Heart of the Matter: Alex Preston on Hyper Light Drifter

Feature by Darren Carle | 22 Jul 2016

After a phenomenal Kickstarter appeal, Alex Preston of Heart Machine has been putting everything into his first game, Hyper Light Drifter. Ahead of its release, we spoke to him about debilitating health problems, facing your own mortality and the joy of Nintendo.

Though health is a prevalent feature in videogames, it’s not something that developers spend a huge amount of time thinking about. In the past, an apple or roasted chicken would deliver a much needed vitality boost to a poorly fighter with little regard to reality. More recently, the ‘recharging health’ of Halo has been adopted by just about every first- and third-person action game going, with even less adherence to the real world. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t exactly buck these gaming conventions – it’s still a rugged action platformer at heart – but it does come from a place that’s a little more rooted in mortality.

“My body’s a wreck,” states Alex Preston, director at Heart Machine, with what seems to be a characteristic bluntness. The man behind Hyper Light Drifter, a game which set Kickstarter ablaze back in 2013, isn’t backwards in coming forward about his health issues. “I have a congenital heart disorder and I have some other ‘fun’ problems that come with a genetic mutation,” he elaborates. “And then there’s some serious diseases on top of that. I’ve dealt with these health issues all my life, but it’s been particularly rough over the past five to ten years.”

Hyper Light Drifter

You might expect someone in such a position to be taking it easy with their life, but with Alex… not so much. “I was actually just in surgery and the day that I got out I was working in the hospital because I don’t want to be held down by my limitations,” he explains of his work ethic. “It’s a difficult thing to deal with but it affords me a certain perspective that other people might not have. I’m coping with these very serious life and death issues on a regular basis, so the typical stresses of work aren’t quite as hard for me – I have other things that are more important to worry about.”

Still, Alex has been fretting over his first game as director for the past few years now, the stress perhaps compounded by a Kickstarter campaign that had him ask meekly for $27,000 and, in the end, rake in over $640,000. Not something to grumble about for sure, but this led to the game being widely expanded with a release across multiple formats. This, along with Alex’s health issues, ultimately led to Hyper Light Drifter being delayed numerous times.

“People don’t really understand the impact that this can have on somebody’s life and how it can really fuck things up in so many ways,” Alex elaborates on the periods of that have debilitated him during the games’ development. “I think disabilities aren’t really talked about in society at large just because people don’t want to be open about them. It can be a very private thing and that’s understandable, but it also leads to misunderstanding.”

Learning lessons from Nintendo

To be clear, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t the latest in a line of socially-purposive ‘anti-games’ like the recent That Dragon, Cancer. Taking its biggest cue from 1991’s Zelda: A Link to the Past, HLD is a top-down platform shooter that’s been built from the ground up as a game first and a piece of social commentary a very distant second.

“For me, the ‘feel’ of a game is the most important aspect,” explains Alex. “It’s about the little flourishes, the sort of thing that Nintendo does really well – those little dust clouds or how a character’s foot stops at a certain point – all those little things add up. That was one of the first things we did, to make sure the character felt good to move around and hit things with because that’s the core interaction. Before I even put any animation in I made sure the character felt really satisfying to move around. Plenty of great developers do the same thing but I learned it from playing Nintendo as a kid.”

Indeed, there is a story revolving around the seminal Super Mario 64, where director Shigeru Miyamoto made the team design a box that moved with grace and fluidity before drawing a single frame of animation that would become the moustached plumber himself. “Yeah, I heard that too,” says Alex when we compare design strategies. The upshot is that above all else, Hyper Light Drifter ‘feels’ marvellous to play right from the off. Given the range of your protagonist’s tool set, there’s little acclimatisation needed to get going, the ease of flow and pixel-tight responsiveness a testament to Heart Machine’s work in this area.

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Yet, despite the heroics your character displays from the beginning, it’s always offset by his underlying health problems. Referred to only as The Drifter, he carries a mysterious illness for which he is in search of a cure. From the opening scene we see the effects of this as he doubles over, spewing black bile into a nearby stream. It’s a startling introduction for a videogame hero.

“You’re kind of a glass cannon in a lot of ways,” suggests Alex. “You can die pretty easily if you’re not careful. This game is hard – it’s a challenge and everything in it is very, very dangerous. You’ll still be able to respawn but we’ve played with some illness mechanics and we’ve played with ideas of character strength. Ultimately though, it’s a game so we’ve not gone too crazy but you’re certainly not super-invincible here. You might be powerful and you might be fast but you really need to be aware.”

Facing your own mortality

These cues from Alex’s own experiences are subtle, and even without the knowledge of his health issues, Hyper Light Drifter is still a marvellous game. Knowing about Alex’s heart condition doesn’t make it any better per se, but it does make it more interesting, more though provoking. “Facing your own mortality is a difficult thing,” Alex states. “You lose a piece of your innocence and childhood and the whimsy of being a teenager – like, ‘yeah, I’m invincible,’ when you know you’re not invincible at all. As a teenager, most people don’t ever face their mortality.”

As such, Alex is more grateful than most to finally be seeing the release of Hyper Light Drifter. The expanded scope of the game, thanks to that Kickstarter appeal, has added to the delay but as recompense, followers can look forward to a much bigger, more polished game, released across multiple formats and with a fantastic score by Rich ‘Disasterpeace’ Vreeland, the man behind the seminal soundtrack for cult indie classic Fez.

The extended development time has brought other benefits too. Alex and the team have released various beta versions of the game to backers, and their valuable input has helped shape the finished product. “It’s a critical part of the process because it’s such an eye-opener,” says Alex. “When you’ve been playing the same game for over a year, you kind of get lost in it or you have certain behaviours that you always do (whereas) someone who’s never played the game, they will do the exact opposite and fuck it all up! It’s an eye-opener for us and it’s extremely helpful.”

So, several years behind schedule, Hyper Light Drifter is now ready for release. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” confirms Alex. We can but hope that this is as much about his own prognosis as it is about the culmination of his project, but either way, Hyper Light Drifter is clearly a game made with a lot of heart.

Hyper Light Drifter is due for release on PS4 and Xbox One on 27 July. A Wii U version is also in development.