Hyper Light Drifter Isn’t Ashamed Of Its Own Form
Playing Hyper Light Drifter made me think again about my article Trespassers in Forbidden Lands. In it, I argued that games like Dark Souls, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus should be seen as members of the same genre, despite their differences when it comes to mechanics and affordances; a genre that is defined by indifferent, sublime worlds, and avatars – pilgrims and trespassers at once – whose main purpose is to struggle. Hyper Light Drifter perfectly fits this definition. It is set in a world that is sublime both in its beauty and its sense of threat, and its hero, despite his cyber-samurai appearance, suffers and struggles. We see this in short animations and cut-scenes, and see its reflection in our own performance during its demanding combat challenges.
In a way, HLD bridges the above mentioned games, spanning the chasm of their differences both in terms of mechanics and aesthetics. HLD’s combat is demanding, with high stakes similar to DS, and bosses that require you to pay attention to and memorise patterns. Both SotC and HLD present the suffering and sacrifice of their doomed protagonists in similar ways, ironically and ritualistically after every major victory. Lastly, it shares a fascination with fluent, elegant movement and an aesthetic of abstraction and bright colours with Journey.
But there’s something fundamental that separates HLD from these other games: It is not a high concept game. In my article, I hinted at how these trespasser games convey meaning by oscillating between two distinct states. Dark Souls says something about the necessity to accept failure and suffering as an integral part of the world through its unrelenting rhythm of death and rebirth, failure and retry. The flow and restriction of movement in Journey drives home the importance of companionship and being connected to other beings and one’s environment. And in SotC, long stretches of uneventful riding through open landscapes contrast with the fights against the colossi, forcing the player to reflect on the tragic and problematic nature of their actions.
Between calm exploration and frantic combat, HLD does have a comparable rhythm that evokes the idea of struggle, but it works differently from the other games. In a way, the dividing line between those two states is sharper, since they alternate in a rapid and regular manner. This beat results in a natural feeling flow that engages the player and propels them forward. The contrast is so overt, and so central to the structure of the game that it becomes an inconspicuous, almost invisible part of the experience of playing. There’s nothing jarring about its rhythm. By contrast, dying in Dark Souls doesn’t only impede your progress as in most other games, but interrupts the flow by upping the stakes from simple progression to the tense risk assessment that often accompanies the retrieval of dropped souls. Losing your ability to glide gracefully through the air in Journey is less stressful, but equally impactful, since the game takes something away that the player has gradually grown accustomed to and fond of. And the long, eventless traversal of empty plains before and after each slain colossus in SotC feels like you’re being sent to your room by your parents to think long and hard about what you’ve done. Unlike in HLD, the rhythm of these games convey meaning about the game or the act of playing it, instead of just conveying the game itself, so to speak.
This may sound like criticism of HLD, but in a way, it doubles down on one of the key ‘virtues’ of these other games. In my trespasser article, I emphasised the importance of minimalism for this type of game, since it disallows any distractions from or dilution of a game’s fundamentals, valuing signal over noise. This minimalist restraint, or “design by subtraction”, as Ico and SotC creator Fumito Ueda has called it, is supposed to shed the unnecessary in order to reveal the essential. In DS, SotC and Journey, this essence consists of high concepts. What, then, is the minimalism of HLD supposed to reveal?
In his 2012 blog post “Saving Zelda”, Tevis Thompson – co-creator of the Second Quest graphic novel – made an articulate and impassioned case for the potential of subtractive design in the Legend of Zelda series. The gradual accumulation and fossilisation of features and actions, of bells and whistles over the course of the series’ many titles led to a stifling of these games’ ability to evoke a sense of wonder. He argues that “Zelda needs subtraction, not addition”, and that “Zelda simply has too many verbs. If the designers would choose just a few actions that Link could do very well (like moving) and coordinate them according to a common control scheme, then we might see Zelda achieve a true richness in its adventuring.” He also criticises overbearing plot structures that limit the player’s exploration by imposing a strict sequential order:
“Building up a world with a past, a believable place with its own logic – that would be enough. Wind Waker’s post-apocalyptic drowned world was enough; Majora’s Mask’s temporal loops and grinning lunar horror were enough. Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories. It will speak without over-signaling, it will invite readings without being immediately legible, it will become evocative, a space to be occupied by imagination. A place of wonder.”
HLD is a close approximation of that leaner, less restrictive and more evocative Zelda that Thompson describes. Its premise of a lonely hero exploring a semi-open world and fighting monsters along the way is obviously related to the (earlier) Zelda games. HLD has few ‘verbs’ or items to use, focusing on elegance in movement both in its exploration and its combat. Plot is more or less absent from the game, and anything resembling narrative in the broadest sense (cutscenes and pictograms) is incredibly opaque, and more interested in the game world and its past than in what is happening ‘now’. In other words, it stays out of the player’s way. What compels the player forward is not the demands of a linear plot structure, but the simple, rhythmic flow of explore’n’fight. HLD never “over-signals”, and it certainly does “invite readings without being immediately legible.”
So if HLD takes up an unassuming, traditional formula – i.e. the lonely hero exploring a dangerous world – and strips away anything that is not strictly necessary to it, then what its minimalism arguably reveals is in fact the game’s fundamental form itself. If mainstream adventure games like the modern Zelda games are a body wrapped in layers of expensive clothing, then HLD is a body that stripped away its clothes to uncover its anatomy. That same anatomy is in fact present in that other, cumbersome body as well, but it is hidden and hampered. That doesn’t mean that HLD is a neutral or unadulterated archetype of that type of adventure game; despite its minimalism, it can never be anything else than ‘just’ another interpretation. What it can be, however, is a reminder of the evocative power of this kind of premise; a reminder that games like Zelda are compelling not in spite of their simplistic core, but because of it.
The wandering hero facing the challenges and tests of the world – a game like HLD that bares itself without being embarrassed by its form can reinvigorate a seemingly trite trope simply by repeating it once more in a more distilled, focused way. It transforms our understanding of the trope, which seems no longer like a childish, illiterate video game contrivance, but has become something powerfully archetypical and allegorical, describing the process of daring to face the unfamiliar, and rising to its challenges. This basic allegory radiates a whole spectrum of possible connotations. It can be heroic, elegiac, self-indulgent, or simply adventurous, and HLD vaguely but evocatively touches on all of those hues without committing to a single one.
Many of the ‘virtues’ that Thompson describes are also true for Dark Souls, SotC, and Journey (in fact he uses Demon’s Souls as an example). They too are stripped-down, but while they unearth the fundamentals to be able to carefully build on top of them something new that needed space, HLD does so in order to allow the fundamentals themselves to breathe. To do that, it doesn’t need ruminations on ethical transgressions and tragedy; on the psychology of failure and death; or on the importance of companionship. Dark Souls, SotC, and Journey show how games can communicate very specific ideas through focused design, but that doesn’t mean that the humbler, less assuming HLD is somehow deficient. It doesn’t need to speak about something other than itself to be eloquent.