I'm drifting up a mountain made of pixels, climbing an ascending maze of brightly-colored craggy cliffs against a melancholy chiptune soundtrack.
I'm playing Hyper Light Drifter, the upcoming action role-playing game from indie developer Heart Machine. The game is a love letter to retro SNES games, all the way down to the comforting old-school soundtrack with its minimalistic tones. Hyper Light Drifter is somewhere between thatgamecompany's Journey, Studio Ghibli film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and a game pulled straight out of the 90s.
In Hyper Light Drifter, you are the titular Drifter, not-quite-drifting through your journey. The "hyper light" comes in with the Drifter's weapons, the most prominent being an energy sword that can cut enemies down with a few hits. The Drifter can also summon large gold blocks that will crash down from the sky, a useful tactic against flying enemies that rarely touch the ground. Players can also dash across short gaps and up step-like structures in the cliff sides to grab items in hard-to-reach places.
These weapons are familiar in that they fit in more classic categories of RPG weapons: a gun, a physical sword attack, a quick-run, a method to take down a larger group of enemies. But in many ways they are not the run-of-the-mill arsenal players will expect. Heart Machine head and Hyper Light Drifter director Alex Preston told Polygon these weapons are familiar conventions "dressed up in a different way," a set of weapons as unique as the world they exist in.
Preston noted that Studio Ghibli's Nausicaa is a major driving inspiration behind the studio's game. The idea of a ruined civilization struggling in an equally-ruined world is an experience Preston feels is worth exploring.
"[Nausicca is] one of my favorite films of all time," he said. "It has that post-apocalyptic world where a society is still alive, still struggling in a really really brutal world. That's an appealing idea to me."
Hyper Light Drifter looks, plays, sounds like a relic.
Another element close to Preston's heart is the desire to emulate the SNES. Hyper Light Drifter looks, plays, sounds like a relic — something foreign from the not-so-distant past and yet a completely new, fresh experience. I feel like I'm playing with an old friend as I guide the Drifter through a horde of enemies, but the color and fluidity of movement remind me this is a new game.
"[The SNES] had amazing, almost perfect games designed for limited environments, and I love the idea of those types of limitations and pushing those boundaries as hard as you can," Preston explained.
But despite the comfort of this new classic, the tone of Hyper Light Drifter is set by its melancholy soundtrack. Composer Disasterpiece, whose previous works include the soundtrack for Fez and the recent The Floor is Jelly, has created sound that both excites and depresses. I feel as though my journey is full of hope and yet futile, as my little Drifter stumbles onto a set of crumbled ruins riddled with enemies. It's heart-wrenching but uplifting at the same time, and the conflicting emotions only serve to augment the desperation behind the Drifter's flight.
I feel as though my journey is full of hope and yet futile.
Preston said Hyper Light Drifter has no dialogue for precisely this reason — Heart Machine wants to tug heart strings without saying a word.
"Voice work is a difficult thing to do and I'm better at expressing things visually than I am at trying to get voice actors to come in and do something," Preston said. "I think it takes away something from the experience — and from the audio experience as well, because the music is incredibly important in this game. The silent protagonist and the silent worlds of SNES era is really important — there's a certain feel you don't get now when there's voice work.
"Story is not well done in games usually, it's an exception to have an excellent story," he added, noting Hyper Light Drifter is an "extremely personal" tale for him. "For me, it's paramount.
"I have a lot of health problems, like really serious life-threatening health problems throughout my life, and that is a deeper part of the story and the character himself and what he experiences. Those relationships come back to me as well."
"It's an exception to have an excellent story."
The story of Hyper Light Drifter — from the aforementioned inspirational sources and Preston's lifetime struggle with heart problems — is still a bit of a mystery. But when asked if his story could have been better told with another medium, Preston says no. It had to be interactive, if he wanted his audience to truly feel what he wants them to feel.
"I've always wanted to make interactive experiences because they are amazing forms of art," Preston said. "Anyone who says interactive experiences aren't art forms can suck a dick."