Heaven's Vault: design ruminations

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Comments: 3   (latest 5 days later)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, heaven's vault, inkle, ink, narrative, archeology, interactive fiction, nonlinear, if

I've played through Heaven's Vault twice now.

At the end of the first run, I had this distinct thought which I had never put into words before. I wrote:

What's the word for when you finish a story, and now you can really start to discover the story? Because, on the second run, the boundaries and spaces of what you can do will be distinguishable from "what I just did". It's this feeling of "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book."

-- tweets, April 27th

Jon Ingold immediately shot back "archeology", which was on target, but not really the answer. If you are interested in games, you read a game for its interactive structure. That's distinct from reading the story. But in a well-designed game, the interactive structure is part of the story. Or vice versa. They support each other. That's the idea I was trying to get at: the story can't have its full impact until you understand the game mechanics, and you can't fully understand the mechanics until you've run through the story a few times and kicked the boundaries.

This is true of all games; you always think about how else your session might have gone. But it's not always such a present truth! Many games make their boundaries pretty clear on the first run-through. You've already felt your way around the walls, you might say, in the course of making your way to the exit.

I'm not describing games that we think of "linear" vs "nonlinear" (those weakest of game descriptors). When I played through Night in the Woods, I spent my story time talking to Bea. I could have hung out with Gregg instead, and it's clear that would have led to a different story. But I also had a good sense of how it would be different. I might yet replay the game to see those Gregg conversations, and to see any of a number of other story variations. I wouldn't expect to it to be a different game.

Finishing Heaven's Vault was very different! I had the overwhelming sense that I didn't know what kind of game it was yet. I didn't know which of my choices were vital; I didn't even know which of my actions had been choices. And so I started the game over. (Not immediately, but after a break of a couple weeks.)

As it happens, my second HV run-through felt quite similar to my first.

I don't meant it was a disappointment! For one thing, I had a much stronger grasp of the alien language. (The game allows you to keep your translation dictionary across runs. This is a well-chosen, if unsubtle, enticement for those odd people who don't get obsessed with game design questions at the end of round one...)

I don't even mean that the story played out the same way the second time. I visited locations in a different order. I explored many of those locations from different angles. I made a couple of brand-new (-to-me) discoveries. And, to tick the most obvious box, I chose a different "final ending" and changed the fate of the Nebula.

On the other hand: I visited all the same locations, and met all the same people (minus one extra, plus one surprise). I was heading to the same final destination all the time. In broad arc, I was playing the same game. Only every single detail was different, or potentially different.

In some sense Heaven's Vault telegraphs this. It's told in flashback, after all! The first scene you see is the final chapter: under the eye of a watchful god, you and your robot discover a sealed vault.

So you know that this is your final destination. Every possible variation of the story will lead there. You know that you will arrive with the robot. No story branch can end with your death, or the robot's disappearance or destruction. The game has to be about ordering and details.

(But I didn't think about that until the second run-through...)

What the game does best is care about these details, these large-or-tiny variations. You see this most clearly when you fire up a game-in-progress. It opens with a text summary -- a rundown of what you've done so far. Every reviewer praises this feature, but it's not easy to explain how stunningly smooth this summary is. It's not just a bullet-point list of everything you've done. That would be excruciating and unboundedly long.

No, what HV gives you is the story so far. It's the high points; no more than five lines, and they have arc. "You are searching for X, but you've also found Y, which has put you on the trail of Z." Cause and effect. The distinction between "and" and "but".

Furthermore, everything is described in terms of what you know. A location might be "an undiscovered Holy Empire site" or "a Holy Empire garden" or "a Holy Empire mausoleum", depending on whether you've explored it, what you've found, and what you've deduced. One site wound up with completely different descriptors in my first and second run-throughs, because the protagonist discovered slightly different evidence and then came to entirely different conclusions about what had occurred there.

This application of your game history is not just for the opening summaries, by the way. It extends through the entire design. Everything is described in terms of your present knowledge: map labels, navigation choices, references in dialogue. When you leave a site, your character reflects (out loud) on what she's done there and what she might do next. When you arrive in a familiar location, such as your university, she might comment on the tasks she expects to do there -- but only later in the game, when you've built up habits!

It's all powered by the same history-tracking engine, which stores and contextualizes everything from the broad arc of play to the moment-by-moment arc of a conversation. I mentioned the difference between "and" and "but"? You can see this when you're working through one of the linguistic challenges. "This word is right, and this other word is also right." Or: "This word is right, but this other word is wrong." To generate those sentences, HV needs to track successes and failures within the challenge. And the same, at macro scale, for the entire game.

I said my two run-throughs were similar. In some ways I tried to make them as different as possible. I looked at location X before location Y, instead of after. I took different tacks when overcoming certain difficulties. I drank heavily instead of abstaining in the bar.

But I didn't alter my basic approach to play. I was methodical, as I am in most games. I tried to search every location thoroughly, find every artifact, and read every inscription before I left. So it is not surprising that I found the same locations and made most of the same basic discoveries. It was all of the locations, so it was the same list! If I'd taken a hastier and more headstrong tack, I would have had a very different gameplay experience. A journey to the same ending, but with more gaps; no doubt filled by guesswork, perhaps with a very different final perception of how the world had gotten there.

(Less correct, you say? Based on less data, to be sure. But this is archeology: always guesswork in the end. There are always gaps. We'll never know the complete history of the Nebula, no matter how many times we play or how many wiki pages we fill.)

Nonetheless: two play-throughs, even two thorough play-throughs, are two different experiences. And it was striking (the second time!) how many differences derived from small changes of my focus or small differences in timing.

On one moon, I poked around exploring while the robot examined a device. Then, feeling done, I decided to leave. That was in the first run-through. Second run-through: I poked around exploring for a few minutes longer. Hey, says the robot of a sudden, just noticed something about the device! Which led to a question, which led to a conversation, which led to another trip, which led to a revelation that I'd had no clue about in my first session.

This revelation was one of the high dramatic moments of the session. Everything that followed was cast in the new terms that I had discovered. It was what the story was about, at least in part. And yet this moment was so easy to miss! In the first session, I blew right past it; I never knew there was anything to miss.

It wasn't even a choice, from my point of view. The game never presented a menu selection between "explore the moon for eight minutes" vs "explore the moon for ten minutes". It was just a thing I happened to do. And there were several more choices I had to make in order to stumble across this particular plot thread. I happened to ask person X about the robot's discovery, and then suggest plan Y...

If you frame this HV story line as a puzzle, a challenge for the player with story as the reward -- it's a blatantly unfair puzzle. Frame it as an achievement and it's even worse. "Stand here for N minutes, doing nothing, with no feedback"; players reach for their pitchforks.

HV has a few scenes with traditional adventure-game puzzles -- but only a few. To frame it as a puzzle game is just a mistake. You really have to view the game as a big bag of things the player might do. Some of these require patience and methodical search. Some require fiddling with mechanical controls and platforms. Some require treating NPCs in certain ways, or not treating them in other ways. Most require some combination of circumstances which you can't reasonably plan for, in your first game session or any other.

But if any given goal is so "unfairly difficult" to achieve, why play? Because the game isn't about all the stuff that you fail to notice. It's about the one thing you do notice. There's such a density of goals that you are very likely to achieve some of them. Whatever revelation or dramatic moment you reach -- that's what the story is about! ...For you; in that session; do you see? The history-tracking engine is able to seamlessly describe your particular discovery as the arc of the story.

That is to say: you're going to do something, indeed, a great number of things. You'll do the things that suit you as a player: exploring, or searching, or puzzling, waiting, negotiating, flirting. Something. And you'll find some astonishing secret. And whatever you find will be a reward for whatever you did.

This is hard to describe, isn't it? It sounds like a tautology when I say it. And yet I've never seen it done like this.

I grew up with puzzle-fest adventure games. Games that challenge you to do every single thing, and unlock the ending when you do it. Or to make a choice, and unlock the one ending (out of several) which is determined by that choice. Then we had the choice-based style and visual novels, which had branching structure all the way through. Lots of explicit choices, with implicit consequences, and variations of each chapter as you progressed.

More recently, we have the heap-of-side-quests game, like Sunless Skies or Inkle's previous hit 80 Days. In those games, you find a grab-bag of parallel micro-stories in a large universe. As in HV, the micro-stories you find follow what you happen to do; you have no hope of discovering or experiencing them all.

But HV goes beyond that bag-of-quests format. The story threads don't spread out into a haze of disparate starbursts. Every thread is part of the story of the Nebula; they all work towards that final chapter in the vault. And any handful of them make a story. I won't say they're all equally satisfying, but they all feel like plausible middles to that ending. There, that's my tag-line for the game. Forget multiple endings; we've entered the era of games with multiple middles.

Speaking of endings, this blog post probably ought to have one.

You understand that I am, necessarily, talking out my ear. I claim that the real value of Heaven's Vault is all the stories that I've never seen -- that I can't even tell where I missed seeing them. I've only played it twice! How could I even know?

Well, I recall Jon Ingold commenting that nobody can see more than 30% of the game content in a run-through. I know, it's cheating to believe what the designer says, but it fits with my experience. As I said, I've seen a couple of major revelations. I've also seen a few mysteries that I tried to plumb and couldn't. In my sessions, they were mysteries of the past, the lost foundations on which the story rests. But I have no doubt that some path leads down there.

Beyond that, I trust in probability. If I found a couple of treasures by unlikely chance, how many are there to find?

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