Like 80 Days, Inkle’s previous game, Heaven’s Vault is a piece of interactive storytelling that drops you into a dense mesh of narrative choices. The whole thing’s as intricate and inter-connected, perhaps, as one of the tiled abstract patterns that decorate the walls and doorways of the game’s Middle-Eastern and North-African-inspired environments. What a place! There are big decisions to be made here, but, most thrillingly, throughout the course of the adventure I found myself surrounded by the constant fluttering of smaller choices – how much to reveal to an ally, how to respond to my companion’s latest micro-aggression, and whether, even, to interpret it as an aggression at all. Somehow, all these hubs and spokes come together in a busy kind of snugness. As a player I felt both autonomous and well-cared for. I could play the game as I saw fit in any moment, but whatever I did, the overall story refused to become an ugly, artless blob formed by my actions.
A better analogy might be the river. In Heaven’s Vault you play Aliya, an archaeologist following in the footsteps of a vanished roboticist who has discovered something darkly mesmerising out there in the wastelands of space. That’s as much direct plot as I should spoil here. Stepping back a bit, Aliya’s job involves moving between sites of interest and using the things she finds – artefacts and tatters of an ancient language – to create new leads and new spots on the map to investigate. You’re a space traveller in a head scarf rather than a pressurised helmet, and your spaceship is made of wood and sails and knotted ropes and looks a bit like a winged crustacean. And space itself, a scattering of ‘moons’, is an archipelago navigated by the river, a knotted delta of swift tributaries, cloudy white trails scattered over glinting rocks. You never saw such rocks. Some of them are pointed and arid and reach into the sky like the columns of gas that incubate new stars in the Eagle Nebula. Some are slick with a glossy mineral wetness, reflecting the pinks and purples of a skybox in which, if you look closely enough, you can see individual brush strokes.
The river will take you where you want to go as you move between one clue and the next, but once you’re on it there is a sense of its own brisk life to it. It bucks and rumbles and speeds you through turns before growing sluggish for a spell and making you fight against it. There are things to see along the route if you are fast enough, and as long as you have learned how to ride the river and navigate its moods. But if you miss these things, they’re gone for now. Only forward – and such is the narrative. Live with your choices, even the ones you don’t realise you’re making.