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?
This issue has been discussed for a while (it’s come up again with the release of Dark Souls III), and the creators of Hyper Light Drifter are acutely aware of it. On the game’s Steam page, lead developer Alex Preston raised the possibility of an “easy mode” that would allow players to more accessibly explore the game’s world, though Preston also noted that “we can’t please everyone, and we don’t aim to do so”.
Peruse the comments and you’ll find a wide range of responses. “[T]aking the fun out for casual gamers is not what you should be aiming for,” says 2C0pE, to which JimZiii responds, “every game shouldn’t be aimed at casual gamers, that would destroy the gaming industry.” My personal favorite comes from crowbAr (whose avatar is Goku, by the way): “pls just dont make compromises.”
What makes Hyper Light Drifter difficult? And more generally, what do we talk about when we talk about difficulty in games?
You have three main moves in HLD: attack, dash, and shoot. Pressing the X button (on an Xbox controller) causes you to swing your sword, and sword attacks operate in three-hit combos. After pressing the X button thrice, you’ve to wait a split second before you can begin another combo, which leaves you vulnerable to enemy attacks. This is where dashing comes in: pressing the A button causes you to zip across a short distance, so you can dash away and blast off a few shots with your gun. Exploring the world nets you upgrade points, which you can spend at shops to improve your abilities: increased ammo, new attacks, new dash maneuvers, and so on.
If I had to identify one key skill to playing HLD, it would be “awareness.” The game’s bread and butter is to lock you in a room with a bunch of different enemies who emerge from different areas at different times. Thoughtlessly mashing the attack button will quickly get you killed. You have to be aware of how many hitpoints each enemy type has, whether it uses melee or ranged attacks, and its attack pattern in addition to the limits of your own ability to strike and retreat. Outside of combat, the game scatters secrets and upgrade points in hidden areas of the map, which further encourages the player to be aware of their surroundings.
The difficulty of HLD, and really of any game that isn’t arbitrarily unfair to the player, comes from the disparity between what the game tries to teach the player and what the player actually learns. Quick example: the boss of the eastern area is a giant frog that jumps around and tries to crush you. One of its attacks is to spawn smaller enemies that explode when you kill them. I killed those explosive enemies in earlier parts of the game, and I fought and lost to the boss several times before I realized that you could stun the boss with the explosions. At no point did the game explicitly point this out. Instead, it presented a situation, and I interpreted the situation correctly.
Here’s a tangent that I swear will make sense: The Sound and the Fury is a difficult book. The first chapter is an extended stream of consciousness narrated by a mentally handicapped man with an irregular sense of time. One minute the narrator, Benjy, will be looking for quarters in the grass in the present day, and the next he’ll be remembering an event that occurred years earlier with pretty much no warning.
It’s not as if Faulkner didn’t know how to write a conventional narrative. The last chapter uses a third person perspective and occurs in chronological order. Instead, Faulkner deliberately uses difficulty to create a reading experience that wouldn’t be possible with an “easier” writing style. By jumping back and forth in time and free-associating and generally breaking every rule of prose writing, Faulkner captures something about how our minds actually work and how our thoughts collide with our perception of the world. To put it simply, The Sound and the Fury wouldn’t work if it wasn’t difficult.
The comparison obviously isn’t perfect, but difficulty is also integral to HLD. You’re alone in this foreboding world, where enemies can kill you in a few hits and the odds are stacked against you. You’re not a warrior or hero or savior. You’re a drifter, flitting from place to place. The difficulty of HLD creates a certain tone — melancholy resignation mixed with a feeling of just barely scraping by — that wouldn’t be possible in an easier game. I wouldn’t look in every last nook and cranny for precious upgrade points if I didn’t need every advantage that I could get.
Back in 2015, Preston said in an interview that HLD was “not going to be a game for everybody, cause it’s a hard game, and you have to own up to that and embrace it . . . I don’t think we need to be apologetic about that in any way” (Tim Mulkerin, “Interview with Alex Preston, the Creator of Hyper Light Drifter”, Unwinnable, 2 December 2015). Please don’t confuse me with a difficulty masochist who sneers at “casuals” to “git gud.” I’m not particularly good at games, and I think greater inclusivity — which might mean accommodating players of all ability levels — is a good thing. At the same time, I can’t help but think that HLD is an intensely personal project with a singular creative vision and that the game’s difficulty is as much a part of the experience that it’s trying to convey as its sound design or art style or storytelling. If we want games to be more inclusive, if we want a more diverse range of experiences, then perhaps we should be okay with having difficult, skill-based games alongside games that are more experiential. We can have something like Hyper Light Drifter, and we can have something like Firewatch, too.
We can have games that make my palms sweat as I die and respawn yet again, armed with new knowledge about how to counter the final boss’s attacks. A game that makes me pump my fist in an empty room when I finally deliver the fatal blow, my chest pounding, the world crumbling, the Drifter coughing blood and pressing forward despite the difficulties ahead.