The Vault

Interview with Carly Osborn and Justin Wight, by Erika von Kaschke.

The Vault is an online game project of CHE for ages 12–15 years, connecting emotions, history and material culture. The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) collaborated with South Australian game developer, Monkeystack, to design and develop the game. In the final phase of the project Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) joined CHE as an equal research partner.

On 24 October 2018, The Vault was awarded Best Console/PC Hardcore and Best Indie Game at the Game Connection Development Awards in Paris.

The Vault screenshot title page


Earlier in 2018, Erika von Kaschke (then National Communications Officer of CHE), sat down with Carly Osborn (then CHE Education and Outreach Officer at The University of Adelaide) and Justin Wight (Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Monkeystack) to talk about the new video game The Vault.

What is this game all about?

Ca­rly: The Vault began as a way to take a player into historical times and places, to discover some of the history of emotions. It evolved into an incredibly rich story in which the player not only discovers that emotions have a history, but reflects on their own place in history and their own complex humanity.

Justin: The Vault game is a first-person narrative adventure puzzle game. It is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.

It is also a journey into the human condition, into a metaphoric space in which being truly, richly human is the only way to survive – provoking us to consider not only our past but our future.

How difficult was it to incorporate the history of emotions into a game?

Justin: The most technically challenging aspect of this project was ensuring historical accuracy, both from a story perspective and also ensuring the research was portrayed the correct way – particularly as we were endeavouring to be as implicit as possible with our delivery of relatively didactic research material.

Carly: I agree – this was actually really difficult. Because you don’t want to just come out and say ‘Emotions have a history!’ – it’s not a lecture, it’s a story. So we had to work really hard on showing rather than telling, but showing in a really substantial way. We had to avoid emotional clichés and show the depth, the nuance and historical specificity of our characters’ emotions. Our very talented writer, Scott Edgar, was invaluable in making this happen – finding those perfect lines of dialogue that were historically appropriate, and which contained so much information but yet flowed so naturally.

What was the highlight of the process?

Justin: Working on a collaborative effort between narrative storytelling and education using a game as the vehicle to take to our audience.

Carly: Absolutely the collaboration. Bringing together a pedantic academic (me) with these brilliantly creative game designers, plus a terrific writer, it stretched all of us but in a really enjoyable way. I have a PhD in modern novels, and yet these guys taught me so much about the power of storytelling, especially using new media which is so immersive and sensory. I moved from thinking about education in a quite didactic way, to thinking about it as the insight we gain from simply letting stories speak to us – which is exactly what good historians do, actually!

So, they stretched me into new creativity, new flexibility; I think in turn I challenged them to create an exciting game that was really giving the player true information and insight into history, which meant I vetoed a lot of things that were fun but not accurate, and we had to workshop a lot of those points so they were both good information and good gameplay. And we all learned a lot and hope to work together again.

The Vault screenshot in game footage

Tell us about something you didn’t expect to find during this process?

Justin: To our surprise we discovered a hunger from the education and research community to find alternative yet meaningful ways of sharing their stories with the wider public, and games seem like such a perfect natural fit. We look forward to working with many more researchers and educational institutions.

Carly: I was surprised by Monkeystack’s willingness to take on a project like this that is unlike any other game out there. They not only invested their time and money in the game, but they really embraced the history of emotions research and became passionate about presenting it beautifully. We so often live in the bubbles of our separate industries, and it was so cool to find out that a bunch of game geeks (I mean that as the warmest compliment) would get excited about academic research, and want to go on this journey with CHE to make The Vault game.

Why is this game a ‘game changer’ for education? What makes it unique?

Justin: Researchers research, and game developers make games, and never the twain shall meet … until now. It’s rare to see such collaboration in the games business and I would assume it’s the same researchers.

Carly: It is a rare collaboration, and I think it’s a game changer for education because we talk a lot in the humanities about the need to use new media but we rarely do it. The Vault is a trailblazer – we’ve proved it can be done, and done well. Educators across the world will be able to use this game, and student learning outcomes will be genuinely better for it. I’m hoping to do some research on those outcomes next. I really believe this is a tool that humanities departments will use to make their teaching more memorable and more provocative of further exploration by students; and that more games will follow in our footsteps.

The Vault Screenshot in game footage 2

What is the future of The Vault?

Justin: The game is in the alpha stage of development, meaning it is only a demo and not a final product. There is much to improve to make a polished considered artwork, so the next step is to seek the remaining investment to finalise the project and release it to market.

Carly: The demo is itself an amazing game, and we’ll be using it in Education Outreach activities from now on. It’s a great story and really engaging for players to get a taste of the history of emotions. The commercial version to come will be released on all the big game platforms and I’m expecting it to be a hit.

Click here to download The Vault demo.

Visit The Vault CHE project page.

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