The little exoplanet Callisto is named after a Nymph, the daughter of the infamous king Lycaon and the Naiad Nonacris.
The myth says that Callisto joined the hunting party of the goddess Artemis, and thus she was constantly seen close to the goddess.
Zeus obsessed with the charms of the young huntress and followed her during their hunting trips. Once she was alone Zeus disguised himself as Artemis and seduced Callisto, impregnating her.
Artemis, who demanded all her followers to remain pure, found out about the affair and expelled Callisto from her company. The poor Nymph roamed the forest alone as the pregnancy advanced.
Hera found about her husband’s infidelity and transformed Callisto into a bear only to trick Artemis to shoot her during a hunt. Zeus felt pity for the Nymph. He sent Hermes to rescue the unborn baby, Arcas, and take him to the Nymph Maia. Then he transformed Callisto into a constellation, Ursa Major, the Great Bear, where she could live save from Hera’s wrath.
Her son, Arcas, succeeded his grandfather Lycaon and his kingdom received the name Arcadia in his honor. On his death bed, Zeus transformed him into a constellation, Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, and put him next to his mother in the sky.
In Mason’s Diary, Ferdinand refers to the planet as a “Sterile hunk of rock”, which probably refers to it being a solid core exoplanet, devoid of any signs of life. Mason describes it as mostly iron and mineral carbon, with traces of copper and other minerals, in a solid compact, almost spherical formation. Some traces of methane rivers and lakes can be identified on its surface, but most of it has evaporated, and it’s missing, probably extracted for future use. By the time the Ziggurat reaches this planet the mining operations are finished, but the planet is still exploitable. Mason has the task to clean it up in case the Mining crew decides to return.
A word of warning: this ended up being a very long piece. I got carried away, but I, like Arngrim, have no regrets. Enjoy 🙂
My love for Valkyrie Profile.
This is important, please bear with me…
Valkyrie Profile is a game developed by TriAce and published by Enix, back when Enix was just Enix, in 1999 (21 years old now, Valkyrie Profile can now go to a bar and drink a beer). The game is a classic JRPG with an extremely agile and satisfactory turn-based combat system that allows the player to perform cool combos with flashy VFX, cringe-inducing 2D-3D graphics mashing, and amazing voice acting.
However, the single most amazing feature of VP is its narrative. The game centers around Lenneth, a Valkyrie tasked with traveling the earth looking for tormented heroes in the brink of death. She witnesses their final hours and decides if they are worthy of fighting alongside the gods in the ultimate war: Ragnarok. The game features 24 different characters, each one with a different tragic story, many of them intertwined. The player has a chance to see first hand their stories and relate to each different character and their tragedy before recruiting them.
The game is structured in 8 chapters, in each one you can pick up a few characters and then go with them and clean a few dungeons. Each new character has to be trained, in the hardest difficulty new characters arrive at level 0 and you must level them up if you want them in your party, which sounds troublesome, but I actually found it kind of fun, it’s a chance to revisit old dungeons and check what cool abilities the new members of the party have. Before the chapter ends, you have to send at least one hero to Valhalla to fight with the gods, which usually is a tough choice since the heroes you send won’t be playable again until the end of the game, and some heroes may die in the war. At the very end of the chapter, Freya updates you in the state of the war, tells you about accomplishments from your Einherjar (your heroes), and gives you a quick summary of your performance.
The game has 3 endings, the best of which is Japan levels of hard to get, not because the game is hard to play, it’s actually very easy even in the hardest difficulty, but because the order of actions you have to make is super obscure and extremely precise. As far as I remember there’s no clear hint in the game on how to get Ending A. Only the disappointment of finishing the game and getting Ending B (or C if your performance was abysmal and Freya came down to kick your ass).
To get the best ending you have to make some incredibly tear-choking sacrifices amplified by the fact the game acknowledges your progress with new super tragic sections of gameplay and story that will make you feel powerless and angry, followed by a whole new section with higher stakes, and anime cinematics, and a cathartic last fight, and everything. It is freaking beautiful.
In summary, this is one of the best games ever made, second only to A Link To The Past.
But this piece is about another game, right?
In October 2015 Lab Zero Studios launched an IndieGOGO campaign for a game that claimed to be a spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile. Indivisible showed very similar gameplay, with amazing anime-style art, voice acting, similar combat system, the works. The moment I saw this my heart skipped a beat, I HAD to play Indivisible.
After a fairly successful campaign, the game stayed in production for four years, which I find perfectly reasonable, and finally got published in October 2019. I happily got my copy and played the whole thing with a stupid smile on my face. I think I might’ve burned the midnight oil on this game 4 or 5 times because I wanted to take it to the best completion rate my poor gamer skills allowed me before the end of the holidays. The moment I get back to work I drop whatever game I’m playing *cough*Hollow Knight*cough* because my poor sick old body cannot take too much load at the same time. I didn’t want that to happen to Indivisible, so I made sure to play the most out of it till I properly finished it.
The game is really good, mechanically speaking. The combat system is a little different from VP’s, but not in a bad way. They added some Metroidvania elements to the formula (I’m a sucker for Metroidvanias), with innovative platforming, nice puzzles, quests, and stuff. It’s a good game, well made.
If the game is so good, then what’s the deal with this piece?
The game is well made, almost all of it, except for its writing. Man, I swear the game’s plot had a lot of potential, a lot. If I were to put the story in bullet points, outlining the major events, you’d say I’m crazy and talking BS.
The story has it all, it’s a coming of age tale with tragic twists and turns, characters suffer and get angry, and sad, and happy, bad things happen, good things happen, then you have to face the dire consequences of your careless behavior and acknowledge your mistakes before taking further actions to fix your own wrongdoings and literally save the world. It’s a movie grade plot, with the right actors and director, maybe even Oscar-worthy.
I’m not kidding, the plot is that good, but the delivery, oh boy is it baaaaaaaaad, real bad, it’s so bad I can’t help but to feel sad thinking of how amazingly great this game could’ve been. I truly believe this could’ve been the next Valkyrie Profile if only the script of the game was at the same level as the plot.
WARNING: Massive spoilers ahead, for both games.
What I love about Valkyrie Profile is the narrative, the small stories of every hero and their downfall, how the writers managed to create such engaging characters with very short screen time, and I honestly feel here is where Indivisible fails spectacularly.
For this to make sense I have to give a few examples of both games, so you can compare what I’m talking about. So I’m just gonna give two long and very detailed examples of how both games are written. I hope to make them not painfully boring (I’ll add videos with playthrough in case you don’t want to read that much 😉 ).
Valkyrie Profile and the tragic tale of the berserker and the princess
In Valkyrie Profile the first two heroes you pick are Arngrim (based on the myth of Arngrim the berserker) and Jelanda. Arngrim is a brutal mercenary who has no concept of honor, fights only for money and has no loyalty. At this point in the game, it seems Arngrim cares only for three people in the world: His younger brother Roland who appears to be a sickly young boy that never leaves home, a young soldier and pupil of his named Lawfer, and Lawfer’s father who is actually the captain of the king’s guard.
Arngrim serves in a war for the kingdom of Artolia and its prowess in battle is acknowledged by the king himself, who honors him in front of all his army. Arngrim publicly offends and even threatens the king. The king’s young daughter, Jelanda, tries to defend his father and orders him arrested, but Arngrim is so respected and feared by the soldiers no one dares to confront him, he just walks away.
Jelanda, furious for Arngrim’s behavior, concocts a plan to force him to apologize to the king, or at least to her. She disguises herself and presents to Arngrim as “Angela” claiming she has a job offer for him. During the meeting, she accidentally gets poisoned (she drinks a glass of Sake like water) and passes out. Arngrim brings her home with his brother and takes care of her while she’s out. They then find out Angela is actually Jelanda. Arngrim realizes she must be mad for the way he treated her father and she’s maybe trying to get back at him. Moved by the courage of the girl and the fact she’s trying to defend her father’s honor, Arngrim keeps playing along with her deception. He then decides he’ll apologize to her the next day when they meet. But she doesn’t show up.
A few days later Arngrim is hired, along with another guy named Badrach, to escort a carriage to the next kingdom. Halfway there the caravan is intercepted by Artolia’s soldiers who demand to inspect the cargo. Arngrim and Badrach comply and immediately try to escape, but before they can run away they see the soldiers take out Jelanda from the crate they’ve been escorting.
Badrach lets out the contractor is Lombert, the king’s counselor, who also happens to be a spy. Arngrim pieces out Lombert kidnapped the princess and tricked him into delivering her to Artolia’s enemies. Things get worse when the soldiers, following Lombert’s instructions, give the unconscious Jelanda a potion that turns her into a monster and kills them. Arngrim realizes Jelanda won’t survive, and Lombert is to blame for everything. He swears to kill Lombert, but first, he has to deal with the princess turned monster.
Lenneth reveals herself and helps Arngrim kill the monster. Arngrim then marches back to Artolia to kill Lombert for his treason, and to avenge the young princess.
The Valkyrie recruits Jelanda, and she begs her to save Arngrim. Lenneth accepts reluctantly and helps Arngrim fight Lombert who, of course, turns out to be a powerful necromancer. They win, but Arngrim is surrounded by the king’s guard, he is now guilty of murdering the princess and the king’s counselor. The soldiers who admired him previously, now fear he has gone mad and corner him in the palace. He fights as many soldiers as he can until Lenneth appears back and scolds him for his blind pride. Jelanda reveals herself by Lenneth’s side and Arngrim realizes she is safe (her soul at least). Lawfer’s father enters the room and confronts him. Arngrim refuses to fight Lawfer’s father, so he throws down his sword and opts to take his own life. His final thoughts: “I Have No Regrets”.
Lenneth agrees to let Arngrim join her einherjar, but Freya warns her Arngrim is no hero and he will never enter Valhalla.
THAT’S HOW THIS GAME BEGINS!
Now, this fragment is not perfect. I find it believable Arngrim grows fond of the princess since he’s impressed by her courage and honor. Arngrim really questions everything he believes thanks to Jelanda. What I find a bit weird is why Jelanda grows fond of Arngrim since she originally sees him as a brute mercenary who offended her father. But besides that and a few lines with weird voice acting, I like this fragment very much. I love how Lenneth scolds Arngrim and explains to him that heroes are more than just strong bloodthirsty dudes.
If you want to crossreference what I wrote and point me on my errors, here’s a video playthrough with this section of the game.
Now, let’s look at how Indivisible begins, so we can compare the two pieces.
Indivisible and the should-be-tragic tale of the girl, the father, and the soldier
Indivisible starts with Ajna, the main character, who is just getting up and is already late for a training session with her father Indr. Along the way, you can talk to many villagers who let you learn a little about the town and constantly remind Ajna she’s late and her dad will be mad.
Once she reaches the training grounds Indr scolds her and they begin training. She still has a lot to learn and Indr makes sure to tell her. But Ajna is impetuous and doesn’t take criticism very well, she gets angry and starts arguing with Indr about how he never acknowledges her. Indr pushes back and shuts her down and that only makes things worse, Ajna gets even angrier and starts asking about her late mother, who she never met. Indr, attacked and cornered, avoids the whole conversation and leaves Ajna hanging, he just dashes back home.
Ajna, of course, is still angry and follows him, but when she reaches the village she finds it in flames, invaded by troops of an unknown army. Dhar, a young soldier in command of the invading force, is fighting Indr and Ajna reaches them in time to hear Indr final words of fatherly pride and love before passing away in her arms. She jumps onto Dhar and they fight, after a few rounds Ajna absorbs Dhar with her mind, a thing that simply never happened before. Both argue a lot until Ajna meditates and finds out she can enter her own mind, which happens to look like a pandimensional eco-resort. Dhar is trapped inside and they quickly find out they cannot fight inside Ajna’s mental realm. Ajna leaves the village in ruins on a mission to kill Dhar’s commander, Lord Ravannavar.
Here it’s important to note that Dhar is now a playable character. That means the guy who just killed Ajna’s father is now a party member.
Just outside the village, she finds Razmi who just burned her own home with a troop of soldiers inside who tried to take her stuff. Ajna and Razmi exchange pleasantries and then Razmi is also sucked into Ajna’s mind. Ajna and Razmi just brush it off like absorbing people into your mind is a completely normal thing people do.
Then you find a dungeon, inside, you find the Axe of Ajna’s mother, a precious item Indr treasured and promised to give Ajna eventually. Lying next the Axe is beside the corpse of a soldier. Dhar finds odd that a soldier of his be this far away from the village. Ajna picks up the Axe and uses it cut down some roots blocking the way.
They reach the end of the dungeon, fight a big monster and Ajna discusses with Dhar how this beast is probably what killed his soldier. Dhar feels bad for his man.
Right outside the dungeon, they stumble upon two monks who tell Ajna about a collectible in the game. Ajna absorbs them too and then uses the Axe to climb a wall.
Then they find Gingseng, a very young botany enthusiast, and Honey, a huge turnip with hand-drawn eyes Gingseng carries in his hat. Gingseng tells Ajna he’s looking for Resurrection Lilies, so Ajna absorbs him and they go find the lilies…
I’m going to stop here because Indivisible is not as clearly defined by chapters as Valkyrie Profile, and because I think my point should be clear by now.
Here’s a video of the first hour of gameplay, a bit more of what I just described.
What’s the difference?
I get they wanted to give the Indivisible a lighter tone, but the way the game handles its story is so weird.
In Valkyrie Profile you feel each and every death of the einherjar, they handle the narrative with a lot of respect and give you time to understand what’s going on and process it. Lenneth always reflects back on the events she witnesses, she even intervenes from time to time or discusses with the heroes about their death.
In Indivisible Ajna sees her father die in front of her and suddenly you are in the middle of a dungeon fighting alongside her father’s killer, and an emo witch that’s wearing the skin of her late pet tiger. And don’t get me wrong, I love the characters of this game, Dhar has a very emotive arc, Razmi is simply awesome, and Gingseng is intelligent, loving and loyal. But the game just doesn’t let you digest anything. Everything happens so fast there’s no way to engage with the events.
I think Ajna’s Axe is the best example of this. She finds her Axe just there, lying in the middle of the ground, and kind of picks it up and uses it to break a wall. This moment should’ve been really emotive, it’s the only memento she has of her mother, who she didn’t get to know. But it is not, it just happens and then you keep going forward. Ajna just lost everything and in a second she’s joking with Razmi and helping Gingseng pick up random weeds.
I believe the problem here is the narrative in Indivisible is kinda rushed. In VP the story has a very slow pace, with long scripts and pauses. Even the screen transitions are slow, they take their time to show you the events. While in Indivisible you feel the narrative pushing you forward as fast as possible, there’s no time to breathe. As a consequence, the tone is all over the place, you have very emotional moments followed immediately by a quick joke. Ajna is furious, then sad, then happy, then furious again. And the many times Ajna makes a mistake and someone gets angry at her, everything just resolves quick and clean, everyone says “ok, I’m not angry anymore, let’s be friends again”.
So, how to fix that?
The whole idea of me writing this blog is to get my ideas in order and learn from other projects. There’s no fixing Indivisible, the game is already published and they are doing well. As I said, the game is very well done, it’s a fun game to play certainly. I managed to finish it getting all the incarnations (characters) and getting every single bit of story, upgrades, and lore from it and I really liked playing it.
But still, we can hypothesize how we could fix the story so it works better for a game like this.
Now, I’m not a writer, I mean, I dabble, but I’m not even close to a professional writer, so what I can do is very limited. Someone more capable than me could do this way better (less cliche for instance). So be warned this next section could be an exercise on futility. Here goes nothing:
Indivisible and the hypothetically better tale of the girl, the father, and the soldier.
Let’s keep the first scene intact. Ajna wakes up and walks around her hut, then leaves for the training field happily strolling through the village, with not a care in her mind. When she finally reaches the training field, Indr scolds her for being late, they train for a bit. Ajna gets angry at Indr for not acknowledging her progress and for not talking about her mother. Indr gets all uncomfortable, pushes Ajna away and goes back to the village alone.
When Ajna gets back to the village she finds everything in chaos, an army is invading, everything is in flames and Dhar is fighting Indr. Ajna reaches just in time to catch her father’s final breath.
Here’s where I begin to change the script.
Dhar has accomplished his mission: To destroy the village and kill their chief. So he leaves and his unit is left behind cleaning (killing everyone that’s left). Ajna holds her father’s inert body and sobs. Sadness gives way to anger and she cries in fury as Dhar’s men approach.
Ajna fights a few men, then remembers about the Axe. She goes to her hut, now in ruins, and retrieves the Axe. Ajna takes a second to think about her mother and reflects on how her mother’s weapon will help her avenge her father now, she then goes after Dhar, fighting his men as she pushes forward.
Just outside the village, she finds Razmi under attack. Ajna joins the battle and together they defeat their foes. Razmi is now homeless and angry. Ajna pushes forward and Razmi follows reluctant but grateful. “Great, now I’m in debt with you. I don’t like owing anything to anyone so I’ll help you kill this guy and we’ll be even. Besides he also has a score to settle with me.”
I’d take full advantage of the dungeon ahead, set the tone, make the music more intense and fill the place with soldiers from Dhar’s unit. And most important of all, I would not use the “sucked into my mind” thing just yet.
Ajna and Razmi advance through the dungeon, in a frantic section of fighting and platforming chasing after Dhar. I’d make sure there’re many enemies here, but make them easy to kill, quick fights to help the player get the hang on the fighting system. Finally, they catch Dhar at the end of the dungeon. Now the player knows how to fight and since we’ve pushed the player through the dungeon, they had time to process Indr’s death and they are now as angry as Ajna. I’d make the fight with Dhar a really even one, and use every resource available to make it last a bit longer, a good boss fight to help increase the tension. Once Dhar is low on health cue a cutscene where Ajna explodes in rage and she absorbs Razmi, Dhar, and herself into her mental realm.
This is a good moment to take a pause, I’d put Ajna in a black empty space for the first time, make the player run around in the dark for a few seconds. Then reveal a mini-dungeon here, with a very surreal design, driving a metaphor for her mental realm forming out of chaos. She finds Dhar first and they resume fighting, but Ajna is angry and confused, her anger manifests as a big demon that now attacks both of them. I’d use the design of this foe to foreshadow the monstrous form Ajna adopts mid-game. Ajna and Dhar are forced to fight together against this monster. I’d make sure Dhar is really op here, so the player gets hooked on the idea of having him as a playable character.
Ajna and Dhar defeat the big monster. Once the dust settles Dhar runs away. Ajna is angry, lost, and confused. She keeps moving forward and finds Razmi who is freaking out. Razmi lashes at Ajna and they both make catharsis. Let this be an opportunity to show off their personalities. Ajna is intense and naive, she’s in terrible pain right now and doesn’t understand what’s happening. Razmi, on the other hand, is more restrained, she’s also clever and with a dark sense of humor. So I’d make Razmi really angry at first, but when she sees Ajna react in a more emotional way, I think Razmi would switch from angry to unsettled and would try to defuse the situation by trying to comfort Ajna awkwardly. Since Razmi is a shaman it’d be perfectly reasonable for her to understand that they are trapped inside Ajna’s mind and maybe hint Ajna that she should meditate to assert control of the situation.
Ajna manages to calm down and her mental realm rearranges into the beautiful grotto. After a few more dialogs, Ajna exits to the material world. Now Ajna is in a more stable frame of mind, so she can display a more jolly disposition as she discusses with Razmi how she and Dhar are both trapped inside Ajna’s mind. They then reach an agreement. Razmi has nothing better to do, so she agrees to keep an eye on Dhar, who, now a prisoner, agrees to guide them to Ravannavar’s fortress. And we are back in sync with the game. From here the game could show the scene with Gingseng and handle more graciously the exchange with the monks.
This would be my proposition to fix the first half-hour of the game. Not only the script changes, but the pacing for this whole section should be slower. Once Ajna exits her mental realm for the first time she’s had time to process what happened and literally dealt with her inner demons. Razmi also adopts in a more clear way the supporting role she has during the rest of the game.
A few quick notes for the rest of it
I’d deny the player the chance to play with Dhar for a while, at least from this point to the first encounter with Ravannavar. Dhar is a prisoner, he has no motivation to help Ajna in her journey, for all he knows if Ajna dies he might be able to escape. I’d also make sure to have Dhar talk from time to time about Ravannavar, have a dialog where he explains how he’s an orphan and Ravannavar is like his father. This way Ajna could confront Dhar on how he killed her father and thus she will kill his. The whole “my father doesn’t know who I am” comes a bit out of nowhere in the game, there’s little to no setting of the relationship between Dhar and Ravannavar.
That way when they do face Ravannavar for the first time and he disregards Dhar, it’s a bit more clear why Dhar would get angry at him. Here I’d force the player to push Dhar into the party and make them fight together against Ravannavar. At this point, Dhar should be at the same level as Ajna, but since we teased him previously to be a really op character the player will most likely want to play with him. This will also give Dhar’s arc a bit more of nuance since Dhar is a really odd character. He’s like a fanatic but at the same time a very reasonable guy, he has no real turning point, which feels weird.
With Ajna, I’d make her reflect more on the losses she’s suffered. I’d make a secluded corner in her mind space with a symbolic gravestone for Indr. If the player goes there, I’d let them interact with it by making Ajna talk to it about what’s happening (asking her late father for advice), or just by making her contemplate the memorial in silence. This will give an opportunity later for Ajna and Thorani to discuss how Ajna has to let Indr leave, you know, basic phases-of-mourning stuff. This will drive home more strongly the surrogate mother figure of Thorani, and make a lot more clear that Ajna has overcome her sadness before the game’s end. I’d frame this as a mandatory quest, probably by going back to Ashwat and help rebuild the village.
Every other character you encounter has a story, but these are dealt with in a very superficial way. Many of the characters you find just randomly join the party without much consideration. I feel they should have a more clear motivation to follow Ajna and to accept the fact that she’ll be basically taking them hostages for a while (kind of, it’s confusing).
I’d make sure each character’s backstory has some relationship to Ajna’s quest. Zebei is a good example of a character who’s motivations to follow Ajna make perfect sense within the game, and I absolutely abhorred the way Zebei made peace with Ajna after she destroys Lhan.
The game has a very particular structure for its characters backstories that I feel could be exploited better. They all have a problem that Ajna neglects during the first half of the game. Then Ajna screws up, big time, and the party splits. Ajna then has a chance to find them, and make up for them by helping in their respective journeys, many of which intersect with Ajna’s.
I particularly like how they handled this for Naga Rider and Thorani, I feel their stories were the best developed since you get a good idea of the stakes and their journey is actually very interesting, involving more characters and more emotional load. Razmi’s story is profound, but a bit of a missed opportunity since it resolves pretty quick, you just have to go to a particular desolate place and fight a monster and that’s it. I feel Razmi deserved better since she’s probably the most important character to Ajna, followed closely by Thorani.
When writing a game (or any story for that matter) a good theme, setting, and plot are the foundations. Good foundations mean you have solid ground to build, but you still have to build on top of that, and the story is built out of the narrative. If the narrative is badly executed, your good foundations go to waste, since you still have a poor result in the end.
Indivisible has very good foundations. The theme is right, the plot is great, the setting is charming, but its narrative is rushed and shallow and everything still falls apart. Those good foundations went to waste and that makes me really sad, honestly, because you can tell the hard work behind the game and the wasted potential to be an amazing piece of art.
First and foremost, I love Hollow Knight, this game is solid with great lore, amazing art, inspiring music, and very well-tuned mechanics. That said I’m a game designer, so whenever I play a game I can’t help but dissect it and study it. I need to check its entrails and see what makes it tick and how.
This is a simple game to understand, its mechanics are transparent and clean, which makes it very easy to analyze. There’s a lot to learn about a game like this.
For this piece I want to focus on one particular aspect I dislike about the game. That doesn’t mean the game is badly done, but if I were to make a game like Hollow Knight, I would definitely take this into consideration. So I’m going to discuss what I think is a design error. During this process, I’ll try to explain why I think it is a design error and how to prevent it, which I hope is somewhat useful from a designer perspective.
Tools and lenses
Now I’m going to get ridiculously formal with this analysis. Although I do believe it’s very possible to design a game from a completely empirical process, I’ve seen it happen and with good results, I think analyzing something from an empirical process is not possible. Tools are necessary to understand what works and what not and why.
The problem with that is that the tools chosen for analysis may not fit entirely with the product, or that different tools may yield different results. Design and analysis tools are based on models and every model is imperfect in nature. So when I use my tools to review the game, the result may strongly differ from that of a different approach.
In a very compact summary, Designing Around a Core Mechanic states that the game’s mechanics are stacked in layers. The first of them, the Core Mechanic is one that’s mandatory to play the game. That means that whenever the player is playing the game is using this mechanic and it is not even possible to play the game if not through this mechanic.
MDA is about how every game evokes a particular emotional response from the player. That experience is called an aesthetic and every game can be classified in one of 8 aesthetics (I personally work with 9, but that’s a discussion for another day).
Both lenses are completely independent, but interact nicely when applied together: the Main Aesthetic has to be supported by the Core Mechanic. What I mean by that is the Core Mechanic (and the way it’s implemented specifically for the game) is the one causing the player to feel what the Main Aesthetic pretended.
What’s the what on Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight’s Main Aesthetic is Challenge. That means the game is HAAARD. But to be more specific, the game is physically hard. To progress in this game, the player has to demonstrate they have good reflexes, eye-to-hand coordination, and muscle memory, also a good sense of rhythm helps a lot. There’s some progression (charms, nail upgrades, mask shards, vessels), but at the end of the day, these tools help the player to a very limited extent. The game gets easier over time mostly because the player is getting better at it over time. Then the game increases its difficulty by introducing new challenges that further test the player skill.
So, given that this is a Challenge Game, what’s Hollow Knight’s Core Mechanic? Well, for a game like this, it’s kind of weird, because the hardest thing this game does is the fighting. The combat system in this game is simple but deep and well crafted and every tiny enemy can become a threat for the careless player. However, you CAN play the game without fighting. By that, I don’t mean you can win the game without fighting, but there are long sections of gameplay that don’t require combat at all. What you absolutely have to do every waking second while playing this game is platforming. Even during a fight, you are forced to jump, dash and run around.
Platforming is Hollow Knight’s Core Mechanic. That’s why, to make this a Challenge Game, the platforming has to be challenging in itself. And oh boy is it challenging. There are several platforming sections in this game that made me lose my cool. I literally had to apply breathing and meditation techniques to traverse the White Palace (which I haven’t finished as of yet) and I’m definitely not going to play the Path of Pain because I have stuff to do and I simply don’t have the time to “GIT GUD”.
Funny enough I found most of the boss fights really stimulating (except for the Soul Master, I hate that guy). Some bosses kicked my ass really hard, but every time I lost a fight I could retrace my steps, check what the boss did and how to better answer. I’d then check my build, switch a few charms here and there and went back with a different strategy. Most of the time that meant I eventually got the best of the fight and emerged victorious.
For instance, the first time I fought the Hive Knight*, this guy made me cry. I just couldn’t even hit him. So I left the room, went exploring and a few hours later I came back with Sharp Shadow and Dash Master and won in the second round and with life to spare.
Something similar happened with the Mantis Lords. At first, they just owned me, but I went away, upgraded my nail, got a few new charms and went back to better results.
The design flaw
So what’s this “error” I’ve been talking about. Well here’s the bone I pick. If this game’s Core Mechanic is Platforming, that means fighting is a secondary mechanic, a very prominent one, but secondary nonetheless. The game features a ton of progression mechanics that help you fight. The nail upgrades, the spells, most of the charms are combat-oriented (with the exception of Dash Master, Sprint Master, and Sharp Shadow, I’ll talk more about this later). But very few progression mechanics help you platform, and not in the same way.
So which mechanics help with platforming and how? Well, there’s Dashing, which allows the knight to jump longer distances, Monarch Wings allows to double jump, Mantis Claw gives you wall jump and resets the ability to dash and double jump without touching the ground, Crystal Heart allows you to make an impersonation of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Isma’s Tear allows to avoid acid damage, and Shade Cloak allows to avoid enemy damage and cross certain barriers when dashing.
Since the game is a Metroidvania, all of these mechanics open sections of the map that were previously unreachable, that’s their main reason to be. Along the way, these mechanics make platforming easier for general sections, which is very good. Added to those is pogo-ing (hitting down with the nail) which is available from the beginning of the game.
Just like the boss fights are like the pinnacle of the fighting mechanic, the game features a few platforming sections that are like “boss sections” for the platforming mechanic: Nail Master Sheo’s hut in the Green Path, The Traitor’s Child Grave in the Queens Gardens, a very irritating vessel fragment in Deep Nest (I really hate pogo-ing), Life Blood Core charm and of course The White Palace and The Path of Pain, among many others.
Here’s my problem: Why if every boss fight has several strategies to it, do these platforming sections have only ONE strategy, and that strategy is: do it perfectly or die.
Why is that an “error”
So the platforming is hard, and there are some platforming sections that are significantly harder. Why is that an “error”? A design error is a difficult thing to explain, it has to do with design intention and execution. The fact that the game behaves like that is not an accident, the awesome guys at Team Cherry intended the game to be like that and obviously designed each and every one of those sections with a lot of care and attention to detail.
What I find annoying about these sections is the fact that a secondary mechanic (fighting) got a lot of attention from the devs, with a lot of options for the player to try new strategies to overcome the challenge. Because of this, the fighting system is very deep and complex. While the platforming system is way more shallow, in spite of being the core mechanic.
The single aspect I hate the most of the way the platforming challenges are designed is the fact that if you hit spikes you get sent back to a checkpoint. I’d rather bounce back and forth in the spikes losing all my life in the process, but at least with a glimpse of hope that I could recover and keep advancing. With that little change, all the life-enhancing charms would become truly useful in these sections, suddenly there’s a real benefit from equipping Joni’s Blessing or Unbreakable Heart, other than watching yourself die in the same section more times over.
In this humble designer’s opinion, the platforming system should be as deep and complex as the fighting system. That’s what I personally consider a “design error”. Obviously they took steps to craft interesting challenges for both systems, which makes me think they realize the platforming was really important and they should feature cool platforming “bosses” in the game. So I find it a bit annoying they didn’t add more depth to it, the way they did with the fighting system.
Two types of hard
When designing a hard section of gameplay, there are two types of hard. There’s the “this is so hard you either ace it or fail it”, this means that, unless you know exactly how, you won’t solve it. And there’s the “this is so hard you’ll sweat bullets and have a heart attack while solving it”, this means it’ll maybe take a lot of time and resources, but with enough perseverance a decent player should be able to solve it in one go, one incredibly exhausting and hair-pulling go, but only one (or significantly fewer attempts for that matter).
The first type of hard is more frustrating for the average player since it’s the kind of thing that makes you fail over and over again in a very short span of time. The second type is more rewarding but brings a rhythm problem, most players will not be able to keep it up if the game is always like that. You need to give the players a moment to breathe from time to time, otherwise, they’ll get exhausted.
Hollow Knight uses both types in their boss design. There are examples like Hornet or the Mantis Lords which are easier to evade but difficult to hit. These fights are long and intense, the player has to move constantly and react to their attacks waiting for an opening to strike. It’s more likely an average player will be able to win both fights within a few attempts, but surely the one time they won was a long run and they had to pause the game afterward, drink some water and soak in their success for a second.
On the other hand, the Soul Master and the Traitor Lord hit really hard and fast, they are easier to strike but very hard to evade. An average player will have to learn their patterns by heart, probably by failing over and over again, and finally beat them in a very quick and precise round.
This variety allows the game to appeal to different kinds of players, those who don’t mind getting their ass handed many times over, but to gloat in that calculated feeling of precise gameplay and premeditated action will enjoy fighting the Soul Master. While those who are a bit more sloppy and don’t mind taking their time to understand what’s going on, but have a shorter fuse for frustration will enjoy more the first fight with Hornet.
The fact that every platforming challenge in Hollow Knight features those spikes that send you back to the last checkpoint clearly favors the first kind of hard and never the second. That means the player that likes precise gameplay will enjoy a lot of these sections, but the other player, the one that takes their time will only sigh in frustration when they see a pit and hear the music change at the start of a platforming challenge (awesome soundtrack btw, except for the White Palace, those saws are annoying).
How to fix it?
I don’t pretend to teach game design to the good guys at Team Cherry. I mean, I know this whole piece is about how a very particular aspect of their game is “”””wrong””””, but at the same time, the game is incredibly solid and well designed. The only reason I was bothered by the fact that the platforming of the game is not as deep as the fighting is that I am a game designer myself and can’t help to be bothered by that kind of thing.
My intention with this piece is to register for myself (and any other designer that stumbles upon this website) how to improve over the already very good craft that Team Cherry gave us with Hollow Knight.
However, that sentiment would be hypocritical if I don’t offer at least one way to “solve” the perceived problem. So I have a few ideas, things I’d try if I ever develop a game like Hollow Knight.
The first resource I would’ve used is the most obvious one: The Charms. As I mentioned before, there are only three charms that affect the platforming system: Dash Master that allows the player to dash downwards, and is utterly useless by itself. Sprint Master which makes the Knight run faster (way faster if combined with Dash Master). Sharp Shadow that besides damaging enemies when dashing through them, also increases the length of the dash when combined with Dash Master (Dash Master is only useful when it’s modifying other charms, it’s proper effect is meh).
I feel it’d had been really easy to include a charm that allows the Knight to jump higher, dash upwards (my favorite), or to triple jump, and to lock it in a place only accessible by the player after they get the Monarch Wings. Also, a charm that allows the player to bounce off spikes, maybe even taking damage while doing it, but avoiding the pain of getting sent back to the last checkpoint.
The second resource is one that I really don’t understand why is a restriction (I suppose during playtest they found it to be problematic in some way): Allow the player to Shadow Dash through environmental obstacles and hazards. Imagine that combined with an upwards dash, the general platforming in the late-game would become extremely agile and satisfying. Challenges like the fragile flower would change from ridiculously hard to mildly frustrating in a snap.
Finally, I’d look for a way to design platforming sections that are by nature the second type of hard. Maybe taking more advantage of wall-jumping and the Crystal Heart and featuring less godawful spikes everywhere. There’s a section in the Fog Canyon that features lots of explosives everywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed that section because it allowed me to take my time to solve it step by step, using different tools. Also, the singing trees sections were very enjoyable for me, for the same reason, not exactly a challenge, but a fun piece of gameplay anyway.
If I had to choose, I honestly prefer the solution with the charms, because that’s how to give the system more dept, in turn giving more agency to the players on how to overcome the different challenges. That way the frustration of one section can translate to an AHA! moment when the player finds a different strategy that works better for them, allowing them to come back and tackle the challenge with renewed strength and enjoy a section that previously caused them anguish.
When designing a game it’s really important to be clear on what is your core mechanic. Once identified, it’s important to create dept for this mechanic first, before supporting other secondary mechanics, no matter how prominent they are (the core mechanic by nature will always be the more prominent in the game).
It’s also important to make sure your game features diversity in its challenge structure. Playing the same scenario over and over again can get frustrating, even for the most loyal niche player you have.