Right after exploring Scottish peaks and glens in A Highland Song, indie studio Inkle are now sending us into an ever-shifting labyrinth full of art in a free new game. Made for Google’s Arts & Culture initiative, The Forever Vault is an adventure game where you search the labyrinth’s many attics, mines, gardens, server rooms, rooftops, treehouses, wine cellars, and such for your missing pal not only by passing through doorways and stairways but by connecting ideas and concepts contained within artwork. Having played (and failed) one attempt to crack it, I’m keen for a return.
Head on over here to play in your browser. It saves progress to your Google account, so you can even resume a save on your phone, I was delighted to discover while brewing a cupaa.
Your mate Professor Sheldrake is missing and whoops you’ve just been sucked through a painting into a labyrinth at the end of time. It’s home to several people in the same predicament, not to mention a monster which absolutely will get you if you can’t solve its mysteries. As you ascend stairs and descend ladders and enter doorways, you’ll find diary entries, clues, and other NPCs with their own mysteries and goals. You’ll also find yourself quite stuck. The secret to navigating the landscape is creating portals through artwork.
The place is full of art borrowed from the Google Arts & Culture library. Paintings, photographs, scultptures, statues, board game box art, it’s all here. Each room, you quickly discover, is themed around some common element in the art. Faces. Chimneys. Sadness. Dogs. Fire. Portalling through an artwork will take you to another room where the piece will be grouped with other pieces by another characteristic, offering new connections.
For example: if you’re in the Cellar Of Hats and want to reach the Glade Of Busy Moon, you might travel through Bhadrakali Within The Rising Sun to the Helipad Of Sun, where a photo of an eclipse will take you to your glade.
While connections can be quite tricksy, they are prescribed, not freeform associations. Our character will suggest links when you examine artwork, and icons in the UI will tell you what ideas you can use on a particular piece. This means the riddles and puzzles aren’t challenging but I still enjoyed discovering connections. You gain the ability to create your own portals, too. And I do like the kaleidoscope effect when you warp through artwork.
It’s a run-based game because, as the game makes clear from the start, there is always a monster. If you can’t crack the mysteries, it will get you in the end. While the labyrinth changes between runs, or you enter a new part of it, you do retain any lost notebook pages you find, and of course your own understanding of what’s going on.
My first run was a pleasant 50 minutes. The mystery is interesting, even after it reveals big secrets. I like the other people I’ve met in the labyrinth, and am curious to see how I might advance their plots and quests on repeat visits. The game has a very pretty illustrated style. And the art is, y’know, nice art. Nice game. Keen to play more.
Google Arts & Culture is an online image library with items from hundreds of museums and cultural collections. It’s a handy resource but you do have to assume it’s ultimately another step in Google’s mission to render civilisation down into grey paste to train systems and feed ad sales. The toys and games section has heaps of AI doodads to enable and encourage the creation of hollow digital garbage. One trains you to write better AI generation prompts, which feels like training you to better poke yourself in the eye. The tool to “create unique manga characters” is so clearly regurgitating fragments of existent manga that it not only turned my squiggles into a person, it added the ghost of a speech bubble with garbled logographic writing. And the tool to ‘remix’ paintings suggested I replace one painting’s children with children dressed as superheroes, which is phenomenal accidental satire.
Still, none of that’s on Inkle. The Forever Labyrinth is a neat game and I’d far rather Google give money to indie developers than spend it on new ways to pollute the infobahn. Many companies funding video games have little more interest in art and culture than Google and hell, too many of them are also eager to replace artists with AI. What a time!