12 January 2017

Analyse This: The Story of Hyper Light Drifter... (Part 3)

A nice skeleton reference for the four main races...

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.



"Yours! ...in just 16 regular instalments."

Aside from the factual aspect of the tablet writings themselves, there will be a fair amount of conjecture in this entry – mainly because of the relative dearth of hard evidence and linking between different sources.

The writings on each of the four sets of four tablets in each area correspond to the events that have occurred in the past for each of the four races within their respective areas. However, as per the rest of the game’s events, the clarity of each statement and to whom it refers is quite limited.

I’m going to proceed in order of the sequence in which I complete the game starting with the Eastern area:

1. An isolated people, fearful and obsessed.
2. Offering of a great, cleansing flame.
3. A poisoned, maddened homeland.
4. Fragile balance scorched, undone.

Rest in piece (and thanks for the outfit!)...

Before I get into the meat of the translation, remember (as per Part 2) that the turquoise bird has written these histories of the world quite some time ago and their skeletal remains, along with their outfit, are found in the tablet sanctuary. It appears that the individual writing these tablets is one of the librarians from the bird library before the black birds took over the Northern area and started enforcing their bloody religion on everyone. Anyway, onto the analysis:

Although it is not certain who is being talked about in the first two entries, it is assumed by many that is it the toads. It's certainly possible that this is the case but I believe that it instead refers to the otters. You see, all around the underground portions of the Eastern area are purifying machines. They change the water from a green sludge to a clear blue. The water is poisoned and it appears that this poison might be originating from the defeated titan which lies beneath the water, leaking the pink goo. It is also around these areas that the pink flame plates and spouts gush out periodically. The main refining* area to the south of the Eastern area takes the pink goo out of the water and sets it alight, creating the pink flame.

The deeper down you go, the more green the water becomes but these machines appear to be extracting the 'green' and as a by-product, the pink flame is created..

The pink flame appears only in the Eastern area and it is also incorporated into some of the otter statues of offering. We don't know who exactly 'offered the pink flame' but clearly someone provided the technology (possibly the lizards?) to purify the contaminated water of the isolated, fearful and obsessed otter people. This brings us onto the final two tablet writings and gives us a hint at why we're seeing the events we see in the recent history unfold the way they do.

As we can see from the rough map that was produced during development (below), it's likely that the toad homeland is around the outskirts of the water shelf where the otters reside. Even though the otters have the technology to purify their own water it appears that the toads do not and that their land is being poisoned as the water that is further down in the water shelf is more contaminated than that at the top.

Presumably the balance mentioned between the otters and the toads is political but it could also be some sort of natural harmony between the two aquatic races. At any rate, this imbalance, anger and contamination leads to their invasion of the otters' lands to get their hands on the pink flame - which the toads believe is what is purifying the water but, in their limited understanding they don't realise that it is actually the machines that are purifying the water and the flame is just a by-product. It also leads to the genocide and enslavement of the otters as a direct consequence of the otter's actions in the past.

The names are actually 'read' by a fan but the final area names can be taken from the soundtrack...

I think this makes more sense than some sort of unprovoked attack by the toad people on the otters. Genocide and enslavement on this scale are usually not without some strong emotional founding.

"Why so serious..?"

In the Northern area the tablets read as the following:

1. Transcendence, faith, immortality.
2. Rifts crafted, dangerous potential.
3. A foundation for faith & violence.
4. A loss of self, a narrow path traveled**.

From what the turquoise bird hermit tells us and from the visual cues in their realm, the birds were a race of historians/librarians and took revered their eggs - possibly as part of some religious significance. The black birds overthrew all that when they started a religion which was based on gaining immorality through transcendence using their ‘magic’. They kicked the turquoise birds out of the North, destroying their egg shrines/hatcheries and wreaking havoc on the collected knowledge and wisdom in their vast library.

Apologies for the large gif!

Images from a PAX 2014 build of the game..

We know that the black birds practised transcendence due to a 2014 build of the game which showed-off the northern area in its then-state. Instead of the blue-skinned guide telling us about the hierophant, there was the black bird now located in the central city telling us of the transcendence ritual. We also see the hierophant perform this action as we enter his court though it occurs incredibly quickly and most people won't be able to discern what's happening so I slowed it down for you, just above.

You're no bird!

This religion also included a form of sacrifice – not only using the bird peoples but otters too. The meaning of all four of the tablet writings is focussed on the rise of this religion and its curtailing of free thought and the rifts created between the turquoise birds and the black birds. As a result, this is the easiest area to understand in terms of the writings on the tablets.

Damn... Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the Western area the tablets read as the following:

1. Precious moments captured by crystal.
2. A stillness of mind, skill honed sharp.
3. Midnight looming.
4. Trapped by desperation to remain.

There is more ambiguity in these writings because of the multiple meanings that can be implied here. The first statement is easy – the crystal cannons exploded, causing the crystalisation of a large portion of the Western area, including the majority of its inhabitants. I think that ‘a stillness of mind’ refers to the raccoons and wolves who were affected by the crystal but which were not encased in it entirely. These raccoons lost their conscious thought and reasoning abilities, essentially becoming ‘crystal zombies’. They still retained their combat skills but lost all other aspects of their personalities and so will attack almost anything that enters their sphere of awareness. Though why they don’t fight the dirks or each other is an interesting oversight in this theory or in the game’s implementation (they only included the dirks cohabiting with the crystal raccoons in a couple of places in the West so it might have been for enemy variation and challenge rather than a cohesive vision of what behaviour should be observed for the crystal raccoons).

‘Midnight looming’ could, quite honestly, refer to anything dour. Either it’s their darkest hour, ‘the end is nigh’, etc. etc. I think this is just a stark outlook for the future of these creatures because, whether they want it to or not, they are slowly being consumed by the crystal. In this state they are subconsciously desperate to remain alive – it is a natural thing to want to fight to live, to survive. But eventually, as with the area boss, they will all be consumed by the crystal. The wood itself is also named "The Midnight Wood" as confirmed by both the soundtrack and the early development map pictured back towards the beginning of this entry.

... Sorry.

What is interesting is that there are no raccoons in the central city when all the other major races (and many minor races) are present. The only remaining non-violent raccoon is the old hermit who tells us the story of the titan’s defeat and his escape from the crystal that encased him some time later. The hermit is very old now compared to when he was released from the crystal. It is strange that none of the other raccoons are similarly aged, despite taking part in this past conflict, unless they are ‘still’ from the corruption of the crystal and the hermit was just lucky*** in not being affected. This implies that there really are none left – their race is dead – and this could be the allusion to 'midnight looming'...

The period of time between the events of the 'downfall' and 'years ago' in this elderly lizard's tale appears to have been enough that the lizards have no idea as to what's occurred or is occurring underground...

In the Southern area the tablets read as the following:

1. Overwhelming wonders and power.
2. Desperate hunger for progress.
3. Distortion of life, devouring body.
4. The first victim of the invasion.

The lizards were a highly technologically advanced race. They focussed on robotic technology and they were extremely powerful in this sense. They had a rapacious hunger for knowledge and advancement utilising that knowledge.

This is where things get a little murky.

The third statement is talking about genetic modification of beings. However, although in my mind the reason for this distortion of life is understood, the exact events that occurred for that to come to pass is not understood. Let me get what I understand out of the way and then move onto the speculation.

The distortion of life is speaking about the effect the pink goo being harvested from the underground titan has on live beings. You can see The Drifter’s blue-skinned species being morphed into dirks, you can see the green blobs being grown in smaller pink tubes and the leapers being grown in larger tubes. You can also see the remains of lots of experiments on the blue-skinned race where they were restrained and then, later on, after seeing lizard corpses dead where they fought their own robotic creations, we see experimentation on a lizard corpse.

Clearly, this wasn't 'optional'...

The final statement is also very easy to parse: signals from the activation of the AI were picked up by an alien race who then travelled to the planet and attacked, Independence Day-style. We see their crashed ships all over the Southern area and a couple up in the Northern area as well. They destroyed the surface of the Southern area, turning it into a barren wasteland and all but eradicating the lizards from the face of the planet before turning their attention to the other species. This was the blue-skinned race.

We know they fought on the side of the titans as we see them encased in crystal next to the titan advancing on the crystal cannons position. We also see their skeletons rotting in the cells of the raccoon’s prison in the western area. We see their bodies in the East and early Northern areas as well as all around the central city where the robots fought their advance (there’s even a crashed ship with skeletons of the blue skinned race falling out of it by the Southern gate).

A heavily armed warship... there are smaller ships scattered around the rest of the areas.

The big problem with our understanding of the history is that we don’t know the exact order of events after that first invasion:

- Did the blue skins bring the titans with them?
- Did the blue skins build the titans once they arrived?
- Did the lizards kill a titan and begin to analyse it before they were then destroyed when their technology was corrupted by the pink goo it generated?

This gap in the evidence of the order of events means that we can only guess what, exactly, occurred. However, it appears that the ultimate outcome of having the titan underground, pumping its pink goo out of it corrupted the lizard’s technology and turned it against them. The evidence for this lies in the opening cutscene, the fact that the lizards had to fight their own robots, the final boss and in the final piece of historical text that I will discuss next.

"Knowing is half the battle!"

A companion text is unlocked in the Northern area library (located just before the area boss). This tells us the story from an overall perspective:

Harnessing a great wellspring, a perfect immortal cell was crafted to be imbued within all sentient life. A noble goal, though such power terrified others, and brought ruin as its purpose was transmogrified. The abhorrent cell still festers deep in the chambers of this world.

So, my direct understanding of this passage is the following:

Using great power (maybe their equivalent of nuclear power combined with some sort of EM wireless technology), a computerised AI was created to interface with all sentient life on the planet in order to provide them with information and guidance (think of it like our internet or sci-fi worlds when people have implants – only without the implants). Some thought this was a great idea and others thought it was a dangerous thing – much like our discussions over current networking paradigms and linking of masses of databases. This AI was somehow corrupted and the access to all this data and control of mechanical and robotic systems brought about the ruin of the world as we know it. This AI is still active in its lab which is apparently beneath the surface.

It's essentially a combination of SkyNet and Independence Day.

Why do I think this? Well, there are several reasons and one of them is down to Alex Preston. First off, the themes of this game are repeatedly about technological power and our fragile relationship with it. You might even say that this might derive from his experiences throughout life when he’s been hooked up to medical machinery that is keeping him alive but stopping him from experiencing life or having a high quality of life (I'm inferring possibilities here). Or you could say that he sees it in our society today when the conversations surrounding privacy, encryption and data mining, etc. occur. These are very modern questions that we, as societies are still answering.

Like the best sci-fi, Hyper Light Drifter asks a question of us by hiding that question within an abstracted framework.

You can view it like this: The lizards were destroyed by their own technology being usurped from them. The raccoons were destroyed when their technology blew up in their faces because they didn’t understand it enough. The otters were destroyed because they (perhaps) hoarded their technology or used it to pollute the toad’s homeland. The birds were destroyed because they rejected technology and knowledge or because they decided that totalitarian control was best.

Therefore the game is not about being immortal or becoming immortal through technology as others might believe because no one in the game actually is immortal. Everyone dies. It’s also strange how quickly people were to jump to the conclusion that the AI dog is a god or that there are supernatural elements in the story of this game because the game, as presented, is actually very grounded. The most supernatural thing are the black bird species’ attack powers but that might be just because they are cooked up to be presented as supernatural – much like a magician, psychic or fortune teller are all utilising (either consciously or subconsciously) real, scientifically understandable phenomenon; their ‘stage show’ lends the extra element that makes it more palatable to us as consumers. Derren Brown’s shows were all about utilising this showmanship in order to perform the sleight of hand or social engineering required to pull off the stunts. However, he also informed us as consumers about the tricks that were going on in order to con us and, potentially, use us and shape us into instruments of a collective machine. So, I have to conclude that the bird’s attack powers are not supernatural either.

I feel like I've seen this before...

Another reason I believe this is that the AI is reaching out with ‘visions’ to many individuals that are from different races and occupations. We know of three for certain: The Drifter, the Pink Drifter and The Buffalo. Given that there is little by way of themes or visuals linking these three different individuals, it can be concluded that the dog AI has the potential ability to send messages to every sentient being that is alive. We also observe the dog AI losing connection with The Drifter on many occasions – both in visions and whenever The Drifter is low on health – through artifacting on the screen.

Remember: green is good, pink is bad! White is also good...

As to the corruption, the process of it seems pretty straightforward. The pink goo is seen to corrupt ‘flesh’ in the Southern area where creatures are created or altered within it. It can be observed leaking out of the sunken titan in the Eastern area and, with a bit of a stretch, you could say that it corrupted the green crystal technology of the raccoons in the Western area to create the crystal forest. You also see it in the square blocks deep underground and leaking around the AI diamond core.

I don't know why but the first time I tried to capture the ending to this game, my capture device would not record it... Hence the crappy logo obscuring the image in the corner as it's recorded directly from the PS4's sharing features. I think this is the only thing I was unhappy with in the game... Please, take note for the future, Heat Machine.

As to what, exactly, it is – that is the signal to move onto speculation. Since the game is informed by personal illness, ties to technology and how they interface and affect one another my own take on this is that the titan that is buried deep in the Southern area was being harvested by the lizards. However, the titan AI which was still active within it (Judgement) was able to interface and take control of the lizard’s systems. This AI was able to then spread slowly throughout the rest of the network (we see the lines on the map leading to the central laboratory) and eventually began to infest the AI installation.

"Yep... that thar's a classic case of venereal disease. Who you been 'interfacing' with?"

The AI fought back but was not able to resist the onslaught of the titan AI. The visual cues that green is good and pink is bad (technology lighting-wise) and the backgrounds of the square blocks (which may be computers or power cells or something) being changed from green to pink; the opening cinematic changing of the AI core being changed from white to mostly pink all mirrors a viral or bacterial infection that could lead to serious, long-term health issues.

As I mentioned before, because of the muddiness of the timeline around the blue-skins, titans and resultant war, I can’t say whether this titan was defeated by the lizards and then ‘captured’, mortally wounded and experimented upon for the lizard’s gain in knowledge. But delving into the titan’s secrets was clearly their undoing and the AI core’s undoing.

In Summary:

So what do we think we know now up to this point?

  • The themes of the game are about how our relationship with technology can be complicated
  • Technology might be used against us, as a reason for us to fight one another or to gain control by abandoning the knowledge it can bring, overwhelm us if we don't understand it and ultimately save us because we create it to do just that
  • The pink goo from the titans is corrupting the world (in more than one way)
  • The dog AI is being attacked by a Titan AI which is still trying to win the war against the world's inhabitants
  • The blue-skins are aliens who fought against the peoples of this world but who were ultimately defeated****
  • The peoples of this world were ultimately defeated because the titan AI was able to wrest control away from the dog AI of the robot factories and begin churning-out genetic monsters, thus stopping any chance of recovery after the initial war was ended

In the next instalment, I will look at the themes around the supernatural that Heart Machine have placed into the game and what I think the remaining, unspoken elements should be and how they all relate to a coherent whole. (i.e. lots of conjecture. If you want, skip to the end and read the following entry to see the story of Hyper Light Drifter as drawn from all the presented evidence and conjecture thus far*****.)

*I call it the refining area because the music played there is called "The refiner's fire".
**This confused me for a while because I had no idea Americans spelled 'travelling' differently.
***Or unlucky: being the last of your species is no joke...
****I didn't mention it but the beating-up of the blue-skin drunk in town corroborates this:

I quite liked these guys when they sold me upgrades and stuff... Now I know they're just racist jerks!

*****I'll post the link "When it's done!" :P

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