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Hollow Knight

Normally when I write about a game, I want to discuss the story, the mechanics, the art, and my reactions to those things. I’m not going to do that today. I’m mostly going to talk about how the game has affected me and how I think of myself as a “gamer”.

Hollow Knight is a notoriously hard game. I actually tried it around when it came out but was using a laptop keyboard and the touchpad, and didn’t even get as far as the first boss before deciding to shelve it. I always intended to go back to it when I got a controller but its reputation for difficult platforming, hard-as-nails bosses, and frustrating corpse runs put me off.

A “shade”, a memory of an in-game death

Then 2020 happened. Among the many people who found themselves with a lot of free time due to being furloughed was a good friend of mine, Johno, aka bit_heist. Johno is a serial creator of content that I’ve always enjoyed (I have even collaborated with him in the past), so when he started streaming on Twitch naturally I started watching. Having convinced myself that I was never going to play Hollow Knight, I didn’t worry about spoilers. It was fun to watch but still looked hard enough to keep me away.

After I started streaming myself and began to consider what made a good streaming game, the idea of playing Hollow Knight surfaced. I warned people repeatedly: “I’m bad at boss fights”, “I’m bad at platforming”, “I suck at hard games”; however, people were keen so I dove in.

I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that Hollow Knight has changed my life, at least in terms of gaming. I genuinely believed I was certified Bad At Games. I press the wrong button half the time, jumping instead of dashing, healing instead of dodging, that kind of thing. I have no sense of rhythm or timing and am slow on pattern recognition so don’t recognise boss “tells” well. I was absolutely convinced I wouldn’t be able to complete Hollow Knight. My own personal view of myself just didn’t include “can play and complete hard games”.

And yet.

The Knight and a grub, little critters you rescue

It took me over 55 hours, many, many deaths, and all my patience but I completed the game all the way past the first ending and on to the “true ending” with the much harder boss. I am relatively certain I’d never have managed it without having people in my chat giving me on-request advice on where to go, but they can give directions and advice until the cows come home – it was still me who had to execute.

It’s hard to say where my determination to complete Hollow Knight came from, but I believe it’s a number of things. First of all, I was strongly motivated by my stream community – even though I’ve done it a few times I really dislike leaving a game half-finished on stream; it feels like I’m giving people an incomplete experience. On top of that, it’s super encouraging and lovely having a bunch of people cheering you on and telling you that they know you can do it. It’s much harder for me to let down people who really believe in me too.

The Knight, the player character.

Those are very extrinsic reasons to do something though, and while I hesitate to criticise anyone’s reason for doing anything, I personally don’t tend to do anything without a strong intrinsic motivator too (even if it’s sometimes as basic as “I want to make friend X happy so I will do Y”). So it’s a good job that Hollow Knight did that!
I have always loved games with lots of achievements and side quests. I don’t know what it is but I really love working my way through a list of things and checking them off. I got particularly into this in World of Warcraft, trekking through the world to interact with a variety of critters, eating all kinds of food items, generally not doing anything the game actually wanted me to do for progression, just watching a long list turn progressively greener.

Hollow Knight manages to do this with progression. I’ve felt good about beating hard bosses or levels before but not like this. Hollow Knight elicits a completely new feeling in me, one of overcoming a challenge and being so thrilled and delighted that I am then excited to move on to the next one rather than just worried about it. Normally, in life and games, when I have conquered a challenge, I barely take a breath before moving on to thinking about the next one, worrying about how I’ll perform when the time comes. Hollow Knight makes me eager.

I don’t know what it is about the game’s fights, balance, difficulty curve etc. that make me feel this way. Some unique, intangible thing perhaps. Or maybe someone more eloquent and used to really evaluating game mechanics would be able to articulate this. Or perhaps I’m undervaluing the real effect my streaming community has on my confidence and perseverance.

Hornet, a character from Hollow Knight

Whatever the reason for it, Hollow Knight has opened up my gaming horizons. I certainly would never have played Dark Souls without having played Hollow Knight, and Dark Souls too was an extremely rewarding experience with a similar feeling about it.
If that isn’t enough to entice you to play it, a little something more. The design and style is exquisite, the characters and great, the music and sound effects are absolutely superb, and it’s just really fun. It’s also ridiculously good value, at £11 or less (note: affiliate link) and taking many people over 40 hours to complete fully.

I believe art has the capacity to be life-changing, and that video games (like other forms of entertainment media) are art, so I shouldn’t be so surprised by this outcome. I think the reason I am is that Hollow Knight isn’t trying to change me, it’s not an indie game about trauma, doesn’t have subversive storytelling, and isn’t challenging. It just lets me interact with it in fun ways and the personal change was all kind of incidental.

I’m so glad I gave this game a second chance. If you bounced off it thinking it was too hard for you then please give it another try, you owe it to yourself. I loved the game and the experience of sharing it with my community so much that I’ve adopted the grub from the game as our mascot! The community is now the Grub Club and Hans Grubber is our leader.

Shanodin (me!) and Hans Grubber the grub

Do you have experiences with games unexpectedly affecting you as Hollow Knight has done for me? Let me know in the comments.

2 replies on “Hollow Knight”

I’ve felt the same way about Hades lately, which is very odd to me! I tend to say, rather defensively, that I don’t do ‘twitch’ games. (In the sense of ones required reflexes, or button choices beyond mashing HIT THE THING on a rapid basis.) Too much to do, not enough time to ‘master’ anything, and I can just watch someone else play, right?

But with Hades… the gameplay loop, and the reward for failure–every time you die, you get story, dialogue, a chance to invest darkness & gems and such–has actually gotten me to keep playing enough that I’m… not terrible at it? I started a new save file without God Mode, fully expecting to spent fifty runs getting past the first boss–it took me 25 with God Mode, after all–and instead it took me six.

It turns out I… can get decent at twitchy games? It just has to be a game that rewards, rather than punishes, the learning process. Which means it’s not so much “I’m bad at games” (though I’m not an expert, that’s for sure) as “most games that require twitchy stuff don’t give me sufficient reward to make it worth my while.” And it’s much more satisfying to think about the games I do and don’t play that way; I can much more honestly say, okay, it’s not me, it’s them. And they can be great games for other people, without me feeling like I’m failing to not find their loop rewarding enough. It’s okay!

That’s entirely fair – being able to recognise that kind of thing is a key skill.

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