Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Hyper Light Drifter, in one word, is dense. The levels are dense. The boss fights are dense. The story is dense. Even the minimap is dense. Players have to commit a lot of their time and energy to unraveling all of this density and finding a method to the madness, and that’s what makes the game fun. When you finally figure out how to beat the Hierophant after struggling against him for an hour, it feels awesome. But there’s also a large part of the game that isn’t quite as awesome to struggle against: the exploration.

WARNING: Some secret locations, in case you want to discover them naturally yourself.

Exploration Through Level Design

Heart Machine openly describes Hyper Light Drifter as a modernization of classic 16-bit RPGs, and its roots show. Zelda-likes were all about exploring a vast world filled with secrets and hidden locations. Lift up a pot and there’s a trapdoor below it. Cut away some grass to reveal an entrance to a cave. Back in the day, these little interactions were filled with so much wonder, and it really felt magical.

Now, games have changed. Hyper Light Drifter might be a modernization of art and programming, but its sense of level design is in some ways still stuck in the past. You still explore obscure, unknown paths that have no actual indication of being explorable, and sometimes it becomes a problem when you have to find these paths in order to make progress. The end result is that you spend a lot of time hugging walls and stepping on every tile, hoping for something to happen.

It’s not completely unfair though. The developers try to add little tiny hints to show you where to go. Maybe there will be tiles on the floor leading to a hidden path, or maybe you’ll see the edge of a button behind an object. But I don’t think this is a sustainable answer for several reasons.

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1. It’s binary. You either see the hidden path or you don’t. Contrast that to a combat encounter, which can end in many different ways. Maybe you get a perfect sweep and take no damage, or maybe you have to use all of your health packs, or maybe you end up somewhere in between. But when it comes to exploration, there’s no spectrum.

2. It’s hard to learn, easy to master. This is the opposite that most systems want to be. There’s no way for you to know what to follow and what to ignore. Do these flocking birds lead to a secret path? How about these water lilies? Or these crystal spiders? You spend a lot of time in the trial-and-error phase without a clear indication of what to do.

3. It’s unfair. Hyper Light Drifter uses its isometric perspective and forced camera positions to hide secrets away from your view. There are plenty of buttons that you can’t see because they’re placed behind tall obstacles. Or sometimes they’ll be a secret object half a screen to the right, but the camera locks itself in such a way that you can’t see it, even though you would have with a free camera.

This isn’t to say that exploration can’t work. It totally can, and as evidence, I’m going to use The Binding Of Isaac as an example. Edmund McMillen’s psychotic masterpiece is another self-professed Zelda derivative, and it’s also filled with secret areas to explore (albeit procedurally generated ones). But they work in a fundamentally different way: in order to access a secret room, you need to place a bomb next to a wall, which explodes and reveals a path. Let’s look at this dynamic through my previous three criticisms.

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1. Is it binary? No. Maybe you’ll find a secret room on your first bomb, or maybe you’ll use up all of your bombs without finding anything. Maybe you can lure an enemy into blowing up a wall for you. Maybe a random teleporter will send you to a secret room that you hadn’t discovered before. Maybe you have an item that lets you see where the secrets are. The possibilies are endless.

2. Is it hard to learn, easy to master? No, it’s the opposite. Placing a bomb on a wall is a very simple task, but there’s a world of depth to be learned. If you play enough, you’ll start to see the patterns and predict where the secret rooms are. For example, they have a high chance of spawning in the eye of a U-shaped pattern.

3. Is it unfair? Well… yes, and I would criticize that. But the whole point of The Binding Of Isaac is that nothing is fair, so I think it deserves a begrudging pass.

Difficulty and Nostalgia

I totally understand that there’s a sense of nostalgia at work here. Games like Hyper Light Drifter are delivering the same kind of masochistic head-banging difficulty that Zelda-likes did in the past. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I’m not condemning it at all. But difficulty needs to have meaning beyond just being difficult. It needs to be engaging and interesting so that the player wants to immerse themselves in the difficulty.

Do players want to immerse themselves in the difficult exploration of Hyper Light Drifter? Yes, but it’s because of extrinsic motivations. When you explore, you get health packs or gear bits or new outfits or other little goodies. These act as carrots-on-sticks, not a source of intrinsic joy. Combat is an intrinsic joy, and chain dashing is an intrinsic joy, but exploration is not. You do it for the rewards.

And ultimately, this is the point of exploration: so players get to experience all the beauty that the developers created. Many games take this same approach to exploration (the Tomb Raider reboot, the audio logs in Halo 5‘s campaign) and the reason is so that people have to pay attention to the world around them. It sucks when you’re a developer and you’ve created a breathtaking landscape that players just rush through, so you try to lure them in by scattering rewards around the place.

There are plenty of games that use exploration as a source of intrinsic fun. The secret crevices in Portal where previous test subjects hid and scribbled their madness on the walls. Milla Vodello’s orphanage in Psychonauts, filled with a tragedy from the past. Even Her Story can be described as exploration in a way.

But Hyper Light Drifter? I’m going to give up on exploring and use a guide. If I find twelve keys, I get to unlock a combat arena, and that’s what I’m really interested in.