Yes, okay this game came out in 2019, and I actually played it for the first time in 2021, but I didn’t actually write a review then, so I’m writing one now based on a recent playthrough. So, if you haven’t played it in the past four years since it was released, beware of spoilers for the game in the blog post below.
Heaven’s Vault originally came out in 2019, developed and published by Inkle Studios. In the four years since its release, many archaeologists have already written their takes on the game (e.g., Reinhard 2019, Haneuer 2021, Draycott 2022), so nothing I’ll probably say in this post will be particularly innovative, because frankly? I agree with most of these takes: that Heaven’s Vault is a fantastic addition to the catalogue of archaeology-inspired video games and is arguably the only game to produce an experience that most closely resembles the reality of archaeological investigation (albeit set in the distant future and in space with robots, something that I haven’t experienced myself!).
Heaven’s Vault is very much concerned about a specific archaeological approach, and perhaps that is what makes it a more imperfect depiction of archaeology; that said, I also understand that this decision is based on developing easy-to-understand gaming mechanics, and I doubt anyone playing the game outside of the discipline wants to run lipid analysis on sherds as part of the fun (or maybe they do! I don’t know what the youth enjoy!). As I’ve written about in the past, archaeology in games is often used as an excuse for certain types of side questing mechanics like collectables; the mechanic that creates the main methodology of archaeological investigation in Heaven’s Vault is through translation. Starting with a couple of pre-translated words, you’re tasked with linguistic puzzles, using context clues and similarities between characters of script to propose translations that are often critiqued by surrounding characters as well as your player character. Over time and repeated exposure to certain characters of script, you’re able to make decisions on what is the “definitive” translation of certain words, slowly building up your dictionary of known words to help identify new ones. And although this isn’t representative of how all archaeologists work, I still find this mechanic to be accurate in the way in ultimately illustrates the process of interpretation – slow, but steadily brings the bigger picture into focus as you gather further evidence through careful consideration of artefacts, bioarchaeological investigation, and comparative information from the broader regional and temporal context. To refer to the archaeological process as “solving a puzzle” may be a bit of a cliché at this point, but it is true in my experience – it’s about finding the connections that each archaeological find has to another and recognising the way it ultimately fits into a bigger picture of how we understand the past.
Perhaps the best part of the game, in my opinion, was the way it handles the concept of time. In the game’s menu, you’re able to see a timeline – not just of the in-universe history, but also of your actions so far in the game. I’ve previously written about how archaeologists conceptualise time in the past, and this timeline is such an incredible addition to that discussion. That it also includes your own actions as part of the broader narrative is also a really interesting approach to a more self-reflexive form of archaeology that considers how excavation and curation practices are ultimately connected within the history of a particular artefact (and, within the story of Heaven’s Vault, shows how the past can influence the present and future, as the information you gather during the game is meant to help you make the final decision at the end). It’s something I think real world archaeologists to reflect upon more – I think some of us often feel removed from our work (in an idealistic, scientific type of way), when in actuality, our research is just another addition to the long history of these artefacts that we excavate and handle.
As I mentioned in the preface to this blog post, I’m actually writing this review after my second playthrough of the game, which means I was able to play using a New Game+ mode. For those who may not know, this is a mechanic that’s become quite popular in the past decade to encourage replays of video games, often by allowing you to retain elements of your previous playthrough (i.e., levels, skills, experience, items, etc.). In Heaven’s Vault, New Game+ allows you to bring across some of the translations you identified in your last playthrough. In my second playthrough, I’ve not only discovered new artefacts but also made new breakthroughs including a more definitive understanding of the ancient pantheon of Gods and the events of the past that have ultimately set the Nebula on its course to where you currently are within the game. It’s a fascinating way to illustrate how our understandings of things change over time, and how each era (read: playthrough) potentially brings with it further knowledge of the past to apply towards the present and future.
Heaven’s Vault may not be an exact replica of what it is like to be an archaeologist, but I don’t think that’s the point at the end of the day, As an archaeologist myself, even if I was unable to relate to the approaches used to undertake archaeology in the game, I could still find relatable in the broader experience of archaeological investigation – the game perfectly illustrates why many of us become archaeologists, as well as the many ethical issues that we sometimes face along the way as we reflect upon our role in interpreting the past and how it ultimately impacts the present and the future. And frankly, as a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to video game collectables? I’m very excited to undertake my third playthrough in the near future and continue to build up my dictionary of ancient script.
You can buy Heaven’s Vault now for the Nintendo Switch, Playstation, and for PC via Steam.
Draycott, J. (2022). Not male, not pale, and definitely not stale: Aliyah Elasra and archaeology in Heaven’s Vault. In J Draycott (ed)Women in Historical and Archaeological Video Games, 9. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, p. 341-360
Haneuer, S. (2021). Archaeogaming: How Heaven’s Vault Changes the “Game”. in A Abar et al. (eds) Pearls, Politics and Pistachios: Essays in Anthropology and Memories on the Occasion of Susan Pollock’s 65th Birthday, Heidelberg: Propylaeum, p. 631-642.
Inkle Studios (2021) Heaven’s Vault, video game, Nintendo Switch. Cambridge: Inkle.
Reinhard, A. (2019) The Archaeology of Heaven’s Vault. Archaeogaming. Retrieved from https://archaeogaming.com/2019/04/16/the-archaeology-of-heavens-vault/
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