Hylics: Game Design as Art Installation
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Hylics: Game Design as Art Installation

The debate as to whether video games should be considered works of art has existed for about as long as games themselves. It’s a question that’s worth pursuing in a semantic context, due to the definition of art’s effect on legal decision-making and the distribution of government funding, but one that has never really interested me on a critical level. 

As a music fan, I’m as keen to enjoy a more complex free jazz record by Ornette Coleman as a commercially-attuned trap song by Playboi Carti. Though the former might take some formal education to adequately describe, each is imbued with an iconoclastic creative spirit that moves me in the same way. In an online landscape in which I can approach each recording in the same place with relative ease, does one’s distinction as “high art” have any bearing on the listening experience? In my opinion, no. The same goes for games.

Wayne leaves his house in Hylics.

Despite my own ambivalence to how we classify one thing as art over another, I’m pretty fond of how Hideo Kojima answered the question in a 2006 interview

“I don’t think they’re art…video games. Art is the stuff you find in the museum, whether it be a painting or a statue,” he said. “What I’m doing, what video game creators are doing, is running the museum – how do we light up things, where do we place things, how do we sell tickets?”

If Kojima’s curatorial theory of game design has a platonic ideal, at least among indie titles, it’d have to be the Hylics series, developed almost solely by polymath Mason Lindroth. Released in 2015, the first entry in the duology arrived without much in the way of plot or context. There’s a skeleton of structure that makes the game playable — fetch quests and puzzles here, a convoluted Earthbound-inspired combat system there — but they merely exist as a canvas for Lindroth to paint on. 

Wayne explores the world of Hylics.

The real draw of Hylics’ two-hour quest, which follows protagonist Wayne’s journey to defeat Gibby, the king of the moon, is the scenery you’ll take in along the way. Nearly everything and everyone that exists in the game also exists in the real world — molded from clay by Lindroth’s own hand, photographed, then rendered into digital animation — forming a gnarled, bendy uncanny valley to explore. Pastel lumps of dough twist into innard surrealistic architecture and sigil-like shapes that would seamlessly fit into a late-night Adult Swim bumper or MTV animation block that aired in the mid-90s. 

Some of these plasticine entities happen to be living NPCs, though they tend to feel as decorative as the rest of the landscape. Their dialogue usually consists of randomly generated “poetry” derived from a Burroughs-ian “cut-up” technique, resulting in cryptic phrases like “it chills my burning life, but tyranny forget’d my vent.” Less friendly strangers like Clone Cultists or Malign Holograms might attack Wayne and his party, but the turn-based combat can be just as confusing as conversation, mostly consisting of hand gestures and occult symbols that dance across the screen. 

Lindroth even composed Hylics’ music, which is eerie enough to match the game’s visuals. Buzzing against the walls of its own low-resolution mix, the OST is jazzy and dissonant, guitar riffs wandering without proper resolution. Tunes like “Ruins” venture out on their own hero’s journeys, making plenty of dissonant detours along the way. Just as Hylics can be a digital painting in its overworld or a medium for sculpture in battle, it can feel like a music video as its protagonists wander through mazes or travel between clay continents. The mechanics of the game itself are merely museum halls (perhaps explored on a museum dose of psychedelics). 

Combat in Hylics 2.

If the first Hylics was a willful destruction of the JRPG formula, 2020’s Hylics 2 represented the genre rebuilt in Lindroth’s image. The sequel’s core mechanics are pretty similar to its predecessor, but it’s a much more polished product, clocking in at a beefy eight to ten hours of play. Battles feature massive hordes of microbe-shaped monsters that swim and dance across abstract backdrops. The music is slicker, awash in kitschy free-jazz production. Flying your airship now allows you to take in beautiful 3D vistas in third person. It’s an improved game in just about every since, though it’s much less revolutionary than the more humble debut. 

Short enough to feel like a dream you can’t quite remember, Hylics 1 is more of an encounter than a game — a puzzle box that raises questions and refuses to answer them. Though some may consider it a skippable demo version of its upgraded sequel, I still consider the former Hylics to be Lindroth’s true masterpiece, managing to shatter one’s concept of what a video game can be over the course of a single afternoon. 
If you take the origins of the game’s title into play, you’ll realize that it’s that very deconstruction of genre that acts as the true plot. In Gnostic tradition, hylics refers to the class completely unenlightened humans bound to daily routines and fleshy concerns like food or sex. The Gnostics believed that the physical world was formed by the Demiurge — a cruel and uncaring creator whose goal was to prevent his subjects from transcending the material realm. By subverting the empty drudgery of role-playing tropes, you, the player, and Wayne can help achieve true enlightenment together. All for just three bucks.

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