Tao Plays: Hollow Knight
Stick 'em up!
I love it when games make you feel like you’re on an adventure. It’s a feeling that so many games are reaching for, but so few actually succeed. Hollow Knight is one that succeeds. After playing it intensively for a week, I would say it is my favourite game of the year so far. You begin as the little masked fella on the cover of the game. This chap lives in a world of bugs, so presumably he’s some kind of a bug himself. His mask is white and has short horns. His black eye holes imply he’s literally hollow himself, but is he? See one of the many lore explainer videos after completing the game to find out. He has a dark cloak. He wields a nail which he uses to nimbly swipe at dangerous creatures. I swiped at a lot of dangerous creatures, collecting their small creature coins to make me better at swiping them. Swiping feels great, especially after a little thought and practice. Bosses can be tough but are nearly always fair. In this respect Hollow Knight is a perfectly constructed metroidvania. The arc of new abilities and ever increasing strength, but never complete mastery, lay the foundation for what makes the game really special: exploring its cavernous world.
You start at the surface of this underground kingdom. Imagine being dropped on top of an ant farm, the size of an ant obviously, without a map to show you around the network of tunnels beneath. You’re expecting to find meters and meters of brown earth, hollowed out as you travel downwards. Perhaps a few pebbles, ant eggs and roots. But wait, what’s this? A mine filled with bright crystals where crazed bugs mine ceaselessly; a giant underground city forever showered in rain from the lake above it; an overgrown forest with thorns and acid that hide its secrets. This isn’t the bug house I was promised in the brochure.
I can’t overstate how good Hollow Knight’s art is. All of the areas I explored were beautiful and interesting. I didn’t want to progress to complete the game. I wasn’t addicted to the cycle of incremental gaming rewards (well maybe a little). When I found a new ability, I just wanted to use it to see more of the world. When you start the game, there is no stated objective other than this. Although your goal eventually becomes clear, there is never a box to tick. Just choose a direction, it has all of them: down, left, right, up and down again.
Inhabiting this world are not only the creatures to be swiped, and there are a huge variety of these, but also friendly bugs to chat to. The atmosphere of the game is one of loss. It’s obvious we’re traveling through a place that has seen better days. Despite this, many of the bugs you meet will have a chirpy, upbeat side to them. They’re the last sane remnants of prosperous civilisation gone bad, but they’re making it work for them. There’s the old one that gives you tips. The map maker who helps you chart each area you explore, and who loves maps so much he’s forever out and about, leaving his partner to run the map shop in town. I was pleased when I’d charted all the areas, and he could relax at home and have a snooze. There are other adventuring bugs, who appear throughout the game and sometimes help you out when you least expect it. With one notable exception, nobody says very much. It does that Dark Souls thing of making you so relieved to see a friendly face that you’re happy to listen to whatever it is they have to say. They all have distinct characters, and writing this piece a few months later I could still probably describe, and maybe even draw, each of them. This is a credit to their likeability and personality.
The order in which I explored the world was my own, and by the time I had finished the game I realised I could have taken a very different route. Its areas interconnect in a very satisfying way. Learning its pathways and shortcuts is fun on its own. Regrettably I also discovered I had missed out an entire area. I steadfastly refused to spoil the game by looking up tips online, and whilst this definitely made my adventure more personal and exciting, it inevitably meant I missed out on some content. A fair trade-off in my view.
Early on I found a friendly banker bug who promised to keep my creature coins safe for me. Since you lose your coins after death, pending recovery from your body, this was a useful service. Some items are expensive, and I wanted to stash my coins for later. Many hours further into the game I found a fountain that wanted all my coins. No problem, I thought, I can test the fountain because I’ve got coins in the bank. I threw my coins away, but nothing happened. I traveled back through the tunnels to the bank. The bug’s shop was empty. I swiped and her shop crashed to the ground to reveal itself as a wooden facade. The bank bug had run away with my money, and it was amazing. Of course this would happen in a world where nothing is quite what it seems. As far as I can tell the order of these events was a coincidence. Rather than feeling a sense of loss over my creature coins, I loved that it could happen. It was a sign the game had convinced me to care about the adventure: something more than the sum of its parts.