“Indie game-itis” is a term coined by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw in the internet series Zero Punctuation used to describe an indie game with beautiful art but a shallow minimalist story usually about the main character or developer’s experiences with depression or some other mental illness. Games like Gris or Sea of Solitude fit into this term perfectly. While they may seem deep at first, spending any time thinking about their narratives will unveil a simple story with even more simple metaphors i.e. “big black force or monster represents depression and you run away from it before confronting it in the game’s climax”. While at first glance, Hyper Light Drifter seems like patient zero for indie game-itis, further analysis reveals a stunning deep dive into the life and struggles of the lead developer Alx Preston that takes the art of minimalist storytelling in gaming to its logical extreme and in the process, perfects it.
But before we look at the game, we have to look at the life of Preston. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist and judge it by its own merits. However, in this case the artist is just as, if not more important as the game itself. In that case, it’s time for a little history lesson. Preston was born with a congenital heart disease that had him in and out of the hospital from an early age. This disease caused digestive and immune-system issues that continue to cause problems for Preston to this very day. In college, Preston had used the mediums of painting and film to illustrate his experiences with frail health and near-death conditions. The former of which can be seen bearing a massive influence on the storytelling in Hyper Light Drifer, with the game having no words spoken or written at all barring the menu text so you can actually play the game.
This is all very important as not only does the Drifter in the game share a lot of struggles with Preston, but Preston’s experience in painting is one of the key aspects that make this game’s storytelling shine. As previously stated, there is not a word of dialogue or text in the entire game, with the only voice lines being a couple of grunts from characters and the noises that come from the monsters and animals you fight throughout the game. This is not only masterfully done with the visual style and set pieces being joys to look at, but allows the player to craft their own knowledge on how and why things are the way they are, similar to Thatgamecompany’s classic Journey. I initially went into the game with a basic premise thanks to word of mouth, but as for the how and the why that explain to what, the game quickly became more than what I initially thought.
Throughout my time playing I found myself putting the controller down and just thinking. About what was going on, why it was happening and how. 2 other games I adore are Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight and the infamous Dark Souls, both of which go about a minimalist method of storytelling. But not only is Hyper Light Drifter’s premise much more interesting in my opinion, but the way it’s told is also much more unique. Dark Souls has a tendency to force you to read walls of text in item descriptions to figure out why things are the way they are. In Hyper Light Drifter, past the menu there is not a word of English in the entire game. This greatly adds to the open-ended nature of the story, and I highly doubt that any one person has the same perception of the lore (unless they go by what the wiki says).
And all this is without mentioning the game part of this video game. While nothing entirely original, the core gameplay of the game takes heavy inspiration from other top-down action games like Diablo and The Legend of Zelda: A link to the Past, with the latter bearing influencce over the explorative aspects of the game. While the core combat is the simple slash-dash-shoot formula we’ve come to expect in these kinds of games, it has a kinetic energy that makes every hit satisfying. As you progress through the game, there are also optional upgrades that you can buy with chips that you find throughout the world. Some are rewarded through mandatory combat encounters and boss fights, but the lion’s share of them are found in secret rooms and over invisible floors. While the upgrades that result from these chips are nothing to ride home about, they do provide decent variety to the combat and some can even become mainstays in your strategy.
There are upgrades to your dash, sword, guns, healing and grenades, all of which have their uses. Although, personally, I found the grenades and some of the guns less than useful. You earn more guns by beating the bosses and they all have different range, accuracy and damage. Your ammo for these guns is replenished automatically when you strike enemies with your sword, so aggression is recommended. As for the healing in this game, it’s less like Dark Souls and more like Resident Evil. That is to say, any and all healing you get you have to find yourself and run the risk of encountering more enemies. While it can get a little annoying when you’re stuck at a checkpoint with no healing, with a little persistence, all combat challenges can be overcome with a little persistence. I was never stuck on a room or boss for more than 6 attempts.
And that masterful segue leads into the difficulty. When you hear the term “souls-like” thrown around, you usually hear talk of insane difficulty and ridiculous boss fights. While some boss fights in Hyper Light Drifter can get a little nuts, none of them are overwhelming with maybe 2 exceptions: the final boss and the surprise fight in the fourth and final major area. Both of these fights got a little too hectic with projectiles, and the latter is the 6 attempt one I mentioned earlier. However, none of the bosses or enemies gave me any trouble once I learned their patterns. No Darkeater Midir’s or Absolute Radiance's here. In fact, I’d say there isn’t a traditionally bad boss fight in the entire game. All of them build on the enemies you fought in that area and surprise you with something new, truly testing your skills in combat.
Finally, since I’ve got no clever segue for this topic, let’s talk about this game’s masterful score primarily composed by Richard Vreeland. The game employs a slow, epic soundtrack for most of it’s run, but not with the typical orchestra you’d expect with such a score. Instead, the score mainly makes use of synthesizers to use techno-style instruments to craft the score. I thought it was an odd choice at first, but the epic score helps you take in the set pieces while the techno instruments help sell the post-post-apocalyptic aesthetic the game goes for. It’s a brilliant score, with my only complaint being that it can sometimes sound a little busy with all the techno instruments at play. With it’s assistance, I was deeply immersed in this world from beginning to end.
When you cherry-pick some of Hyper Light Drifter’s flaws, you could make a case for it being another game suffering from “indie game-itis”. After all, it’s a minimalist story with a fairly basic premise. When taken as a whole, though, I’d describe Hyper Light Drifter as a painting you can play. It’s gorgeous art style, kinetic combat, hauntingly good score and masterful minimalist storytelling truly put it above most games released in the past decade. I am not an art critic. You need actual qualifications to be one of those, as supposed to an internet connection and a free afternoon. However, Hyper Light Drifter is the game I always point to whenever someone makes the same old argument that games aren’t art. Because it is an artistic masterpiece the always proves them wrong.