‘Hyper Light Drifter’ creator reflects five years after release


Photo Courtesy of Steam

A screenshot of the video game “Hyper Light Drifter” is shown above. The game was released on Mar. 31, 2016.

By Aidan Finn, Staff Writer

Years ago in the basement of a Staten Island household, Richard Vreeland watched as his stepfather, music director at his church, hosted band practice for his Beatles cover band, The Blue Meanies. It was there he would go to play the drums, fueled by a fascination with percussion. But despite also having a mother who both sang and played the piano and a sister who had been singing since childhood, Vreeland didn’t really feel compelled to dive deeper into music. But he was fascinated with other mediums, like computers, visual design and finding a passion for drawing and making stuff.

“At eleven or twelve, I started messing around with my mom’s Macintosh — she is a graphic designer –– so that was around, and that was where I started with getting into being creative,” Richard Vreeland said.

Years later, Vreeland would be credited as the lead composer for the 2015 horror mega-hit “It Follows,” providing a now-iconic score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s ’80s synth that would elevate his name to new heights amongst the electronic music scene.

Just a year later, Vreeland would create the soundtrack to a little Kickstarter video game by the name of “Hyper Light Drifter,” a Zelda-like dungeon crawler with a pretty pixel art aesthetic that followed suit with many indie games of the mid-2010s.

This said game, in time, would become one of the most revered games of the decade due in part to the title’s superb score. Five years later, Vreeland, best known as Disasterpeace, reflects on the title and how he got involved.

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    “Alex brought me on right before we announced the Kickstarter. Our mutual friend Roger Hicks connected us. When I saw what they were working on and that Beau Blyth (Samurai Gunn, 0space) was leading up gameplay design, I knew I wanted to be involved,” he said.

    “Hyper Light Drifter” is a 2016 2D action role-playing game developed by Heart Machine. Visually reminiscent of 16-bit games from the ’90s and the likes of “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,” the game follows an unnamed, sword-wielding hero who embarks on a quest to defeat a monstrous evil force from destroying the world in classic fantasy fashion. Striking in its artful use of pink and red color patterns painting a beautiful overworld, the game has you travel to multiple realms in classic Zelda fashion to conquer dungeons and fight increasingly intimidating monsters.

    Your move set is both familiar and liberal in its mobility and fast-paced attacks. Upgradable firearms also add a welcome layer of strategy to your attacks, allowing for quick movements and ranged devastation with good timing.

    Despite lacking in dialogue, it’s never too obscure to follow, and the map is traversable without making it easy to get lost. It’s a good eight- to 10-hour romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

    Now, if it was just that, “Hyper Light Drifter” would fall into obscurity amidst the booming indie scene and be another nostalgia-driven title fueled by the Kickstarter craze that has now burnt itself out. Without any context, that is, “Hyper Light Drifter” shows rather than tells, yet, at the same time, provides a story larger than most games could ever achieve.

    Underneath the surface of the game is a plethora of dark, heavy subject matters, the likes of death and hopelessness against disease. Heart Machine, the game’s developer, is an independent studio founded by Alx Preston.

    Preston has suffered congenital heart disease since childhood, a condition that led him to hospitalization on multiple occasions, and he’s faced several near-death situations. The feelings of hopelessness, inevitability and the fragile nature of life are the core of “Hyper Light Drifter.” The game is a metaphor for the tale of a hero set on an increasingly bleak quest and is the artistic expression of a man who can never be normal, yet can find so much beauty in the world around him. So much color and creativity can be found around you in the unfortunately short game.

    How such grand themes can be told in a game without any dialogue comes down to Disasterpeace’s score. Something that had a lot to juggle yet achieved far more than expected.

    “Getting to know the creative director Alx and spending personal time with him definitely helped me inhabit a mood … there is a certain brooding nature to the game, yet it has very vibrant, dynamic qualities too,” he said.

    Vreeland’s music background was no stranger to video games. Many first learned about him with his work on the 2012 platformer “FEZ.” He has extensively explained his differing attitudes for film composing and doing so with games.

    “(The) biggest difference is probably structural. Film projects are shorter and the work is more like paint by numbers, albeit challenging,” Vreeland said.“Game projects tend to drag on forever, and without a very concise plan, it can feel at times like long wanderings in a desert. Films tend to be more solidified early because, relatively speaking, there’s less course correction happening between finished script and finished movie.”

    When it came to “Hyper Light Drifter,” Vreeland said he struggled to grasp the theme of the game, which shifted constantly amidst three years of development, and he experimented extensively. Many ideas were scrapped, although some instances had him discarding ideas that Preston later picked up and approved.

    Back and forth between the two, the thematic elements of the game started to materialize, including the haunting yet adventurous atmosphere. One particular song, “Vignette: Panacea,” would end up becoming the signature piece from the soundtrack.

    “I had a large library of piano sketches and the Debussy-ness of the piece, while still inhabiting the game’s harmonic sound world, seemed a perfect way to close it all out. Somewhat like ‘Claire de Lune’ in the ending to ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ but less fanciful and uplifting – more of a poignant, melancholy feeling,” Vreeland said.

    When asked what advice he would give to college students looking to enter the professional music composition scene, he elaborated extensively.

    “Put yourself out there. Work hard, try to get your work in front of as many eyes as you can. People need to know that you exist and that you have a desire to work on things,” he said. “Build long-term relationships with people on similar or complementary paths– fellow musicians trying to enter the space or people working in other disciplines whom you might be able to collaborate with.”

    He said to keep an open mind and to be proactive rather than waiting for opportunities to appear on their own.

    “When you’re young, it’s the perfect time to stick your neck out beyond your comfort zone and test your boundaries,” he said.

    Hyper Light Drifter is available on PC, iOS, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

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