On Hylics (Mason Lindroth, 2015), Robert Yang wrote: “There are a lot of things to like about Hylics. The randomly generated dialog text both exposes the emptiness of most RPG NPC dialog while simultaneously showing how much better and more poetic it can be.”
As I played through Hylics I realised it exposed pretty much the whole JRPG format.
Hylics is a JRPG which defies any sort of easy description (Yang would have my bacon if I came out and called it “surreal”, so imagine I’ve pulled you into a dark alley and whispered the word “weird” in secret) but is packed with beautiful stop-motion animation.
But Hylics is a pretty confusing experience. Early in the game, you might be expecting some guidance about what your character, Wayne, is supposed to be doing. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an info-dump. Hylics doesn’t do info-dumps. In fact, the game never orders you about and if I recall correctly you only get sent once on an explicit fetch quest.
In one sense, it’s clever. A JRPG inevitably becomes about exploration, obtaining access to areas which are initially walled off. Imagine no one told you to go find the red key to open the red door: you’d still want to find the red key. Hylics knows this, choosing never to explain why Wayne would want to go anywhere, but simply offers barriers – such as the harbour gate – that the player desires to bypass. In the 1978 book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits characterised games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” and what defines a player in most cases is this urge to seek such unnecessary challenges. The developer just needs to get out of the way – players are happy to lay siege to something that opposes them.
Because Hylics is clever like this, it lampoons JRPG dialogue. Most dialogue is procedurally-generated gibberish but the accompanying sound indicates when the conversation is important to pay attention to or not. As Yang notes, it reflects the banality of most game dialogue. The average JRPG developer will scatter NPCs about to make the world seem alive, offering terrible conversation like “Hi! Look at this field, it’s so green!” While Hylics goes meta in this respect, it turns NPCs into an exercise in gaming frustration, as if we are trying to find the right NPC hotspot to negotiate with.
Although Hylics has a health and magic system, it uses freaky names to make it difficult to form permanent associations. In your inventory, “frozen burrito” can be used as a projectile, while “warm burrito” is used to revive a character from death. “Vegetable” will recover lost “flesh” and “juice box” will increase “will”. It gets even more convoluted when you approach Hylics’ enchantments such as “mystic meat” and “panorama”. The player will learn some of these names but I often chose the wrong item or spell because I forgot to check the small print which explains what it does. I had to keep checking the small print, again and again.
You might expect Hylics to lampoon JRPG combat as well, but Lindroth takes it deadly seriously. While the persistent player will figure out Hylics only cares about one character stat (Mightiness) becoming adept at wielding your party’s tools is essential as the fights become increasingly fraught. It’s also mean in some ways, where a little experimentation can result in instant death, but you can save wherever you want.
It’s not the only JRPG to mash up the labels to leave players floundering. For example, in Polymorphous Perversity (Nicolau Chaud, 2012) the RPG Maker combat model is utilised to represent sexual encounters. I’m also reminded of Space Funeral (The Catamites, 2010).
But the more I played, the more I saw through the graphics to the numbers and structures of the technical game underneath. You might suspect that Hylics is making the point that much of the visual and narrative baggage that comes with a JRPG can be completely dispensed with, but it’s actually the reverse. As the average JRPG ruleset is so familiar and staid, the only stuff worth a damn is what it looks like, what it sounds like and, if you’re lucky, what it means.
I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed Hylics, but I was glad to have played it.
Further Reading: Chris Priestman on Hylics (Kill Screen)