In Hyper Light Drifter, you’re not a hero. At least you’re not a typical hero. By having no clear narrative framework except that of the standard action-adventure video game hero, no clear morality in any of the characters, but a strong element of disease in your playable character, Hyper Light Drifter suggests that fighting an illness is enough to make you the hero of an action-adventure story.
The Drifter Isn’t Superhuman; He’s Ill
When you play any other action-adventure game, you’re usually playing as either a superhuman or you are destined to be superhuman. In Hyper Light Drifter, you’re sickly. The Drifter coughs up blood the first time you see him and continues to do so throughout the game. The screen fuzzes out as if it may go black whenever the Drifter coughs, disorienting you as the player. You know you’re seriously ill.
Alex Preston, the man behind HLD, is a game designer with a serious heart condition. His company, called Heart Machine, is named after the machine in his heart that keeps him alive. In an interview with Vice, his cardiologist noted that “[Alex] feels that there is a guillotine hanging above his head, and at any moment something could happen, and it could drop.” This dread is a part of the experience playing the game, by way of the Drifter’s sickness.
The Ultimate Threat Is Within You
The emphasis on the Drifter’s physical illness reframes the hero’s journey as one that requires attention to an internal issue rather than an external threat. The gameplay tends to inspire more empathy than wonder for the central hero.
You can’t escape your condition. Your health bar in Hyper Light Drifter is a constant source of distress. It remains at five points and never goes any higher. The hard mode of the game doesn’t increase the difficulty of the enemies but instead lowers the health bar down to two. The enemies grow more difficult, but you can’t deviate any attention from this mechanical representation of your illness. The combat revolves around precise movements where a false step could spell your death. Between the precision required, and the speed of the combat, you’re never far from death.
The game’s score by Disasterpiece adds to the dread. A rumbling bass, a spooky melody with a hanging note, or a distant metallic screech follow you. You’ll hear no jaunty tune or heroic ballad like you would in Zelda or the Uncharted series. Everything is beautifully eerie, mysterious, and unsettling. The score remakes the heroic soundtrack into something filled with the dread of malady, rather than excitement for the next leg of the journey.
There’s No Clear Heroic Task
Only three things are clear from the intro of HLD: 1) the Drifter is ill, 2) the Drifter wants to destroy an elusive black creature, and 3) this black creature is linked to the Drifter’s illness. It doesn’t get much clearer as the game progresses, but that’s deliberate.
HLD’s highly interpretive story allows the game’s superstructure of traditional “action-adventure hero out to save the world” serve as a framework for a story about “action-adventure hero out to survive his illness.” It’s unclear where the black creature ends and his illness begins, but defeating the illness is vaguely related to completing the standard action-adventure hero tasks. We don’t know why we have to activate the pillars or defeat the bosses, except to get us closer to the black creature, the thing that is connected to your illness.
The world the Drifter inhabits is just as ambiguous as its plot. When “speaking” with the citizens, all dialogue is replaced with images of what an NPC, or non-playable character, is describing. The game is highly interpretive, and you can choose to speak with other characters or not.
Then there’s the moral ambiguity. At a certain point, the player learns that the townsfolk, who took care of the collapsed Drifter earlier in the game, has beaten one character nearly to death to secure a location for the town. In one of the areas that the Drifter explores, an NPC describes an uprising of “enemy” creatures that were either experimented on or were grown in a lab and had become sentient. So who is the enemy? Without clearing things like that up, HLD suggests that the Drifter taking care of himself is the only certain direction worth taking.
Simply Surviving Is Heroic
Preston makes certain to mention the hero’s internal struggle when describing his game. He notes in an interview with Rock.Paper.Shotgun that “the story [of Hyper Light Drifter] revolves around an ailing drifter… coping with his own set of problems, but he’s still managing to live his life and do his job, essentially.” HLD’s heroic conflict comes as much from the inside as it does from the outside.
Hyper Light Drifter shows that taking care of yourself is the most heroic thing one can do. And it provides just enough of an action-adventure video game framework to suggest that you can be the hero of your own action-adventure story. Maybe making a gaming company called “Heart Machine” that pumps figurative lifeblood through your veins is heroic. Making a wildly popular and successful game where the protagonist has the same disease you have is heroic. Living, pressing forward, and fighting for your own health and happiness is heroism.