My palms were soaked when I faced Hyper Light Drifter‘s final boss for the fourth or fifth time. I kept sending my player character—an unnamed, gender-ambiguous cloaked figure known only as the Drifter—to his/her death. The boss was similarly unnamed; it looked both synthetic and organic, emerging from a sickly pink core and emitting a robotic scream. I threw bombs. I blasted it with my shotgun. I reflected bullets with the slice of my sword. But no matter how many health packs I carried or how skillfully I dodged its attacks, I would die and retry and die again.
I’m certainly not the first person to observe that Hyper Light Drifter is a difficult game. On the game’s release date, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that the game’s first boss was so difficult that he had basically given up: “I know, I know very well, that others will breeze through it and be snarky and entirely without empathy for others who aren’t them, But there goes my time with Hyper Light Drifter, a completely gorgeous game I was utterly loving. It apparently doesn’t want me to play it any more” (“Impressions: Hyper Light Drifter”, Rock Paper Shotgun, 31 March 2016). Walker amended his review a week later when he realized that the player could tackle the bosses in any order, but his original point still stands. Where do we draw the line between challenging and punishing, and should games accommodate players who find an experience to be too difficult?