Designing A Lost Language For ‘Heaven’s Vault’ (EGX 2019)
Narrative Designer Jon Ingold recently attended EGX 2019 to promote Inkle’s upcoming archaeological narrative adventure game Heaven’s Vault and talk about the game’s fictional lost language.
Over the course of the forty-minute Rezzed Sessions presentation, Ingold talked about the lengthy process of designing the game’s unique gameplay mechanic and the various challenges of creating a whole new hieroglyphic language for gamers to decipher.
If you’re interested to learn more about the development process, I recommend watching the entire video. But if you’re short on time or just want to know the gist of it, here’s a brief summary:
- Inkle began brainstorming their then-untitled “space archaeology” game in late 2014 and drew on other archaeo-adventure franchises, such as Stargate and the Indiana Jones films, for inspiration.
- The developers decided to make language decipherment a gameplay feature in their new game. Ingold briefly touched upon the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the as-yet undeciphered Rongorongo script of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
- Inkle wanted to make a game that felt like learning how to read a new language. The first prototype translation system from early 2015 used the Roman alphabet, while the second prototype made use of symbols instead.
- Ingold’s was initially gutted when he saw that Lara Croft would be able to decipher ancient texts in the then-upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). He felt that there was no way Inkle’s game could compete against a Triple-A title. But he soon realised that Tomb Raider’s approach was entirely different to Inkle’s and went back to redesigning his game’s language mechanic.
- The next prototype used a combination of words and symbols and introduced a “fatigue” meter to stop gamers from solving the language puzzles by brute force.
- He and the team then started thinking about grammar and building an “interesting and complicated” grammar for their language. They started adding bits of dialogue to tell gamers about the objects they are looking at, adding context that could aid them with their translations. Ingold mentioned that this stage of development wasn’t much fun and that he had even started looking for other jobs within the gaming industry.
- Determined to make some progress, Ingold went back to researching ancient languages. His next prototype included a set dictionary of words and introduced a new piece of gameplay: working out where the words were in a compound string and building up a dictionary through trial and error.
- The next stage was to design the language. By this stage in the game’s development, the language was designed in a way that would allow gamers to create compound words from existing words and apply newly-discovered words in other future contexts.
- By December 2015, the team finally had a prototype they were pleased with, one which used runes instead of letters and allowed them to build up a dictionary over time. The final version, which was the one used in the game, worked the same way, albeit with glyph symbols.
- From there, the remainder of the project was focused on building up the fictional language’s dictionary and making it “look pretty”. By the end, the team had over 3,000 words in their dictionary, which was enough to translate anything in Heaven’s Vault.
- The game’s language has a well-defined grammar, which includes a specific verb order, an abstract number system, and rules about prepositions. Ingold mentions that these “are not English rules but the English structure is roughly the spine of the thing”. The script itself was partly inspired by Chinese and designed by Inkle co-founder Joe Humphrey. Sadly, there are no plans at present to localise the game for other regions.
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