Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
***This article contains major spoilers for Hyper Light Drifter.***
The term “the Fall” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible; however, there’s undoubtedly a sense in the biblical narrative that some sort of collapse occurs in Genesis’ opening chapters. As with so many things theological, there are different interpretations as to what exactly happened as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Nevertheless, Scripture is clear that when the first couple gave into temptation and rebelled against God’s original mandates, something caused the created order to become askew, off-balance—in a word, fallen.
Use “the Fall” to describe the world today, however, and you’ll get as many raised eyebrows as anything. “Fallen” is one of those “Christianese” terms that doesn’t hold much weight outside church walls. I’ve been criticized by non-believing friends for using it; they point to all of the progress we’ve made as a species, to the ignorance and foolishness that we’ve evolved beyond, as evidence that even if we ever did fall, we’ve picked ourselves up again by now.
But the Christian doctrine of the Fall goes much deeper than the external trappings of social progress, however important that might be. In one of the Bible’s most sublime passages, the Apostle Paul writes:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Corruption. Expectation. Redemption. These concepts are at the core of our theology about the Fall, forming the arc of the entire biblical narrative. Because they’re so central to our faith, though, it’s easy for us to grow used to them, even to the point where they have little pull on our imaginations. It can be a wake-up call, then, to see them explored in our culture’s favorite stories, like Shakespeare and Tolkien, like Star Wars and Harry Potter—and, most recently, like an unassuming little indie game called Hyper Light Drifter.
In Hyper Light Drifter, the recent runaway success from indie game developer Heart Machine, you play a nameless, blue-skinned humanoid of artificial origins who travels the world as a “drifter”—a collector of “forgotten knowledge, lost technologies, and broken histories.” The world you explore is fantastical and filled with signs of life, including a myriad of intelligent creature races (e.g., frogs, birds, weasels). However, it’s also full of crumbling ruins, treacherous landscapes, and dangerous entities that hint at some long-past holocaust. You catch glimpses of the world’s history in the game’s cryptic, nightmarish opening, which shows an idyllic land wracked by some sort of cataclysmic event, monstrous giants laying waste to multitudes, and a malevolent entity that rises up and infects everything—including yourself.
A few things become immediately obvious as you begin to play Hyper Light Drifter. First, it’s not easy. You will die many, many times on your journey and be constantly forced to rethink your survival and combat strategies. Second, it’s not forthcoming. There’s no dialog or onscreen prompts to tell you what’s going on and why; all of the game’s lore must be searched for and deciphered. And third, it’s not upbeat. Though it’s consistently beautiful and captivating (the artwork and animation are clearly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s films) Hyper Light Drifter, from its visuals to its haunting soundtrack, is permeated by a sense of grief, loss, danger, and—dare I say—fallenness.
In your travels, for instance, you encounter lands and races that have been inexorably altered by the ancient cataclysm: some people are encased in crystal, some have mutated into monstrosities, while still others have surrendered themselves to violent gangs and barbaric cults given to bloodshed and sacrifice. There are hints as to what caused all of this, and surprisingly, it’s rather Genesis-like—some past transgression involving mortal creatures who decide to ignore the created order and try their hand at playing God. The drifter’s strange visions indicate that he has some role to play in putting things to right.
But there’s one small catch: you’re dying.
It’s doubtful that Hyper Light Drifter would even exist in its current form were it not for its designer and director Alex Preston’s heart condition. In a 2013 interview, he talks bluntly about his struggle with a “genetic mutation that causes a lot of other issues” and how it inspired and influenced the game.
And so, as the drifter journeys through his fallen world, he is frequently beset by episodes. One moment you’re exploring some ancient-yet-glorious ruins, and the next you’re doubled over and coughing up blood, the screen frizzing and decohering around you. You realize that your quest isn’t simply about restoring the world; you’re also hoping to be restored yourself.
However, the game’s melancholy atmosphere and lonely setting makes it apparent that this restoration will not occur without a price. Much of that comes from Hyper Light Drifter’s aforementioned difficulty and unforgiving gameplay; even as you progress through the game and enhance the drifter with more powerful weapons and abilities, it’s hard to shake a growing sense of tragedy. The world may be restored, but you won’t come out unscathed. You are, in a sense, a suffering servant, ostracized from any sense of community and compelled by divine visions to go out into the blight on your own.
In the game’s final act, you confront the malevolent entity from the opening scene, a creature named “Judgement” that was borne of hubris and arrogance and infected you and the rest of the world. (While little official lore has been released by the game’s developers, numerous fans have compiled their best guesses regarding the game’s backdrop based on in-game deciphering. You can read it all here.) Plunging your trusty blade into the monstrosity, you complete your mission and stagger out… only to find that you won’t be healed after all.
In the game’s coda, the silent, god-like entity that sent you on your quest gives you a vision of a world cleansed, with bright blue skies and clean water. You then die in isolation, your role unknown and unthanked by those you have saved.
Some may consider this final twist downbeat and defeatist (although given the game’s ominous tone throughout, it’s not really that much of a twist). Heroes, as we all know, are supposed to win in the end, ride off into the sunset, and live to fight another day—and most video games do seem to make liberal use of this prevailing trope. But Hyper Light Drifter isn’t like most video games; for all of its fantastical creatures and alien settings, it’s a good bit more truthful.
We know, if we’re honest and look past all of the clichés and “happily ever after”-isms, that evil cannot be vanquished without loss, without cost, without sacrifice. Indeed, true heroism requires one to do that which is good and right even with the knowledge that safety and well-being aren’t guaranteed. This notion is central to some our culture’s greatest deeds and stories, and it’s at the heart of the Biblical narrative as well.
From a Christian standpoint, Hyper Light Drifter only tells part of the story. The drifter may be a Christ-like figure in that he suffers and dies for the world’s transgressions, but he meets with no resurrection. There’s even a final scene depicting a decrepit corpse to assure us of his mortality. But that doesn’t diminish the truth that’s contained within the game’s retro stylings.
I confess, I wasn’t expecting all of this theologically resonant material when I booted up Hyper Light Drifter. I thought I was going to find an imaginative, challenging adventure—and I did—but I also found Biblical truth clearly and affectingly presented. But I shouldn’t have been be surprised; we know that something is wrong with the world, that we long for redemption, be it for our bodies, our communities, or our planet. Hyper Light Drifter goes one step further, though, by reminding us of our culpability in the current mess.
The world, Hyper Light Drifter reminds us, is fallen, and we have been corrupted through our own folly. But that same world also can and will be redeemed—a promise we play a critical role in fulfilling. Though it could cost us immeasurably, up to and including our own lives, Creation will be made glorious once again, free from the fear of judgment.
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