Heaven’s Vault.

I don’t do video games, but those of you who do might be interested in this one (Andrew Webster reporting for The Verge):

Initially, the premise for Heaven’s Vault sounds like a typical video game. You play as a young woman named Aliya Elasra, accompanied by her temperamental robot Six, and together you explore a series of moons that were once home to a mysterious ancient civilization. But the ruins aren’t filled with violent aliens to kill or powerful weapons to discover. Instead, what the civilization left behind is words, and it’s your job to figure out what they mean.

Heaven’s Vault is the next release from Inkle, the British studio best known for the globe-trotting adventure 80 Days. It’s a 3D open-world game built by a team of just eight people, though the scale of the world — or worlds since Heaven’s Vault takes place across a network of moons — isn’t the most impressive thing about it. Instead, it’s the language. In order to make players feel like true archaeologists, Inkle created an entirely new hieroglyphic language from scratch. At first, you won’t understand a word of it, but as you play, you’ll not only start to understand the words, but also the society that created them. […]

The first time you see a hieroglyph, you essentially have to guess what it is. The game will show you a pictorial, and then give you a few options for what it might mean. A symbol could mean either “temple” or “garden,” and, initially, all you have to go on is the context of where the symbol is and what it looks like. If you guess wrong, you aren’t punished. In fact, the game lets you carry on thinking that could be the meaning of the word. As you explore, you’ll keep seeing symbols repeatedly and learn new ones that can give you a better idea of what others mean.

Sounds intriguing; thanks, bulbul!


  1. Stu Clayton says

    # The language is inspired in part by other image-heavy languages like Cantonese and German, where many smaller words are often combined to create a larger concept.#

    Can someone give an example of a language that is not “image-heavy” ? The passage quoted shows that English too must be image-heavy – “image”, “heavy”, “Inspired”, “smaller” and “larger” words …. At least when used to characterize image-heavy languages.

  2. Yeah, that was one of the things that jumped out at me, especially since it’s not even clear what it means: it seems like they’re referring to the German penchant for compounding, but then what’s that got to do with Cantonese which is isolating? And why “image”? Also the “logically constructed” bit irks me somewhat, but that may be my general dislike for conlangs and one subtype of people who get into conlanging (“Ugh, all the natural languages are so messy… I know – I will make one that is perfectly logical and everyone will recognize my genius!”).
    I do find the idea intriguing and not only because it’s about deciphering a language: there are very few games that focus on exploration and don’t involve killing creatures, waging wars or building empires. I’m curious how they manage the whole exploration aspect without making it boring or repetitive, especially considering that last such attempt, No Man’s Sky, was an unmitigated fustercluck.

  3. David Marjanović says

    German for compounding from native roots (or any, really), as opposed to importing an opaque ready-made term wholesale (as English does even in much less specialized registers than German). I bet Cantonese calques from Mandarin, where compounds from native roots are preferred over imports because the native roots can be written.

  4. From the game’s website:

    Linguistic inspiration

    The pictorial nature of both Ancient Egyptian and Chinese writing systems inspired the glyphs of Heaven’s Vault. Words are formed out of smaller “atoms”, as they often are in German.

  5. Their previous game, 80 Days, is really quite great. It’s basically just the Verne story, made into a steampunk choose-your-own-adventure book. Good times.

  6. We might be suffering from marketese getting corrupted through a reporter. (A deadly combination.) The sentence @Stu quotes is from the reporter. It’s immediately followed by an explicit quote from the marketer.

    “As you find different words that use the same glyphs, you might get the idea of related concepts,” Perhaps that’s talking about Chinese glyphs (as @pc quotes from their website), and the ‘Cantonese’ was the reporter’s mis-remembering.

    Then this is the ‘Chineasy’ fairy-tale about Chinese characters being made up from components, each of which (allegedly) contributes meaning. Crisis = danger + opportunity sort of nonsense.

  7. Candidates for “not image-heavy” languages.
    Middle English.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Middle English not image-heavy, right on ! In any case it’s not “the language” but writers who are heavy on images, if and when they are.

    # Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
    The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne, … #

  9. I agree that image-heavy is a bad description, at least for the linguistically inclined, but reading the description and guessing, I would assume it means something along the lines of “high morpheme reuse” and “predictable rules for word-building”, which for a game translates to something like “decipherable without heaps and heaps of source material”. Whether that’s a measurable quality of a language, I don’t know, but at least in my intuition German and Chinese fit it better than, say, English, which as DM says often prefers to import a ready-made lexeme.

  10. David Marjanović says

    In other words, in German and Chinese the images are throughsighty; in English they’re just as transparent, but only if you know enough Latin & Greek.

  11. Nicely put.

  12. Bathrobe says

    I suspect the reference to “image heavy” does mean compounding. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s German or Chinese, a fairly importatn aspect of word creation in the two languages is the compounding of words. Looking at the short introduction, you notice expressions like ‘garden of dead’, which are just juxtapositions of two words of a relatively concrete nature.

    If you look at Chinese, this kind of word building based on discrete ‘word-building blocks’ is very common. To take the word ‘heir’ (which came to my attention recently).

    The Chinese word for ‘heir’ is 继承人 jìchéngrén. This is a juxtaposition of three morphemes, 继 ‘to continue, maintain, carry on’, 承 chéng ‘inherit, succeed’, and 人 rén. Even though this isn’t made up of three concrete images, it’s made up by putting three relatively independent word-building elements together.

    Mongolian is different. ‘Heir’ is залгамжлагч zalgamjlagch, from the verb залгамжлах zalgamjlakh ‘to succeed, follow in succession, inherit’, which is in turn derived from залгамж zalgamj ‘succession, continuation, continuity’, and ultimately from the verb залгах zalgakh ‘to connect, link, join, extend, couple, attach’.

    It seems to me that the game is closer to the Chinese block-building approach (and the German approach of forming long compounds) rather than the common Mongolian system of adding various suffixes to create new words.

  13. And we have a release date!

  14. Since we’re on the subject of games, I’ll put in a shameless plug for Tiny Towns (I know the developer). Nothing linguistic about it, I’m afraid.

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