GIT GUD — The Argument for Difficulty Settings in Video Games

Promotional material for Hollow Knight by Team Cherry.

I finally broke down and bought a Nintendo Switch — and it’s a great gaming console. As a casual gamer, I can lie in bed and watch Kitchen Nightmares while I speed down Rainbow Road in Mario Kart or explore the shrines of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild. I can eat ravioli while I create spells in Mages of Mystralia. I can enjoy the scathing culinary criticism of Gordon Ramsey while I harvest crops in Stardew Valley. From crafting tools in Minecraft, to catching Pokemon in the Let’s Go games, to co-op cooking in Overcooked 2, the Switch’s selection caters to casual gamers like me, and that’s really great — with a few exceptions in said selection, of course.

I was looking for a new game on the Nintendo eShop a few weeks ago and came across Hollow Knight. The eShop video of the game seemed really cool — the art is amazing, of course — and the game has great reviews online. For $15, I downloaded the game and immediately fell into the the bug-infested kingdom of Hallownest — quite literally, really, since I fell down a well into the Forgotten Crossroads.

Gameplay from Hollow Knight by Team Cherry.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Hollow Knight, it’s a 2D Metroidvania action-adventure from Team Cherry. You control a nameless insect-knight in a faded, forgotten kingdom full of critters, friend and foe. There are some charms, spells, and collectibles available for purchase from NPCs using the in-game currency of Geos — but you are forced to earn some of these items in combat, wielding a nail against the likes of the Vengefly King and the Mantis Lords. It’s a seriously great game that really shines when you’re simply exploring the dark, gorgeous kingdom of Hallownest. I’m about 30 hours into the game now, and I’d wander through the catacombs of the Ancient Basin and the mines of Crystal Peak for many, many more — if only I could.

That brings me, of course, to my sole complaint about this gem of a game — it’s really, really freaking hard. I’m talking about the bosses — and I’m looking at you, Soul Master — who hides out in the City of Tears, naturally. I absolutely cannot fathom taking on the Dream Bosses, probably because I’ll never make it any farther in the game. I don’t even wanna talk about the “steel soul run” permadeath achievement or anything in the Godmaster DLC. I have no problem switching to docked mode when it’s time for a big boss battle — the handheld controls don’t work well for these fights, really — and, early on, the game allowed me to explore other areas looking for new charms and abilities — an opportunity to keep the experience totally casual before docking to take on the troublesome boss. However, there’s absolutely nowhere left for me to explore now without acquiring abilities earned by — you guessed it — defeating a big boss. And — because I haven’t been able to take down these suckers after hours of screaming at the TV, I’m pretty much SOL in Hallownest.

Actual tweets between me and my wife when I was deep in the throes of Mantis Village.

So here’s where the problem could be fixed — difficulty levels. I’m not asking the devs to retool the entire game, obvs. I’m asking for a few extra save points — called “benches” in Hollow Knight — near the bosses. I’m asking to begin the game with a weapon that deals more damage. I’m asking to lower the health of some of the tougher-than-nails bosses. Pretty simple stuff, really.

However, the echoing cry — the battle call, if you will — from the horde of hardcore gamers is to simply “GIT GUD.” The devs designed the game to be challenging, the hardcores argue, and gamers who lack the skills — mainly precise reaction time and nerves of steel in Hollow Knight’s case — should either practice until their brains bleed or look elsewhere for their entertainment. I shouldn’t expect the devs to compromise their vision to appeal to less-skilled gamers, the hardcores say. Besides, they moan, there are tons of easier games out there similar to Hollow Knight for me to enjoy instead — someone actually suggested Kirby Star Allies to me, which does look pretty cool, though I fail to see similarities between the puffy, pink alien in the cartoony Dream Land and the eerie, melancholy kingdom of Hallownest, full of death and darkness and decay. Besides, I’d still like to hear out the story of the Hollow Knight — it’s like reading half of a really great book only to find out that the rest is written more and more in hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone could help me decode the symbols, of course, but I don’t have the skills to think all of that through without ruining the entire experience, really.

Gameplay from Kirby Star Allies by Nintendo (left) and gameplay from Hollow Knight by Team Cherry (right). The mood, music, and aesthetic of Kirby is cartoony and fun, while that of Hollow Knight is melancholy and dark.

And okay — I think the dev’s vision for a game does matter, of course. A game is an expression of art — from the graphics, to the story, to the music, to the mechanics. But a game’s also a commercialized, mass-market product created to sell copies — and to entertain consumers. And though indie games like Hollow Knight may be more focused on artistic expression than extremely profitable AAA titles like Call of Duty — an educated guess, of course — the indie devs deem their game a product, too, when they affix a price to their art. Indeed, Team Cherry partially funded the design of Hollow Knight through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter — so shouldn’t gamers get to provide the devs with feedback after we’ve paid for the game? I’d say so.

Like, I’m not gonna barge into my neighbors’ garage and bad-mouth their crappy band for lacking rhythm — but when a recording artist releases an album for $15, their songs become fair game for consumers’ criticism. I’m not gonna tell a 13-year-old girl that her emo poetry is god-awful shite — though I’d certainly tell my 13-year-old self that, if I somehow could — but an author whose novel is professionally published and sold in bookstores nationwide has opened his or her work to critical review. These are industries — the music industry, the publishing industry, the gaming industry — designed to make money, so the dev’s vision needs to be balanced with the feedback of the consumers, in my opinion. Especially when the game’s development itself, like with Hollow Knight, was partially crowdfunded.

Celeste by Matt Makes Games.

A great example of the balance between the dev’s vision and consumer accessibility is the celebrated — and notoriously difficult — indie 2D platformer Celeste by Matt Makes Games. Though the devs designed the game to be quite challenging, they included an “assist mode” for gamers who’d like a less expletive-inducing experience. The devs recommend playing without the assist mode, of course, but they also understand that, by allowing gamers this option, Celeste is able to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

The “assist mode” screens from Celeste by Matt Makes Games.
The “assist mode” screens from Celeste by Matt Makes Games.

The programmer for Celeste, Noel Berry, even took to Twitter to say that the assist mode took “only a few days of work” to code into the existing game. Meanwhile, the hardcore gamers can simply ignore the assist mode and play as the devs designed the game — a simple solution for all of us, no?

Celeste programmer Noel Berry responding to a tweet about Celeste’s assist mode.

Because guess what — some gamers don’t feel like wasting hours and hours on the couch getting killed by the same boss three-hundred times — the freaking Soul Master of Hollow Knight has been well-named, methinks. Some of us could grind, grind, grind and still lack the skills needed to progress in these types of games — I can learn the bosses’s predictable patterns, of course, but I don’t think my reaction time’s getting any better, to be honest. And some of us are just looking for a cool experience to casually enjoy after work or on a lazy Sunday morning in bed, especially on the Switch, which was designed to allow portable, casual gameplay. So enough already with the elitist, GIT GUD gatekeeping, y’all — it’s no skin off your nose if I need Funky Kong to get through Tropical Freeze or an “assist mode” to survive Celeste.

The Soul Master from Hollow Knight by Team Cherry.

So, really — I don’t wanna GIT GUD. I’m not a serious, competitive gamer. I don’t stream on Twitch or climb the ranks in Call of Duty. I’m not into eSports or permadeath game mechanics. I just wanna explore Hallownest, looking for pale ore, city crests, and wanderer’s journals. I’m just a girl, standing in front of the Soul Master, asking him to love her.