A look at Hyper Light Drifter, one of 2015’s most beautiful games

The Drifter starts the preview build of Hyper Light Drifter in a forest clearing, with no introduction. An unnamed companion floats at his side, ready. A few yellow birds hop around near some weathering ruins. I feel, somewhere in the back of my head, a sense that I should be searching for a Master Sword, as in A Link to the Past. But as I wander forward, it becomes clear: I have no idea where I am.

I look into my menus in hope of some clue as to what’s going on—perhaps some item descriptions, a la Dark Souls, would give me some semblance of direction. Nothing. Bar the escape menu, there is no text, or spoken dialogue for that matter, in this game.

“It’s not our world, it’s its own present.” 

“We wanted to create an experience that feels very unique and very removed from our own world,” said the game’s director and lead animator Alex Preston. “I just really like visual storytelling, it’s more effective when you don’t have text layered on top of that.”

Preston remains tight-lipped about the game’s specifics, other than that his protagonist is unique; this Drifter is ill and is searching for a cure. We’ve known this for awhile, and for his part, Preston isn’t about to tell much more.

“It’s any number of things really. It’s not our world, it’s its own present,” Preston said of the post-apocalyptic landscapes. “It’s a world that I’ve been creating. I don’t want it to feel pinpointed or pigeonholed into certain categories.”

The top-down action-RPG is as much an homage to the 8-bit and 16-bit titles of yore as it is a statement on the heart condition Preston was born with. And so in the very actions of the game, a message is conveyed, if not a traditional backstory. The Drifter, suffering from his own ailments, manages to keep pressing on.

The Drifter is an embodiment of a something more than the sum of the pixels; a personal struggle. That is the core of visual storytelling: that the imagery somehow amounts to more than what is merely visible, hinting at history, future, interior lives. To figure out how to create this, Preston turned to the work of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.

In Spirited Away, for example, Miyazaki wanted imagery that embodied more complex concepts, like humanity and conflict, that he personally felt strongly about. “My feeling is that we human beings are able to exist on planet Earth and are also stuck here because of gravity,” he told IGN. “Flight expresses a liberation from that grounding. Pigs symbolize greed but they are also quite likeable and you really can’t bring yourself to hate them, just the way I feel about humans.”

The imagery somehow amounts to more than what is merely visible. 

In the director’s early work Castle in the Sky, the titular castle, Laputa, is overrun with various robots and wildlife wandering about. A distinct lack of humans creates a world of questions.

This sense of a civilization from a bygone era with just enough left to give a sense of what happened defines Hyper Light Drifter. The Drifter searches the remains of this past in hopes of fixing the present. “Miyazaki films have taught me that beautiful animation and design add life to a world,” Preston wrote on Hyper Light Drifter’s wildly successful Kickstarter.

He told me that he believes in conveying information through motion and facial expression, as well as through movements of characters and the intentions behind their actions. “He [Miyazaki] kind of nails it every time,” Preston said. “Words can just be misinterpreted or confusing sometimes.”

Richard Lemarchand would agree with him. “One of the advantages of environmental storytelling is that it lets us get closer to our desired goal of having character-driven stories,” Lemarchand, who served as lead or c-lead on all three Uncharted games, told me. “I think that a historical problem with videogame stories is they’ve largely been plot-driven.”

He argues that the core of storytelling is the way that people struggle to attain the things that they want, and by encountering unexpected situations on the way to getting what they want, they grow as people.

Games could look to film on how to do this. 

“That’s the burning heart of storytelling,” Lemarchand, who today serves as an associate professor with the Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California, said. Games could look to film on how to do this. “It’s preferable in movies to advance the plot by showing actions in the world that change the relationships between the characters rather than using language, in particular exposition.

“This, perhaps ephemeral, sometimes hard-to-describe aspect of a game that exists in the feedback between my action as a living being, the game’s controls, the hidden computational system of the game and then the feedback that the game gives me through the screen and the sound system which then impacts my perceptions,” he continued. “It can make a character feel leaden and heavy, perhaps clumsy, or nimble and spritely, and those things can be used as storytelling tools to explicate the nature of the characters or the nature of the world that they’re in.”

The Drifter moves with a rhythm. Quick dashes and rapid sword swings move together, conveying a sense of fluidity that hides a slight delay between movements, as if the Drifter is undeterred by the ailment, as if any error will be swiftly punished with death. And they often are.

Much like Preston, Lemarchand too looks to Miyazaki’s impact on the concept of storytelling and showing the development of characters and theme.

“I think that Miyazaki is not just among the finest animators of all-time, I think he is one of the best cinematic storytellers of all-time,” Lemarchand said. He cites a tiny moment in Spirited Away, when the protagonist loses her footing and almost turns an ankle, but conveys a deeper psychological unease, as just one example. “The way that he conveys the nuance that arises in the relationship between characters is almost unparalleled.”

“That’s the burning heart of storytelling.” 

I felt a similar inflective moment when I paused to examine a scene where the Drifter stumbles upon some sort of rotting behemoth in the far distance. There is no combat here, no action, just a switch and a bridge to cross afterward. The goliath is ominously still as tiny creatures clamber about on its frame. Is it synthetic or organic?

To me, it looks like a robot, but the colours then again, perhaps it’s a mix of the two. Is it being rebuilt, or is it being devoured? More importantly, how will this decaying mess save the Drifter? This civilization—its present, as the Drifter and I experience it—shouts “hopelessness” across the chasm.

Yet, the Drifter, unfazed, remains adamant, and continues on. Of that much I am certain.