Interview: inkle’s Jon Ingold Talks Heaven’s Vault

Jon Ingold is the narrative director at inkle, the renowned developer and publisher of interactive fiction titles including the award winning 80 Days, Sorcery, and Frankenstein by Dave Morris (our interview with him here).

On April 16, inkle released their most ambitious project yet, Heaven’s Vault, an epic science fiction narrative about an archaeologist on a mission to discover the secrets of the past. featuring gorgeously rendered environments and a complicated mesh of narrative threads, there’s more going on in the game than meets the eyes.

To get a sense of what went into the game’s three year development process, as well as what the future of interactive fiction looks like in the face of mainstream players taking more of an interest in the gaming sub genre, we got Jon to answer some of our most burning questions.

A Heaven’s Vault environment

Agency doesn’t interest me as a writer, or as a player; I don’t want to control the story by flipping switches. I want to be frustrated, surprised, delighted, intrigued, baffled

Jon Ingold – inkle

Heaven’s Vault follows the travels of Aliya, a planet hopping archaeologist.

Can you speak a bit about the considerations that went into Aliya’s development, and the qualities that make a compelling interactive fiction character in general?

For me, having a well-defined character in interactive fiction is essential. I’ll say that up front because not everyone agrees with it as a principle; some people like their blank-canvas avatars that can be shaped in any direction; but I find them to be bland, and unbelievable; more like a camera than a person. 

So when we came to design Aliya’s character we had two questions: given what this woman does, what must she be like? And what influence can the player have over that? Aliya spends her life mostly alone, trawling the distant, lost places of the Nebula in the hope of uncovering a past that most of the people in her world don’t believe exists. What kind of person would do that? What must she have inside her to make that something she can do every day? 

I see the player as her inner force, guiding who she is to what she might become. How successful can that force be? How often does it succeed, and how often should it try, and yet fail? Those questions are where really great interactive dialogues come from.

Heaven’s Vault was a three year journey. What accounted for the development timeline? Just the 3D graphics, or was it also the scope of the story?

Everything in Heaven’s Vault was harder than it was meant to be. 3D worlds are time-consuming to build; camera work is tricky to get right; there are a hundred new ways for a story to go wrong because a character is looking the wrong way, or has stepped out of reach beyond the edge of thew world, or the next prop is fractionally underneath the floor. All of that stuff – vast quantities of slippery, petty detail, eats development time the way fire eats dead wood.

But the story is huge too, and there are so many strange edge cases, and unusual states you can get it into, and we want to explore those fringes, and ensure that players who followed particular tacks and tracks would find moments that were specific and precious to them. And that took time as well.

And finally, the world-building itself! It took at least a year to really understand the world of the Nebula, what made it tick, where it came from, and why it was the way it was. That was a fascinating process but a very, very difficult one.

What influenced your team while developing Heaven’s Vault? Other games? A love of antiquity and language?

Curious what the main thrust was and how you landed on archaeology as the mechanism to tell the story. 

We usually start with the question: what is the player going to do? At a high level, why are they playing? And the idea of being an archaeologist was something we were attracted to – it’s romantic, without being stupid; it’s something everyone understands, but vanishingly few games have attempted to do well; and it’s deeply narrative, and human.

Then once we started to explore the idea, and we realized an archaeologist was really a detective, and that we could make a detective story about uncovering not just a murder, but an entire world – that was too exciting an idea to drop.

Aliya’s robot companion Six is a great addition. Why a robot though and not, say, another explorer?

We knew from the start that we needed a core duo, to ensure the player was always talking, and reflecting, and exploring their ideas. A lot of games go for the “silent protagonist” realising things on the inside; we wanted to explicitly do the opposite; a game which doesn’t shy away from specifics, and tells you what you’ve discovered, and dives into it in a deep, and rich way. 

But making companion characters is really, really hard, so the idea for a robot was to give us a little extra freedom. A robot doesn’t need to be perfectly emotionally accurate to be believable; it doesn’t matter if it changes tone from moment to moment. We hate our characters to repeat themselves, or to know things they shouldn’t, and we have a heap of systems for tracking and reflecting what everyone knows about the world at any given moment. But emotional coherence is a whole the level of hard, and we didn’t want to try to achieve that across 12 hours of gameplay.

When you design narratives like Heaven’s Vault, is the goal to give players maximum agency over the story direction, or is it more about simply presenting a novel way to experience a story?

I ask because in my experience there is a tension between a player expectation that IF narratives should be all about branching, choice-based outcomes when the game is doing all kinds of other things to create a rich experience you can’t get anywhere else.

Is CYOA becoming overrated?    

Agency doesn’t interest me as a writer, or as a player; I don’t want to control the story by flipping switches. I want to be frustrated, surprised, delighted, intrigued, baffled: I want to feel clever and powerful sometimes, and stupid and desperate at other times. What we aim for is narrative momentum and high player involvement: the story should be always moving forwards, and everything you do should matter and be integrated into the story – but that doesn’t mean things should go the way you intend. 

Looked at that way, the branchiness of the story doesn’t matter: what matters is whether, moment to moment, the player has interesting things to do that feed into the story that happens. Perhaps you choose which way a friendship is broken, but can’t avoid breaking it: perhaps that’s because it was broken before the scene started. That can be a beautiful, powerful experience, without having any variation in the outcome at all. 

Which isn’t to say the game is linear – it isn’t. But which of the player’s choices will branch the story, and which simply colour it, we don’t reveal. Because why would we? 

So long as the story is moving forwards, and the player’s involvement is respected, and the story that gets told is interesting… that seems to me to be the goal.

If my intuition is correct, IF and CYOA is approaching a tipping point and is about to break into the mainstream.

Do you agree? And what do you think accounts for this? Do you see Inkle as having played a role in its modern resurgence?

Perhaps. People have been saying this for a while now. At the moment, I think there aren’t enough good examples of interactive storytelling to make a call on what happens next.

A lot of what’s in the mainstream is a very, very simple model of interactivity and while that’s fine – and has been very profitable for some! – I can’t see that kind of light interactivity becoming mainstream because it’s too safe. You won’t have people jumping out of their seats if they can see the wires. 

As for what inkle has achieved, well; it’s generally the case that no-one has heard of your indie game. Even 80 Days, which is probably one of the most widely-known interactive fiction games out there, is not that widely known. When the media encounters CYOA games, they still use CYOA books as their most recent, most relevant go-to to describe the format.

If Netflix, YouTube, EKO and basically giant media corporations start developing in the space, do you worry about the future of indie studios like Inkle? Or does that seem like a far off issue for you at this stage? 

It’s impossible to run an indie studio and not worry about your future, permanently. The business of surviving has always been mostly about the visibility of your product, with its artistic success coming second. If Netflix can begin producing  Bandersnatch-like shows on a regular basis, it’ll necessarily take away from inkle’s market, but then again, so does Fortnite.

That said, I don’t think interactive TV is going to be a game-changer here. The level of interactivity on offer is still so low that it’s hard to escape the basic tropes that the original CYOA books leant on, that tire quickly – insta-deaths and loops,  which are both devices for throwing away player input. I’m not entirely convinced interactive TV will ever work; TV is an inherently passive, second-screen activity. 

So I think it’ll be games that converge on TV-like levels of accessibility to create that mainstream, if it ever happens. Telltale were the leaders here: their games were easy to pick up and play, they had no complicated mechanics or fussy levelling systems, or combat – whether what happened to them can be avoided by the next company to attempt that balance, I don’t know.

Thanks Jon!

Heaven’s Vault is available now.

Check out the trailer:

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StoryFix Media produces interactive fiction games and novels. Our sci-fi text adventure The Pulse is out now. Our novels New Horizons and The Blue Moon are available now.

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