This has all happened before
Replayability is one of the most elusive, yet essential, metrics for measuring a role-playing game’s success. Did players like the game enough to beat it a second time? A third? Is there enough material there worth exploring to make a second go-around a unique experience? If you as a developer can get players to come back to the game at least once, it can feel like a nonpareil success.
It’s rare, however, that the act of replaying the game is in some sense diegetic — i.e. part of the fictional game world itself. Heaven’s Vault, already an impressive game, performs narrative magic by managing this feat.
The Loop, a reincarnationist belief in the eternal repetition of past events, dominates the game’s story. Although your character, the archaeologist Aliya, is a dedicated skeptic, it’s impossible not to feel like the game is suffused with deja vu on the second playthrough.
In managing to incorporate the idea of replaying the game into the game’s story itself with subtlety and style, Heaven’s Vault is one of those experiences that shows what the medium can do that others cannot; it’s hard to imagine capturing this in quite the same way without play. But Heaven’s Vault does have a close cousin in film: Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Both stories are narrative circles that nevertheless advance. The story does not truly end in the same place it started.
Heaven’s Vault is one of the few video games to achieve the same effect.
“Do You Wish to Vault?”
Heaven’s Vault takes place in a fantastical sci-fi setting where people live in pre-industrial conditions, but also among ancient technology that they don’t fully understand. It has the atmosphere of Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, a tabletop RPG set amid the apocalyptic ruins of several post-singularity civilizations, where the remnants of their tech truly are indistinguishable from magic to the Medieval-esque survivors. Heaven’s Vault is a good deal less violent, however, and laser focused on Aliya’s quest to uncover the past.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Heaven’s Vault follow]
The origins of this technology — robots, mysterious aquifers, even the cosmic “rivers” you sail down to fly from moon to moon — lie in the actual Heaven’s Vault. It’s a buried spaceship of gargantuan size whose crash far from home actually seeded the Nebula with both its population and the means to create the rivers between the Nebula’s moons, which comprise the Ioxian Protectorate for which you work. The ancient gods, the robots, the means to sustain life here, all came from this seismic event thousands of years earlier. Aliya is the first person to find it.
Given the nature of the ending, which reveals a significant clue about how the Nebula came to be and the level of technology involved, it’s hard not to wonder if something like The Loop is actually occurring.
As Aliya and her intrepid robot companion finally make their way to the core, the ship’s computer asks her an urgent question: “Do you wish to vault?” The ship has enough power to take off again and land in a palatable star system. The ancient systems supplying water to the Nebula are failing irrevocably, and all life will collapse with it. So, do you “vault” into the cosmos, with some hope of finding a means to save everyone? Or do you stay and suffer the same fate as everyone you’ve ever known and loved?
Making that choice ends the game. Or does it? The same voiceover you heard in the prologue, where you trudge a breathless Aliya up one last hill, echoes again. Just as with Arrival’s prologue/ending, the true weight of those words about endings and beginnings is now clear.
The End of the Beginning of History
Everything that happened before will happen again. That belief, shared by most Ioxians who lord over their eponymous Protectorate of moons, meets with a stone wall of skepticism from Aliya. Her homeworld of Elboreth, a much-scorned moon riven by poverty, keeps the old ways. She swears to a Goddess whose name is long forgotten, and she chafes against The Loop. Her profession is an insurrectionary one in this theology, after all. When time is a perfect circle there is no history. Aliya sets out to prove that there is.
That, at least, neatly explains how this civilization — hundreds of years old; thousands if one counts its predecessor Holy Empire — is so poor in knowledge about itself. Why, after all, are so many relics just lying around waiting to be found? Why is there so little ken of Ancient, a written language that once tied these moons together, that Aliya must practically start from scratch?
Belief in the Loop seems to tidily explain all of this, and it haunts Aliya’s steps. Her latest assignment from her university is only sanctioned because, in large measure, it can be fitted to a Loopist interpretation of current events.
But as anyone who has started their second playthrough knows, something feels off. Certain translations are different, characters react to you with an almost knowing familiarity, the world feels more filled in. And it’s not just because you’re able to carry over your knowledge of Ancient from your previous playthrough, although that certainly lends to the effect.
Suddenly, the ghosting effect of Aliya walking about the world, her cutout avatar leaving traces of where she was moments ago, seem like it might be more than a slightly quirky aesthetic choice. It is as if you’re following your ghost’s footsteps.
Of course, there are mechanical reasons for much of this. Developer Inkle’s dialogue system is more intricate and fractal than any BioWare RPG. It’s easy to stumble into new dialogue trees or hidden choices. Meanwhile, the translations change to preserve a sense of challenge in some locations. But this also serves a narrative function.
Jon Ingold, the game’s narrative director and writer, confirmed much of this when I reached out to ask.
“The translations you see are somewhat procedurally determined; so in [subsequent playthroughs] you know more words, so you get longer and more complex translations,” he explained.
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,” he said.
A Flat Circle
What’s inescapable to the repeat player, however, is that you’re implicated in what happened to the Nebula. Do you restart the entire history of the Nebula somehow? All so that thousands of years hence, another Aliya and another fussy robot can schlep between moons piecing together all the evidence just lying around, going to the Vault, facing the dilemma, and making it all happen again?
The narrative genius of this is that it ties together every single playthrough, each of which becomes a chapter in a coherent story when taken as a whole. It is subtly unsettling.
This isn’t a new trick in sci-fi. Doctor Who played with ideas like this in “Heaven Sent” (perhaps not coincidentally, an episode that felt like it took place in an adventure game). But it is rare trick precisely because it is exceptionally hard to pull off, and rarer still in video games.
Ingold deserves credit for recognizing that the medium of video games had a lot to offer here. You could immerse the audience in the experience of a temporal loop; the effect is to surround the player with the disorienting sensation that they have been here before, beyond the mere sense of replaying a game, and beyond what one may experience in a book or film.
Truly brilliant games often integrate the mechanical fundamentals of the medium into the story, turning real world limitations into in-game expression. Device 6 and The Ice-Bound Concordance accomplish this through making your iPad or phone part of the game world, for instance. It’s an art, and Inkle mastered it. The structure of the game itself helps tell its story.
The Nebula remains a place of subtleties. It’s grand, especially on the rivers, but its tones are always muted by the care of authentic inquiry, the kind that’s led real archaeologists to praise the game’s verisimilitude. It’s proof that momentous revelations in a game need not disturb a sense of tranquility in its themes, and that authentic academia and theology can still move an interesting story. In lieu of shooty Indiana Jones-style grave robbing (or raiding of tombs, one might say), Heaven’s Vault offers a much more of a nuanced look at archaeology that allows you to live your discoveries.
“It’s been very cool watching the community on our discord channel pooling this stuff and coming towards an Agreed Truth,” Ingold told me. “It’s exactly what would happen in an academic symposium. Including with the occasionally wild card mad theorist derailing things on the way, too.”
With replayability so central to the game, Ingold proudly noted “we have a really strong number of players finishing … and immediately going right back and starting again.”
The Loop swept us all in. And what we uncover, gently brushing at the Nebula’s past, translating one fragmented phrase after another, is that we, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
It happened before and it’ll happen again, because you discovered your way into it. There’s something funny in the fact that, if there is a Loop, it was scientifically engineered by a woman convinced it couldn’t exist.