Another game that wowed me this year was Hollow Knight, which released on the Nintendo Switch shortly after my daughter was born. As Fiona slept many a hour in the Boppy next to me, I was tunneling into the damp and dusky ruins of a lost civilization in sharp contrast to the brutal summer sun that bore down outside.
The titular Hollow Knight is an unassuming and short bug-like humanoid armed with nothing but a “nail”, a thin lance used for quick stabs. Against the guidance of the few remaining townspeople in the above-ground refugee city of Dirtmouth, you plunge yourself into the extinct ruins of Hallownest.
Hollow Knight is clearly inspired by the “Metroidvania” genre of video games wherein your little bug guy navigates environmental platform puzzles while fending off any hostile wildlife that approaches you. Generally, you are trying to explore and map out the world around you, uncovering treasures and secret passages along the way. Occasionally, you will hit an obstacle that you cannot pass until you acquire a new skill, requiring you to retread old environment and discover new things along the way.
“Metroidvania” is a portmanteau of “Metroid” and “Castlevania”, the two franchises that spearheaded this genre. While clearly inspired by these games, I believe Hollow Knight pushes this genre forward as a whole by making it’s setting of Hallownest a fully realized, lived in world in a way that Metroid and Castlevania games have failed.
Take Metroid Prime for example. Metroid Prime primarily takes place on Tallon IV, a very pretty planet with violently contrasting climates a mere stones-throw away from one another. This is a game where you can walk through a verdant swampland, take an elevator to a series of magma-raining caves, and again reach the surface to find yourself in a frigid, frozen wasteland…all within the square footage of Washington D.C. Personally, I would hate vacationing on Tallon IV–think of all the layers you’d need to pack! No one wants to get jumped by a space pirate when you get your arm caught up trying to take off a down feather vest.
Castlevania settings feel a little more plausible, but for me, still don’t hit the mark. As the name implies, many of Castlevania’s settings are ostensibly inside of castles, but do they really feel like plausible castles? I get that Dracula is an centuries-old gothic horror, and his interior decorating would lean toward the macabre, but do these “castles” ever really feel that lived in? How come every clock tower has like forty pendulums swinging in different locations? Don’t you really just need the one? And why does Dracula need three identical dining halls in a row, each stocked with a full meals? Dracula isn’t hosting a dinner party, and if he was, shouldn’t there be like 40 more bathrooms peppered around his castle in case he gets the blood shits?
I know this all sounds nitpicky, and it kind of is, but my point is as follows: the maps in Metroidvania-style games feel kinda ludicrous in a video-gamey way when you look at them as a whole. It feels like teams of artists are given vague marching orders like “the planet needs an ice world and a fire world” or “the clock tower needs gears and pendulums” and proceed to create levels that fit the general theme they are assigned. However, when you try to stitch disparate sets of levels together into a cohesive whole, the collective sense of place the game is trying to represent feels thematically implausible. I may remember specific areas of a Metroid game or a Castlevania game, but when I am finished with them, I never really have that clear of a picture of the world itself.
Hollow Knight starts in a similar manner, when the tiny Knight plunges into an empty well that separates the dusty and desolate encampment of Dirtmouth and the series of musty tunnels underneath that are filled with hostile grubs. It all looks very pretty with it’s handdrawn environments, but it also feels like you are blindly wandering through an aimless ant farm with no clear destination in mind, save for a few signs pointing you in a general direction. That is, until you arrive at the City of Tears.
The City of Tears is a sprawling, open cityscape that that for a brief moment feels like it feels like you can finally take a deep breath until the reality of the area sets in. The city is gloomy and abandoned, bathed in perpetual rain and populated with mindless zealots. The name of “The City Of Tears” feels named in such a way that it’s real name is almost too tragic for the remaining few to remember. It’s in this space when it becomes apparent that something has happened to this world, and it’s more considered than a slapped together series of levels.
I just love this area’s infrastructure. When you first arrive, you find cobblestone sidewalks, dimly lit lamps, and eventually an ornate monument that, perhaps, is dedicated to you? It becomes clear that the signs you saw on your way to the city weren’t just placed by a friendly developer, but by whoever previously civilized these hollowed out ruins. It’s a subtle but important detail that makes the world feel as though that this game isn’t just a series of assets, but a living place that at one time had something as boring and pedantic as a public works team.
It starts to feel as though that all of the bugs you slaughtered on the way to reach the City at one time populated and made this space flourish, whereas now they mindlessly saunter around it. Proceed further into the city and you stumble upon a series of husked out condos that extend to the highest heights of the city, where you’ll find even that elite court magicians and aristocrats have been driven mad. There is a sense of palpable tragedy that the first grand and ornate space you find in Hollow Knight feels so hopeless and stuck in time. The soundtrack in particular colors this mood, where the plucking of harpstrings fall like rain from the sky, and a low choir of ghosts haunt the city’s fallen grandeur.
Once you discover the City of Tears, all of the worlds surrounding it start to make sense. Underneath the city is a complex series of sewers that provided drainage to the city. Nearby, you find the Grand Station of a transportation network powered by a gruff spider with a saddle. This “grubway” could take the city’s denizens to disparate parts of the kingdom like the Queens Gardens or the Royal Graveyard. The game never alludes to how this society functioned, but the rich environmental detail provokes your imagination to write the worlds history on your own.
I can go on. Nearby is a primitive village of Mantis’s who maintain their own society separate from the other bugs. While they do not seem driven mad like the other bugs, they are viciously protective of their land, in particular the gate to Deepnest. Deepnest is devoid of light and claustrophobic, easily the most unsettling land in Hollownest, where there is no soundtrack but the crunching of cockroach shells and the gnashing of mandibles. Deepnest feels like a source of evil that is separate from whatever plagues Hollownest today; a source of evil the Mantis’s still feel duty-bound to protect the world from regardless of the society that has crumbled around them.
But that’s just my speculation. Hollow Knight doesn’t explicitly lay out a lot of lore about the Hallownest’s history or what exactly happened to it’s previously grand kingdom, outside some basic exposition.
And this is what makes Hollow Knight such a success to me. By weaving it’s levels together into a world that feels considered and lived in, the civilization of Hallownest stimulates your imagination. I felt encouraged to explore every grotto and hidden path of Hollownest, not because I wanted tangible videogame rewards of “gear” and “upgrades”, but because wanted to excavate more artifacts to help me understand this lost world
I still don’t know if I entirely grasp the totality of Hollow Knight and the story it was trying to tell, but it’s atmospheric 2D world has felt more immersive and tangible to me then many 3D games I’ve played in the past couple of years. That alone makes it one of my favorite experiences of the year.