By Nathan Grayson on November 7th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Hyper Light Drifter is looking magnificent. It’s playing quite beautifully too, and you will hear my impressions of it very soon. But first, let’s delve into the stylishly pink wonder’s past, which definitely isn’t all roses. Heart Machine head Alex Preston was born with a number of life-threatening heart defects, and he’s spent his life alternatively triumphing over them and falling at their feet. Hyper Light Drifter is, in large part, inspired by those struggles – a swarm of ideas that have been flitting and buzzing about in Preston’s mind for as long as he can remember. It was only this year, however, that he finally realized he *had* to breathe life into this game. Good ideas are infinite, but time, unfortunately, is painfully limited.
If the human gene pool was a hardware manufacturer, it’d be the most reviled in the business. It hurls out inconsistent, unpredictable products – spark-spitting machines that go all achy-breaky at the drop of a hat. Some come out top-of-the-line, destined to run marathons at peak efficiency and chug along happily for upward of a century, while others are just waiting for a single additional ingredient to set off a domino chain of degradation. Disease. Defects. Death.
There is, sadly, no return policy.
You work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, some of us begin with very, very little. Forget ticking time bomb situations; some bodies have wrenches stuck in their most vital gears from the very beginning, internal clocks grinding and mashing like teeth on concrete. An “idyllic” childhood or even a careless young adulthood are just fantasies when mortality’s right behind you every step of the way.
Hyper Light Drifter creator Alex Preston knows this better than anyone. But he also knows that life still happens, and you can’t just quit because you weren’t dealt an auto-magically winning hand.
“I have a heart condition,” he told me matter-of-factly, among the otherwise mundane chatter of a crowded hotel lobby, when I asked him why he’d recently been hospitalized. “I was born with it. I was also recently diagnosed with a genetic mutation that causes a lot of other issues. I just have things that happen all the time. I’ll always be in and out of hospitals.”
“I can’t live my life in a typical fashion that most people can. I have a very restricted and limited diet, for example. I’m limited in the physical activities I can do, and I have been throughout my life. That’s kind of what led me down the path of playing a lot of games and indulging in a lot of media. I had a lot of downtime, so I really absorbed all that stuff. Especially with games, where it’s this entire world you can escape to and become something else, you don’t have to worry about stuff going on in your life currently. Games have always provided a good way to push the boundaries of my mind and get out of my own body.”
But it wasn’t until this year – until Preston’s third decade of life – that he found the motivation to make his own game on a large scale. He’d freelanced art and game design previously, but his own art remained insular. Close and personal. Safe. A stay in the hospital at the start of the year, however, changed all of that.
“I’ve always had bits and pieces of Hyper Light Drifter swirling around in my mind since I was a kid,” he explained. “This one’s reared its head time after time, but it was only in the past year – I was hospitalized really early in the year – that I realized I needed to actually get something out. Before, I was very private about my work and what I was doing. I only shared it with close friends and didn’t really put anything in the public eye. But I’m tired of hoarding all my work. It’s time to make an effort and push on forward regardless of health problems or whatever else.”
It’s hard, though. Not simply due to the fact that Preston’s physical ability to work could be compromised at highly inopportune times, but because his health issues are in everything he creates. He can’t help it. That piece of himself is ever-present, his core and his destruction. His work, then, is extremely personal, and showing that part of yourself to the world can be terrifying. Paralyzing. But he’s moving forward with it nonetheless, and he’s letting his personal life bleed through as it will.
“It goes into everything I do, really,” he gestured, thin frame suddenly powerful, almost proud. “My maladies have always been my art. Especially in this game, the story revolves around an ailing drifter. He’s coping with his own set of problems, but he’s still managing to live his life and do his job, essentially. There’s definitely some autobiographical elements in the story.”
“The [company name] Heart Machine is inspired by that, too. I had open heart surgery when I was about one year old. I had a couple holes in my heart. They had to patch those up. A couple years ago, I also had a pacemaker installed to help with the electrical pathways. Heart issues wrecked that stuff.”
And in the game? Yes, in the game. Hyper Light Drifter is still very much in development, but the hope is to include some sort of illness mechanic – at least, if it fits. Think less Far Cry 2 (though Preston liked the game and called it an “interesting” starting point) and more, well, whatever fits in a Diablo-meets-Link-to-the-Past ARPG.
“We’re figuring out what exactly what will and work for the game right now – though we’ve done a lot of work on it already,” he explained. “So we’re looking into all of that and maybe a possible illness mechanic.”
“We don’t want to hinder the player in a way that’s dissatisfying or frustrating. So if we end up having an illness mechanic, it’ll be something that’s interesting and fun in a way. Our baseline for this game is, ‘Is it fun?’ We want to design around elegance, beauty, and an underlying core of fun. So even an illness mechanic has to be fun on some level.”
It’s a harrowing line to walk, and Preston’s very conscious of that. If he’s letting the pressure get to him, however, he certainly wasn’t showing it when we spoke. It was quite a happy moment for him, all things considered, due in large part to people’s reaction to his labor of love. Openness and sincerity are powerful things, and fans – much to Preston’s delight – have taken notice. More powerfully still, many of them have responded in kind.
“I’ve had a lot of good support and really positive feedback,” he grinned. “People sharing fan art and their own medical histories. It’s been pretty touching. I’m always open to hear people’s stories, and when they’re genuine like that – when a complete stranger is willing to share those secrets and disabilities and what they’re going through – I understand perfectly where they’re coming from. How personal that is. Revealing that information is a huge deal.”
“There was also one guy on YouTube who said, ‘Fuck you, I was gonna make this game.’ He was really serious. He really wanted me to get fucked,” he chuckled. “But there’s been plenty of people who were like, ‘We’re really inspired that you can put this out here. This is the kind of game I want to make. The kind of stuff I want to do.’ As an artist, the fact that it resonates on that level is really what you shoot for.”
It’s a thrillingly auspicious beginning, but now the real work begins. Preston’s certainly not a game development neophyte, but he’s never tackled a project of this scope and direction either. Hyper Light Drifter, meanwhile, suddenly has a whole, whole lot more expectation riding on it now that it’s pulled in $645,158 on Kickstarter. You could be forgiven, then, for worrying that Preston might not be able to pull it off. But this isn’t a one-man show, and Preston thinks he’s assembled a team that can deliver and then some.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to these fans to make something great,” he said, soberly.
“There’s been a couple failed projects where they mismanaged money or overscoped or all sorts of bad things happened. For me, I’ve been buddies with these guys I’m working with for a while. They’re reliable. They’re solid dudes. They’ve been working on their own games for years. Casey Hunt is one of our teammates. He was part of this group called Three Legged Legs. They made amazing commercials and motion graphics stuff for years. He’s creative producer, so he’s super experienced in that area. And then there’s [Samurai Gunn creator] Beau Blyth. He’s been making games forever now. Also, Teddy [Diefenbach]. He’s been super reliable and in the industry longer than any of us. He used to work at larger companies like Disney Interactive.”
He added that all of them are generally used to working with belts tightened and piggy banks skeletal, so they’re not suddenly going to go off and splurge in all the wrong places. “It’s not like we’re gonna go out and buy Lamborghinis or anything,” he smirked.
For Preston, this is the start of one of the biggest endeavors of his life, art bigger and bolder than anything he’s attempted previously. But it’s also more than that. It’s a culmination of years of shifts and upheavals, ailments he couldn’t control and constant uncertainty. That aspect of his life will probably never change, but now he’s taking matters into his own hands. Now he’s following his heart instead of letting it hold him back and drag him down.
“My health issues are my problem. They’re my disabilities, but I cope with them and I’ll continue to cope with them. And now I have lots of support. I’ve always had solid support, but this year’s been particularly rough, and I was able to get this thing out.”
“I’m done hoarding my work.”