I got this gig because Jon Ingold at Inkle saw my GDC talk about game capture, and because they were working with Emily Morganti who also worked on Thimbleweed Park and Unavowed! I was SUPER excited to work on this; Inkle's reputation precedes them, and I always love working on unique narrative games.
Heaven's Vault is a new game from Inkle Studios who previously made the highly acclaimed game 80 Days. You play as Aliya Elasra, a space archaeologist on the search for a missing roboticist. In the game she deciphers ancient inscriptions to uncover the history of the places she goes to in her investigation.
I started with a look at the announce trailer from February 2018. The first half of that trailer feels like a short gameplay demo, and the second half is a more traditional montage with title cards intercut with the footage.
The information that trailer shows is:
a woman with a robot walks up to a building, she deciphers an inscription
From Inkle, the creator of the award winning 80 Days
An open world adventure
An entire language to decipher
Every choice remembered
(Plus there are some random dialogue snippets)
This gave me some ideas for what to do for the new trailer, but first I got on a call with Jon, Emily and Joseph Humfrey of Inkle. I asked what they wanted to communicate with this trailer; a few of their thoughts included: space travel , the open world nature of the game, how every choice matters, and how the game adapts to your choices. This is pretty much in line with the original trailer. They also said the trailer was going to premiere at the New York Game Awards.
I decided the best course of action was to communicate fewer ideas than the original trailer, and focus on the idea of uncovering history through deciphering inscriptions. Of all the aspects of the game, that is what interested me the most; everything else sounded like video game buzzwords. Deciphering a language to uncover history isn't something I've ever done in any other game. Also, we were limited to about 60 seconds for the trailer because of the awards show.
If I come into a project part way through its PR campaign, I'll try to build upon what came before, but since the first trailer wasn't well received (most comments harped on the character animation which was still very much a work-in-progress at the time), I wanted to treat this like the the first trailer never happened.
My main goal was for the trailer audience to remember:
"You're an archaeologist who deciphers a language in order to piece together a history."
Anything they retained outside of that would be an added bonus. I think it's important to consider how someone will talk about a game after seeing the trailer; I think the simpler you make an idea to share, the more it will get shared. I'd consider it a success if people told others: "Did you see the game where you're an archaeologist translating an alien language?"
I played and captured as much of the game as I could, and for the places I couldn't get to, I skipped around via debug options. I then made a list of anything and every idea I might feature in the trailer so I could then pare it down to the essentials.
Some ideas from this stage:
Piecing together history
History is a science
History is imprecise
Multiple histories can exist
This work is important to Aliya
Uncover a forgotten past
Discover, Translate, Explore
Every choice matters
The story adapts
Decipher inscriptions, puzzles, non-linear path
Every moon brings Aliya closer
Then, from my playthrough I transcribed the bits of dialogue which felt most relevant to the ideas I brainstormed. In addition, Inkle sent me the raw Ink files from the game which I both skimmed, and searched for those keywords to find related dialogue. From this I collected a bank of about four pages of dialogue.
I derived these story blocks from what ideas the dialogue illustrated. By working backwards from the dialogue, I know right away what parts of the story I can tell using the words from the game (or with slight modification)
HISTORY IS A SCIENCE
ALIYA IS A HISTORIAN
ALIYA SOLVES HISTORY BY DECIPHERING INSCRIPTIONS
SOLVING PUZZLES OPENS UP NEW AREAS
STORIES AFFECT HOW WE THINK
STORIES ARE SQUISHY
HISTORY CHANGES EASILY FROM NEW EVIDENCE
HISTORY IS IMPORTANT
HISTORY DEFINES WHO WE ARE
CHOICES AFFECT THE GAME
From these I blocked out the trailer's story in an order I thought would make the most sense. The trailer's story told in simplest wording is:
"History is a science, it's the reconstruction of the past. Aliya is an archaeologist who pieces together stuff based on deciphered inscriptions. She then makes new discoveries on other moons she sails to; each discovery fills in more of the story. History is important to people, but Aliya is unsure how successful she'll be putting the story together."
From this outline, I came up with this script:
History is a science.
It’s the exploration of the past.
FROM THE CREATORS OF 80 DAYS
I’m an archaeologist
I chase stories
Every ancient inscription I decipher…
…fills in a piece of the puzzle.
Every planet I sail to…
…reveals a new path to explore.
And every new piece of evidence…
…can change the story entirely.
TITLE CARD!?? (I knew this was a good spot for a title card, but didn't know what to use it for)
History belongs to everyone.
It’s how we know who we are.
But will the history I uncover…
…be the real truth?
As you can see, this is very close to the final script for the trailer; Jon, Emily and Joseph worked with me to refine it to be more specific and/or find better words to express each idea. For example, "Exploration of the past" became "Reconstruction of the past" because it better reflected what Aliya does in the game.
Some of these lines were direct pulls from the game's script, and others were modified. For example, the line:
"History belongs to everyone. It has to be protected, and shared Otherwise, when I die, when you die; it's like it never happened And then we don't know who we are.
Became: "History belongs to everyone. It's how we know who we are."
The script is simple and to the point, but I tried to make it narratively dense so each word told a lot of the story. For example, "Every moon I sail to..." could've easily been "Every moon I travel to" but the word "sail" does double duty because it both indicates travel, and shows the audience this is a unique universe where people "sail" to other moons. Here are the main ideas behind each set of lines; some are there for thematic reasons, others are there to describe story and gameplay together:
History is a science
Aliya is an archaeologist
Aliya deciphers inscriptions to piece together a story
Aliya travels to different places, and finds more stuff
Every inscription fills in more of the story
History is important to society
The history you put together might not be "correct."
The trailer script was added onto a recording session previously scheduled with voice actress Gem Carmella. In the meantime I put together a rough cut with shot ideas for each moment. I wanted to show a lot of pretty environments of course, and show Aliya doing things other than simply walking. I took advantage of every bespoke character or camera animation I thought fit the trailer's story.
The debug options were mostly to hide button UI in menu screens, but for clarity I also asked for an option to hide the name of the object in the translation screens. I wanted the audience to be able to see a bit of how the translation mechanic works, but remove anything extra. They also created a freecam based on the ideas from my GDC talk. I later recaptured many of the shots because in early builds many of the areas had no lighting or needed work on the art.
We also decided to put a couple text bubbles into the trailer so the audience would be able to see the game is not fully voice acted (though there is voice acting in it!) I made the bubbles in After Effects so I'd have more flexibility for my capture, and it wouldn't require any developer support. The last shot of the timeline I partially made in After Effects. They gave me an option to turn off all the items in the game's timeline, which let me manually composite in a few events from the game. The idea behind this shot is to show the audience what all this history reconstruction amounts to; it's a mere taste of what you'll end up putting together in the game.
The music in the trailer is comprised of two pieces from the game, one for the introduction and another for the main body of the trailer. I typically try to not fade separate music cues into each other, but it worked very well for this trailer. Joseph provided the motion graphics because they already looked so good in the previous trailer there was no sense in me trying to recreate them.
This trailer was a LOT of fun to put together. Like I said, I love interesting narratives, and unique gameplay mechanics. Hopefully I did a good job conveying both in this trailer. Based on the reaction it seems like I succeeded in communicating the ideas I set forth to. This feels especially good considering the tepid response to the first trailer where the animation seemed to dominate the conversation. I was a bit worried a second teaser-y trailer might not have enough momentum to garner interest.
Heaven's Vault comes out this Spring; I can't wait to play the finished version!