Inside the Experimental Sound and Music of Hyper Light Drifter

Inside the Experimental Sound and Music of Hyper Light Drifter

A breakdown of Hyper Light Drifter's hauntingly minimalistic soundtrack.

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Hyper Light Drifter, the 2D action-RPG from developer Alex Preston that released just last year, became notorious in its pre-release hype for the gorgeous scale of its pixel art; but post-release, showed how much more it was than just a pretty sight to behold, especially in the department of its impressionist-style, haunting sound. Disasterpeace, real name Richard Vreeland, is perhaps best known for his score for Fez, the 2012 puzzle platformer developed by Polytron. Or if you’re more into film, his eerie tunes might be most recognizable from the 2015 psychological horror film It Follows. But easily his best, and maybe most overlooked, is his subdued score for Hyper Light Drifter.

"I wanted to do something deep and dark," said Vreeland, during the 2017 Game Developer’s Conference talk "The Sound and Music of Hyper Light Drifter," co-hosted by Vreeland and the game’s sound designer Akash Thakkar. Contrary to both sound orchestrators prior works, Hyper Light Drifter proved to be a drastic shift in tone. “Fez was very melodic, but I wanted to do something very understated," said Vreeland. Hyper Light Drifter, as the game was dreamed up through Kickstarter, called for something unique, something beyond what both creators had done in the past: experimentation. Experimentation of the bleakly-tinged, analog wire recorder and stethoscope variety. That’s right: wire recorders and stethoscopes. (Unfortunately, Vreeland’s idea of piping music through a tape cassette to create an analog-like sound was an idea that ended up not working for the game.)

Crunchy. Nightmare-ish. Evangelion-esque neon. Those are the phrases that Thakkar was drawn to when he began sound designing for the pixel-heavy game. To attain those ideas, he thought outside of the box and made some devilish purchases." [The wire recorder is the] best $250 Ebay purchase I’ve ever made," said Thakkar. The wire recorder, a device that dates back to the early 1900s, was used for creating distorted sounds for the game. “Almost every sound was made from scratch," noted Thakkar. From squealing like a pig and distorting his own voice for boss fights, to the distortions created with the wire recorder, Thakkar used any possible tool at his disposal to orchestrate the quiet, creepy sounds that pulse through the walls of the game.

When Thakkar initially purchased the pricey wire recorder from Ebay, he found some surprising recorded happenings on the old hardware, and found himself digitizing its World War II-era recordings. But the wire recorder wasn’t without the charming flippancies of old technology, or specifically, the manual’s warning of the “wire snapping in half" variety. Luckily, no long-lasting scars have harmed Thakkar in the years since he worked on sound design for the game.

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Hyper Light Drifter is a game that emanates with haunting effects; not just visually, but in its reverberating sounds. Sounds, that Thakkar notes, that are sometimes made with up to 20 layers of other sounds, remixed and mashed together. For one particular wave-like ambient sound, Thakkar attached a cheap stethoscope to a budget microphone, where he used the poorly taped together construction to record his own blood. But Hyper Light Drifter’s sound design process wasn’t entirely dreary. At times, it was in trouble of encroaching on Legend of Zelda-like territory, as Thakkar and Vreeland were weary of ever producing a sound or piece of music that was feared “too happy."

The end result for Hyper Light Drifter is a collection of sounds and music that may be written off as too subtle, but make an impression through the player’s experience of the game. It’s hard to imagine the game without its howling boss growls, or the shortly evocative chords from “The Stinger." And luckily, Vreeland and Thakkar were able to transport the players to the game’s creepy land, even if it took unconventional methods to get there.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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