Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Hylics is Post-Apocalypse Cuphead

Yes, you read that title correctly. I'm going to be assuming that anyone reading this is familiar with both Cuphead and Hylics 1 and/or Hylics 2. Both are great indie games made by small teams with a unique artstyle and really good music. Both are an homage to classic game genres- Run & Gun Shooters or Oldschool "Four dudes in a line" turn based JRPGs. But the similarities end there- or so you thought.

Naturally, this will spoil major "plot" elements for both games. You have been warned. I should also mention that I have not watched the Cuphead show, nor do I have any plans to, so this blogpost will not contain spoilers for that and if there is any "lore" from there I missed then you can consider it non-canon for the purposes of this nonsense.

The Evidence
Both worlds have a fixation on gloves. Cuphead is a cartoon, and classic cartoon characters are known for their big white poofy gloves. Hylics takes the glove-love to a whole new level with gestural combat- gloves are one of your primary equipment slots. It's never in the direct spotlight, but gloves and hands are very important to the theming of both worlds.

Both worlds have magic. Magic isn't exactly uncommon in fantasy, cartoon, or sci-fi universes, but there is something specific about Cuphead and Hylics magic systems; both feature on a liquid-like resource for the main character's specific abilities. In Cuphead, Cuphead and Mugman drink "potions" which seems to be the source of their powers in the form of their "shots", similar to spells or energy-based attacks. Hylics uses juice as a recovery item for your will points, but you always have access to every gesture you've learned. While Cuphead and Mugman simply "equip" their shots, it isn't unthinkable that "in universe" they are drinking the potions before a boss fight to regain their energy for that specific type of shot they are performing. They also aren't pure video game abstractions, because they are actually bought and sold in universe by Porkrind the shopkeeper.

The characters of both worlds are also very diverse; composed of humans, talking animals, robots, and inanimate objects. Cuphead has a cast that is much more recognizable on what or who they are; dragons and genies and a giant evil flower. The main cast of Hylics is composed of a moon-man, a bug dude, a fish-bug-maybe robot dude, and a girl who casts spells. Hylics enemies are even weirder but include giant ghost-like invincible skulls, cultists, fish who swim through the air, weird animals, and a guy driving a car (found in an underground dungeon by the way). While thematically very different, the sort of "anything could be a person" feel of a classic cartoon is preserved in Hylics's bizarre roaster of enemies and NPCs.

You know what's not bizarre about Hylics? The food. Your consumable items are all food items- very generic and very western. Burritos, cookies, juice, bananas, and so on. While many games have sort of generic food with healing and/or recovery effects- It's important to note that Cuphead also has magic food in its world; the "Wondertart" being an important plot point in the DLC. Powerful "magic" food like bananas and cupcakes in the Hylics world.

One of the more underground fan theories about Hylics regards the Sages. The Sages are three powerful or wise beings that give Wayne & Crew the "Sage Tokens" needed to unlock the ultimate gesture in each game. Interestingly, each Sage has a name and the Sages are different in both Hylics games. In Hylics one, they are the Sage of Brains, the Sage of Computers, and the Sage of Death. In Hylics 2, they are Sage of Monitors, the Sage of Accretions, and the Sage of Satellites. The interesting fan theory is this; the Sages change between games because the Sages always represent something very important to the game world; the Sage of Death being tied to the afterlife, which is how players gain more maximum HP, or the Sage of Computers being how players learn new gestures (by looking at monitors). What does this have to do with Cuphead? Well- Cuphead doesn't have Sages, but there is a strange parity between the three "super moves" that you learn by clearing the mausoleums in the game, with each one sort of representing a core aspect of the game; the Super moves including a laser (projectiles), invincibility (avoiding damage), and ghost form (with a pink heart- representing parrying/using your own body as a weapon). This one's a bit of a stretch but it feels a bit too synchronous not to include. 

Both settings also have an afterlife- with death being a temporary and often reversible thing. Cuphead has permanent death (Ms.Chalice) of which her mission in the DLC is to find a way back, and temporary "battle" death, such as characters exploding or getting turned into food but being fine again in the outro- once again it's cartoon logic. In Hylics, the afterlife is a place you travel to every time you die and return to, and in Hylics 2 it is also the fast travel location. While the Astral Realm is mostly shown as an outer space or abstract realm; the Afterlife in Hylics is very pink- the same color as the "hearts" of beings in Cuphead. Cuphead, Mugman, and Ms.Chalice all turn into ghosts when they run out of health but you can parry their heart since it's pink to bring them back before they float off screen in co-op. It's not a perfect match... just yet.

The Proposed Timeline
Cuphead is a cartoon world, with a timeline and aesthetics that hint at a place in time. It has a history of its own; shown in the statues and background "lore" of Ms.Chalice, a playable character in the DLC and a useful NPC in the base game. Ms.Chalice is a long dead ghost that appears to be of the same "race" as Cuphead, Mugman, and Elder Kettle- basically a living cup. These chalice people are depicted as wearing togas and holding swords, spears, and shields- indicating they are an ancient culture. The Cuphead of the current time is early 1920s and 30s Americana, which is a given as this is the time period that the cartoons the game is based on were made. Contemporary by their standards then, now a vision of an unreal past.

As for Hylics, it has no defined time- However, we can infer a general time period from elements in the game; everything from the fabled water cooler, color televisions, and even a "Sage of Computers" all indicates a fairly modern time period- a 90s to 00s morass (obviously, as a fictional world, actual real world timeframes are irrelevant; but it follows a general progression as a secondary alternate "real world".) As for the game itself- it has a timeline and "lore" from the events of Hylics 1 to 2, which even includes at least one if not more apocalyptic events that destroy and recreate the world. The most notable of which is the Accretion- the events of Hylics which directly tie into Hylics 2.

So what great event could possibly bridge the gap between these two eras, exactly? What else? The war. The bomb. Let me explain.

Cuphead isn't the real world. It isn't based on a real time or place; but it has the markings of an era. It's animation style is unmistakable- rubberhose. It's the character of the 1930s and great depression era animation. But Cuphead does have a defined story. Somewhere during the events of Cuphead or immediately after are the events of the Delicious Last Course- Cuphead's one and only DLC (at the time of writing this). And the final battle of this- and the final battle of Cuphead- you fight Mr. Saltbaker. It's a great fight- and the only Cuphead boss animated on ones instead of twos, giving it a really surreal feeling and a great send off for the game. Saltbaker's animation is really good, by the way, not just hamming it up for this shitpost. If you haven't played Cuphead, it's pretty good.

But I mean, honestly, just look at it. This isn't rubberhose 30s animation anymore. This is Golden Age animation. This is just straight up Pinocchio- the 1940s cartoon. Things are changing in the Cuphead world. There is no set timeline or history, but things are progressing. We are leaving the old, nostalgic era, with all its film grain fuzz, and we are entering the second world war. The simple moralist views of the past, what with the Devil tricking people, is quietly going to fade away as the horrors of the modern world change things. The bomb. Modern thinking, and then, the Postmodern. This is the inevitable fate of Cuphead's world.

The descendants of this cartoon world interbred with each other. While the creatures of Hylics are only vaguely based on real life creatures, for the most part, they have common traits with real world creatures that are cartoonized. Dedusmuln is basically a bug. Wayne is a crescent moon- the sun is a living thing in Cuphead, as in many cartoons- and you actually fight the Moon as a boss in Cuphead. (Though she's really a Zeppelin.) It's not unthinkable that, many years after the initial war and ideological paradigm shift that broke the Cuphead world apart, the descendants in the trippy wasteland of color and imagination would warp into Hylics enemies and beings. They make plenty of logical sense- their designs are exaggerating and 'toonized versions of beings that don't exist. The gags of Hylics are intended for an audience of another world, not ours. Ironic layers of subverted meaning- perfectly postmodern.

There's a lot of thematic similarities between the two works as well. Both are cartoonish. Hylics is almost a spoof of JRPGs storylines with slapstick humor thrown in the mix. You fight a weasel summoner, find a warm burrito in the toilet, and pester a guard until he gives up. Everything is being controlled by Dracula. It's wacky and zany and you're not supposed to take it too serious. Hylics 2 actually tries to have a plot, but past its layer of weirdness its actually very simple. Hylics 2 is also much less random for the sake of it and has a bit less humor- but the humor more comes from the writing and funny situations. Both Hylics games are relatively upbeat- which to me fits well with the cartoon world of Cuphead. Most people assume that a post-apocalypse has to be grim, dark, and hopeless- but that's not necessarily the case. If you start with a colorful cartoon world, and blow it to pieces, it doesn't suddenly turn gray.

Physicality & The Gnostic Connection
On a more meta-level, both worlds have a surprisingly similar origin. Both are made by artistic minds who greatly value authenticity. For Hylics, Mason Lindroth makes almost everything out of clay. Even Hylics 2 and the teased "next Hylics game", which day make use of 3d animation and graphics, are still fundamentally based on clay sculpting- the models and props used by Mason's own hands and digitized to be used in a game world. The animations of the spells and attacks are Mason's own hands, turned into animations for use of the various gestures. Everything about it is based on a level of physical creation- literally sculpting the game's world, enemies, and designs by hand as clay.

Cuphead is very similar. For those unfamiliar with its development; one of the reasons why Cuphead took so long to make (and the DLC took 5 fucking years) is because everything in Cuphead is hand animated. You may not even notice it in the game, but every single boss, asset, animation, and level in Cuphead was created on paper- though the development team took some shortcuts with allowing these assets to be digitally colored, this was only to reduce the already insane workload and level of dedication required to fulfill this project. The purpose of this was to add the tiny mistakes, the effects of ink and pen on paper, and the imperceptible human element to the entire project. Now if this was actually worth the effort they went to for the project, that's a discussion for a different time, but it is unarguable that this elevates Cuphead above another project for the sheer level of craft alone.

Now obviously, there is a massive difference in the scope and budget of the projects. Hylics was a small RPG maker game that was never meant to be a serious indie project to compete on the video game market, where as Cuphead was a successful Kickstarter with massive praise and mainstream attention. But I find it fascinating how both projects have such similar underlying themes. Weirdly enough- this is even present in their gameplay, despite them being radically different and almost complete genre opposites. Cuphead's creators made the game to combine their love of classic cartoons and oldschool NES style sidescrollers like Contra and Mega-Man- games focused on fast action and platforming. This would make it totally at-odds with Hylics turn based, tactical battles with chill music and party-based combat with an emphasis on teamwork.

But the important thing here is the context of these challenges. While both games have radically different game design structures- one thing is carried throughout both works. When you're in a battle, or a Cuphead stage, or whatever else- your abilities and capabilities are not determined by your characters level or power-ups, but moreso by your own skill as the player. Hylics is based on JRPG tropes and mechanics, made in RPG maker, but you never actually level up. There is no direct increase in stats based on your progress through the game. Instead, you only get stronger by either adding new party members, interacting with certain items, or finding new gear or consumable items which can help carry you through harder fights. Cuphead is the same- you can switch loadouts of weapons or charms to make certain fights easier, but these are all side-grades or fitting for different situations. There is no straight up "better" upgrade or weapon in Cuphead, just more options.

Now you may be saying "hold on, Cuphead is a sidescrolling, boss-rush shooter. It has literally nothing to do with RPG mechanics! That entire genre is like that!" and you are 100% correct. This is purely a reach. But, if I may interject, consider the time period and development of this game. I am not a game developer, but games take a very long time to make and much of that development time comes with changing ideas, priorities, and the different market-realities of the time. Do you really think, throughout its entire long and storied development, that the Cuphead developers didn't once stop to consider the possibility of changing the game's genre to something more popular at the time? This game came out in 2017 originally- during the current peak of the indie Roguelike phase. While I'm glad the original vision of sticking with a cartoon retro-style shooter game was kept, I think it's foolish to believe that the Cuphead developers never at least considered the possibility of giving their game more mass market appeal. Something with permanent player progression, exploration of a larger world with content spread thinner throughout, or just an easier and less challenging game overall.

This underlying concept of not having level-ups or out-of-character forms of progression directly tie into the underlying themes that both games have- this kinda-sorta everyman fighting against greater cosmic forces them themselves. Neither Cuphead or Hylics really have a bombastic or overly complicated plot- you aren't a chosen one or something special. There is a great degree of physicality to both their designs- with Cuphead being a literal Cup, and object of no consequence that most people use every single day, to Wayne being a very simple shape to make with clay- a simple moon. Cuphead's plot is literally about freeing people from enslavement by a spiritual entity- Hylics has this idea much more strongly however- with the Gnostic terminology sprinkled throughout- though this is mostly set dressing. There is a blind-idiot God currently controlling the world, but he isn't the Demiurge. There is a Pneumatophore, but you just use it to air-dash and get around the game world. It's not meant to be an exploration of a spiritual belief predicated on existentialism. It's just weird, trippy, short experience- and that's all it has to be.

So in conclusion- Do I think Hylics is a Gnostic video game? Not really, and neither is Cuphead. But it cannot be just a coincidence that one of the only RPGs where you never level up just so happens to be named Hylics.

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