–SPOILERS FOR HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER AHEAD–
First of all, I love the soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter. Okay, I love the entire game, but the musical score stands out among the things I love about it. The 138-minute-long album was composed by Rich Vreeland (a.k.a. Disasterpeace), previously known for his work on Fez, Mini Metro and the 2014 horror film It Follows. The songs range from ambient 8-bit synth tunes to full-blown dubstep, often reminiscent of Vangelis’ phenomenal work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Like the music in that 1982 cyberpunk classic, the soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter is woven expertly into the very fabric of the game. Every song in the score fits its context perfectly: from the heavily reverberating, sweeping chords of “The Winding Ridge” that accompany the mountainous northern section, to the quiet and tentative electronic sound of “The Abyss” that plays while you explore the eponymous area in the game. The tracks crossfade into each other depending on your location so smoothly that you can barely notice a change. It’s all just rather excellent.
(By the way, each song title links to the song on YouTube, in case you want to get a better idea of what I’m talking about here.)
Then, at the end of the game, as the Drifter dies and the credits roll, we find “Panacea”, which is six minutes and four seconds of absolutely beautiful, melancholic, gutwrenching piano music. The piece is the very opposite of the rest of the sountrack in terms of sound: instead of synthesizers and drum machines, we hear a grand piano–or rather, a room in which someone is playing a grand piano. We hear the subtle thuds of the keys being pressed, the notes echo softly through the open space, and we can even hear the pianist himself move and breathe at one point. This makes the piece feel very grounded and intimate, which is exactly what you need after you’ve just defeated the last boss and then helplessly watched the dying Drifter slump against a rock. “Panacea” does its name justice as a musical cure for the emotional wounds we’ve suffered at the hands of the game.
Like I said, this track’s intimate, personal sound contrasts heavily with the unfamiliar, otherworldly atmosphere that the rest of the soundtrack produces. Pieces like “The Midnight Wood” and “The Gaunlet” are eerie and give the player a sense of looming threat as they roam the world. Tracks such as “The Last General” and “The Sentients”, which play during boss battles, are overwhelming and full of urgency, bringing the hidden threats to the fore and confronting them directly. Lastly, “Chimera”, the piece that accompanies the game’s final boss fight, is loaded with lethal tension and existential dread. Heavy distortion and a nerve-racking drum beat fill the player with paralysing fear, making this last battle the most terrifying of all.
You spend the entire game fearing for your life, surrounded by death and decay, on an epic quest that inevitably only leads to more death and decay, no matter how hard you try. The musical score helps to create this atmosphere, playing in the background as the Drifter roams the world and kills magnificent foes in the search for a cure for their mysterious illness.1 When that quest proves fruitless and the Drifter’s world and life come undone, the score takes over completely and becomes the soothing musical epilogue to the tragic adventure that is Hyper Light Drifter. In these final moments, softly reverberating piano sounds embrace and heal your sadness and anger like the benevolent goddess they were named after. “There was no cure for the Drifter,” she whispers, “but with death comes peace and that must count for something.”
Notes and references:
1. Hyper Light Drifter was intended to be a game that terminal heart disease patients, like its lead developer Alx Preston, could identify with. For more on that, see this short VICE documentary.