Just drifting

So there’s this concept in game design called “verbs,” which are basically all the actions that the player can take in a game. Like, in Mario you can run, jump, duck, fireball, grab turtle shell; in old adventure games you can USE <inventory item> ON <thingy>. That second part, the <thingy>, is the “noun,” which is the object within the game that you’re “verb”-ing. This framework doesn’t work for everything – it’s difficult to apply meaningfully to abstract games, and it’s an awkward fit for sim games, where you’re basically just selecting options off a menu – but, imaginatively speaking, there should be a large variety of potential “sentences” you can form like this, giving games a rich expressive language that can address a wide variety of human concerns. Realistically speaking, not so much. Video games have been and are overwhelmingly concerned with the noun “enemy” and the verb “kill.”

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Hyper Light Drifter is a typical video game that presents itself as a typical video game. You run around fighting enemies and picking up items, working your way towards the big, imposing bosses, and dying over and over again while you try to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not particularly friendly, because it assumes that you’re already familiar with the things that it expects you to do. But it’s made with considerably more care and effort than your typical pointless nostalgic throwback. It uses pixel art, but it isn’t really “retro” – it’s an aesthetic, but it’s not intentionally low-quality. In fact, the graphics are really good. The environments are big and messy, making it feel like the world has some actual weight behind it. The copy/paste effect is largely avoided; different instances of the same structures will have slight differences or be broken in different ways. Most impressively, there are many huge, unique setpieces that add a real presence to otherwise generic areas.

So you’ve you’ve got this rich, mysterious, expansive world to explore, and your only means of interacting with it is to kill things. Aside from a generic “interact” button used to open doors and pick up items and soforth, everything you can actually do in the game is focused on finding groups of enemies and killing them. Verb-wise, it’s basically “move,” “dodge,” “kill.”

Again, there’s enough effort put into this to make it better than it sounds. Attacking and dodging both have subtle, smart mechanics that give the game’s action unusual contours. Your weapons are the typical sword and gun, and the typical distinction here is for them to be useful in different situations: the sword is powerful but dangerous, while the gun is convenient but weak. Hyper Light Drifter makes the obvious but uncommon choice to make the gun strictly better than the sword. It does the same or more damage, and it’s faster in addition to being ranged, so it’s always the preferred weapon. The catch is that you have to charge the gun by attacking enemies with the sword. This makes combat extremely focused: instead of switching between your available actions, you have one line of attack that you have to balance based on your gun’s charge. You have to be competent enough to fight with the sword regularly, and you have to have the judgment to know when to go for quick kills with the gun, and the fact that these are two aspects of the same line of action allows for fast and smooth gameplay.

The defensive side of combat is similarly focused: all you’ve really got is a quick-dash that lets you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. Standard practice here is for the dodge move to just make you invincible while it’s happening, so it can act as a defensive catch-all. This way, whatever kind of attack you’re facing, you can get by it by just dodging at the right time. In fact, the invincibility means you can often dodge into attacks to both avoid damage and wind up in a great position to attack immediately afterwards. But again, Hyper Light Drifter does not make things this easy. The dodge move here is just a movement ability that offers no explicit protection. Not only will dodging into an attack result in getting hit, but even an imprecise dodge away from an attack might not be enough to avoid it, or it might put you in a bad position for the enemies’ next attack. On top of this, the dash itself kind of weak. It doesn’t have much range, and because of how fast the gameplay is you might find yourself under fire again immediately after dodging out of danger. What this means is that you have to actually figure out how to dodge each attack effectively, and be precise enough about it to both avoid damage and put yourself in a position to counterattack. For example, there’s a samurai-like enemy that slowly approaches you and then quickly attacks once it’s at the right distance. You’ll probably get hit if you try to dodge toward or away from the attack, since it’s fast and it has long range. And you can’t just keep your distance, or you’ll never get a chance to attack. What you have to do is dodge precisely so that you wind up to the side of the enemy after it attacks, which will put you out of danger but close enough to follow up with your own attack.

Everything else about the game is equally focused. Each enemy has one simple attack pattern, so you always know what you have to deal with. Damage amounts are small and clearly displayed, so you always know what the situation is. If an enemy has 3 HP, you know you can kill it with one combo; if it has 4, you need to be prepared to retreat after hitting it. If you’ve got an enemy down to 1 HP, you know you have the option of finishing it off with a gun attack and not having to worry about it anymore. Similarly, enemy attacks deal either one or two damage to you, so you always know what you can survive.

The problem with focus, though, is the question of what you’re focusing on, and this is where things start to get a little dispiriting, because all of this violence happens for no reason. The story is intentionally abstract; there’s no text, just the occasional pretty picture to suggest what’s going on (and also the occasional ridiculously overwrought cutscene, which is awfully incongruous in a game with an otherwise minimalist story). But the problem isn’t the technique, it’s the substance, which is to say the lack thereof. There’s no actual reason the enemies in each area are enemies, you just go there and start killing them. Games with lots of text in them get a bad rap for being slow and boring, but it’s this kind of stuff that writing is actually good for: establishing a relationship between characters and the world they live in, creating a context in which the actions you take mean something.

Abdicating one’s responsibility to provide this sort of context can have unfortunate consequences. The “story” in one area is that the native inhabitants have been genocided by, um, some kind of frog ninja clan, or something. There’s a lot of very explicit imagery showcasing the horror of the situation: piles of corpses, heads on pikes, flayed bodies, the whole deal. It’s all quite brutish and upsetting. And so, arriving in the middle of this situation, your response as the player is to murder every living thing you encounter, leave a trail of corpses strewn across the floor, and then strike a coolguy victory pose. “Dissonant” does not begin to describe the effect.

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The issue is not that violence should never be portrayed in games, or even that violence is always wrong. In reality, violence is a complicated subject. Violence can be used defensively or coercively. One application of violence is torture, the living destruction of a human being, and another is mercy killing, using violence to end suffering. The presence of violence makes related choices such as intimidation or pacifism meaningful. But video game violence does not admit any of these complications. The term “senseless violence” exists for a reason, and this is it. The problem with violent video games is actually not the fact that they’re violent, it’s that video game violence is nothing at all like real life violence. It’s thoughtless in a way that nothing real ever is, and that is both the problem and the appeal. When you see an “enemy,” the only thing you have to worry about is killing it. Once you’ve gained proficiency with the controls and learned the enemy’s patterns, you’re done; there’s nothing more you have to think about. You don’t have to consider what the right way to use your abilities is.

Instead of thought, games typically provide what is commonly understood as “challenge.” As a typical video game, Hyper Light Drifter is typical in this regard. Which is to say it’s hard, but not in any way that’s interesting. Actually, the better descriptor is “merciless.” There’s no grace period after getting hit, and many attacks will stun you or knock you down, which will often lead right into getting hit again immediately. One enemy type is actually intentionally designed this way: a bunch of them swarm you at once, and their attack stuns you, leaving you open to an arbitrary number of follow-up hits. There’s really no way to respect a decision like this.

Enemy projectile spam combined with multiple dudes rushing you is a common situation. Healing takes time, so you’ll frequently either get hit immediately after healing or just die before the animation finishes. This is all compounded by the fact that the gameplay is extremely fast. Everything I just wrote and more can happen in the space of about 3 seconds. Bosses in particular rush you like motherfuckers, so your first few attempts at each one will basically be instant losses. This has the annoying effect of requiring a learning curve of figuring out how to not die right away before you get to the actual learning curve of figuring out how to win. And once this happens, it turns out to be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. There aren’t really any complications beyond the basics of avoiding attacks and attacking when you have an opening. Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, you’re done.

Obviously, these things all make the game “difficult” in a general sense, but the fact that there are many different types of difficulty is why it’s important not to lump distinct concepts together under the same word. Difficulty of conceptualization is different from difficulty of execution. Moral complexity is different from optimization. Planning is different from exhaustive investigation. Hyper Light Drifter is game where there is no thinking about what to do or how to do it or why you’re doing it, and there is only mastery of execution.

This compounds the aforementioned problem of senselessness. If the game had some kind of motivation to it, if it made you want to learn how to perform well, there might be some kind of value in it. This is why combining a story with gameplay is such a good idea: it makes action meaningful. As it is, though, you’re just going into each area and scouring the life from it, for no reason. It’s difficult to think of anything less meaningful than that.

Again, the violence is not the problem. Violent stories can be meaningful, and senseless gameplay doesn’t suddenly become interesting when you take the gore out of it. In fact, Hyper Light Drifter itself makes this point quite clearly, because the non-violent aspects of the game are equally senseless. Besides killing everything, the other main activity in the game in searching for secrets, and this shares the same lack of logic that the violence does. What will happen is you’ll notice a platform off to the side or a break in the trees or something, and you’ll go over there, not for any real reason (there is, again, no motivation for any of your actions in this game) but just because you’re playing a video game and video games have things hidden in places like this.

I’ve prepared some examples to show just how little sense this makes. Take a moment to inspect the following screenshot:

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See the gray scraps in the lower left? Those indicate that there’s actually a passage there rather than a wall. Now try this one:

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See the same scraps in the center right? Same deal, right? Nope. That one’s just a wall. One more:

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See how the path along the floor branches off to the right? Pretty clearly indicates that someone built a path there, and you just can’t see it because of the camera angle, right? Again, no. Just a path leading into a wall for no reason. Pretty much everything hidden in the game is like this: there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so you just have to obsessively check everything. Sometimes enemies coming out of a wall means there’s actually a passage back there, and sometimes it’s just randos comin’ outta nowhere. There are even a number of cases where just standing in a nondescript location will cause a little symbol to appear over your head, indicating that you can press the “interact” button to make some floating platforms appear out of nowhere. It’s all senseless.

And there is such a thing as sensible exploration. In fact, it isn’t particularly hard to get this right, you just have to treat exploration like it’s actually a part of the game. In Civilization, exploration matters because it has a cost. You have to spend resources you could be using on other things, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything good, so you have to make do with whatever comes up. In Metroid, exploration has mechanics. You have a variety of tools available that allow you to interact with the environment in specific ways, which makes exploration a matter of figuring out how to get places rather than merely poking at every wall just in case there’s something there.

And the other half of exploration is, again, the context in which it makes sense. And, again, Hyper Light Drifter has none. It is not the case that, for example, you’re in a library looking for a particular book, and you see a passageway behind some shelves, so you explore it looking for a hidden area. In fact, there is a library in the game, but your only business there is to pass through it on your way to continuing to kill everyone. In fact, there are even some library books on the floor that are in your way, so what you have to do, just as when you encounter any other type of obstacle, is to attack and destroy them so that you can proceed. I found this to be a particularly provocative aesthetic choice, as I am of the school of thought that considers book burning to be one of the great crimes against humanity. Perhaps this is a less universal viewpoint than I had assumed.

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The goal of the game is to find enough magic triangles in each area to open up the magic elevator that takes you to the last boss, which you then kill, and then everything’s over. But the only reason the last boss is the last boss is that it’s a big spooky shadow monster, so of course you’re supposed to kill it. And the only reason collecting the magic triangles is your primary goal is that, you know, it’s a video game, so obviously you’re supposed to run around and collect everything that’s not nailed down. Some of the magic triangles appear to act as power sources for the areas they’re in – the lights go out after you take them – which only serves to make the actions that the game requires of the player even more bizarre. Like, the person destroying the power grid for no apparent reason is pretty obviously the bad guy, right?

And where the game isn’t incongruous, it’s sterile. In one area, you find a lab full of monsters and robots and robot monsters, and it’s all just sort of there. It’s all spectacle and no interaction; you can’t disable the machines or figure out what’s going on or anything, it’s just a bunch of scenery, imposing and flat. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a diorama.

One thing that seems like it should be interesting is the fact that the protagonist suffers from a terminal disease, such that you occasionally have to stop moving and cough up blood for a little while. This raises a number of questions about how you’re going to interact with the game world. Perhaps there will be times when you’re too weak to fight, forcing you to surrender? Maybe there’s some sort of medicine or resource you need to find in order to manage your symptoms? Or maybe the protagonist goes through the game acutely aware of the fragility of life, compelling her to avoid killing and show mercy whenever possible? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Once you’re done coughing, you can get right back to slaughtering everything. And then you die at the end, which I guess is sad, or something.

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I get that this is all beside the point. The developers didn’t think about any of this, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to either. Considering how niche this game is, maybe I’m the only one who cares. But remember: Hyper Light Drifter thinks it’s a typical video game, and the problem is that it’s right. It’s the kind of obsessively inaccessible work that ought to be understood as niche, but given the current situation of video games, it actually is the kind of thing that its audience thinks of as “normal.” It wouldn’t be playable otherwise; there’s no explanation for any of your actions and no way to know what to do, except that the stuff you have to do is the same stuff you always do in video games. There are complicated mechanics for killing, and one generic “interact” button for everything else. There are big fancy graphics that don’t matter, because they’re just backdrops and not actual objects in the world. Conversing with another living being receives only the bare minimum representation, while chopping the heads off of goblin monsters is illustrated with lavish animations. A typical video game is one that’s complicated without being thoughtful, evocative without being meaningful, bloody without being human.

The mindset that this game requires you to inhabit is genuinely disturbing. You have to view the world as an adversary, something to be hacked through as you lust after pickups like a starving dog. You have to act like an animal, and not even the good kind of animal that gets to just eat and fuck all day long. The kind that stares with dull eyes at whatever happens to enter its field of vision, that inhabits the world as a creature of mere sustenance, that can’t think.

I mean, I’ve been here before, okay? I understand why this game exists. When I got to the first boss I died instantly, and then I died slightly less instantly a few more times. I experimented with the mechanics to make sure I had a handle on how they were supposed to work. I memorized the progression of its attacks and came up with a strategy for avoiding each one. I tried attacking it at every possible opportunity to see when I could do so without getting hit. And a few dozen tries later I barely killed it by using my last two bullets after noticing it was almost out of health. A lot of people can’t deal with things like this, especially with the audience for games having radically expanded, but I can. I just don’t care anymore. It’s typical. My ability to “overcome” “challenges” like this is not a virtue, it’s a vice. Difficulty needs to be for something; bashing your head against a wall is not a recipe for revelation, and putting up with it is not a recipe for being a decent person.

I’m honestly not even upset about any of this. I’m just sad. A lot of effort was put into this game. It’s precise and intelligent and beautiful. Playing it takes real effort; you have to pay constant attention, explore without guidance, and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. You can’t finish it without coming to a real understanding of the mechanics and genuinely improving in skill. And in the end, all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.

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