In the pursuit of fun, some level of humanity is lost
It was maybe around the hour and a half mark of trying to fell a single boss in Hollow Knight that I came to this profound realization: video games are bullshit.
Perhaps my proclamation sprung from a mounting sense of frustration, but in my catharsis, I found some kernel of philosophical understanding that I simply couldn’t shake. To understand, I have to explain the context of the boss I was fighting, so SPOILERS for Hollow Knight.
The particular encounter that gave me pause was the second battle with Hornet, a recurring frienemy, in the bleak, monotone Kingdom’s Edge. Hornet is driven by a strong sense of duty to lift the kingdom of Hollownest from the plagued, desolate state that you’ve found it in. She has put her faith in you, a small, ghostly insect-knight, to carry out the heroic task, even though she has reservations regarding your origins. At this particular juncture though, Hornet deems it worthy to test you again in combat before the full brevity of the dominion’s fate is impressed upon you.
Here’s the thing though: I wasn’t worthy. Whether that first-person noun represents me on my couch or the character I was controlling matters very little because of the inherent interconnectedness between player and character. That tether becomes all the more pivotal in a non-linear title, like Hollow Knight, as the specific order in which areas are explored and tasks are completed set my time with the title and my Knight’s adventure uniquely apart from everyone else’s. That’s all to say that in my Hollownest, my little ghost buddy and I weren’t the hero Hornet needed; we were hardly a threat to her the first time around.
Yet when we failed, my compatriot awoke, almost alarmingly, on a nearby bench we had rested at mere moments before the encounter. Our money was gone but he/she/it was otherwise no worse for wear. The next course of action? To try again, of course. But why did we have another opportunity? We had already failed Hornet and proved that the mantle of savior would not fit us. When we arrived at the battleground though, it was business as usual. Hornet was more than willing to fight again; as if nothing had ever happened. Her ambivalence begged the question: how many times could we fail her before it finally sunk in that we couldn’t aid her? It turns out that number is at least 87 (yes, I counted and no, I’m not proud).
Video games have a classic trope of skirting permanence, especially in failure. After all, what fun would that be? Many games actually encourage learning through failure; the W.E. Hickson adage of: “if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”, has basically been engrained into gaming’s DNA, with only a few notable exceptions. With an understanding of this keystone philosophy to game design, two massive disparities within games start to become apparent.
The first was a commonality between all player characters in video games with fail states: reflexive time travel. Initially, I believed that PCs were the only ones that had the ability to resurrect themselves or somehow otherwise access some power to return their vigor to them, but that couldn’t be the case because it would imply that whatever impact the hero had before their demise would carry through into their reincarnation. That reality never seems to hold true; the world has always returned to the state it was in before the player character arrived, down to the T. The Goomba hasn’t been stomped on when Mario respawns and the draugurs have noticeably fewer ax slashes in them when Kratos returns to any given area. The implication, then, is that the hero has slipped back in time, moments before the encounter that led to their downfall. The solution of time travel would theoretically affect the whole world or at least the world the player inhabits. Yet there is one major caveat to this ubiquitous ability: none of the heroes have an awareness of the temporal power and thusly can’t wield it offensively. Only in moments so close to death does the skill activate and transport the player character without any conscious effort. The idea that nearly every video game character has a similar power which makes them infallible leads to the second disparity.
One of the major factors I critique when I play any game is how well the gameplay mechanics and the story/world-building coincide. A balance isn’t necessary by any means. A game can be fun and addictive just for the sake of it, but if all you want me to do is wander around so you can show me a refined story, a la Gone Home, then by all means. It is the attempt of a balance which most games want to strike that begs for scrutiny. Is this game asking me to grind for a superfluous amount of time to say I earned the next story beat? Is this world simply window dressing that gives me an excuse to blast stuff? In the gameplay/story dichotomy, adhering to a belief that every protagonist has the innate ability to avoid failure destroys any semblance of balance. There is no danger in a world so malleable. The scales lean so far towards the side of gameplay to the detriment of any remarkable sense of immersion. I’m not saying that mechanic is inherently negative; I understand the necessity of the imbalance to keep games engaging. Just imagine how much Cuphead would suck if you only had one life to live. What I have come to believe though is that a lack of equilibrium has had an effect on gamers, or at least on me.
Last fall, I watched a budding relationship implode. I’ll skip the sordid details to keep the agitation of the wounds minimal for everyone involved, even if that is mostly for me, but what you need to know is that on my first run through, I screwed up demonstrably, not dissimilarly to my first confrontation with Hornet. When I woke up the next morning much worse for wear, I was ready to try again, to fix things, to right what I considered a wrong, which also sounds shockingly similar to respawning after a boss fight. But there’s a law to reality that I’m sure doesn’t need to be preached, but for the sake of discussion, I’ll reiterate it. Sometimes, you don’t get 87 chances at something. Sometimes, you’re lucky to get a first crack at anything, let alone a second chance. Despite wanting nothing more than an opportunity to fix what I had broken, I found that such a chance didn’t exist and I only prolonged the pain for us both with my search for redemption. That’s not the case in video games though; you take all the opportunities you need because, at the end of the day, it’s all about you, isn’t it hero?
Now I’m not bemoaning that video games made me do it or that I attribute them to my inadequacies. Nor am I saying that games have a similarly disabling effect on every gamer. Quite the opposite, in fact, I believe in the positive power of games and can easily identify how particular games have had a lasting and healthy impact throughout my lifetime, but when I noticed a similarity between a negative character trait and a common practice in game design, I felt it deserved some pontification. For if we are not understanding of our weaknesses, how will we ever know when we have grown and obtained strength?