I finally got around to playing Hollow Knight on the Nintendo Switch with my game club friends a few months ago. Hollow Knight is well polished and has a beautiful world yet I found myself struggling to enjoy the game most of my time with it. Sometimes I’d have a great time; other hours would feel like a slog. Most of this, ultimately, I think is preference, but it caused me to think about the systems at work in the game to try to put a finger on why I had conflicting feelings about it. The result is a brief analysis of the game’s economies. The following isn’t an exhaustive list but enough to collect my thoughts and reach a conclusion.
(Warning: minor spoilers follow.)
These little bits of, uh, something get dropped from defeated enemies, treasure chests, and large Geo stones all around the kingdom. Collecting Geo is straightforward and it’s used to purchase lots of different things from shops, so it’s good to collect as much as can be found, especially in the first half of the game when there are lots of upgrades to be had and some mostly-mandatory items to purchase. Be wary though: if you die, you lose your Geo unless you can reclaim it from your ghost. Found your way into a difficult situation? You’ll either need to commit to that challenge or give up the Geo you had collected up to that point. More on this later.
Lose your health points and you’ll die — resulting in losing your Geo and sending you back to the last bench rested at. Health can be restored either by resting at benches, finding a hot spring (which there are few of), or spending soul. Health is also restored to full after the player character dies and is revived back at a bench. Maximum health can be increased with charms and health upgrades, found by exploration or purchased at shops for Geo. So there’s a close relationship between health, soul, Geo, and exploration.
Soul is used for various special abilities, such as restoring health and initiating stronger attacks. Soul is sometimes necessary to discover or access new areas. Most commonly, soul is gained by striking enemies. There are also statues scattered throughout the map which restore soul when hit. Soul is not restored at benches or after dying. To gain soul, you must go into battle, putting health, and as a consequence, Geo, at risk. Maximum soul can be increased with soul upgrades, found by exploration or purchased at shops for Geo.
These items are collected and equipped for various enhancements, augmentations, and abilities. Some give more health, show your place on the game’s map, or make it easier to collect soul. Most charms are purchased with Geo though some are found during exploration. Once claimed, charms can’t be lost (with a few exceptions) but can only be used if you have enough charm slots.
These limit how many charms can be active at a time. Each charm requires a specific number of charm slots to equip; some require more than others. As best as I can tell, charm slots are bought with Geo after finding or buying more charms. There’s primarily a relationship here between Geo, charms, and charm slots.
The primary game play is exploration. There is a large world with many sectors to traverse and lots of secrets hidden about. Geo, benches (save points), upgrades, charms, and challenges are all found through exploration. To help with finding your way around, each region has a map which can be bought from a certain character in the region with Geo. Then, as you explore and collect Geo, that Geo can be used to buy maps which facilitate exploration, giving a nice feedback loop.
- Geo is gained by fighting and exploration and can feed into health, soul, charms, charm slots, and more exploration. It is lost by death.
- Health is gained by soul, exploration, and Geo, and it feeds into exploration. It is risked while fighting.
- Soul is gained by fighting, exploration, and Geo, and it feeds into health and exploration.
- Charms are gained by exploration and Geo and feed into all other economies. They cannot be lost but are restricted by charm slots.
- Charm slots are gained by exploration and Geo and feed into charms. They cannot be lost.
- Exploration is gained by moving and by Geo and feeds into all other economies. Dying sets back exploration. Exploration reveals challenges.
By this assessment, health is the most valuable resource, because progress cannot be made without it. Geo and exploration are arguable the next two most valuable economies because they feed into all other economies, including restoring and enhancing health. There’s an interesting balance between these two: Geo is generally gained by exploration and exploration can be gained by Geo (in the form of maps). There is also a tension between the two, in that with exploration comes the unknown, the unknown includes challenges, some very difficult, and challenges put health, and thereby Geo, at risk. Take a wrong turn and all of your Geo can be lost. This tension grows as Geo is gained and is only really relieved when Geo is spent. The frugal player, then, will frequently want to be looking for opportunities to spend Geo in order to mitigate the risk of losing that Geo while exploring.
I think this is the trouble I found with enjoying the game. Taking a risk which could result in significant loss of progress (collected Geo, in this case) is not fun to me. I will take the more measured approach unless a greater reward is offered to justify the risk. In Hollow Knight I did not find a reward offered other than saving time. So most of my time in the game was spent exploring until I had enough Geo for that new item I’d seen at the shop, abandoning my exploration to go buy that item, lest I get into trouble and lose my Geo, then resuming the exploration. This artificially bloats game play time, adds uninteresting backtracking, and breaks the flow of the primary fun experience, which is discovering new areas. Others may enjoy taking that risk in order to save time, but I do not.
I’m glad I played Hollow Knight and that it lead me to think through its economies in this way. This has helped me develop my vocabulary for exploration-driven games, especially those following after the styles of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I think that Hollow Knight is very well polished. If there is a sequel, and I hope there is, I would like to see some system added to offset the risk of losing Geo while exploring . (Perhaps a bonus multiplier for discovering new areas?) That way, I have reason to not interrupt my flow and go back to some shops far away.
This post was originally written and published on November 3, 2018.