What We Can Learn About Narrative From Hyper Light Drifter

The following article covers plot points from the game, Hyper Light Drifter.

If there has ever been a cardinal rule in writing, it has been “Show, Don’t Tell.” This rule applies to narratives written for television, film, and novels, and has now found increasing application in gaming media. Showing instead of telling communicates a point in such a way that it allows the audience to make an interpretation and inference. This is important, as it mentally engages the audience with the narrative and makes them active participants in the story’s construction. An engaged audience is an entertained audience, and so allowing them to make inferences is important in keeping them involved with your narrative.

Hyper Light Drifter Dead Titan
Hyper Light Drifter traffics in powerful imagery than includes decay and death.

Hyper Light Drifter may be one of the ultimate manifestations of this principle ever conceived in gaming. Indeed, there are times when the game’s cut scenes mimic many of the principles adhered to in the Silent Age of film making, when directors had to evoke emotion and narrative from their actors’ behaviors and from the sequences of action happening around them. While nobody is arguing for a full return to silent narratives, it’s important to see what Hyper Light Drifter did that was so successful in terms of creating a story. The following video may assist the discussion to follow.

To briefly sum up the story, the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which a lone Drifter searches in the hope of destroying an evil computerized core that has spread decay across the land. The full lore is more in-depth, of course. This is a world that once saw a great war waged between giants and the local people, where the pursuit of immortality led to profaned technologies, and where current society teeters on the brink of survival while war-like tribes plague the countryside and robots from an ancient war amass to one day destroy all survivors.

It’s a fascinating world with some incredible lore, and interestingly, it’s all communicated without words. Brief cut scenes communicate parts of the mythos, short ‘dialogue’ exchanges (which are wordless and communicated entirely through pictures) fill in some of the personal plot lines, and the rest of the story is left to what the player visually sees in this ruinous existence. There are some ominous, ancient glyphs that are verbal and fill in a skeletal deep lore, but for the most part, the game is content to let players visually interpret their surroundings and make sense of this universe themselves.

Hyper Light Drifter
The Drifter constantly heaves and clutches his chest. He, too, is not well.

Take Hyper Light Drifter’s opening cut scene as a starting point. It begins with a city aglow, with a vast light overhead. The scene switches to four lights illuminating around what appears to be a central icon of Anubis, the Egyptian god associated with death and the afterlife. Following those four lights illuminating, the great light over the city turns purple, energy crisscrosses the city far below, and a massive explosion detonates from the city to the four regions of the world (North, South, East, and West) where the majority of the game’s action will take place. The aftermath is a tightly zoomed in shot of a river of blood and corpses, with gigantic titans roaming about in the far distance.

This is when the Drifter first makes his arrival, but rather than arrive in triumph and heroism, he immediately vomits blood. This blood then takes on the form of a hunting shadow, an image that will recur throughout the game and continuously cause distress and pain for the Drifter. It is typically associated with times when he weakens and falters. No matter how many times the Drifter strikes at it, it does not die and cannot be defeated. The final moments show the Drifter ascending vast stairs and staring, up close, into the gaping maw of three titans whose visages immediately begin to decay, crumble, and drift into particles.

Hyper Light Drifter Titans
The titans form a powerful closing image in Hyper Light Drifter’s opening scenes.

This all ends with a scene of Anubis pointing the Drifter toward a door into which he enters, indicating the way the Drifter must also go at some point in the future. How do we know this? During the time of the four lights illuminating the Anubis icon, during the sequences when the world exploded, and many times throughout the game, diamond shaped icons are associated with the way forward. The last vision the Drifter sees is this icon, shining brightly and pure, before it’s suddenly possessed and darkened by corruption.

The entire mission of the Drifter is laid out in those opening scenes, what happened at the center of the world is described, and essentially all of the core narrative is communicated within the game’s initial moments. Previously, we’ve described how good stories told in television, such as Daredevil, encapsulate the larger plot to a small degree from the moment the show kicks off. Hyper Light Drifter does exactly that here, and all the imagery we see afterward only reinforces and clarifies the narrative we witnessed at the start.

Hyper Light Drifter The Jackal
The Jackal imagery is associated with Anubis in our world, and the core of the world in Hyper Light Drifter.

For instance, Anubis himself is associated with a diamond shaped halo around his head, the same diamond that forms the shape of the world’s core. We can immediately associate the two. However, the darkened core indicates something has gone wrong in that relationship. Indeed, the darkness that plagues the core attacks the Drifter only moments later. The color of the core after its corruption is a shade of purple, the same color that the light hovering over the city turns once the icon of Anubis has been lit up. Whatever corruption occurred, it led to a cataclysm, one that set loose the titans.

Of course, as the player wanders the world, he can also begin making other inferences. For instance, some amount of time had to have passed between the cataclysm and modern times. The titans who the Drifter sees decaying in his dream can be found scattered around the world, drowned beneath the surface of a lake, buried in the ground, or lying dead along the side of a mountain. Somehow, these people fought back and achieved at least a limited victory. Whatever the corruption was, it wasn’t strong enough to destroy the world entirely.

The audience can also guess that, to some degree, the corruption affects the Drifter. After all, he vomits blood that becomes the hunting shadow associated with the corruption. Interestingly, this visual plays both into the lore of the game, as well as may hold larger significance outside the bounds of the medium. As an in-game visual, it tells us the Drifter’s mission is being resisted by the same corruption killing the world. As a symbol of disease, the Drifter’s inability to overcome it points to one of the great fears of mankind, that fear of the corruptibility of the body and the eventual inability to overcome our own human frailties.

Hyper Light Drifter’s visual presentations work on both a narrative and thematic level. It allows us to see the world of the Drifter, and reminds us of the human body’s own limitations. The game accomplishes so much with its visuals, it should act as a master class to anyone hoping to write for film, television, or gaming media. Words communicate things directly, but visuals stimulate the mind and engage an audience. Fans of Hyper Light Drifter spent time and effort discussing the meaning of the visuals and the history of the world, creating an engaged fanbase that rallied to different interpretations. Visuals also do more than stimulate the audience, however. They work on multiple levels, lending themselves various degrees of interpretation in both the narrative and thematic space. For all these reasons, this is one game that all writers and visual directors should study closely.

Hyper Light Drifter is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4, XBox One, and Ouya. A limited edition physical release arrives in April 2017.

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Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

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