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Design Lessons: Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight for the Nintendo Switch seems to be tried and true metroid-esque game.  However, while it does have elements of Metroid games, there is little innovation of them.  There are some design decisions that seem to actually detract from the player experience and that is what I am going to talk about today.

Recap

If you have not played HK, it is a side scrolling platformer.  It is open world and non-linear (to a degree).  As you acquire new abilities, e.g. double jump, you can reach new areas.  You have an energy meter that is refreshed by hitting enemies.  You can use this energy to heal.  You can also heal at ‘benches’, which also saves the game.  These benches are scattered throughout the world.

Issue #1

Hollow Knight has an mechanism where if you die, you leave behind a ‘shade’ that contains all your current money.  It also reduces your energy tank by half.  So, it is penalizing you for not being good enough.  You died, so clearly you were having difficulty with the game, so the designers thought it would be a good idea to make it harder?  

While interesting, it is just a way to frustrate the player.  Your shade will often appear near where you died.  Often times it allows you to collect the shade but not fight the boss (or whatever killed you),  However, sometimes the shade is well inside the boss area, committing you to another battle and possible death.  Yet another joy is a defect that means sometimes your shade lingers in an area you cannot reach!

The kicker is that your shade will fight you.  Yes,  you can be killed by your own shade which helpfully becomes stronger as you progress in the game.  The shade also has the same attacks as you, which means it can hit you from afar, ground pound, etc.  It makes difficult areas where you died, even harder.

The other kicker is that if your die before reclaiming your shade, all your money is lost.  Add to the fact there isn’t a way to bank your money (there is a bank, but it is actually a honey-pot trap) and you get a fairly frustrating exploration process.

The Fix

There are several fixes, but the most obvious is “do not penalize players who haven’t mastered the game”.  While there seems to be a story reason for the shade mechanic, don’t cut down the energy of the player.  Also, have a way to store money that allows for the possibility of deaths.

The game does have a way to bring your shade to you, but it actually requires quite a bit of money to make it available, and then it is limited to use by a rare item.

Issue #2

There is no way to save your money in the game.  Once you reach a point where you have nothing to buy (and there are several valleys like that), then you really are taking a big chance exploring.  

The bank in the game will steal your money once enough has been accumulated.  It can be retrieved, but again, only by spending either a lot of money to buy a very rare item, or by finding the very rare item.

The Fix

Have a real banking system or don’t put player’s wealth at risk.  Fairly simple really.  Give your players clues about the world.  Make those clues noticeable, for example, breakable walls are all but invisible in this game.  Another frustration that just leads to wall licking.

Issue #3

The bank is an example of this, but in the game there several ‘safe’ zones, such as the bank or a bench, but then the game pulls the rug out, by having either a monster before the bench or some other twist that frustrates the player.  

In some ways, it is interesting to keep the players on their toes, but what it ultimately does it break the rules.  The game establishes rules as you play, such as being able to rest at a bench.  But then one bench, you will probably die when you try to rest.  

It is similar in that there are NPCs to rescue, but occasionally, they are actually aggressive monsters, which can easily kill a low powered player.  Or a boss fight will just appear, without a preceding save point or really any sign of the impending fight.

The Fix

Good games share traits of good stories, internal consistency.  If a story establishes a set of rules (such as the world is covered in water), it should follow those rules.  If the same story then has a bit of uncovered land that is low lying, it has just broken the rule it established.  But if the land is at the top of mountains, then it follows those rules.

Breaking rules is easy and can feel cheap.  Players won’t expect it, which designers can point to and feel they give the players a surprise.  However, there are ways to surprise players without setting up a rule and then breaking it later.  Designers can also give players clues that the rule will be broken.  Setting up that save/rest areas are “safe” then breaking it, just sets up an antagonistic feeling for the players, which not all will enjoy.

Issue #4

The mechanisms to travel quickly don’t actually work well. There is still a large amount of traveling by foot even with a ‘train’ like system that lets you travel to areas in the map. Bosses and items are rarely nearby and some areas don’t even have stations. This adds to the overall tediousness of the game. I can’t think of a design decision to make it hard to get around the world, other than to force the character to walk through it.

The Fix

Make the quick travel system useful.  This is just poorly designed system.  This feeds into the next issue as well.

Issue #5

There are very few saves spots in the game.  Saves are rarely near a boss fight, so any loss means a fair amount of backtracking, trying to keep your health up as you go through often very tedious jump challenges (thanks to one hit kill spikes).

This reinforces that this game is extremely demanding and punishes non-perfect play.  

The Fix

Allow players to save more often or give them a means to jump back to a place where they set a ‘return point’.  Assuming that player difficulty isn’t adjustable, for difficult fights, there should be a save point near the fight.  Otherwise, players should be able to travel to central points that allow for relatively similar travel times.

It is a tricky line to walk.  On one hand, you want players to explore and enjoy traveling through the world.  However, if that travel is frustrating, then players will not enjoy the game.  

An old solution to this issue is the idea of a ‘life’ that is spent, allowing the player to retry the boss immediately (e.g. the Mega Man games).  After failing, players are eager to try again (or not, which a simple leave/try dialog will allow), slowing them down and penalizing them for failing will only lead to frustration.  

Issue #6

Hollow Knight’s style is a dark decaying world, but it is done via a cartoon like cutesy interface.  It does not clue in players that this game expects perfection almost all of the time.  If you have to make 1 tricky jump around spikes on the way to a boss or item, then you will have to do that same jump probably 4 or 5 times.

It is very frustrating to try to travel around the large world, making the same precision jumps and attacks, only to make a mistake and watch it all unravel.  At times it seems this game seems to think it is actually Dark Souls.

The Fix

This one is just a matter of better level design.  Putting players through their paces all the time is tedious and frustrating.  Players enjoy a challenge, but having them execute precise button presses all the time is wearing.  

Hollow Knight also doesn’t scale the difficulty at all, another possible fix.  When I was fighting a boss for the 13th time, I would wonder why the game was so difficult quite frequently.  

Issue #7

The final frustration I run into in this game is somewhat common with side scrollers.  Not all do this, but in many game, simply touching an enemy hurts you.  For some reason it just feels sloppy and cheap.  I can understand if a spiky creature hurts, but just running into an enemy that looks like yourself doesn’t make any sense.

The Fix

Have enemies that don’t have damaging skin (like spikes) make an attack to hurt the player.  It seems fairly lazy to just have touching an enemy hurt you.  I know it has been standard since Super Mario Brothers but it doesn’t justify it 30 years later.

Conclusion

Hollow Knight has a collection of design decisions that make the game fairly tedious (to me at least), even with an interesting story.  This can simply be a matter of different values.  I feel a metroid like game should reward exploration, not penalize it.  I think games should be consistent and follow their own rules, not try to ‘trick’ players and frustrate them.  Hollow Knight seems to revel in frustrating and wasting player’s time.    

After playing a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, HK is particularly hard to endure.  To contrast BOTW with HK, BOTW allows for easy travel, by allowing a player to leave any destination for one of several warp locations.  BOTW rewards players for exploring, not only for combat.  BOTW has a heavier emphasis on puzzle solving that HK, but both are exploration games at their core.

Metroid had relatively few items locked behind bosses.  Most of that game was about exploration and puzzle solving.  So, in some significant ways, HK deviates from the Metroid style.  This isn't bad per se, but the design decisions that deviate from the original will confuse players.  And while Super Metroid did follow a pattern of new abilities locked behind boss fights, the fights were easier, near save points, and the exploration of the game allowed the player to become stronger and making the fight easier (if the player wanted).

Ultimately, "good games" give the player a fair amount of freedom to set their own difficulty.  Players seem to enjoy challenging themselves, not being dictated to.  This goes back to the heart of the very first Legend of Zelda game.  I think the ultimate design lesson to take away from these issues is that players should have flexibility and freedom when faced with a "gate" (gate being a generic idea of something stopping the player from progressing, in most cases a boss who grants a new ability, such as double jump).

Allowing players to make choices is quintessential to game play; a game must have choice.  Even fairly linear games such as the early Castlevanias give players the chance to prepare for the boss fight.  As players progress through levels, players may destroy candelabras to gain items and resources, or not, as players wish.  They decide how to experience the game. 

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