Learning is attendance, and teaching is art. One of the very first things any game needs to do is teach the player how to play, and the tutorial is the game design staple for achieving that goal. However, not all tutorials are created equal, because how a game chooses to teach its rules impacts the player’s experience and immersion in its fictional world. A game can barely teach the player the basics, teach them mechanics in the wrong order, or provide factually wrong information like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, or it can have the player learn organically through careful level design like Hyper Light Drifter.
One of the most striking features of HLD is how sparse text is. Aside from the title screen, pause menu options, and some brief lines educating the player on certain commands, you won’t find cross nor dot of text in the game. There’re no signposts pointing toward the lake, and the few NPCs who speak flash a storyboard of events to communicate rather than use a proper speech bubble. The silent approach of the game’s very identity lets the player know that if they want to figure something out, they’re gonna have to rely on their ol’ noggin to do so.
One of the advantages going for HLD is that the gameplay is simple. You push a button, you swing a sword. You push another button, you dash. Basic stuff in a lot of games, and you hardly need to know a lot more in order to play through to the credits. Other than a few instances where certain instructions are dropped to teach the player less intuitive commands, such as needing to hold down a button to pick up stuff or activate platforms, the player’s on their own for negotiating the world and its many bloodthirsty baddies.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a mechanic unique to a game, such as HLD’s currency system, demands a game-to-player explanation. In just about every game in existence, money is dictated with Arabic numerals and whatever symbol is used to represent its currency (¥, £, ₽). It’s a direct one-to-one comparison to how we handle real-world money. But in HLD, when you enter a business and talk to its shopkeeper, what you’re introduced to is this:
To describe how weird its monetary system is, let me tell you a two-paragraph story of my first playthrough of HLD.
Like I do in any new title, I nosed about in search of goodies and to see what was up with the game, figure out its deal so that I could play it properly. The shop presented my first real roadblock, because it was showing me something I a.) couldn’t immediately understand and b.) lacked the resources for anyway. So, unable to purchase anything, I left the shop behind and left to go trotting in the post-apocalyptic landscape, making a mental note of those orange squares.
Scattered and hidden throughout the world are various collectibles, the most prevalent being these little orange cubes, which a new player, such as my past self, would recognize as what the shopkeeper was asking for. After collecting four of those, I backtracked for the shopkeeper to hand over my newly acquired funds, and what did I discover? Those cubes I found and the cubes he was asking for weren’t the same cubes. The four cubes I found combined to form one of the cubes he was asking for. In order to buy what I wanted, I needed sixteen little cubes in total. This was how I came to understand the monetary system.
The game very easily could’ve explained how money works. As soon as I entered the shop, a textbox could’ve popped up explaining that I had to find money out in the world and that it took four little cubes to make one big cube. The shopkeeper himself could’ve told me the same after I tried buying something despite my nonexistent fundage. Yet the game abstained from a fourth wall-breaking tutorial to force me to figure it out on my own. I might’ve been some thick lud who beat the final boss without ever connecting the dots on the cubes I found in the levels and the squares the shopkeeper was asking for.
So then, if there’s the risk of player frustration or missing out on an entire aspect of the game, why be so obstinately silent when there’s a more effective measure at hand? There’s a number of reasons for this, the first being immersion. Ordon Village is pretty effective at masking the mechanics it’s teaching, with herding goats adjusting you to the feel of horseback riding, or stopping a rampaging goat in its tracks priming you on how to react to the various enemies who charge Link up through to his fight against Ganondorf. It seems like the game’s just having Link perform busywork, but it’s this guise that keeps the player from actively realizing, “Oh, this is the tutorial.” Twilight Princess isn’t perfect, however, since it also has moments when some brat’s prodding Link to press B to swing his sword, with even a helpful icon to identify the correct button. This puts a hairline fracture on the immersion, which also challenges the player’s intelligence, like they couldn’t find the appropriate button without eyeballing the controller, but it’s far from worse than the first Assassin’s Creed, which drops the player in a digital space and blatantly proclaims, “This is the tutorial, and you’re going to play it, or heaven so help me…”
A game being forthcoming with its instructions or controls isn’t bad as it is, as it saves a new player from the frustration of hitting a wall because they haven’t figured out a specific control or combo, but when you come up to a locked door on the first level and a parchment scrolls down with instructions that you need to find a key, it switches your mindset from clearing the level to learning. However brief that switch is, it does rip a player out of their immersion, like when you’re in bed and drifting into deep sleep and you think to yourself, “Oh, I’m about to fall asleep,” but because you had that realization, you’re no longer on the cusp on falling asleep. You have to start over. And the more you have to start over, the longer it takes for you to fall asleep, and you’ll complain to your spouse in the morning about how you had trouble sleeping.
But what has a more concrete impact on the player’s experience is when they figure things out on their own. Going back to the locked door example, it’s obvious to the common player that locked doors require keys to unlock, just like in real life, so any messages repeating common knowledge or habit only leads to annoyance, because the player then feels like the game’s treating them like an incompetent buffoon. But when the game backs off and leaves the player to figure things out on their own, without making the design so abstruse, that light bulb moment when the player learns something new makes them feel like Einstein’s reincarnation. HLD did this with its currency system, and it repeats this hands-off approach for this screen:
Should I insult you with an explanation? You’ve got your boundaries, your inlets for goals, a ball in the middle, and scorecards tall and wide for spectators to see. Any 21st century person not from an isolated Amazonian tribe can look at that and say, “I know exactly what to do here,” which was my exact thought the first time I unlocked this minigame.
For as much as HLD likes to stand the player on their feet and watch as they toddle around on their own, it doesn’t just ditch the player like some inattentive parent. Save for the southern area, the player can conquer the levels in whatever order they please. But the game’s also got enough self-awareness to understand that it’s pretty vague when it comes to explaining, well, pretty much anything (the opening cutscene didn’t even make sense to me until after I beat the game). It knows that if it gives the player too much freedom they’ll just stick their head in bushes until they stop to wonder what the meaning to their life is. To that end, the game offers us this:
It’s a map marker, specifically the location of a boss chamber, provided by some helpful chap down near the foot of the mountain. The path is linear, but it’s the first definite lead for the player to follow. Incredibly simple, but it has a profound impact in beckoning the player onward, like when you open up Facebook and see that little red digit notifying you of recent activity. But you only receive that icon if you head to the mountains first. Otherwise, you receive the boss icon for the other two areas. Yet the game all but ensures that the first area you explore are the mountains, and it does so with this:
Unbeknownst to the player, that icon the cutscene centers on is the elevator to the final boss, but by focusing on it, it puts it in the player’s mind, so when it recenters the camera over the player, it acts as an arrow, pointing in the three directions the player can travel in, but most prominent is the northern path because of how wide and open the road is. It’s the way closest to the player, and so it sucks them up and into the helpful chap who informs you of the local boss.
There’s a good reason why the game would want to direct the player to the mountains first, and that’s because it’s the second tutorial stage. The first was to teach the controls and get the player accustomed to the game’s unique feel, and the mountains teaches the feedback loop of how the player will be going about the remainder of their playthrough.
The northern area is the easiest area. The enemies’ behaviors are easy to understand, and the mountain itself acts as a funnel siphoning the player to the top, where the boss is guarding a column which, when reactivated, raises one of the points on that icon back in town. This carries the player through a full cycle of battling through an area, maybe finding some goodies along the way, and conquering the boss, and once they’ve experienced this firsthand, they know how they’re going to get through the rest of their journey. Taught without a single word, entirely through careful design.
Such a passive approach to design paired with open-ended exploration breeds unique stories, in my case. Helpful as that boss icon is, it’s misleading for the mountains, as the entrance to the boss chamber is southeast of the apex. So when I found nothing, I returned to town to try a different area, the forest to the west, which, if you’ll observe the settled camera after it floats over the town icon, is the second most prominent direction laid out.
I fumbled my way through the forest’s many hoards of bloodthirsty enemies, died a dozen times to the boss, defeated him, defeated him a second time after my game crashed, and later saw a YouTube video that, by chance, showed the mountain’s first boss, which was through a door I completely missed. Unhelpful as HLD may seem, it’s completely forgiving. I missed something the game really wanted me to see, but it didn’t hold a grudge and let me keep playing, and I was allowed to correct my mistake, and none of it was a detriment to my overall experience.
Hyper Light Drifter isn’t the first game to take the hands-off approach to teaching and guiding the player, isn’t the best game to do so, and there won’t be a morning when I wake up and proclaim that every game should follow its example to the T. But what’s remarkable about its tight-lippedness is how finely it integrates into the atmosphere of the game: you’re out on a quest, going from place to place in the world, fighting on your own, with nobody there to lend a hand or save your skin. Just you and your own wit and skills. Things may be tough, and things may be tough to figure out, but when you do conquer a tough challenge, defeat that impossible boss, piece together the obscure lore, without the game holding your hand, it’s because of your efforts and your hard work. You’re a Drifter.