30 December 2016

Analyse This: The Story of Hyper Light Drifter... (Part 2)

By your powers, combined...

Just a reminder that this series discusses aspects of the game Hyper Light Drifter and will veer wildly into spoiler territory from the get-go.


Races of the world:

There are several, what we will term, 'minor' races the player will encounter in the game world - these being identified as not those of the four founding races of the AI. The founding races are seen as the main 'owners' of the four adventuring areas - the North, South, East and West. These are, respectively, the birds, lizards, otters and raccoons. Of the minor races there are many but these include - buffalo, black, blue, pink, synthetic, rat, mouse, goat, turquoise bird and toad.

However, there are hints of a fifth major race in the world. many fans call these 'the monolith race' but, as we'll soon see, there is no such race as being the owner of the monoliths and yet there are hints at not one but two unidentified races.

As I mentioned above, the four main races come together and pool their knowledge/resources into a great project. They create the AI which is depicted with the image of a dog with a diamond of light around its head. Those four races are depicted as the birds, raccoons, lizards and otters and are laid out in the diamond formation in their cardinal points of land ownership on the world map.

The bird, raccoon and otter races have lots of iconography associated with them and their areas, as seen below, but the lizards do not. This discrepancy is explained by the tablets found in the Southern area and is discussed later.

Statues in profile and facing the camera, displaying their respective offerings...

What is important about these statues is that they are not merely depictions of the race in question but show what the species offered towards the great project. It's a bit difficult to determine exactly what each offering is signifying but if I had to make an educated guess it is the following: the birds offered their 'magic', the otters offered their control over water, the raccoons offered their control over the green crystal. Since there are no statues of the lizard's offering it is difficult to say how or what they would have looked like given that there is no overt imagery of the race within the game but it is pretty safe to say they the lizards offered their advanced robotics technology.

What is also interesting is that it is a corrupted form of each of these offerings that ended up bringing each race to their knees: The raccoons were 'infected' with their crystal, becoming zombie-like entities. The otters' ceded control of their water to another race and in so doing, lost their lives. the birds were overthrown from within by more powerful/aggressive users of their magic. Finally, the lizards were undone through their advanced technology by inviting the very thing that destroyed them so quickly..

The other, minor races, do not have any iconography associated with themselves throughout the game with two exceptions.

But a shrine to what?

In the Eastern area, there are two identical 'shrines'. These are marked on the map as special buildings but when visiting them these shrines do not depict the otters offering water but instead a different race, not only controlling water by holding it in their cups but 'creating' it from their mouths as well as from the central water feature. This race does not much look like any other in the game with the exception of the lizards; their hunched backs and saw-tooth mouths are closest to their physiology as observed in the game.

The two shrines marked in the red circles...

Could this race have given the otters their power over water? It's pretty much impossible to say.

Further to this mystery is the second representation of another race:

Those are two, ugly-looking, dudes...

On the coast between the Northern area where the bird kingdom lies and the central city/town, there is the place were we start the game. This leads through a pair of statues (like those seen above) to an area which overlooks the central city. The path heads underground to the place where the player gets their pistol and then into a building filled with lights around the doorway. Two more statues (as seen above) flank an, initially, blank wall which fills with the writings of each discovered tablet. Once they are all complete, the player is able to unlock an equipment set.

This equipment set (called Ochre by fans of the game) is the one worn by the turquoise bird we see writing the tablet messages.

Lookin' snazzy! Though the sprite is colour-shifted due to the 'holographic' nature of the visuals...

This is why I don't believe there is any individual tablet/monolith race - the drifter we see accessing the tablets during gameplay is one of the bird species from the past as they have left their equipment behind for us to unlock and use. Maybe this bird wrote what we read on the tablets but if they did then they did so relatively recently because the tablets themselves reference both the distant and recent past. Update: I realised when writing the next entry that the tablet writing do not reference anything of recent history and that the remains of the bird are (probably) the skeleton next to the resting place of the outfit.

However, because this drifter is quite clearly a bird and the birds are represented by both the offering statues above and the more archaic 'gargoyle' heads below then this other race is linked only to this small area.

One example of the bird's sacrificial altars. See the four heads in profile on the walls? Birds...

I actually have two theories as to which species this is but first we have to understand where this imagery came from. You see, this is an example of re-used artwork. Luckily for us, during development, Heart Machine showed off the game at several events and to various publications at different stages of the project's completion. You see, early on in development, it seems like this style of statue was more prevalent in the game.

Originally, this statue was used to represent the otter race in the Eastern area but later on, these were replaced with less menacing sculptures that also had different ear features. In some ways, this makes identifying the real race more complicated because it throws in a third race into the mix of possible answers - this could still be some archaic otter statue-work. I'm going to go with my gut here and say that I don't think these statues, as they have been changed for final use in the game, have anything to do with the otters.

I composited two screen caps to illustrate the frontal and profile views of the statues here...

So that leaves our other two suspects. Who are they? First up are the goat people. We only see one goat in the game - they reside in the central town sniffing flowers, although I'm pretty sure they are recuperating after their brush with near-death before The Pink Drifter saved them and their companion.

There's a voice that keeps on calling me. Down the road, that's where I'll always be. Every stop I make, I make a new friend. Can't stay for long, just turn around and I'm gone again...

The reason this is a possibility is due to the anatomy displayed on the statue: horn-like protrusions stick out the back of their heads.

They even left the base of the upper stone on top...

The second possibility is that this area is the last hold-out of the lizard's empire. Even though the lizards are never shown having horns, those protrusions could be ears instead and, given that the lizards are the only species that are shown to be technologically gifted, these statues are the only ones which have any sort of 'electric stuff' on them. The doorway into the tablet collection is also lit-up like a christmas tree - something you only see in the technological areas of the game in the South and under the central city - and now-defunct robotic guards kneel silently inside. Again, the only other places we see the (non-eyebot) robots are as derelicts around the central city and both as derelicts and actives in the South.

We also see a lot of heavy ordinance and sea defences protecting this small area (czech hedgehogs, robotic sentries and manned laser walkers) which otherwise appears to have no purpose beyond the tablet writings: there are no abodes here and no other facilities than this one and although there is the stairway up to the bird's kingdom, there are no defences placed in that direction... Though there is the teleporter that leads directly into the city.

So, although we know that this place was important and we don't know why or what its function was, there is one more piece of evidence pointing to this area being under the control of the lizards. At Pax East, there was demonstration gameplay featuring a walk up a stairway into the bird's domain (which is significantly different from the final game area). What is interesting is that this thematic ascent, sort of pictured below from an unknown source, is similar to the descent into this area from the bird area in the North.

It's altered from the demo video, somewhat, but those statues look more like lizards than birds...

The statues look totally different, the ascent looks pretty different and the bird's domain looks really different so this is a bit of a stretch but, looking through the lens of developmental changes I can potentially see a heritage there.


The hologram of the turquoise bird drifter pops up whenever the player activates a tablet, unscrambling its meaning...

In the game, the player can encounter what have been termed monoliths by players but which are called 'tablets' by the game's achievements, as indicated above. These are, initially, blank slabs of what appears to be stone which, after having been interacted with by The Drifter and his Sprite (think a Batteries Not Included PDA), will reveal themselves to be a writing. Each of the four areas has four tablets and these writings, once activated, will be collected in the area between the Northern area and the central city. Activating all the writings will avail a new text in the hidden library in the Northern area. Luckily, other players, who are far more intelligent in this area than I am, managed to translate the language and the writings.

There are actually two, obviously distinct written languages in the game. First off, the tablet language which adorns the tablets and library text and, secondly, the interface language - which can be found both on the game interface, The Drifter's HUD interface, the shop interface and on many of the carvings found within the world itself.

In my mind, the tablet language appears to be a sort of call-back to runic writings whilst the interface language appears to be a sort of cuniform-inspired style of writing, consisting of logograms as well as phonetic representations. Unfortunately, it appears that nobody else has even tried to decode this second language - even though it appears to be tied to the elusive race that occupied the tablet temple and created a lot of technology within the world.

Some examples of the language from the inventory, menu system and game world.

Now, it's entirely possible that this second language is just nonsense - an artistic flair added in by the game's designers. However, the level of thought gone into the themes associated with the different world bosses, the backstory and the runic system for the tablets makes me want to look for more here. There is also a clue that there is something intelligible in these markings because when the inventory for gearbytes increases, the writing changes. If it were just an artistic flourish then I don't know why it would do this when no other interface element changes when 'everything' of 'something' (i.e. keys, modules, etc) is collected.

Either way, the logogram at the top of the pink writings on the left in the image above looks suspiciously like the potential lizard statue...

In Summary:

  • There were four primary races that each contributed something to the project to make the AI
  • Those contributions ended up becoming each races' own downfall
  • There is no 'tablet/monolith' race, the races all use the same alphabet for writing and communicating
  • The Ochre drifter is the tablet hologram we see when activating them
  • The area between the Northern area and the central city appears to have been controlled by the lizards - perhaps their last refuge
  • Although the tablet language has been decoded there may be a second language to decode, though this might be less interesting to understand

Next time we'll take a look at the written history of the world of Hyper Light Drifter.

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