Hyper Light Drifter—one of my favorite games of the past few years—is coming out with a shiny new deluxe edition this summer/fall. So in honor of me spending too much money on things I don’t need, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the game!
I consider Hyper Light Drifter an absolute masterpiece in terms of game feel, art, design, and sound—and a lot of people would agree with me. But upon release, the online community was divided in two over the game’s narrative. Some players thought the story was great, and the others thought it was absolute trash. “There’s no clear story at all!” they said.
If you played the game, you probably have an opinion of your own. But if you haven’t, you might need some (spoiler-free) context:
Hyper Light Drifter is a story told without words, and the game throws you in without any context or explanation. Instead, the player must do her best to construct a cohesive narrative from brief, stream-of-consciousness cutscene animations, a few pictures here and there, and an abundance of gorgeous environmental set pieces.
Hyper Light Drifter’s story is hypnotizing. The dreamy visuals and air of mystery about the world kept my mind turning and speculating. What’s that faint, high-pitched noise I keep hearing? Why does it always show up when I’m around this pink stuff? And what is the pink stuff, anyway?
It’s a great example of an obfuscated narrative: a story that’s hidden behind the scenes.
So why were people so sharply divided on whether or not the narrative was “good”? From the discussion posts, it didn’t sound like it was a mere difference of opinion. It seemed like there was a fundamental disconnect between the two sides.
Two Sides to Every Audience
I see similar stories all over the internet and in real life: People set themselves firmly in two camps whenever a game, book or film offers a unique approach to storytelling. The first camp thinks the story was terrible—usually because they “didn’t explain anything”. The second camp thinks the story was amazing for the same reason—but they’ll often say something like “it was clever and made you work for the story.”
What’s going on here? Why can’t these two camps see eye-to-eye? I propose there are two types of audience when it comes to understanding and appreciating narrative: active and passive participants.
Active participants are people who naturally want to do part of the storytelling themselves. They’re the type who’ll theorize about a character’s motivations beyond the game or text. They may even speculate on events that happen outside the frame of the work itself.
Passive participants, on the other hand, like the story to be told to them, straightforward. They might work to fully understand a story, but they generally don’t want to work to find the story. Some of my friends who I suspect fall into the passive category often get mad at me for “overanalyzing” a work, and they’ll say I’m “reading too much into things” when I try to convince them otherwise.
From what I’ve written, it might sound like passive participants are dense and ignorant, but let me be clear: passive audiences aren’t stupid for not “getting” an obscured narrative like Hyper Light Drifter’s, nor are they stupid for not understanding why your Dear, Beloved Story is a flawless, pure snowflake descended from heaven to enlighten the masses.
Often, they don’t understand the narrative because they aren’t actively seeking it. Sometimes, they aren’t even expecting to have to seek it out. To a passive audience, stories should be told, not chased.
These are people who work only in facts when analyzing a narrative. If something didn’t explicitly happen in a story, they’ll say can’t have happened at all. They are inclined to think people who draw their own conclusions from a work are reading too much into things (which is sometimes a fair point!).
It’s clear that Hyper Light Drifter is a game built for active audiences. A big part of the game is spent finding things hidden from view: hidden triangle pieces, which unlock different areas of a level. Keys, which unlock special areas. Yellow gear bits, which unlock character skill upgrades. The game rewards people who dig deeper and spend time uncovering secrets, both in narrative and gameplay itself.
Different games are built for different audiences, though.
So to active participants: don’t hate on the passive folk because they don’t like your favorite game’s story. Passive peeps, don’t assume active participants are pretentious or thinking too hard. Chances are they just love the story so much that they’re willing to go deeper, even if there might not be anything to find.
In Hyper Light Drifter’s case though, there is plenty to discover. So if you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend giving it a try!
A Note to Writers and Designers
There are definitely downsides to building an obfuscated narrative. The biggest is that a lot of people just won’t get your story—even if they really want to. I’m not ashamed to admit I had to go online to get a clearer picture of the mythos of Hyper Light Drifter. Reading other people's analyses is actually kind of fun for me, but it can definitely be an annoyance to others.
With that huge honking downside in mind, it can be tempting to just write for a passive audiences all the time. After all, it is by far the safest bet if your only concern is maximizing the amount of people who enjoy your story. Whereas a passive audience might not enjoy an obfuscated narrative, active participants can still understand and appreciate a straightforward and prescribed narrative.
But if you have a good idea for an unconventional game narrative, don’t let this post discourage you from bringing your baby to life. A lot of people bought and loved Hyper Light Drifter despite (and because of!) its difficult narrative. As a developer, what more can you ask for?
So how do you enjoy your narratives? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @MrHassanSan :)