Earlier this year a game came out which is right up CREWS’s street. Heaven’s Vault is a narrative sci-fi archaeology game where the central mechanic sees the player attempting to decipher a writing system found in ancient inscriptions. It justifiably received a lot of praise from reviewers, offering up a pleasingly thoughtful alternative to the usual video-game portrayal of archaeologists as gung-ho action heroes who negotiate traps and fight mercenaries, Nazis and wild animals. Its developers, Inkle, are well-known for crafting careful and well-written branching narratives, so the exploration and decipherment elements are wrapped up in an appealing choose-your-own-adventure structure.
This is what sets Heaven’s Vault apart from the other recent game which deals with these kinds of themes. In 2016 Sethian was released, which casts the player as an archaeologist uncovering the mystery of the disappearance of an alien civilisation by deciphering its script and learning to interact with an alien computer.
When I played Sethian I found it fascinating, but also rather frustrating. The game is played entirely through the Sethian computer interface, making its writing system a very abstract puzzle that had to be understood purely through its own internal logic. The main character’s notebook offers a few tantalising hints at prior research and wider contextual information which you feel might help you understand the civilisation that created the script and help you understand its meaning, but this wider information is almost entirely shut off from you. The writing system is a pure logic puzzle.
As we’ll see, Heaven’s Vault’s writing has a lot of similarities to Sethian’s, although the actual mechanics of decipherment are handled quite differently. But the biggest difference is that Heaven’s Vault offers you a world – a number of worlds, actually. You don’t embody a nameless and faceless cipher, but control an actual character, Aliya. Its writing is not presented as messages on some decontextualised computer screen, but inscriptions on actual artefacts which you find in-game. The nature of the objects and the contexts in which they’re found can provide important clues to help you understand the content of the writings, and in turn, correctly deciphering the inscriptions allows you to reconstruct the stories and histories of the locations you explore. This is the most authentically archaeological aspect of the game, and the bit I enjoyed the most.
But what about the actual writing system? A lot of the game’s marketing materials talk about it featuring a ‘hieroglyphic language’. This slip between language and writing system is a common one, and I don’t want to criticise the developers too hard for it. But it’s debatable whether either Heaven’s Vault or Sethian really feature languages at all. Their symbolic systems don’t include any phonemic information – that is, how a word actually sounds. A particular glyph might mean ‘palace’, for example, but it doesn’t tell you how to actually pronounce the word for ‘palace’ in the language of the person who carved the inscription. This was clearly a conscious decision on the part of the developers – deciphering an unfamiliar script is challenging enough without then having to undertake a second level of decipherment on the resulting phonemic strings. Apart from anything else, both the games we’re discussing were made by very small studios with limited resources. Creating entire sound-systems and dictionaries and encoding them in constructed scripts would have been as taxing on their resources as it would on players’ skills.
This raises an interesting question about the definitions of writing. Some people would see the encoding of phonemic information as a key marker of what constitutes writing, as opposed to other kinds of graphic systems. Semasiographies, for example, encode meaning directly, but don’t equate directly to a particular word. Examples would be mathematical symbols or musical notation. Real scripts often don’t fit very clearly into our idealised categories, however, and the systems in Heaven’s Vault and Sethian demonstrate this ambiguity well. While we could see them as semasiographies with no underlying phonemic systems, they are clearly intended to have such phonemic realisations within the fictional worlds they inhabit, even if the developers haven’t worked them out and the player has no possibility of reconstructing them. We could see them as logographic systems, then. Outside the fictions of the games, we could even argue they are logographic systems whose phonemic realisation is in English.
While they lack phonemic realisations, both Sethian and Heaven’s Vault do work out complex grammatical structures involving morphology and syntax which differ from those of English. There are also some rules for word-formation, even if we don’t know what those words are. In Heaven’s Vault, heavy use is made of compounding, so that longer words are formed out of smaller ones. Part of the trick, then, is working out where the word boundaries go – in an element directly inspired by ancient scripts, there are no word dividers in the inscriptions.
So, I think it’s fair to say that these games feature partial languages, but are more interested in writing systems. Like many real scripts, these don’t sit straightforwardly in categories like ‘semasiographic’ or ‘logographic’, but their proximity to the former is interesting because of the prevalence of semasiograms in maths, science and computing. In both Heaven’s Vault and Sethian, I came away feeling that these were scripts designed by people with backgrounds in programming and mathematics, not the humanities. Again, I don’t mean this as a criticism, and Heaven’s Vault is certainly more humanistic than Sethian, but one of the key themes of both games is that the nature of a writing system can tell us about the minds and culture of those who created it. This is proven, I think, by the way the backgrounds and cultures of the games developers themselves comes through in their creations!
While I appreciate the cleverness and originality in both these games, I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t finish either of them. I’m not great at abstract logic puzzles and Sethian’s austere and abstract enigmas went beyond my ability (or patience) to untangle. Heaven’s Vault is much more accessible, but has almost the reverse problem, whereby the to-ing and fro-ing and choose-your-own-adventure elements sometimes, for me, felt in tension with the decipherment aspect. This is mainly a matter of personal taste more than anything – an acknowledgement that slow, text-based narrative is as much a part of the game as scriptal decipherment, and if you’re not a fan of this style of game, or the story doesn’t grab you, then you may feel like you’re being kept from the fun stuff too often.
Maybe I’m a shallow junkie for the action-packed thrills of big-budget, large studio titles these days, but I came away from Heaven’s Vault in love with its ideas, its world, and the way it embeds inscriptions in a social and geographical context, but wishing I enjoyed the adventure game aspects a bit more. It feels a bit like kicking a puppy to say it, but I would love to see decipherment mechanics like this as a side-quest in something like a Zelda game. They would fit the archaeological resonances of Breath of the Wild oh-so-well.
But if either of these games sound interesting to you, I strongly urge you to check them out for yourself. They’re not expensive and are fascinating experiments in game design, as well as insights into how writing systems, language and decipherment can be understood by intelligent, thoughtful people outside academia. I also highly recommend this talk by Inkle’s Jon Ingold on how he designed Heaven’s Gate’s script: it’s thoroughly entertaining and discusses Indiana Jones, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Rongo Rongo, so how could I not?
~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)