Hollow Knight – Metroidvania meets Masochism

Until recently I’d never heard of the Metroidvania genre. In my defence, I’m only a casual ‘silver’ gamer. On average I game for about five or six hours a week. These aren’t enthusiast numbers, not even close.

Down the years I’ve played games which combine labyrinth maps, a diversity of vast terrains that expand and alter as a reward for the player acquiring upgrades and abilities, a score which befits with the game’s aesthetic and story, optional side content, where engrossing gameplay is prioritised and cutting edge graphics are often treated as an afterthought. Indeed, many of the games on Steam defined as Metroidvania are two dimensional platformers and indie offerings, as Hollow Knight is.

Given the obstacles in its inception, Hollow Knight is an amazing feat. It’s everything Metroidvania fanatics demand, plus it sports a lush gothic aesthetic, and a beautiful score. The music deserves specific praise, perfectly matching ephemeral habitats, a sombreness when visiting desolate locations which depict folklore, mirroring the claustrophobia of menacing mazes in creepy places, to bombastic frenetic compositions which tend to signify an impending boss fight. Throughout a mythology that retains a sense of mystery is cultivated. While it’s a fable of valour, honour and sacrifice transposed to an insect kingdom with cartoonish avatars, trust me, you’ll enjoy this stuff.

If you’re a fan of the genre, or just gaming full stop, I urge you to play it, but I’m here to warn you there’s a but. Think of anything in life that annoys you; getting cut off by some moronic driver, your neighbour doing DIY too fucking loudly on a Sunday fucking morning, pop ups on every single fucking website asking if they can use your data to comply with EU laws, or if you want to register (answer – no I fucking don’t) and multiply it several times over. Hollow Knight will boil your piss. You thought FIFA was bad with its scripted sequences? Don’t be rope-a-doped, as I was, by the cute and diminutive stature of the Hollow Knight, or that this would be an engrossing aside that I could take or leave. Nope. Hollow Knight makes Dark Souls feel as benign as Sesame Street. Get ready to grip your controller too tight and thrash at the buttons in frustration. You’ll wince fiercely, with teeth and jaw locked in anguish that you’re down to your last life and there’s not a fucking bench (save point) in sight. You’ll swear excessively, but not as creatively, as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman does at Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket when trying to navigate the White Palace’s endless sets of spinning blades and spikes.

That’s because Hollow Knight’s best facet is also its worst, it’s extremely difficult. Its difficulty only feels paradoxical relative to other games. Practically all single player games allow you to set the difficulty to suit your skill level. There is no difficulty setting in Hollow Knight, a device that insidiously goads your vanity in failure. And you will fail, often at the first attempt, no matter how many lives you have left or confidence you have at the time that ‘you can do this’. Every aspect of the gameplay is unforgiving. Can you time your jumps correctly boyo, avoid the spikes and enemies and liberate this grub, or are you gonna rage quit as a loser would? Oh you died, after clearing the third spinning blade in a sequence, let’s put you back right before the first one just to aggrieve you and make you less composed before the next attempt. Move the wrong way, just a fraction, and a thorn or spike ruins you. There are countless manic fights in enclosed areas, where enemies swarm you in waves. Certain boss fights take several attempts just to get your bearings, and when you do you find they’re armed with multiple lives. Virtually all the rooms in all areas are filled with multiple threats; a series of obstacles that require perfectly timed set of manoeuvres, and enemies that randomly lurk, waiting just for you.

Now, I’ve completed the game’s central story. So I didn’t need subject myself to any more of Hollow Knight’s peculiar form of addictive torment. I’d succeeded and I enjoyed it for the most part, so I could just move on with my life, or in this case, to the next game. But having purchased all current and future DLC at inception, I felt compelled to give the Grimm Troupe DLC a try. The main game tested my patience, the Grim Troupe DLC decimated it.

Or more specifically, The Nightmare King Grimm broke me. He’s the biggest bastard boss I’ve ever faced in any game. It took me well over sixty attempts (and several hours) to emerge victorious. Initially I felt relief, akin to baking one for hours, but ultimately I was left hollow, pun intended, and wondered if it was all worth it. It made me ponder that disquieting existential question – what am I doing with my life?

Let’s use my dismay constructively and add another definition to properly distinguish true Metroidvania games from the pretenders – the real deal are so challenging that they encourage masochistic obsessiveness. There are many reasons why people become heroin addicts, but the cyclical process of addiction is always the same, any anguish is momentarily forgotten when gratification displaces it, no matter how fleeting the latter is. After my Grimm Troupe experience, I’ll elect to show restraint and give the Godhome DLC a miss. To clarify, it offers you the opportunity to replay all the game’s bosses but with optional impediments. If you manage it, somehow, your reward for succeeding, is, well, that you can say you’ve done it. I’ve never injected heroin, but I reckon that nobody will mind if I conclude that it isn’t beneficial without trying it first.

Nonetheless, it’ll be a while before I play another Metroidvania game, because it’ll be going some to be as good as Hollow Knight was bad for my psychological equilibrium.

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Song Of The Day – Mango Walk (Dubwise Version) by Chosen Brothers & Bullwackie’s All Stars

From the EP ‘Mango Walk/Mango Drive’ (1998)

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Song Of The Day – Feet by The Fat White Family

From the album ‘Serfs Up!’ (2019)

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Will learning to code solve my time management problem?

Yeah, I’m learning to code, rapidly nearing the big four-zero. If that seems a daft combination, that’s because it is. But don’t laugh, and I’m certainly not. It’s hard, man. I’m still getting to grips with what integers, strings, floats, Boolean, loops, and if statements are, how and when to assign values, use the break, continue and exception handling functions, and the general syntax and indentations. And I had other questions – just what the fuck is a Json file? That I even know what these terms mean now is progress, and only a month in I find myself more engaged and invested in learning Python than I initially suspected.

The older I get, the more episodes of portentous self-reflection I experience, and so I’ve been questioning whether my motivations for learning to code are benign, or oriented by a professional cynicism. As with any kind of motivation, its true genesis is a confluence of pragmatism, vanity and hedonism.

The first motivation that comes to mind is financial – I’ve paid £230 for a yearly subscription to Pluralsight. So I’ve got get my money’s worth. Despite the incentive of trying not to waste money (a pet peeve of mine), it would be preferable if learning to code was generated by curiosity or passion in the subject. It only piqued my intrigue when I discovered that various software related professions; be it web development and internet security, to name two, are projected to suffer from a shortage of skilled labour.

Let’s all agree as to why that is: despite the geek chic phenotype becoming a fashion statement for hypters, the reality beyond the Big Bang Theory is grim. You’re sitting in front of a computer screen for hours. No matter what you’re doing, even if that task is elaborate and requires a specific level of expertise, it often feels mentally and physically dismal, especially if you’re doing something repetitive. Learning to code and understand it is one thing, but how many people have the ingenuity to develop applications and processes that are unique or valuable, or have a job in the industry that continuously requires creative thinking to problem solve?

Despite its potential to enhance my job prospects (yet another financial incentive), the biggest benefit from learning to code didn’t fully reveal itself until I started – it will require adding another daily discipline to my routine. All of us, even the most undisciplined, have a discipline of some kind. Often this is habitual, or necessitated by the impracticalities of the contemporary socio-economic matrix, say, ‘okay, I’m dogshit tired and I fucking hate my job, but I have to get up now and go to work so I can pay the mortgage’. Others are motivated by vanity. In my case I can at least say this one is constructive, I cycle thirty kilometres a day because being thin never goes out of fashion luvvies. That it keeps me healthy is just a bonus.

Anecdotally most coders say their incentive for learning was to solve a processing or computing related problem they had. I don’t have one. So I’m looking for it to solve a mini existential crisis. As it diminishes the dreadful realisation lingers, like a lengthening shadow, that time’s finite. It’s created a sense of urgency to manage my time better. Recently I find myself exasperated at my failure to do so; before I know it I’ve wasted several hours watching YouTube videos, leaving the telly on in the background, half-watching sport, whilst playing Sporcle quizzes or randomly browsing the net. Sometimes this ‘faffing about’ accumulates knowledge, but, if this is me relaxing, the scenario’s repetitiveness and my inability to focus recreationally feels complacent. Let’s call this ennui with a middle class standard of living, whose artifice is wholly maintained by technological innovation and its perpetual ability to distract us.

Add it all together – the expense incurred, the need to improve my job prospects with a new (potentially in demand) skill and the newly found desire not to waste any more time of my waning existence, and perhaps, just perhaps, I might find a smidge more fulfilment from learning to code. We’re really talking about is a neat bit of psychological deception. If I’m forcing myself to focus learning something new, I know it’ll eat into my recreation time, so I’ll be motivated to be as efficient with both as possible.

At the very least saying I can code in (eventually, hopefully) a few languages looks good on a CV. It’s certainly better than the usual self-aggrandising quote your attributes with bulletpoints, trying to sex up the menial jobs you’ve done, or using a verbose idiom that essentially says: I can read, write and count, have two arms and legs, a functioning brain, and just too prove it I’ll make a sign saying “will work for food if you give me an interview”.

I’m only at the start of this process, but I’ve never felt more ambitious yet simultaneously clueless. C’est la vie.

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Song Of The Day – Let Me Down Gently by Spacemen 3

From the album ‘Playing With Fire’ (1989)

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