The influence of the souls style of games on Hollow Knight is incredible obvious once playing the game for a little bit. The design around each and every enemy being a threat is a lesson it holds dear, creating enemies that you still need to approach with some care even once learned and progressed. And also improving and upgrading the design around similar enemies to provide constant, and meaningful challenge both physically and mentally as you progress.
And then there is the design of the bosses that holds some similarities as well with the design encounters around strong, mysterious but understandable mechanics and animations. However there is one key difference with the design are theses boss fights, and well enemies in general – that health isn’t visible.
This changes the entire psychology of the encounter from a focus around overcoming fear, to overcoming the uncertainty. With Dark Souls you have a constant record of your progress with the fight shown with a health bar and while the encounters do create that fear and tension with understanding and overcoming those massive, hulking and terrifying creatures you still have that foundational piece of knowledge.
Without that knowledge though, that feeling of uncertainty creeps into the mind and begins poisoning your thoughts. How much damage do I need to do? How many hits? How many stages will I have to go through, and it all ends up creating this overwhelming feeling of anxiety, and of doubt.
During that first encounter there is a certain amount of performance anxiety that takes over because of that uncertainty and anxiety. Your ability to analyse the mechanics and animations becomes slowed, and your ability to analyse various methods of avoidance and attacks diminish. Your reaction speeds also become that much slower as you attempt to control those emotions and it often ends in an initial failure.
What it appears to be is a flight or Fight response at first where those baser instincts of fear and uncertainty take control, and you attempt to wrest some semblance of focus over it. Now I still get that response every time I fight a boss for the first time in Dark souls and it’s built to create that environment of terror more so than I found in Hollow Knight but, I found with the added design of uncertainty that comes from not knowing your exact progress, it highlighted and heightened those emotions more than you’d expect.
There were many times coming across a boss fight in Hollow Knight for the first time where these emotions would take over. I’d forget everything I’d learnt previously and just try to keep my distance, or blindly attack which would quickly result in failure. Taking the time to then think over the fight, and calm yourself for a moment then allowed you to analyse the fight and plan a solution.
The other element with the unknown amount of health and progress is that the fights come down to more than just your skill – but also a certain strength of will regarding persistence and endurance. To be able to execute those plans and strategies, to use twitch skills to move, dodge and attack – and to keep doing that with no defined finish point until the point the boss falls. It’s hard and adds a lot of stress to the experience. A sort of performance anxiety situation.
There was times with a couple of bosses where I didn’t even realise how close I might have been with killing them and yet had quit the fight to do something else afterwards. I noticed these patterns watching others play as well. Without knowing progress, and with that sense of persistence and endurance being eroded doubt takes over.
It’s an interesting approach to boss design that highlights the emotions of fear and uncertainty that may already have been present to create an overwhelming sense of anxiety and doubt. It creates a mood that can cause more mistakes in play. It makes for a frustrating encounter at first that is hard to judge progress, hard to judge how well you are doing that may mean people give up earlier than they would otherwise.
It’s also a design style that creates a rather effective mood for these kinds of games and probably an interesting aspect of gaming psychology.