I drafted this at the end of July last year, then parked it because it needed some work. The fact I’m posting this now tells you a lot about how writing went last year. it could probably use more rewriting than I’ve done, but I just want to get it out there now. It’s a long piece for the TL;DR generation (approx. 3000 words), but I’m not going to post stuff that long too often. If anyone else has played Hollow Knight, I’d like to know how you got on, so drop a comment at the bottom.
Are videogames really just about fighting?
I’ve been playing Hollow Knight a lot recently, probably for external-to-game reasons the UN would prefer to classify as a health disorder rather than as a reflection of its internal quality. Still, I’ve logged over twenty-four hours in it, which is unusually long for me and a single-player narrative videogame. (Multiplayer, ambient, and strategy games tend to clock up hours much more quickly, simply due to their nature.)
Usually I try to play to the end of the main story, which I only managed once or twice as a kid. I’ve only succeeded more with that in recent years due to my predilection for short indie games, rather than increased proficiency. (I am better at videogames now than I have ever been, but I would still be described as Not Very Good.) Mostly I bail out early due to time, disinterest, competing hobbies, or a difficulty spike, among other reasons. I think I may be at the bail out point with Hollow Knight. (Reader, I was.)
But why give up now? Reasonably, you might think I was enjoying this game, and would want to see it through. In a sense, you’d be correct. The atmosphere and the art style are great. Its habit of withholding maps to new areas, and the relative scarcity of checkpoints and fast travel, make spelunking into new locations scary and exciting – you don’t know where you are, and you’re not sure if you’ll ever make it back. The slow parcelling out of story works very well, and I like the implication that you’re a destructive force in this environment, rather than the trad empowerment hero’s journey schtick you’re usually stuck with. (I haven’t finished the game, and I’m not going to look up the rest, because I’m happy to stick to this impression rather than risk disappointment.)
The thing is, I am now past the twenty-four hour mark. This is the point where irritations become problems, and problems become roadblocks. Dying and leaving your shade behind (it’s like your soul, but it carries all your loose change) is cool. Die before you get your shade back, though, and that shade with all the money gets overwritten with your new one, which has no money because you were counting on getting your old shade back. This is irritating in the early game, but doable, as there’s gonna be plenty more money where that came from. It’s arguably a mature and thematic choice. In the later game, however, fake money mounts up quickly, past the point where you have things to spend it on. And yet, you want to keep it.
I’m pretty sure I’ve just lost 7000 geo due to dying because of a glitch. It’s the only glitch I’ve encountered, to be fair, but I haven’t checked because I Alt-F4ed out of there and don’t want to look. (This is a very specific reason not to go back to a videogame, but it’s probably one shared by many).
The reason I died was because I stumbled into a boss fight I was ill-prepared for. Stumbled is unfair, actually, I knew there was a boss up ahead – the game has a great tell, in that any time you go though a room without encountering any particular trouble, you know there’s a big baddie up ahead. I kept going hoping I was wrong, and I wasn’t. I died, went back, couldn’t attack my old shade, the boss fight triggered, I died again, and then Alt-F4 as described earlier.
(There is a method for getting your shade back without going back into a dangerous situation, but that involves schlepping all the way back to the surface. Since all travel is difficult and dangerous in this game, and you can usually coax your shade just outside of the area the boss triggers in if you want to make a hasty retreat, so I’ve tended to just try to retrieve it.)
This is all in an area called The Hive, which is completely optional, which makes the boss completely optional, which makes it all my fault. This is fine, actually, and demonstrates one of the strengths of the game: go ahead and do something stupid, but don’t come crying to me when it goes wrong. The reason I was there at all, however, is there were four other bosses that I really can’t be arsed with fighting. One is compulsory, and a repeat opponent, so I need to kill that one to get one with the story. One is probably optional, but it’s in a room before a bit of map I’ve yet to uncover, which makes it compulsory to me. The other two (well, three now I guess) are probably skippable, except they’re likely to cough up a reward that will make my life easier in the future. There are also a few other fights I have to do for a subplot, none of which I’m keen on.
The core problem here is simple: I’m sick of the bloody combat system.
By this point in the game, I’ve obviously done a lot of fighting. The problem is now the fighting is harder, but not in a way that’s interesting. Typically, the bosses are just getting faster, or there are multiple bosses, or their attacks are taking up more of the screen, and my patented One Way To Win Boss Fights (hit once or twice, retreat and dodge, hit again, heal up when you get a moment) is becoming a) less effective and b) tedious to do.
Now, I could switch up my fighting style, sure. I could switch to a spell-led fighting style, but the spell meter is the same as the healing meter (they both use soul), so you’re often left with a straight choice between hitting your opponent with a spell or healing up to not die. With these bosses, you don’t really have a chance to heal anyway, so that’s out, but it doesn’t actually make it simpler because you have to hit the boss with a nail in order to get soul in order to shoot a spell from far away instead of healing BUT if you hit them they’ll likely hit you and THEN you’ll be hurt which you can’t HEAL then you run out of SOUL and they hit you AGAIN and then you DIE and you can see how irritating this becomes.
It turns out now, of course, the game doesn’t have the simple one-sort-of-hit-one-sort-of-spell system I wish it did, although it does seem balanced for you to continue to pretend that this is the case. However, the new options aren’t actually good or interesting choices for the player. The new physical moves essentially take time to charge up your attack in order to make it more powerful. Powerful is good, but I’ve never had a problem with hitting something multiple times to get it dead, and if I don’t have time to heal in a fight then I definitely don’t have time to charge attacks. The entire advanced fighting system is problems that I don’t have and solutions I can’t use. Further, I can’t progress in this game if I can’t figure out the fighting. There are also a couple of different spells I could try, but they don’t seem to get around the problems I’m having, so aren’t going to change my fortunes.
What will change your fortunes is the Charms system, which belongs in the bin alongside crafting as something videogamers seem to want, but just makes everything worse. You have a limited amount of slots to equip a Charm, each of which has its own special ability to help you create your own fighting or exploring style, and apparently different charms work well together and there are some great combinations.
Every time you take me out of your action-adventure game and into a menu, you lose me. If you expect me to learn how twenty-odd different charms work in practice, not only individually, but in every conceivable combination, you can go to hell. I’m not here for the fighting anyway, but this incremental variation system doesn’t make the system deep, just complicated.
As a sidebar, one of the charms is the ability to see where you are on the map, which is amusing in theory but immediately irritating in practice. You don’t start off with charms, which means you don’t have a marker at the beginning of the game, which adds to the whole stumbling around thing. As soon as you get the marker, you keep it, and are immediately resentful if you have to get rid of it.
This isn’t a unique proposition. You can get rid of your location marker in Firewatch, but the map in use there is a detailed and useful real-world map, plus you also get a compass, so it probably enhances the game if you turn it off. I wouldn’t know, I get lost going in a straight line so I need everything at my disposal. This is doubly true in Hollow Knight, where the map will tell you the vague shape of the next room you’re in, and whether there’s a selected point of interest, but that’s it. If it’s a maze room with multiple levels, tough, you’re in a square, says the map, and the bit you need to get to is in the bottom right. Get going. Thematic, but frustrating.
I don’t mind the charms system when it comes to exploring, because I can make the game easier on myself by using it. When it comes to the bosses, however, unless one of the charms was “skip this fight” I’m just not interested. The game should have had the courage of its convictions, and stuck to jump-dodge-hit-spell-heal as a fighting system. If that was the case, I would just be confident I’ve hit my skill ceiling with this game, and we could part amicably. As it stands, twenty-four hours in I’m wondering whether I should relearn it in order to progress, and this many hours in it’s just not worth it.
I’m serious about the “skip this fight” button. If the only complexity the new bosses are going to offer me is an increasing twitchiness, then I want to opt out of the fights and get on with the bits of the game I like. It’s one of the weird quirks of the videogame art form as it currently stands that this option is still pretty rare. I know I’ve seen a “skip fight” option before – it might have been a LEGO game – but it really should come as standard. If you don’t like some of the tracks on an album or playlist, you can skip them. If you think some scenes in a movie or TV show are boring, fast-forward them. If you hate some characters in a book you’re reading, flick past them.
I understand, and sympathise with, the idea that an experience is cheapened by not seeing it through in its original form. I remain mortally offended that my Dad flaked out of watching Grave of the Fireflies fairly early on, then watched the remainder of it on his own on fast-forward. That film is a masterpiece, and his actions made a mockery of it, and I’m only half-kidding with that phrasing. But he got more out of it by doing that than not watching it at all, which is not an option I have with Hollow Knight.
Are videogames really just about fighting? Betteridge’s law states that if a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is always no. And of course they’re not – it’s a rich and diverse field, with a wide variety of different experiences and great opportunities for future development. My real concern is that this game I have been previously enjoying is, indeed, about fighting, and more specifically the combat system. Not only is it the game’s weakest element, but the relative strengths of various combat systems something I absolutely don’t care about. If you do, great, but I’m here for an experience. If my experience with this game is defined by my ability to win (or not win) the various fights that block my progression in it, then what is the worth of everything around it?
There’s another problem. If the plot is as I suspect, and my avatar’s destructive actions are causing the disintegration of his environment, what’s the need for me to be directly complicit in that as a player? If someone remembers your game for its atmosphere, design, and story, but not your combat system, they remember your game. I can understand the meaning of this fight at this point in the narrative without having to actually press the buttons. If, however, what Team Cherry cares about is that I play and win their fights, and the plot is a dark mirror of that desire, then I get that, but the fun’s gone out of it for me.
I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s review of Funny Games, where he points out that you can’t make a violent film decrying people’s enjoyment of violence. I’m not sure that’s true – done well, I’m sure that artistic impulse can lead to great, subversive works. In the case of Hollow Knight, though, it undermines your game about the destructive nature of violence if the tediousness of your combat system destroys my interest in the game.
My biggest frustration with this combat nonsense is that I didn’t come here looking for a masterpiece of the genre. From the beginning, I’ve been thinking of this game as a 7/10. There’s a great Rock Paper Shotgun article on 7/10 games: it doesn’t have much to do with the assigning of scores to art, which is bullshit and bad criticism, and more to do with the experience you get when you play something.
A “7/10 game” isn’t as taxing as a better game. A better game may be a high skill experience like your Dark Soulses or your Street Fighters, where the quality of your game experience is demonstrated by the physical demands of their systems, and their responsiveness to your improvement. It may be a puzzle or strategy game, where it’s a test of your mental agility. It may be a narrative game like Firewatch, which principally cares about your emotional investment in the experience. As great as better games are, you’re not always prepared to have your mental or physical agility tested of a night, and something a little lower brow is called for.
A 7/10 doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. Frankly, I don’t currently have the time for bad art. It just means the videogame is on the level of a summer blockbuster, or a beach read, or a catchy but shallow song. It’s difficult to describe the human draw towards culture that we know is well above the 5/10 barometer of plunk average, but not quite at the 8/10 properly interesting mark, particularly without sounding sniffy about it. Again, scores are bullshit, and the whole notion of ranking culture against each other is bollocks too, but this is the only language I have to describe this sweet spot of audience enjoyment.
Hollow Knight was comfortably a 7/10, and that was great for me. The first five hours do drag unforgivably, because the game’s stingy in passing out information, skills, and story, which leaves you wandering about the levels, swiping at bugs in the dark, considering your next cup of tea more than anything else. I didn’t even realise I was wielding a nail instead of a sword until past the point where I would have thought it was cool and thematic, and well into the point of “this is unclear.” The game does ramp up the pace eventually, but the whole “how long should you give something to get going” debate is a different essay altogether.
Anyway, 7/10. The platforming is fun, but rarely too taxing. The one physical attack-one spell attack system is great (while it lasts). The creature design is fun and original. The idea that everything in the dungeon can harm you significantly, while frustrating, is clear and convincing. I liked the shade system, until I didn’t. The side characters are strange and cool and have thankfully limited dialogue. Up until this breaking point, it’s been a game about happily exploring new areas, getting maps and treasure, and spending your money on upgrades that give you an easier time tooling around in new areas getting maps and treasure.
And then, it stopped being fun. It’s not a real tragedy, of course. I got plenty of enjoyment out of the game, and I’m glad I had the experience. It just feels to me like gatekeeping. The game was built towards video game obsessives, and doesn’t do enough to let people like me in, when it’s the sort of game that should be more broadminded about its player base.
Frankly, it’s not as well-coded as a Super Meat Boy, where I can happily fail at it. There’s a right way to play that game, it’s at its most fun when you do it the right way, and when I can’t get past a level I know it’s just my skill level. I could possibly get better, or I can just appreciate the artistry at my literacy level. It’s the same with ballet. I don’t really understand what’s going on, because I can’t read it properly, but there’s a smell to excellence.
Hollow Knight never had the smell of excellence. (Yes, I’m sticking to that phrase.) It was just meant to be a fun way to try out Xbox Game Pass for PC, after the nightmare that was never being able to get Forza to run, and its useless support team. And then, the game just locked me out.