Words and swords: an essay about Hyper Light Drifter

by Patrick Miller — follow me on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, or subscribe to my newsletter! Also, you might like my short stories Re: Member and MVP — a game dev short story.

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I played through Hyper Light Drifter over the last two days and figured I’d put down some thoughts about it. Fair warning: I know some of the folks who worked on this game! I won’t be dispensing any buying advice besides “Watch the trailer and see if you like it,” and I don’t spoil any particular plot elements or story stuff.

First, let’s talk about me a lot

Over the last few years, I’ve gradually been coming to learn a lot more about how I consume and engage with different kinds of media and stories, and how the things I like and the reasons I like them tend to be a bit more specific than I originally thought. Chief among these realizations is this: I like words, and I need lots of them.

Those of you who know me might immediately reply with: “Of course you do, dipshit — you’ve been working as a writer and an editor for years now.” Well, truth be told, it took me a while to stop taking my skills in that area for granted. I always thought of that as a thing that I could do maybe a little bit better than your average college graduate, and I didn’t consider it anything particularly special.

On the other hand, I’d be awed by anyone with the slightest capacity for visual design or illustration; things like our magazine art producer having opinions on where an image should go and why baffled the heck out of me, because to me, it didn’t really make a difference. (If you’ve ever stopped reading a Game Developer Magazine article because you ran into a 900-word wall of text, you can blame me for that one.)

My brain craves words. It’s why I devour Reddit and Twitter but can’t be bothered with YouTube; it’s why I read all the words on a page of a comic book before looking at the pictures; it’s why I write. Ironically, I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to books of any kind, and I suspect it might be because I’m too hooked on the constant feed of words from the Internet to sit down and actually finish reading something. (I also love movies and rarely watch them on my own.)

It’s also why I adore Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and simply can’t get excited for Super Metroid. Goodness knows I’ve tried, multiple times, to save the damn animals or whatever, but I just get bored. You can show me all the lovely level design and invisible tutorial stuff you like, but if you don’t give me someone to give a shit about, I’m not going to play your game. Symphony of the Night, for all of its angsty teen goth stuff, gave me Alucard, Richter, and Maria. Super Metroid didn’t give me shit. Also: Another World is beautiful and splendid (and definitely not for me).

The exceptions to this rule are games where the play itself is so compelling and full of mastery that I stick around. Flappy Bird, ZiGGURAT, Super Hexagon, and Canabalt are great examples of this because they demand nothing of me other than the desire to Git Gud; competitive games use other people as the characters and give me a rich playspace upon which I may decorate them with my pain-brush.

The part where I start talking about Hyper Light Drifter

Now: on to Hyper Light Drifter. If I were to describe it in one sentence, it’d be this: “Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful ’90s Frankenstein,” and if you felt like being pedantic, I’d grumpily add the “-’s Monster” part at the end.

There are so many notes and moments in the game that feel like the team combed through every JRPG made in the ’90s and borrowed the things they like best — things that I had never even thought about until I saw them in HLD and thought, “Hey, I liked it when Chrono Trigger included beautiful views in their level design,” or, “This thing was clearly made by someone who tried to get really, really good at navigating with Teleport running in Earthbound.”

And where ’90s RPGs began to inject a little bit of bleak despair into their stories (see: FFVI’s World of Ruin, Chrono Trigger’s future, pretty much everything in Illusion of Gaia), HLD starts in the despair from the first moment and never really lets up. In that respect, it feels like a post-’90s RPG, made by adults raised on ’90s RPGs for other adults raised on ’90s RPGs; imagine the assault on Kefka’s Tower not as striking the first blow to bring the world back to “normal,” but as the last chance for our heroes to have an honorable death.

Perhaps the thing that HLD nails most strongly in its homage to ’90s RPGs is the weird sense of loneliness that comes in exploring a world that was made without you, the player. You don’t find this as much in a Final Fantasy or a Chrono Trigger because they gave you characters that fit into the world so you could just fit yourself along with them, but games with a) silent protagonists and b) action combat often felt like you were mutely walking through a mysterious and vibrant world that was trying to kill you. It’s the feeling of renting Link to the Past or Super Metroid and picking up from a previous player’s save when you’ve never played the game before.

That’s because the game is almost completely wordless.

This is what made me resent HLD as I played it. Each area has secrets hidden according to logic that makes perfect sense if you’ve played the canon that inspired HLD; each fight felt punishing-but-fair; each combat mechanic felt like a good-enough balance between offering easily accessible power and rewarding those who chose to master. The problem was that I could feel the game begging me to care. Countless times I saw a secret lying just out of my reach, or a battle mechanic that could grant me immense power if mastered, or a cryptic allusion to the story hidden behind an arrangement of skeletons or an NPC’s story-comic, and in each of these elements it felt like the game was begging me to fill the gaps in with my imagination.

And each time I answered “No, and fuck you for asking.”

I didn’t get all the stuff in HLD. I don’t think I even got half the stuff in HLD. I guess there’s a costume mechanic, but I didn’t find out about that until I was almost done. I lost count of all the stuff I was supposed to be collecting — fragments and keys and something about tablets. There’s a boss that I definitely didn’t fight. Maybe there are multiple endings? I liked the dashing mini-game enough to break 100, and I saw on the subreddit that there’s a soccer minigame that I never found. You want me to try and remember all these things I should come back to later? Good luck with that.

Nor did I become a particularly dextrous Drifter; the battle and movement just always felt slightly off. A few more cancelable frames here and there to make weaving from combat and movement feel better, some invincible frames and better communication around hitboxes and reactions, some more love given to intertwining resource systems, perhaps. The combat system is hard, but I didn’t see beauty in it; perhaps a speedrunner or a perfect play will show me something I overlooked.

This is not new behavior for me; I’m not a completionist in any game these days. But I don’t remember ever feeling like a game was thirsty in its desire to persuade me that there is something rich and deep lying beneath the surface if I would just be willing to let myself sink into it and inhale. Contrast this with Undertale, which tries to persuade me to come back with living, breathing characters that reflect the changes I make to their world, or with the Souls games, which are unapologetic and honest in how inextricable the world is to its difficulty; they are both sincere and honest in what they are and why they’re that way.

HLD, in comparison, feels like it is trying to convince you it’s more than what it seems at first; maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but the fact that I can tell it’s trying just turns me off. If anything, the fact that it’s so damn pretty is kind of infuriating, because it makes me want more but gives me nothing I want. “Look at how cool I am,” it seems to say to me, “Don’t you wish you knew more about me?” And then I say in response: “Well, I did until you said that.” Maybe that’s why it’s silent.

Talking about me again

I don’t want people to misread my opinion as “Hyper Light Drifter is a bad game and you shouldn’t buy it”; I think if you’re interested, you should watch the trailer and give it a shot. It is gorgeous and well-crafted, and considering I only finish maybe three games a year on my own, I think that’s worthy of recognizing. It tries to remake the sense of wonder many of us found in classic JRPGs, and for me it failed but was interesting in its failure because I can’t tell if it’s the wrong game or I’m the wrong person — too old, or too wordy, or something.

(The funny thing about using the line “It’s not you, it’s me” in a breakup is because it can be completely true in that instance, but if you hear it fairly often while being dumped, it’s probably, in fact, you.)

I went through the whole game looking for a reason to care about the Drifter, or the world, or anything enough to keep going. I could tell that the combat and movement mechanics went deeper than most, but I didn’t find enough satisfaction in being good at it to find the motivation to get better. I could tell that there were characters and some kind of story going on, but without words, I couldn’t be bothered to remember what the deal was with the frogs or the birds or the dog thing. Ironically, the game that I wanted to play most was the one shown in the flashback cutscenes or whatever they were, not the actual game.

And so I got the four things that made the thing power up, I went into the thing and beat the final boss, saw the ending, groaned when I saw there was a New Game+ mode, and went to go watch something on Netflix. Brooding and moody is great for a one night stand, man, but if you’re going for a relationship you better be ready to talk about your feelings.

I don’t know if most will react this way. I’m sure there are people out there for whom words and plot is a burden, and the world of HLD speaks directly to their soul, or people who see the difficulty in the combat system and are compelled to master it Because It’s There. In the end, I still can’t figure out if there’s more lying underneath that I didn’t see, or if I mistook the trappings of depth for depth itself. I guess I wrote this mostly to figure out if anyone else felt the same.

It’s not you, Drifter, it’s me.

patrick miller

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