopefully we can all learn a little something from that.
Catherine is an archaeologist, avid reader, and all-around geek. After graduating from Longwood University with a degree in Anthropology, she completed a Master’s degree in Archaeology and Heritage through the University of Leicester. She currently works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as a contractor in the Anthropology Department, and loves the diverse range of tasks that accompany her position. Her research interests are broad and include landscape archaeology, institutional memory, and the ways in which pseudoarchaeology can be combated. Her non-academic interests include board games, all manner of books, dogs, and tea. She can be reached on Twitter @ckhill94 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header Image taken from Inkle, Heaven’s Vault Website https://www.inklestudios.com/heavensvault/
Cross, Katherine. 2019. “Heaven’s Vault Rewards Replays by Forcing You to Live the Theory You’re Investigating.” Polygon. May 13, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/2019/5/13/18535610/heavens-vault-loop-second-playthrough-replayability.
Dix, Mieke. 2019. “Heaven’s Vault: Review.” For Science, You Monster. April 16, 2019. https://for-science-you-monster.com/tag/heavens-vault/.
Downer, Joseph. 2015. “Hallowed Ground, Sacred Place · George Washington’s Mount Vernon And The Cultural Landscapes of the Enslaved.” PhD Thesis, George Washington University. http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/archaeology/slave-burial-ground-research/research-papers/hallowed-ground-sacred-place/.
“Mulberry Row Reassessment.” n.d. Monticello. Accessed April 2, 2020. https://www.monticello.org/research-education/for-scholars/archaeology-daacs/current-research/mulberry-row-reassessment/.
Muncy, Julie. 2019. “‘Heaven’s Vault’ Is a Rare Videogame About the Art of Translation.” Wired. Accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/heavens-vault-review/.
Nelson, Margaret C., Michelle Hegmon, Stephanie Kulow, and Karen Gust Schollmeyer. 2006. “Archaeological and Ecological Perspectives on Reorganization: A Case Study from the Mimbres Region of the U.S. Southwest.” American Antiquity 71 (3): 403–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/40035359.
O’Donnel, Jim. 2017. “How Vulnerable Are We to Collapse?” SAPIENS. September 15, 2017. https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/hohokam-mimbres-collapse/.
Reinhard, Andrew. 2019a. “Archaeology and Heaven’s Vault: An Interview with Inkle’s Jon Ingold.” Archaeogaming. January 25, 2019. https://archaeogaming.com/2019/01/25/an-interview-with-jon-ingold-of-heavens-vault/.
Reinhard, Andrew. 2019b. “The Archaeology of Heaven’s Vault.” Archaeogaming. April 16, 2019. https://archaeogaming.com/2019/04/16/the-archaeology-of-heavens-vault/.
“Why Is Archaeology at the Cemetery So Important?” n.d. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Accessed April 2, 2020. http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/archaeology/slave-burial-ground-research/why-is-archaeology-at-the-cemetery-so-important/.