Interview: Talking With Inkle’s About Deciphering Ancient Language In Heaven’s Vault

Of all the concepts at Rezzed this year, the one that stood out to me was the idea behind Heaven’s Vault – an adventure game by Inkle – the same people behind 80 Days. The premise of Heaven’s Vault is that the main character is an archaeologist deciphering script of an ancient civilisation in order to learn more about them, which is done literally by making educated guesses behind what each word means. It’s certainly one of the stranger looking titles with a barely animated look, but once you get used to it, it’s charming in its own way.

To say any more would inadvertently influence your decisions later on should you pick this up, which sounds less important than it ultimately is. So instead I discussed the mechanics in detail with Inkle’s Jon Ingold, the game itself and Inkle’s own influences in creating this rather ambitious game.


TSA: Inkle’s behind the game 80 Days, which has done absolute gangbusters on mobile and has had a really good release on other platforms as well. How have you found the reception received for 80 Days and your previous titles?

Jon Ingold: So I think when we started Inkle, we had a sense that we wanted to try and take what we’d learned from games and videogame narratives out of gaming and into the rest of the world. We started off thinking let’s make interactive books and we found out people who read books don’t want interactive books, so we came back to gaming again.

That got us into the idea that we could make really interesting and dynamic stories that adapted around a player in a way that was much more dynamic than people were doing otherwise. We could do that if the focus was on story and not on the animation style or voice recording that would make it harder to do a branching narrative.

That led to 80 Days. We thought it was a great piece of work and we really liked it because it was a lot of fun and it’s a kind of game nobody’s really made before, but we didn’t really expect it to land with the wider gaming community at all really. We kinda thought that here’s this niche little thing that we think is going to be really cool and that’ll be fine.

So when it blew up and started appearing on Game of the Year lists – I think Time Magazine made it their game of the year – it was kind of hard to believe! We spent a lot of time thinking, “What are people seeing in this?” and “Are they seeing what we’re seeing in it?” Coming back to it now a few years later, when I pick up and play it, I think, “Oh yes, it does the rare thing in games where they don’t always manage to do, which is promising something and actually delivering on it.”

It says you can go on an adventure around the world and you can go on an adventure around the world. I think that’s why it settled and landed well with people. It does what it set out to do and does so with a joyous heart. It’s been absolutely thrilling.

TSA: I have to admit that I keep coming back to it on occasion and I even had a new adventure last week, just with the base game, that I’d never experienced before. It’s the adventure with the princess on the train, which I never came across before and it was nice to have that adventure go the way it did. I think that’s what 80 Days does really well in multiple playthroughs.

It’s got a huge amount of replay value. This journey I’m going to go through Russia, next journey through Africa. There’s a lot of challenge and variety in how to get around without having as much funding or going to the bank.

Going onto your newest game, Heaven’s Vault, it’s got a similar style in how it displays the story, but there’s something much more involved with the translations. Can you expand on that?

Jon: Let me just outline what Heaven’s Vault is. At its heart it’s a 3D adventure game where you move around the world and explore it, interacting with the things you find there. You’re doing it with a sidekick character who you can talk to freely as you explore.

One of the things we really wanted to make sure we do was make sure it was an adventure game with a lot of momentum behind it. The great thing about 80 Days was  that it gets its story out and it’s always moving forwards and going onto the next thing. That doesn’t mean you’re out of control, it doesn’t mean the game is playing itself, it just means that the next thing is always right in front of you. Adventure games often struggle with that.

When I’ve looked at one object in the room, the next one is all the way across the room and I have to walk over to it. If I don’t, the game just waits, does nothing. It’s a problem with 3D games, trying to keep that momentum going.

Our solution for that is the way we balance the dialogue between the characters as well as the interactions in the world. Mixing those two things together has been really hard, trying to get that forward momentum that 80 Days really captured.

We think we’re onto something special, but really with that we knew when we were making it that we didn’t just want to make a purely exploring, talking narrative. We didn’t want people to say, “This is just another walking simulator”. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it wasn’t what we wanted to do.

We wanted to put people in the shoes of the protagonist, doing the things they’re doing. It’s a game about archaeology, so we looked at archaeology and thought the most exciting thing about it was reading hieroglyphics. Everyone loves that when Indiana Jones does that, everyone loves it when Lara Croft does that. How much can we dig into that to make it so the player is doing that?

That led us to the translation mechanic. We’ve designed an entire ancient hieroglyphic language that the player will decipher as they play the game. It’s spread across the entire world, every inscription that you find; we won’t tell you what it says. You can make a guess as to what it says, but we won’t tell you if you’re right or wrong. As the game progresses, those translations will get longer and more involved, complicated, and subtle. You need to use elements of the language in different and more interesting ways.

By the end of the game, we expect people to maybe have a third of the language that they’re confident about and then a lot of guesses. But they might have lot of different ideas about why the language makes sense and the way they think it does. So it’s a puzzle mechanic and it’s the weirdest one I’ve ever seen.

TSA: Yeah, it’s very unconventional.

Jon: It is, it is! The first time you do a puzzle and we watch someone doing it, they input their answer and turn to us and ask “Is that right?” We say, “What do you think?” and they say “I don’t know!”

TSA: Don’t you feel that might cause a bit of push back later on?

Jon: Maybe. We, as gamers, are so conditioned to getting things right or wrong. We’re not at school here! We’re not filling in an exam! We take what you say through the translation and feed it back into the narrative and give it to the protagonist who then theorises about it, based off what you chose. It’s just another way of putting your ideas into the game and one of the things I think makes it special.

It is a puzzle game and every puzzle is about the world. The inscription was written by someone for a reason. There’s meaning behind it, not just doing something for the sake of doing something. Those puzzles are fine too, but they don’t tell stories.

I think what’s special is when you get to your third, fourth, or fifth translation, when you realise you are starting to begin to understand something and draw connections. There are lots of ways to do that, looking at the shape of the symbols, look at where it’s being carved.

In the demo at the show, there’s an inscription on a tree trunk and we showed that to one journalist and he said “I bet that says Sharon loves Tracy” or “Rob and Lucy forever”. It pretty much does, not quite those names, but it got the idea of what had been written here just by the context. Then words came up that roughly fit that pattern, so he was really confident.

You can’t really get that with any puzzle mechanic that has a right and wrong answer that’s clearly telegraphed. You can’t get that sense of a thrill of discovering a completely new and maybe really ridiculous way to solve a problem.

TSA: When I looked at that tree I was given two choices of two words, made my choice, and then went to the sign for the building, well ruin, but it didn’t look ruined. So I looked at the sign and one of the words was already translated, so I made the connection of words and thought, “Garden of Dead… uh… Is this a graveyard?” Then the character spoke up and wondered if it was a graveyard.

Jon: Indeed, but the interesting thing about that: How sure are you that it is a graveyard? I know the character talked about it, she added something to her notebook, talked about it with her robot going forward, but are you certain it was a graveyard?

TSA: There were certainly little statues with arms stretched out that could have been graves?

Jon: And I love this! Because you’re taking a theory and thinking, “Well I feel confident about this, but I can’t be sure,” and because you’re not sure, every time you find a bit of evidence that makes you think you’re possibly right, that’s on you! It’s yours, you get to own that. If you were in a narrative game just stepping through a plot that was written in advance, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing it.

TSA: So you feel this is more of an evolution of the concepts that came up in 80 Days?

Jon: Absolutely! That’s just what I was going to say. In something like 80 Days, the whole joy of the game was when you’re standing in the middle of a forest, having gotten on a train that broke down, that everyone told you was going to break down, it’s your fault that you’re there. If you save that scenario, that’s your victory, and it really is because you can see the rest of the world was available to you. It’s the same idea, but in a more compact way.

We can’t go all the way across this open world and have a completely unique adventure every time in this game. But what you can do is dig into each and every one of those locations and have a really different experience and understanding of what those places are. I think for a narrative game, an adventure game, that’s really exciting.

TSA: It’s certainly a unique way of quenching curiosity that I’ve seen in a game. You’re definitely onto something there.

Jon: Thank you, it’s been really hard to build!

A huge thank you to Jon Ingold for showing me the game and taking the time out to talk to us, as well as Emily Morganti – the PR Consultant for Inkle – for arranging the interview with Jon. Heaven’s Vault is due on PS4, PC (via Steam) and the Apple App Store sometime in 2018.