From its humble beginnings as a game-jam entry to its very successful Kickstarter campaign, one thing stood out above all the other takeaways from Hollow Knight: it was going to be gorgeous.
Hollow Knight’s main character himself starred in a subpar game-jam game entered in the immensely popular Ludum Dare jam, called Hungry Knight. It was quite similar to the award-winning survival game Don’t Starve that released the year prior. Beyond the hand-drawn and animated graphics, it was a fairly simplistic, top-down survival game that had you feeding yourself by killing other bug-like, macabre creatures and collecting their orange orbs. The ‘dare’ from the game jam was to create a game using ‘ten seconds’ as the theme — they made it so that if you didn’t feed yourself every ten seconds, you would die. A challenging game, but nothing too dynamic, for sure.
Amazingly, most of Hungry Knight’s content ended up being recycled for the final game. The main character ‘The Knight’, with his iconic nail, dashes around the lavishly green landscape using a technique that would later be defined as ‘Mothdust dash’. The orange orbs you collect in Hungry Knight ended up as the color of the blood of your enemies — who spill currency that you can then trade with vendors for trinkets and power-ups. Even some of the enemy bugs themselves ended up (with visual alterations, of course) in the final game. It’s not often that game developers get the opportunity to reuse art assets at all, but having that lore from the beginning and honing it into the final product really speaks volumes for the team’s creativity.
From the very beginning of the game, after watching the ominous opening cutscene, you are dumped into the brooding world Team Cherry has created for you to explore, given some simple instructions on how to move and attack and sent to explore.
After exploring the first area of the game — which already has a number of obstacles such as spikes, enemies and what actually aspires to be one of your greatest challenges: finding your way around the maze-like corridors of the game itself — you break through a huge shell-like door and fall down to a town below.
It is here that the true art of the game begins to show itself. When you first stumble upon the city of Dirtmouth, not many of its residents are home. As the one remaining resident ‘Elderbug’ tells you, they have traveled into the depths of the caves below, seeking their dreams and searching for lost fortunes. Wisps of grass blow in the foreground amongst the tombstones, and as you make your way towards a well beyond the town, you are treated to motes of dust in the background, flowing along as if driven by some hidden purpose to secret destinations. Plunging into the depths, your only path forward is down, into the dark abyss — into a lost kingdom from long ago.
Hollow Knight, I think, is a beautiful game from many different angles. First, you have the hand-drawn characters, backgrounds and animations that look like they came from some twisted, Burton-esque fever dream, which perfectly define the game’s dark themes, such as death and decay. Everywhere you turn, there is a corpse or carcass (or, perhaps, discarded shell) from a hero or perhaps merely a victim from long ago. Death is your weapon, too, as you swiftly bring your nail down upon any bug that might stand in your way, further adding to the macabre horror around you.
The themes of loss are also quite literally all around you: it’s quite easy to get lost in the labyrinth of caves and environments. The Knight is threatened by nearly every creature in this subterranean world, almost as if he is disturbing the peace and is an outsider himself. You may find friends and vendors to assist you, but they all seem to want something from you, further digging into the idea of being lost, never quite fulfilling one’s dreams. Some of the areas are so claustrophobic, you feel like the world is crushing your very soul simply for you trespassing into its depths. The fact that you can lose all your hard-earned currency if you happen to die after straying far from a save point further drives home the point that you are all alone.
The music in Hollow Knight is, in my personal opinion, one of the best examples of a game perfectly nailing the atmosphere and mood. A simple, somber piano piece plays as you wander through Dirtmouth, giving the feeling of the desolation and loss from its former residents. The elven-sounding theme of the Queen’s Gardens beckons you into its lush forest of foliage, blanketed with spikes and enemies hiding amongst the greenery. My favorite piece in the game is from the forever-raining area called the City of Tears, whose rain comes from water seeping in from the blue lake above. Its haunting piano and accompanying chorus perfectly exemplify the loss of what many who have come down here dealt with, and symbolically tells the tale of renewal, just as the rain brings water and life so far down below into this dangerous world.
Within the confines of the darkly lit caverns and hallways of fungi and plant-life, there is something more that Team Cherry put into this game. The level of detail to the parallax foreground and backdrops give every ounce of Hollow Knight that much more story to tell, visually, and helps pronounce the sense of scale of The Knight to everything else in this world. I have seen many games attempt to add these kinds of details, but within every screen and environment of Hollow Knight, there is just so much more to see that you might miss on first glance, but like the lost kingdom of Hallownest, is left to be found with a sense of wonderment and discovery.
When I first saw the game’s Kickstarter, I knew there was something special there. Its art style is frameable, its music iconic, and the characters are as endearing as they are horrifying in their own ways. Hollow Knight, through its initial release and numerous (free) expansions, has come to deliver something once-in-a-lifetime. For that, I will always cherish my first and many other playthroughs of the game as a joy and wonder to behold.