The Minimalist, Ethereal Storytelling of Hyper Light Drifter

There has been a recent spike in interest for what people sometimes refer to as “art games”—a subgenre of gaming that includes legitimately interesting pieces like Campo Santo’s Firewatch, flawed yet thought-provoking experiments like Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide, and walking simulators of questionable intent like Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. But more often than not, the implications behind the label “art game” and those who use it is that games, unlike most other artistic media, must try in some contrived way to be, well, art. Because, of course, the worlds of art and popular entertainment must never mix… or else who knows what might happen.

But all I can say is how pathetic that argument must seem in the face of a game like Hyper Light Drifter.

Hyper Light Drifter, the debut game by Alex Preston and Heart Machine, is part of another recent trend—namely, of games that try to mimic the feel, graphics, and minimalist storytelling of the NES and SNES eras. (In that, it shares some of its collective DNA with Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, another clear standout of this retro movement.) In particular, it seems to draw massive amounts of inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, as well as, in its artistic style, Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It is a vast, expansive, open-world RPG with simple yet hair-pullingly difficult combat and a bevy of secret passageways, weapons, and collectibles that make revisiting and combing over every single area not just irresistible, but incredibly fun. Oh, and it’s beautiful:

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Hyper Light Drifter Screenshot: Heart Machine

I’ve not only never seen a retro-styled game as visually entrancing as Hyper Light Drifter—I’m having a hard time thinking of any game at all that I can compare to it in terms of its artistic (read: visual, audio, etc.) design. BioShock (a game that once had an exhibition at the SMITHSONIAN) comes closest, as well as some Zelda titles (namely Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask), but that just proves my point—all three of those games are regarded as among the greatest games ever made. And Hyper Light Drifter takes their collective DNA, inserts it into the 16-bit era, and (for good measure) adds in a healthy dose of Dark Souls to make a game so unique and inexplicably wonderful that it grew only more entrancing every time I started it up.

But explaining is what I’m supposed to do, so let me try and put into words exactly what makes Hyper Light Drifter so incredible, and so, so damning for the idea that games must sacrifice the “game” part of their soul to be considered art.

Actually, that’s a good place to start—unlike most “art games,” which are usually made to be as broadly accessible as possible, Hyper Light Drifter is ridiculously hard; excluding NES classics like Zelda II, where the controls were designed to be as shoddy and rage-inducing as possible, it is without a doubt the hardest game I’ve ever played. That’s not to say it’s unfair—the combat is well-balanced and hugely satisfying, and becomes much more manageable once you begin to accrue the game’s many upgrades—but this is not the type of videogame that everyone in the world would be able to play. It requires the kind of arcade-style, twitchy reflexes and melee-combat skills that, well, Dark Souls requires.

However, if that is your cup of tea, the combat in Hyper Light Drifter is an utterly sublime experience. Deaths almost never feel unfair; I could always pinpoint why I’d lost a certain fight, and every enemy in the game has noticeable tells and attack patterns that I quickly learned to predict and manipulate to my advantage. Moreover, once mastered, the game’s combat is amazingly cathartic—from slicing and dicing my way through hordes upon hordes of enemies to timing my shots and swings and dashes to perfectly take down a boss that had just squished me into the ground a million times over, Hyper Light Drifter is an empowering, glorious experience. Though I beat its final boss a couple of hours ago, I’m still coming down from that fight’s natural high—a feeling I can only compare to that of some of my all-time favorite games.

Yet though combat is the core of Hyper Light Drifter, that’s not even close to all it has to offer. As a spiritual successor to Dark Souls and older Zelda games, Drifter is full of secret areas and collectibles, including different capes/swords/sprites for your character (each of which grant certain buffs, like increased movement speed or extra health), keys for unlockable doors, bits of currency for weapon and ability upgrades, and the shards (called modules) that are the game’s primary mode of progression. And though combat is the game’s heart and soul, exploration is the framework that binds it all together; when the game opens, after a brief tutorial area (that, of course, has more than meets the eye), you find yourself in a hub town at the center of four regions—a forest to the West, mountains to the North, a massive lake to the East, and a hilly wasteland to the South. While the South is closed (for story reasons) until you complete the other three areas, your path is up to you. The game gives you no direction, no prods toward any specific location, and in doing so creates an immersive, engaging experience and a natural sense of adventure.

And in that vein, each direction has its own distinct style, atmosphere, and backstory, which (for me) was what really started to set this game apart. Hyper Light Drifter has no dialogue. There are no spoken words—any vocalizations by any character take the form of unintelligble beeps or grunts, and the game’s mode of storytelling is entirely audiovisual, involving brief pictographic cutscenes and each area’s particular musical and artistic motifs. Certain NPCs will, when interacted with, show sequences of images that detail their backstory or that of their region, while walking into certain locations will trigger disjointed images or nightmares of a mysterious monster (who always stabs the Drifter through the heart with pointed, needle-like arm), a shadowy jackal, crows, or the game’s main motif: a giant, purple diamond, wrapped in dark tendrils, hanging over a violet abyss. Alone, these make no sense, but as you progress through the game—finding each region, interacting with each tribe of enemies, fighting each boss, the picture of the game’s post-apocalyptic world starts to come together: a world conquered by the massive titans whose skeletons still litter the earth (see the screenshot I used to head this post) and fallen into hopeless disrepair.

That Hyper Light Drifter does this entirely from an audiovisual standpoint, without what we traditionally think of as “writing,” is what for me makes it so special. Through nothing but its incredible soundtrack and evocative visual style, it tells the story of a fallen world and involves you in the quest to restore it. At the beginning, it seems disjointed—too abstract to ever make any sense—but by the end, I’d realized that each key-or-outfit-holding skeleton was another fallen Drifter just like me, and that each of the world’s tribes had undergone a similar fate. (In particular, the South really drives this theme home. I won’t spoil why or how—but, as you’ll discover, there’s much more to that barren wasteland than meets the eye.) Atmospherically, Hyper Light Drifter is unparalleled. It does with 16-bit era minimalism what modern games rarely manage to do—tell an immersive, compelling story without sacrificing any of the difficulty or skill that makes it so cathartic and fun.

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Hyper Light Drifter Screenshot: Heart Machine

Moreover, there is a further backstory behind Hyper Light Drifter‘s brand of minimalist storytelling, and it helps put the game’s chosen brand of narrative into perspective. Alex Preston, the game’s creator and founder of its design studio, Heart Machine, suffers from congential heart disease, and cited the presence of that life-threatening condition and a past of near-death experiences as the game’s real-world inspiration. And hearts are a consistent if subtle motif throughout the game’s four regions—from patterns in pieces of scenery, to the Drifter’s illness and nightmares, to the actual, massive beating heart that appears in a location late in the game. The game captures that atmosphere—of melancholy life, or beauty mixed with trauma, of, in essence, living with illness—better than any written work I’ve ever experienced, and it deserves not just to be celebrated, but to be played by anyone who thinks they’re good enough to give its minimalistic, cathartic style of storytelling a try.

(Hyper Light Drifter is available on Steam: PC, Mac, and Linux, PS4, and XBox One.)

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