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Hollow Knight: An ode to subtle storytelling in video games

Ambience and atmosphere in Hollow Knight (Image via Team Cherry)
Ambience and atmosphere in Hollow Knight (Image via Team Cherry)
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Soureesh Datta

Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight is a labor of love. Supported by a crowdfunding campaign and crafted with extreme attention to detail by the developers at Team Cherry, it is a testament to how video games have become a medium that has transcended into an art form, not being restricted by financial backing and AAA studios.

Hollow Knight weaves intricate level design into its narrative style and worldbuilding. The metroidvania never forces expository dialog on to the audience but rather goes in for a much subtler form of storytelling. This influence could be considered to have been taken from Dark Souls (a game that influences Hollow Knight in more ways than one), where players also take cues of the narrative only through in-game dialog and item descriptions.

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From its map design to its emphasis on platforming, there is plenty of influence from vintage games such as Metroid and Castlevania. There is also the scaling difficulty of Hollow Knight and the boss battles reminiscent of Dark Souls. The mechanics of the map and the game being divided into different regions with no sequential order as such also justifies the classification of the game as a metroidvania as well as a soulslike.


Use of symbolism and scenery in Hollow Knight

There are certain symbols that mirror certain characters in the game. The Pale King is one of the most important characters (if not the most) who appears in only three fleeting moments in the game. His influence is exercised and comprehended in the game by what the player sees throughout the game. Most notably, the in-game architecture and scenery that is present throughout the game.

Bench near City of Tears (Image via Team Cherry)
Bench near City of Tears (Image via Team Cherry)

Each area in Hollow Knight has a distinctive look and feel to it, such as the overgrown greenery of Greenpath or the dark and musty caves of Deepnest. The only feature in the level design that all these areas have in common are benches. Benches are respawn points in the game reminiscent of Bonfires in Dark Souls where, every time you respawn, all the enemies are reincarnated in the map except bosses. They have a unique art style that stands out from the level's background scenery.


City of Tears and the White Palace

The entire game takes place in Hallownest, a kingdom ruled by the Pale King but as with all kingdoms, every region has uniform control or influence from the capital. This is why players can observe regions such as Hallownest’s capital, the City of Tears, or the first area, the Forgotten Crossroads, dominated by such architecture and structures.

The White Palace (Image via Team Cherry)
The White Palace (Image via Team Cherry)

The pinnacle of this style of architecture can be found in the White Palace. An extremely difficult end-game area which is optional until the player wants a specific ending to the game. Sharp and elegant, White Palace is situated in the Dream Realm and is designed with such precision that it is apparent to the player that they are looking at something which isn’t real. They know it is a figment of a memory and is situated in the dream realm.

Hollow Knight evokes a sense of loneliness and longing as the player looks through the eyes of Ghost at a civilization that has long since died. Hallownest’s ruin is a testament to the Pale King’s continued attempts at creating an immortal kingdom. The eternal rain over the City of Tears continues as the capital decays with its earlier inhabitants roaming about as reanimated husks.


The secrets of Deepnest

Entrance to Deepnest (Image via Team Cherry)
Entrance to Deepnest (Image via Team Cherry)

One of the largest regions in Hollow Knight is Deepnest, which used to be the realm of Herrah the Beast and whose inhabitants always rejected the rule of the Pale King. This is why, despite Deepnest being such an expansive section of the game, there is a lack of benches in the area.

Ghost also witnessed the Failed Tramway, which was an attempt to connect Deepnest with the rest of Hallownest. The Pale King had given the Mantis tribe their independence. In return, they would keep the beasts of Deepnest at bay. This is why the Mantis Lords are seen guarding the entrance to Deepnest from Mantis Village.


How was the conflict between the Radiance and the Pale King depicted?

Hollow Knight is a visual experience; every region has its own unique esthetic with a backstory ingrained into it. At the center is a kingdom that has fallen into ruin, and the game is a journey through the dying remains of Hallownest. The Radiance’s influence continues to grow and subsumes the old kingdom into itself. The transition from Forgotten Crossroads into the Infected Crossroads halfway into the game is a major indication of how Radiance will eventually absorb the entire kingdom.

Finally meeting the Pale King (Image via Team Cherry)
Finally meeting the Pale King (Image via Team Cherry)

While the Pale King sacrificed innumerable vessels to contain the Radiance as a ploy to keep his kingdom immortal, there is a rather cruel irony in the narrative that the Radiance manages to exert its influence even in regions where the Pale King was unable to. The Pale King’s kingdom gave the bugs of Hallownest sentience and the Radiance entered through the dreams granted by the same sentience.

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The design philosophy of Hollow Knight

The remains of the kingdom can only be seen in the architecture of the City of Tears and the rest of the kingdom that flows outwards from it. Hollow Knight’s design makes sure that the story is told much more through its scenery and atmosphere than through words. The lack of exposition and history gives the player the liberty to fill in their own blanks rather than consult an encyclopedia of the history of Hallownest.

By giving less to the player, the game succeeds in making them more curious about the ancient history of Hallownest than if extensive expositional dialog was laid out about the same. Ghost eventually does find the answer to some questions while others are left ambiguous and up to the player's imagination. Hollow Knight is a masterwork of atmosphere, ambience and is the perfect example of a story told through subtlety.


Edited by Sandeep Banerjee
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