Difficulty is a constant source of contention in gaming. Some want easier access to the content of a game, others want an exhilarating challenge. However, the structure of many games and their narratives suggest that the experience cannot exist without the challenge. Today, we will look at one of indie gaming’s darlings, Hollow Knight to find out more.
While browsing Twitter the other day I came across a kerfuffle. It was the reemergence of a regular conversation in gaming Twitter. Then while reading through the discussion I saw someone mention Team Cherry’s Indie Game darling; Hollow Knight as an example of a difficult but interesting game.
I must admit that part of me simply wanted to say the infamous phrase ‘Git gud!’ at them, but not wanting to be toxic I refrained from that. Now this got me thinking a lot more about what people were asking for. And while I can’t fully weigh in on the core debate, I can support one of the arguments.
Hollow Knight is at once a gorgeous spectacle of sight and sound, a rich and well-realized setting of a decaying insect kingdom, and a challenging game of constantly escalating difficulty.
Team Cherry is rightfully lauded for creating a wonderfully built and realized game where story, art, music, and gameplay all come together in a way that elevates the game into something more than the sum of its parts.
Speaking as a fan of the game and as someone who’s finished it, I can understand wanting to play and beat this game for just the art, the story, the music, or the gameplay, but I feel the experience of Hollow Knight would be incomplete (perhaps rendered Hollow) if one or more elements were changed.
Why? Because it reminds me of a revelation I had while talking to a friend about a movie.
A few years ago I was with a friend; a vet who served in Iraq. While browsing the TV for movies we stumbled across a channel that was playing Sam Mendes’s Jarhead. He stopped browsing and then told me that it was his favorite movie about the Gulf War.
I asked him why he liked it. I was there for the movie’s theater cycle; the hyped up trailers, the film itself which was a dull flick that was mostly men getting shouted at, shot at, then sent home as broken husks of their former selves.
He then explained to me that those were the qualities he liked about the film as it was a distillation of his own experience in the war.
That is to say, the hype, the letdown, and the aftermath had put him back in time to his days in the Middle East.
Hollow Knight isn’t a war movie, it is a video game. Video games are much, much better at immersing a player into their settings and narratives. Games can do that in a lot of ways, but for this discussion I want to focus on the idea of putting the player in the protagonist’s shoes.
Hollow Knight’s main character is a work of genius.
They start their arc as a mute wanderer and will end it as one of the most heroic figures in the history of Hallownest; able to cross nails with some of the most dangerous creatures that wander its shadowy depths and navigate the most treacherous locations in the kingdom.
To make that transition feel real, the story has to show that both you and the titular knight have overcome those great challenges through skill, talent, and force of will. Since this is a video game, an easy way to do that is to let the player experience those hurdles along with the player-character.
Hollow Knight’s bosses do more than just stand in the way of progress, they are the game’s tool to convey you about your and the Knight’s growing power and skill.
The pain and frustration of your losses help contribute to the experience just as much as the sense of pride and accomplishment you get from overcoming those seemingly insurmountable obstacles; the punishing difficulty conveying to you the Knight’s struggles.
Hollow Knight’s genius is how it leverages your own emotions while playing the game to elevate the experience and immerse you into the narrative in ways only a video game can.
Besides that, there are some story beats that have elevated meaning because of the effort you have to do to achieve them. Without wishing to spoil, to get either the True Ending, the player must go through a gauntlet of tasks:
– Defeat two different bosses
– Accumulate a rare resource (through platforming challenges and/or mini-bosses)
– Access an endgame dungeon with some of the hardest required platforming challenges in the game
– Access another dangerous dungeon on the map to perform a ritual spell to access the true ending
The boss fights, the resource gathering, and the brutal set of platforming challenges are all incredibly unpleasant, especially for your first time playing. You will get salty. You will get the urge to throw the controller. You will probably leave the game for days while trying to beat it. But, your experience is here to serve a purpose within the narrative you’re experiencing.
You are the Knight. Their struggles are yours. Their conquests, rightfully yours too.
What would happen if Hollow Knight’s platforming challenges and the boss battles didn’t exist? In my opinion the story simply wouldn’t work. No battles to fight. No obstacles to navigate. No voices that cry suffering. Void of challenge and skill, it is lesser. It is a Hollow experience.
And this makes me wonder if the people asking for a challenge-free experience are aware of what they are asking for. Without this struggle or strife the game is just empty corridors that would have otherwise worked as respites, or build-up, to daring moments. I think a lot of people are in the mindset that the game is difficult just to be difficult.
It’s not an uncommon way of thinking as many video games pride themselves on their difficulty. A noble and honest thing in of itself, but it is mildly frustrating to notice that at times it interferes with artful storytelling.
Ultimately this is up to the developers of games to decide on. There is no right or wrong answer to this. I simply want to remind everyone that gaming as a medium has a large arsenal to impart upon their audiences an experience with gameplay and their difficulty being one of them.