Hyper Light Drifter – Designing a Determined Aimlessness
Hyper Light Drifter’s greatest flaw is its lack of organic structure. This is also the game’s greatest achievement. By spacing out its sequence of events into a sharp rectangular structure, the developers at Heart Machine allow players a semi-open-ended means of traversal without ever really allowing them any control. It is a cunning design method, one which instigates an idea of ‘freedom,’ but places limitations on every direction the player may travel.
The beauty of this deceptive design philosophy is the narrative-gameplay alignment which permeates within every frame. Much like Metroid, HLD suggests a massive three-dimensional world through the lens of an acute, linear two-dimensional level construct. But whereas Metroid ruminates on personal survival for the sake of Mankind, HLD breaks its character down at nearly every victory along the way, implicating significant consequences for self-determination as well as the empowering of civilization.
Whereas Orwell’s 1984 envisions a future where all language will eventually be condensed into a single word, Hyper Light Drifter imagines one in which its characters speak in images. The game’s world has been overwrought with technological advancement to the point of natural resurrection, leaving communities to wallow in their forsaken identities and speak through portraits depicting apocalyptic turmoil. History is explained wordlessly, offering literal glimpses into the past by suggested word of mouth, offering the player visually-constructed textbooks to illustrate the days of yore.
Hyper Light Drifter then may serve as an allegory for existing within our modern Age of Information. The protagonist wanders the wastelands, observing iconic sites home to fallen colossi, abandoned campfires, skeleton remains, all painted in a neon-soaked 16-bit landscape. The only driving force compelling him forward is the audience controlling him, their hunger for more.
From an artistic standpoint, the game is a marvel, revelling in the early days of technological development by directly imitating games of yore — both aesthetically and mechanically — all while localizing its order of events within a future setting. The past, present, and future become one and the same, situating players within an inspired universe quite unlike that which any other game has ever delivered.
For games like Hyper Light Drifter, it is important to separate the intentions of the player from those of the protagonist. Whereas a player continues onward through the designed narrative for the sake of entertainment purposes, HLD’s nameless hero is physically breaking down upon advancing forward in any meaningful instance.
The game constantly reminds its audience of a sickness which impedes the protagonist’s progress, whenever he briefly stumbles to cough up spurts of blood. He is entirely motivated by a desire to assassinate the four royal swordsmen sitting at each corner of the world; and it is almost as if this chosen route — his Manifest Destiny, if you will — is destroying him from the inside on the process.
Why does our hero keep moving forward? What compels him to continue after every defeat leaves him back outside of the boss room? Is there an end to this suffering he is repeatedly shown succumbing to after every major victory? Are these even victories at all?
These despotic antagonists sit upon thrones overlooking decaying remnants of the Old World. They govern empty landscapes home to inhuman samurai, empty husks mimicking humanity, though sacrificing actual character. These enemies feign an essence of clarity and nobility, allowing for each battle to evoke ritualistic dignity at the expense of compassion.
It is here where the heart of Hyper Light Drifter’s message lies in accordance to its gorgeous world design. In a world dominated by wordless technological growth, human expression has all but died out, and the only means of preserving any and all humanity left over is attempted through a cycle of self-destruction. It is a fitting metaphor for the modern state of ego-driven social-engineering, a mindlessness conjured through the vapid influx of information delivered in the palms of our hands. The further we move away from each other, the further we move away from our own souls.
You are literally restoring power to these decrepit, dilapidated foundations, slowly destroying yourself in the process. Uniting the world through computerized mechanisms comes at a personal cost, as though automated servers and circuited webs are ripping us all apart from the inside, worming into our brains and feeding off of our subordinate information-devouring psyches.
The Drifter is, both physically and mentally, a prisoner. Trapped within the social constructs governing his community’s very idea of Mankind’s role, he drifts with determination towards place markers and thrones, ultimately proving aimless in direction, though cunningly illustrated as functional and succinct.
Hyper Light Drifter beautifully negates the very definition of the term “Natural.” Much like how games are meticulously constructed in each nook and cranny governing their visual space; opinions and a sense of Reality are all figments of the social imagination, designed to fit accordingly with a sense of purpose even if there likely is none. Perception dictates all we believe to be righteous and true, and perception is construed by the governing bodies dictating peoples’ roles.
This ultimately aimless determination, which guides players through HLD’s wonderful maze-like universe, necessarily mirrors a mindless acceptance of survival as naturally-inherent doctrine. It is very much so a game about the constant struggle of Humanity’s place in the world, lashing out at antagonizers as a means of proving self-worth, all while basking in the beauty of the modern world as it becomes wretchedly engulfed by “progress.”
Like Fez and The Last of Us before it, HLD uses the constraints of its medium to express an inclination towards survival, arguing the idea of “Success” as a guiding hand towards self-improvement (or in this case a sense of “Truth,” as illustrated by a mysterious black canine figure).
Only this title simultaneously suggests the degradation of humanity through dependency on social advancement, causing massive rifts in communication and subsequently compassionate connection. A modern game for the modern age, conveying the notion that its bleak apocalyptic future is not so far away after all.