Hyper Light Drifter’s “Pixel Impressionism”

Hyper Light Drifter is an adventure / action game developed by Heart Machine. It released on the Nintendo Switch on September 6, 2018, costs $15, and is also available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

HLD Title

Hyper Light Drifter was one of the first indie games I ever played back in 2017 on my PC. And it is, in my opinion, one of the best games ever made. Had it not been for Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, it would have been my Game of the Year. This game takes the concept of pixel art into a direction beyond being just another “throwback.” It understands the visual style in a way that other pixel art indie games, even the good ones, don’t fully grasp. Hyper Light Drifter has embraced pixel art’s potential for outstanding impressionism.

Vista 1

Let me explain why. Our brains like to take in bits of information and “fill in the gaps” in order to make it meaningful. This is called top-down processing. The impressionist painters in the 19th Century used top-down processing when evoking the “feeling” of a place by purposely leaving out details. Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir used more broad brush strokes to focus on certain details while your imagination fills the rest in.

HLD Impressionism

Pixel art & animation, when done right, utilizes the same idea. With a simple array of squares, game artists can convey action, movement, scenery, and atmosphere. With such a precise yet limited medium, artists need to carefully choose which details to leave in and which to leave out.

Hyper Light Drifter feels like the first game to really use this strength to its fullest. And it’s not only with the gorgeous environments. The game uses key frames — frames where the action is at its apex — to make the Drifter’s animation feel fast and dynamic. The rest of the Drifter’s “movement” is filled in by the player’s gap-filling brain.

HLD Animation

The game’s impressionist influences doesn’t stop with its visuals, either. The soundtrack, done by Disasterpeace, is highly impressionistic. The theme Panacea sounds an awful lot like Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Hyper Light Drifter takes the concept a step further, and even makes the story impressionistic, leaving a trail of bread crumbs that compliment the gameplay and art style perfectly.

Dialogue 1

It begins with its wordless dialogue and cutscenes that play out like a Pixar short. However, you will have to explore the world to really make sense of it all, and thankfully, the game is designed to point you in that direction. It first trains you to pause and examine your environment with these breathtaking vistas, the soundtrack swelling to highlight the importance of these scenes. Most involve the remains of Titans that ravaged the land some time ago.

HLD Vistas

From there, you can find clues about the land’s violent past everywhere. Large robots and weapons lay in ruins near the central town. Sacrificial altars in the north reveal the dark nature of the bird cult’s coup d’etat. Remains of an awful war between stoats and frogs are still evident in the east. Green crystals consume the forest in the west, preserving an old conflict between wolverines and blue creatures not unlike the Drifter. A pink fuel substance similar to what the Drifter coughs up can be seen throughout the dungeons of all three regions.

HLD Details.png

And then in the south it all comes together. You discover a facility filled with stasis chambers, some with blue creatures similar to the ones you’ve seen earlier and… to yourself. A Titan lays unfinished underground, its beating heart and searching eyes are all that are in use. The most interesting part, however, are the statues of the 4 animal races in the facility. Sometime long ago these races must have worked together to create these wonders using the pink substance as fuel. But they were too ambitious. The Titans, monsters, and blue creatures turned against them. The war left all the races ruined and vulnerable to the pink disease and internal violence. You the Drifter likely came from where the blue creatures fled long ago, searching for a cure and hiding your true identity from the town’s citizens.

Story 7

But this is only the story I gleaned, the details that I filled in. Others will have a different story in their heads. And that’s something to Hyper Light Drifter’s benefit. The hallmark of most good impressionist pieces is that they’re open to your own interpretation. They give you an experience that’s uniquely yours.

What did you think of Hyper Light Drifter? What story did you get out of it? As always, if you like this discussion, then I suggest you watch some of these videos that helped get me inspired to write about this.

“The Importance of Key Frames // Run Cycles” by Dan Root:

“How Hyper Light Drifter Speaks to the Heart” by Dark Pixel Gaming:

“Analysis on: Hyper Light Drifter’s Visual Storytelling” by Analysis, Critique, and Gushing on Videogames:

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