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It’s rare that a game can truly feel like an experience, rising above the competition to convey a true sense of wonder and immersion, but Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter (released in 2016) is an artistic masterclass in world design, creating virtual spaces that are as beautiful as they are fascinating.
An intense opening sequence establishes you as the Drifter, the survivor of an unexplained apocalypse. You are guided by the mysterious avatar of a wolf, embarking on a quest to rid yourself and the world of a black, parasitic force that infects all that it touches.
Lush soundscapes mix with Disasterpeace’s wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack, complimenting a stunning cyber-fantasy art style. Although your motivations are unclear, this three-minute masterclass in aesthetic design draws you into a teeth-grindingly tactile world, smothering the player in an aura of mystery.
The moment-to-moment gameplay evokes Zelda on steroids, with a top down hack and slash combat system that is as challenging as it is complex. The game’s rapid-reload system encourages you to view combat encounters as action-based puzzles; the game’s underlying ‘fairness’, or lack of randomness, rewards patience and the careful observation of enemy attack patterns over pure skill. Eventually, the acquired sense of mastering over the game’s movement and weapon systems ushers you into a zen-like flow state: trial, error, success, repeat.
As for the story, I have absolutely no idea what the hell it’s about, and it’s great.
Hyper Light Drifter takes the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to its most extreme. Any and all NPC interactions are either wordless or consist of comic-style collages, conveying the history of the game’s apocalyptic world. A player can make educated guesses, theorising what exactly happened and why, but the game itself explicitly states very little, leaving the player forced to tie up the myriad of loose threads presented to them.
By doing this, you give players the best of both worlds: you can choose to completely ignore any and all links between the various environments, NPCs and enemies, allowing the core gameplay loop to flow almost entirely uninterrupted with traditional gaming story beats, like cut scenes or dialogue. However, you can play through the game thoughtfully by asking yourself questions about the world: why is this seemingly random statue here? What happened to this pile of corpses? Who were the inhabitants of this land before the apocalypse?
The game itself will never answer these questions directly. Personally speaking, the sense of ambiguity this creates is what can truly make video game stories special, something utterly unique from other forms of media. If you want to, you can go online and get all of the game’s information presented on the Hyper Light Drifter wiki or a YouTube video and make clear much of what remains uncertain or mysterious, but that would take away the heart of Hyper Light Drifter.
By having to guess what happened, to slowly piece together a world in your head, the story becomes truly personal in a way that many games dream of achieving, even if the fine details remain unknown. By choosing to remain a little bit ignorant, by letting some of my questions go unanswered, your imagination fills the gaps in and makes the game feel like something more than it is; an alien world that lives and breathes in your computer monitor.