30 December 2016

Analyse This: The story of Hyper Light Drifter... (Part 1)

That is a cool sword...

I've been playing Hyper Light Drifter over the last month or two months. I think it's a great game and I have a 'Post Thoughts' that I'm working on but, after having been intrigued by the visual world and its hinted at backstory, I wanted to explore the lore of what was going on in the game.

Other fans of the game have come up with their own explanations as to the history of the world but I wasn't entirely satisfied with those so I started cataloguing the different pieces of evidence.

As usual, there will be spoilers below:

Before we even get to the in-game evidence, we need to consider the reason for the game existing at all. Alex Preston, the game's primary developer, had several interviews leading up to the release and after its success. All painted the game as a sort of oeuvre of his life-to-date fighting disease and infections. I've linked the clearest article and this little excerpt will hint to you where i'm going with this analysis:

"This is all metaphor – and it is about the game’s developer Alex Preston. “I’ve dealt with serious health issues since I was born: congenital heart disease, to start,” he says. “A plethora of digestive and immune system problems have left me hospitalised on numerous occasions, often near death. This gives me a certain perspective on life, and plays into the stories I want to tell."

Hyper Light Drifter's story is, ultimately, about life and death - the sacrifices, compromises and battles we must face in order to live just one more day. It also explores the 'human condition'; wanting to live forever and what people will or might do in order to achieve that goal.

Many words in speculative fiction have been devoted to this idea - that crazed or misguided genius or fear leads to unspeakable horrors in the pursuit of extended life or immortality: A subject for which I've been quite hard on Crystal Dynamics latest two entries in the Tomb Raider series. At any rate, this is fertile ground for the game to explore a personal life through externalisation to that of a complete world. This process can be used to make the message or discussion less painful for both the speaker and those listening at the potential expense of those listeners not understanding the true message being conveyed. 

This was used to great extent in the Bible and other ancient texts that utilised parable in order to convey a complicated message through obscured real life experiences. Though, given that (at least in later times) listeners are told exactly what the meaning of the parable was, these realisations might be cheaper than they once might have been. Without a time machine, it is impossible to go back and know how those texts were read and communicated originally... so let's stick with the present.

The designers of this game were very clever in their presentation. Maybe, like the parables I mentioned above, a little too clever. However, I think that, much like the Zelda timeline theory communities and other mysteries in gaming, this will add to and extend the life of what I think is a perfectly crafted game. What I mean by the designers being too clever is that because there is only visual storytelling throughout the game multiple interpretations can be drawn and, more importantly, imagery can be misinterpreted because it can purposely or accidentally mislead. 

To quote the immortal Bart Simpson: "Let me start at the start, then take it away,"

The beginning:

In the beginning, the world is at peace, united...

The introduction shares with the player unambiguous imagery, cut with ambiguous imagery: a merging of the events of the past and The Drifter's (the player character) place in that world. You see, this isn't the viewer seeing the world through a camera lens, we are seeing this through the dreams of the Drifter - a dream that is shared by many people in the world the player finds themselves within. 

We have evidence that other people in the world also share these, or similar dreams. Not only are other 'Drifters' (most notably the pink Drifter who rescues you at the beginning of the game and who dies just as you enter the Southern zone) experiencing the dream but there's also the buffalo-type humanoid in the arena challenge area in town who explicitly tells you about the dream of reaching for the pink diamond - which we will get to in just a moment. There is also a sickness in the world but it is not apparent whether everyone has it; The Drifter is ill with this disease (if it is even a disease).

The 'disease' itself is the one thing that muddies the debate...

Back to that introduction: the world as it is presented to us is not the same as the world we explore throughout Hyper Light Drifter. This world is shown as a four-leaf clover style affair with a central city and four green prongs of land surrounding it. Those prongs have signs of life on them, but nothing to rival the city. However, I don't think this is meant to be a literal image of the world of Hyper Light Drifter... for instance, we do not ever see such a light show as is seen here:

... and all is well for these lands...

The ending shows the big luminescent glowy thing that hovers above the big city slowly evaporating... and this is the first hint that the game isn't being entirely honest with the player. What we're seeing is some form of visual representation of the events that took place, not a realistic depiction. In the same way we can't 'see' radio waves - black & white films used to depict their transmission visually to help the audience with a non-intuitive concept - we also can't see transmissions going into space... The actual physical world appears unchanged from the beginning to the end of the game. The perspective we see appears to be skewed so that how we see the lands is not how we experience them in the game: for instance, the lands in the East are actually the blue area in the North West here... What is interesting is that there are mountain ridges depicted on all sides of the central city. Possibly this is just an aesthetic choice to reflect the light emanating from it and to provide a lighting contrast and is an artistic choice rather than some sort of deeper clue or comment on the world we observe other than that the city is the centre of civilisation: It is a shining light into the darkness...

Anyway, in the beginning, the four main races come together in a great project:

And they said, "Let there be light!"

Their pooled knowledge and power gave rise to what other fans have termed Anubis, whom I will expand upon later in this analysis. However, for the time being I will refer to it as the 'AI'. Immediately after the activation of this entity, the scene shows beams of light being transferred between different points on the land and, at the same time, being emanated skyward. Finally, after an explosion of light, a huge beam of light is emitted from the central city.

*Wubwubwubwubwub.... ZOOM!*

The screen is bled to white from the emanation and immediately in the aftermath, both the titans/giant figures and the dead humanoid races in the river appear. In the midst of all this carnage, The Drifter (player character) appears in his iconic uniform, standing in the river turned red with blood. The bodies disappear and he doubles over, coughing up blood. In The Drifter's sickness, he is attacked by a spreading black goo monster (who we know from the Steam trading cards to be named after the tarot card, 'Judgement'). Judgement is a formless black-coloured entity that grows from the blood The Drifter coughed-up. It also has a single, pink-coloured diamond in the centre of it's 'head' indicating its 'face'.

The Drifter attacks the monster with his light sword, splitting it in two, only to watch as it reforms immediately but in an altered fashion. Right before it reforms there is a flash of an image of the soon-to-be-often-recurring diamond shape changing from white to the same shade of pink that Judgement's face and The Drifter's blood are.


With this, Judgement is transformed from an amorphous organic blob to a new, semi-synthetic life form. Also incorporated into its 'face' is the diamond form observed in the flash images. At the emergence of this new threat, The Drifter runs away, the organic ooze of Judgement rising in his footsteps. However, the ooze doesn't just organically grow; it phases into existence as well - appearing from nothing but a flash of pink light.

Clearly, the pink thing is a thing...

The Drifter continues running and appears atop a vast stone staircase only to be confronted by three of the titans we had previously observed in the distance. Their mouths are gaping open, showing their hideous teeth and pink lights shine from their eye sockets and their bodies; they are clearly synthetic in origin as their bodies have metallic surfaces and edges. Lightning strikes from the clouds above and washes the screen white and when the view returns the titans are dead and decaying, the pink lights extinguished. The camera switches to view The Drifter head-on as he watches the scene unfold: ashes of reddish fires whirling past in the breeze and flashes of white lights reminiscent of explosion flashes on a battlefield fill the screen around him in echo of the lightning strikes.

Finally, a really bright light fills the screen as it had done in the transition to the dead titans, slowly revealing a black dog figure with glowing pink eyes - the same colour pink as seen in the previous scenes. when something technological was occurring. The black dog has a diamond-shaped halo around its head. This is where stuff really starts to get surreal: The dog is sitting in the same shallow water that The Drifter and monster were fighting in. It turns its head to regard the distance whereupon four pillars rise from the water and, once they are raised, a fifth pillar bursts out of the water directly in front of The Drifter (who is now standing next to the dog) and the dog. The previous four pillars rose serenely out of the water without any obvious signs of mayhem but this may be because they are so far away that it can't be seen. However, the new, fifth pillar erupts with a spray of pink and an electronic blast similar to when the titans arose and the organic monster grew with the pink energy.

When the pillar is fully revealed, at its base lies a door which opens after a diamond engraving lights up with a pink light, signifying its unlocking. This door is flanked by two images of black dogs standing to attention with pink, glowing eyes.

"Open sesame!"

The dog then proceeds to casually walk inside and The Drifter follows as the screen fades to black. The Drifter then appears, struggling to break through some entangled, black, organic vine-like growth - similar to that observed as part of the black monster. Behind this mass is a glowing white light. As The Drifter tears the vines down, they regrow, slowly with a flash of pink light/energy.

With a sudden outburst, the shadowy shape of the diamond glows bright with white light, pushing the entangled vines back. With this new opening, The Drifter reaches out to the diamond but is pulled back as a pink-energy growth of the black vines pulls him to his knees. Fighting against the restraint, The Drifter continues to reach towards the diamond as the intensity of its light increases, continuing the thin-out the blackness all around him.

There is change in perspective during this sequence to a purely symbolic representation of what happens next: The diamond shape on a white background is transformed to the same shape in that 'evil' pink colour on a black background with a white inner diamond contained within the pink colour.

Our view switches back to the diamond in the 'real world' in front of the drifter - it is now pink in colour and emanating a pink light; feeding the blackness, allowing the vines to grow and consume the screen and The Drifter.

A never-ending conflict...

The perspective switches to that of the diamond - observing The Drifter's struggle. The Drifter rips and tears* at the black vines which re-grow with flashes of pink energy, getting closer to him and ensnaring him in their tangle. With each flash of pink energy growth, the screen briefly flickers with increasing static, returning to a redder and redder hue until our last image is of nothing.

*Zzz Zttt zzzzt.... zwuuuuuh*

The Drifter then awakes on the coastline near a camp fire located underneath a cubist form of stone sculpture. In the background is the sea and a lot of wreckage (e.g. a sword slashed through a building of some sort, standing on a rocky outcropping). Rain is hurling from the sky with what looks like sleet. The sculpture appears to be that of a four-eyed dog.

This is the beginning of the game as the player now takes control.

The imagery has been flowing thick and fast up until this point and it's difficult for a person to fully absorb it all on the first or even subsequent playthroughs.

In Summary:

What can be surmised from the game thus far is the following:

  • The world was at peace and entering a golden era
  • 'Pink' is 'bad' and corrupting
  • There was a signal or emanation caused by the creation of the AI
  • The titans arrived (through whatever means) as a result of the signal
  • A great war was fought, costing untold lives
  • The black entity with a pink diamond for a face, Judgement, came from the blue species
  • The people of the world fought back at Judgement, critically wounding it
  • Judgement corrupted the AI and fused itself into a cybernetic entity of some sort
  • The titans were defeated in the war
  • The AI shows the player how to get to itself by raising the four towers/columns
  • The AI is able to fight the corruption and Judgement but is not winning
  • Judgement is able to sever the connection between The Drifter and the AI

Next time we take a look at the lore within the gameplay...

*DOOM reference!

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