Hyper Light Drifter was the first thing I ever backed on Kickstarter, it came at the perfect time, almost. I had my first job so had money of my own to do with as I please. And there was this beautiful game, colourful, challenging, with so much mystery surrounding it – I was pulled in immediately. I wasn’t too concerned with the finer details of the story, and then when the game finally came out, it turns out neither did it.
Depending on how old you are, you might not remember the time when there were games with barely any story. The original The Legend of Zelda really just plonks you in the world without any indication of where to go. Super Metroid was much more about atmosphere than any kind of narrative (although it was during that 16-bit era where we started to see games with more complex stories like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound). Even so, we look back on those games fondly because of what might be happening in these worlds. That’s exactly what makes Hyper Light Drifter so captivating.
When you first boot up HLD, you’re met with a series of short cutscenes, showing you your player character, the Drifter, fighting in some kind of war against these behemoth sized creatures, possibly robotic in origin. There’s no dialogue, only the excellent soundtrack by Disasterpiece accompanying the terrifying visuals.
From that point on, you only get hints about the state of the world through single images relayed by other characters, with no dialogue to be found. But they only ever really tell you about how things are, not how they were. To find out what was in the world, you need to interact with various monoliths across the four sections of the map. They show a holographic image of someone that fans named The Librarian, a historian who possibly left the numerous monoliths as records for others to find.
Thanks to a dedicated Steam guide maker, we’re able to understand the glyphs that can be found on each monolith, but with lines like “A LOSS OF SELF, A NARROW PATH TRAVELLED”, you start to get a sense that they won’t really tell you much. And that leaves you with only one thing to infer the story from, and that’s the world.
If you decide to head north first, you’re met with what I think is the best scenery in the game. The north harbours a mountain you must climb, with a magic-using cult at the top of it. There’s of course enemies to fight, secrets to find, but soon enough you’re met with a scenic view of more mountains in the distance. And across one of them lies one of the gigantic enemies you witnessed in the opening cutscene, sprawled across an entire mountain, lifeless.
When you travel deeper into the mountains, eventually you make it to where the (once again fan-dubbed) Titan lays, getting a close look at it. You never learn what felled the Titans, four of them lying dormant in the north, east, south, and west. There’s some amount of implication that the drifter you play as was involved in some way, but you don’t even really know the full extent of the protagonist’s history.
And the world continues to be the story as you progress through the game. The southern part of the world, an area best placed at the end of your journey due to difficult enemies, hosts a laboratory of some kind, inside of which you find one of the Titans. Each part of the map and the details on it continuously prompt you to ask questions about what did and didn’t happen. The west not only had a fallen Titan but a giant skull of some kind of creature. A game like Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t just put something like that there for decoration.
It’s an intriguing world to explore. The music always builds atmosphere in the perfect way, and as long as you aren’t having to fend for your life, everywhere is peaceful. Your journey throughout the game points to there having been some kind of horrible war, that thankfully you the player are spared from, but even if things are difficult now, there are moments of rest. If you don’t move for a while, the drifter opts to sit until you’re ready to keep playing. They get an opportunity to take in the environment, and in doing so you do as well.
I somewhat regularly find myself thinking about Hyper Light Drifter because there is so much about that world that I know will never be explained. And I don’t want it to be, either. The story is whispered to you, and you can’t quite make out what was said, but you’re captivated anyhow. I really do love a game with a long, complicated story. But sometimes, games like Hyper Light Drifter show that a little restraint goes a long way.