Released in early 2016, Hyper Light Drifter is yet another critically acclaimed indie darling that initially passed me by. Funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and orchestrated by precariously-unwell lead designer Alx Preston, Hyper Light Drifter is a work both engrossing and unfathomable. Initial media coverage was for the most part effervescent – the tight combat design and fluid controls garnering more than a few cries of “Souls-like” while the retro aesthetics earned the title multiple award nominations – eventually winning Excellence in Visual Art at the IGF.
““Games like [A Link to the Past] really had a sense of adventure to them – it was an expansive world I could explore.”
In conversation Preston – formerly a freelance illustrator – is quick to play down his own technical contributions, having previously only made “stupid little prototypes and side games with friends that never went anywhere – nothing worth showing anybody,” though later coyly admits to “wanting to have a hand in everything.” He is equally quick to give credit where credit is due – resisting the seductive allure of the auteur moniker, instead stressing the collaborative nature of game development alongside the sense of community and support provided by fellow indie-devs at Glitch City.
Hyper Light Drifter embraces and updates the genre conventions laid down by classic SNES era role-playing games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana. “I was pretty young when my brother started playing [A Link to the Past] – I’d watch him play ‘cause he was four years older than me. I didn’t actually play it myself until the mid-’90s – a little later in the SNES life cycle,” Alx explains. “Games like that really had a sense of adventure to them – it was an expansive world I could explore […] whereas other games felt very mechanical or methodical, level-oriented; more linear. With a game like Link to the Past, Secret of Mana – or even Super Metroid to an extent – there is a lot to the world: an atmosphere, some non-linear structure. That really drew me in, especially with Link to the Past.”
Regarding the desire to work within the conventions of that genre he tells me: “I think there are still endless possibilities for that kind of overhead action-oriented format and I love that type of game style and play. I wanted to explore it a little bit for myself, see what we could do – see […] how we put our own little touches on things. Not trying to reinvent the genre or anything, but there’s a story I wanted to tell.”
In spite of the fervent media coverage and rave reviews, it was the soundtrack that lured me in first. The obvious touchstone and comparison is Rich Vreeland’s (aka Disasterpeace) previous work on FEZ. Both are littered with ambience and abstraction but it is the hoarse textures and gentle discordance of Hyper Light Drifter’s compositions that will remain with me, I suspect, for a long time. “Rich came up with a lot of tracks that fit the mood pretty well, but I would also have reference points or inspirations of my own. We worked pretty closely on the atmosphere building in the entirety of the game. The dude is incredibly talented […] I was fortunate enough to help steer him.”
It’s a soundtrack that is threaded with apposite tensions: conventional instruments (or good samples thereof) fight for space against rattlesnake synths, wild resonators and bit-crushed rhythms creating an atmosphere that shifts effortlessly between oppression, melancholy and hope – even peace. These sonic layers entwine each other in complex rounds, complimenting and interrupting at every turn, recreating in audio the convoluted and palimpsestic world inhabited by the titular Drifter. The rigid (though glitched) square-wave oscillators of the FEZ soundtrack have decayed to a rich, organic warmth in Hyper Light Drifter’s songs; a decay that is deeply fitting.
“The whole game is about death in many ways, and acceptance.”
In the digital world that Heart Machine have created there is an ongoing conflict between symbolic, universal representations and specificity. Hyper Light Drifter’s ambiguity in exploring its central character’s illness – and the destabilised, rotting world around them – has served as both a mirror for players to reflect on their own sufferings and a frustrating, delightful mystery for lore-buffs of the Internet. On the other hand, Preston has always been candid about the effect that living with a congenital heart condition has had on his life and work.
On the face of it, the Drifter’s wracked coughing – interrupting the action only in scripted scenes – appears almost convenient, a narrative affectation that exploits the particular pathos of the terminal to humanise an otherwise distant and alien protagonist. This first glance is a disservice. Alx tells me, in a sardonic drawl, his condition is, “real fun… it’s something that I just have to deal with,” and its influence has permeated the game.
Hyper Light Drifter builds a set of mechanics that leave the player constantly teetering on the edge of death. What is excluded is as important as what is kept. Without a shield, or any true blocking mechanic, the player is left in a state of constant vulnerability; a body that must always keep moving to survive. This closeness to destruction lends tension and unease to even Hyper Light Drifter’s quieter, peaceful moments. I ask Alx how the team decided a shield just wasn’t going to work: “Through months of labour, and failure. There was an idea there that seemed like it was right: we need a defence to offset the offense – the offensive nature of a lot of the design, the aggression. It turned out our game is fast and our game is more about that aggressive play. It’s that dance between striking and dodging – that was all we really needed.”
The Drifter’s vulnerability is as much about courage as fragility. It’s a point that’s reflected again in the player’s limited evasive move set. The dash mechanic is an apt candidate for Hyper Light Drifter’s defence – modulating the precarity of the player-character via the player’s own skill and reflexes. Early in the game the ability to chain dashes together becomes available, allowing – if the player’s timing is good enough – the Drifter to perform near-indefinite consecutive dashes, rather than be constrained by the second-long pause that follows the unmodified dash. This is a powerful addition to the player’s toolset that allows entry to otherwise inaccessible sections of the world and makes some of the more challenging bosses considerably more palatable.
Yet sustaining the chain dash is conditional. It is conditional on the player’s timing and skill, their ability to direct themselves haphazardly around solid objects. If any of these conditions are not met the player-character is rendered vulnerable again – waiting for what feels like an eternity until the chain can be restarted, or unceremoniously slumped on the ground after a head-on collision. The Drifter’s momentum will carry them skidding across the floor, careering haplessly over the edges of cliffs or into villainous clutches. Even Hyper Light Drifter’s most flexible, most vital power carries with it the anxiety of imminent collapse. Even at the borders of player mastery Hyper Light Drifter keeps you frantically laying down track for a runaway train.
“I continue to go through a lot of stuff and at that time in particular; I was hospitalised while making the first prototype.”
Though Hyper Light Drifter’s protagonist is actively in the process of collapse – always on a knife edge between life and death, sickness and health – the overarching narrative is one that embraces mortality. “It’s all very intentional. The whole game is about death in many ways, and acceptance. Trying to live through a difficult period – reconciling your emotions and your actions when faced with something pretty dire. I continue to go through a lot of stuff and at that time in particular; I was hospitalised while making the first prototype,” explains Alx.
In contrast to the contemporaneous decay of the Drifter, the world is one fully ruined, its surviving populace barely scraping by. It is a landscape that has been restructured by cataclysmic events and is now fully engrossed in the last stages of decay. There are obvious signs of this apocalyptic event scattered throughout the environment: the crumbling ruins of once beautiful cities, abandoned houses and rotting underground libraries, skeletons of titanic robots only partially reclaimed by nature. “The whole world is its own kind of dysfunctioning [sic] system in this game. A broken down system – there’s a pretty obvious comparison there. There’s plenty of imagery in the game that expresses my life. But there’s a lot that doesn’t have to do with that – that’s part of the world and the fabric of the world-building – part of the escapism. You’re starting from set pieces or visual ideas, then piecing that together with the world at large. It’s a lot iteration and sketching – connecting that tissue together.”
It is the aesthetic choices that resonate most strongly. Hyper Light Drifter’s palette is lurid and unsettling – rendering the world in all the colours of contemporary medicine. A fellow drifter’s cape flashes the hot pink of a fresh burn, our protagonist’s trusty sword glows a cool electrocardiography blue, sandstone cliffs are washed in lymph node cream. Forests draw out colours of acid, bile and phlegm. Alx cites Hayao Miyazaki as a major influence on his own stylings – “that type of story-telling is very visual, almost simplistic in a lot of ways. Very direct.”
In an April 2016 review for Polygon Griffin McElroy declared that “Hyper Light Drifter‘s most reliable foe is the map.” The tangled network of blood red tunnels, atria, elevators and vesicles is both visually striking and almost deliberately difficult to navigate. It requires far more effort than most games would require just to puzzle out direction, to understand the connections between two points. What would usually be an aid becomes a puzzle in itself, one that denies the player agency over their own path and leaves them instead at the mercy of level design and intuition. Moreover, the environment that this underworld blueprint describes is one of desperate clinical experimentation. Laboratories and test chambers contain a litany of failed attempts to create, and preserve, life itself.
“There are other things that I want to do and say and talk about too. Relationships, other worlds, other ways of living life and all that shit.”
Alx’s own illness is known as Tetralogy of Fallot. “I have a malformed valve and a hole in my heart. That was patched up as best as could get patched up when I was a baby. I had some ablations on my heart because of the scar tissue to help electrical currents flow, [then] they jammed a synthetic valve in there a couple of years ago.” Like any chronic illness it is a situation that requires constant management, yearly checkups (at least) and responsive, iterative treatment. Towards the game’s end the player perambulates past a titanic still beating cyborg heart, preserved in a vat of unidentified liquid. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s an image that neatly weaves Alx’s own experience directly into the world and lore of the game – simultaneously addressing the opposing themes of accepting mortality and striving against it.
Though the processes of ruin and decay have isolated Hyper Light Drifter’s underground lairs from each other, the map strongly suggests they were all once connected. Not only this, but these caverns were all once connected to the same point, the epicentre of these experiments, the heart of the game. This chamber is the source of everything, the triumphs and failures, creation and decay – it is here the Drifter will finally face the virulent personification of the sickness that plagues him. Through an abstract lens the map and the world it describes become the epidemiology of a life. Alx gently admonishes my morbid fascination, “Not everything goes back to illness […] My heart’s fucked forever and I’ll be dealing with it forever so of course it’s going to feed into everything I do. It’s a massive part of who I am. But, there are other things that I want to do and say and talk about too. Relationships, other worlds, other ways of living life and all that shit.”
In explaining the impact that the success of Hyper Light Drifter has had on his life Preston illuminates some of his ongoing preoccupations. “It’s afforded me better healthcare now. Because I have a company and some money – that’s pretty important in America for healthcare. But being a perpetually sick person in America is really difficult. As much as certain folks and politicians want to make you believe that we have the best healthcare in the world, the fact of the matter is we have the best care in the world for those who can afford it. That’s a small percentage of the population.” Though it would be wildly anachronistic to suggest influence on Hyper Light Drifter’s design, it is both unsurprising and deflating to see how little Alx’s successes have altered that sense of precarity.
“As much as certain folks and politicians want to make you believe that we have the best healthcare in the world, the fact of the matter is we have the best care in the world for those who can afford it.”
In response, Preston rejects any suggestion of closure through his creation. “Closure infers that there’s an end – or that there’s a way to move on. When you’re dealing with a congenital condition there’s no closure. There’s acceptance, and coping, but you don’t get closure. It’s not like a bad breakup where you can be like, ‘Cool, I’ll never see her again, that was fine’.”
It is, however, not all doom and gloom. Despite the endless challenge of his condition Alx remains grateful for his opportunities and grateful especially to his team and collaborators. In the midst of Hyper Light Drifter’s dark, chaotic tapestry, and situated directly over the game’s final challenge is the central city hub. This is the only safe place in the game. Perched daintily above churning tectonics, tangled electronics and rusted surgical instruments – above all the bleak histories that still threaten to destroy it – is the last oasis of peaceful civilisation. I ask Alx what other aspects of life he’d like to explore in games.
“Friendship”, he replies.