Hyper Light Drifter is my game of the year. The look, the feel, the sound, the story ... everything about it appealed to me. It’s the game I didn’t know I wanted until I played it, and then it felt like something that was made specifically for me.
It’s hard not to be consumed by an ongoing sense of dread when playing through Hyper Light Drifter. The immaculate pixel art, the hair-raising tones and the apocalyptic landscapes continually reinforce a message of decay.
This morose tone is punctuated by moments of relief: you can feel it in the pause after a battle, the beautiful vistas wrapped in pleasing synths or a peaceful town of refugees who’ve escaped from their ruined homelands. The tension is highlighted by the time you’re freed from it.
But that wasn’t why I picked it. I choose it because the developer put his story into the game. And, in a small way, it was my story as well.
Playing a second time
I had assumed the contrasts in Hyper Light Drifter’s world and tone were just evidence of a well designed world made to draw the player in the first time I played it. I was more than content to simply experience the pleasure of a beautifully made game with an art style and musical score that felt tailor-made to my tastes.
The story, told without any text or spoken word, stayed with me long after my first playthrough.
My perspective on the game completely changed after watching a documentary about developer Alx Preston. I learned about the congenital heart condition Alx had battled not only during the creation of the game, but throughout his life. I was reminded of how the player’s character in Hyper Light Drifter was suffering from a disease throughout the game.
I wondered if there was more in the game that I might have missed the first time around, so I started my second playthrough.
This time, the constant sense of dread became much more real. And the small moments of calm meant so much more. My breath was taken away when I walked by a monstrous, cybernetic heart floating in a vat. I thought more about the health bar you can never improve. The best you can do is upgrade your ability to carry more medkits. I no longer thought this choice was merely about making the game more difficult.
And every time the titular drifter staggered and coughed up blood, I thought about Axl. A man put his heart into this game and now I saw it everywhere.
But even then I still didn’t know what the game would come mean to me.
Finding yourself in a game
I was diagnosed with a condition called PTTD around the first time I played Hyper Light Drifter. It’s congenital foot problem, and it would eventually rob me of much of my ability to walk.
Surgery was brought up as a far away possibility to rectify it, but it probably wouldn’t be needed for a few years. I got by with some orthopedic inserts and a little therapy every few weeks.
The pain grew worse as the year progressed. My mobility suffered and my legs atrophied. I had to eventually take pain pills, or each step I took was agony.
I hobbled into one of my therapy sessions soon after my second playthrough. The doctor decided I should see another specialist to determine if surgery might be needed sooner rather than later after he saw how I was walking. The surgeries that were supposed to be years away now needed to be done as soon as “was convenient.”
I knew now what it meant to wake up with a condition that wouldn’t simply be going away. A condition that got worse every day. I knew that all of life’s demands would still be present despite my condition. I still had to move forward, and I had to do it on my own. I didn’t want to seek help from others, even when I needed it. I was more worried about being a burden than necessarily doing what was most comfortable. I wouldn’t take subway seats offered to me. I wouldn’t let my girlfriend take on some of my household chores. I wanted to keep living like nothing had changed.
I realize this condition in no way compares to what Alx faces. At no point was my life threatened. I should regain much of my former health after my surgeries and physical therapy. Not everyone is so lucky. But the game begin to mean much more to me after seeing the story behind it and going through my own troubles.
Eventually it became clear I couldn’t just push on like nothing was wrong. It became hard for me to stand long enough to make dinner. But my girlfriend never gave up trying to help me. She got me to understand that accepting help wasn’t a sign of weakness.
When I went home for the holidays, a TSA agent jumped me ahead of the line. The airline asked me if I’d like to board the plane early. I was carrying all my luggage on my back, and this saved me considerable pain. In the back of my mind I still felt like I had cheated somehow.
I played the game again over the holidays, this time cooperatively with a friend. In the game’s co-op mode, the second player is like the first player’s shadow. They steal a bit of their health instead of using health packs to regenerate. They cannot activate or pick up items in the game. They have only the upgrades that player one has.
I’d gotten the game for my friend as a gift. He was the main Player. I was his shadow. At first I felt restricted by my lack of agency. Every time I had to take health from my friend I felt guilty. But I more than made up for it with my combat prowess and knowledge of many of the game’s hidden items.
Then it dawned on me: the game had snuck in another message. It’s not cheating to let someone help you. And you’re not automatically a burden because you let someone help you.
Sometimes the only way to move forward is if you let someone else take you there.