Deception and hyper light drifting

By Neil Merrett

Hyper Light Drifter on Playstation 4 – released 2016, Heart Machine

While more often seen as a bad thing, deception can be very much a two way street.

There is the bad of course; the deceptions we tell ourselves and others to embellish or hide the truth, even if just to get ahead or move forward in life.

Then there are the good deceptions; those pleasant surprises and triumphs, the diamonds in the rough – and to get the maximum amount of cliches in one sentence – the big things in little packages.

In a gaming sense, this is perhaps embodied over the last few years in the emergence and development of a number of retro-style games.  

These titles, often being made by small independent publishers, take the seemingly obsolete and beloved graphics, sounds and game structures of decades gone by and soup them up with modern hardware in order to build in depth, nuance, ambiguity and flashy combat mechanics.  Of course, they may just exist to cash in on hard won nostalgia. 

As happens with getting older, we all find ourselves at times looking back at those seemingly not so serious and less complicated days gone by in the hope of evoking the sounds, feelings and emotions of what can seem like better times.

In this sense, Hyper Light Drifter is not radically different from titles like ‘Fez’, ‘VVVVV’ or ‘Cave Story’ in taking an 80’s and 90’s approach to game design and genres, and then building more ‘modern’ adventures from them which we might associate with more technologically intensive modern games.

Built around a seemingly nameless hero, Hyper Light Drifter uses the more simplistic techniques of old games to build a starkly beautiful, pastel colour world of ravaged ruins, towns and deceased alien creatures – all wrapped in a somewhat calming, melancholy apocalyptic vibe.

On the surface it comes off like like a prototype for a nihilistic take on the Legend of Zelda built even before that 1980’s classic – a sort of lost relic of a bygone time.

This is, of course, a deception.  It is a very modern look at what games are and can be.

Yet like digging up and closely analysing a treasured memory, these modern attempts at retro games and styles appear on the surface to be just a colourful, simplistic means of evoking simpler happier times.

As happens with looking more deeply into our pasts, the game’s design throws a lot more challenges and complications that we may have initially realised or been able to comprehend during first hand experiences.

In between bouts of death, ass kicking, teleporting out of the path of bullets , and shooting all hell out of frog samurais, the main character is haunted and suffering, with an unspecified bout of illness and some jauntily animated internal bleeding.

You fight on through these challenges while hunted down by an infernal shadowy creatures that seems to exist within the main character’s pixelated body, adding an eery sense of character to the game.

The player is charged with dicing through increasingly tricky hoards of magic wielding bird shamans, huge bosses and ill defined monsters that require a more complex understanding of attack patterns and building up the specific abilities the player believes are essential to survive.

Simple mistakes are punished with the cruelty of having to almost endlessly playing through relentless sections until an effective strategy can be found.

The difficulty spikes are a form of penance for the rewards of a beautiful designed gaming world.

At times, the player finds themselves walking among the still beating hearts like structures of monstrous titans long since slain.  The game’s imagination and, at times, starkly simple design, doesn’t detract from allowing players to look off its pixelated cliffs to unknown wonders in the horizon – allowing for a brief break from the dangers ahead.

Staring off into vistas and lost cities in the background, the game’s atmosphere seems to make you forget you are just staring at a load of coloured dots.

At its best, the game is a sometimes cruel, sometimes beautiful collection of some of the most important and maddening gaming developments from the collective past four decades of the medium.

Yet, despite what may seem like the technical constraints of retro games, it is as arguably as well realised a world as is seen in many modern looking, multi million pound development games – a beautiful deception.

Consider the game’s soundtrack.  An ambient collection of prolonged synthesized notes and slow lingering tunes. Yet hidden within the melancholic blips and bleeps that almost resemble a film score, are occasional bouts of seemingly orchestrated music, leaping out at the player for maximum effect, catching them by surprise and staying with them into the moments of silent exploration and serene breezes the game affords in between the intense percussion of laser gun battles and bloody murder.

Alx Preston, the game’s creator, has cited his own history of living with congenital heart disease as partly inspiring the main character’s journey through the game’s seemingly minimalist plot, which relies on ambiguous images and in game design without voice effects or text to explain plot and character.

The game’s success is ultimately going to be judged in how well or not it is able to invoke a sense of self preservation in individual players as they seek to understand and battle through its world.

So yes, in the end, all videogames are a deception.  But they are a deception – one must hope – for good.

They allow us to tell and live through stories and test how alone or together we are able to cope or overcome the most ridiculous or earth shattering of ordeals.

For many years, the industry has looked to create these sensations via increasingly cinematic narratives and graphics, or attempting to build hyper-real worlds and scenarios for players to get lost in.

Hyper Light Drifter aims to build a complex and affecting combat experience using seemingly outdated, minimalist components to create something challenging, personal and full-on.  Taking our simplistic memories of slash and shoot adventures, it adds something more to the appeal of the ‘retro game’ tag.  Thankfully, it is not alone.

It is a deception of course, but a very pleasant one as they go.

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