Hollow Knight is a video game released in 2017 and developed by Australian indie studio Team Cherry. It’s an extraordinary metroidvania with stunning graphics and an exceptional soundtrack by Australian composer Christopher Larkin, set in the fictional kingdom of Hallownest, whose inhabitants are insects. Tons of insects. Insects pretty much everywhere. It’s one of the most beautiful video games I’ve ever seen and played (which is easy, you could say, considering my very modest videogame knowledge) and it is known for its rich yet cryptic story.
There will be several episodes in this series which I entitled “a Catharsis of Melancholy”, seeing as before writing an essay longer than a Stendhal novel on the reasons of my boundless love for this video game, I would like to simply analyze several aspects of Hollow Knight : the non-player characters, music and sound design, graphics and gameplay… But first of all, let’s have a look at the lore ! Beware, spoilers ahead.
I won’t mention here the Grimm Troupe content, the series, like the game, will have its own DLC. Lastly, I don’t pretend to be exhaustive, just to begin the analysis of the game through the strong points of its history (On the other hand, for the music, I can already say that we will go into detail !).
(All the images and game files (audio & video) are property of Team Cherry & Christopher Larkin. Screenshots and videos (except for cutscenes which come from the game files) are from my own gameplay unless there’s a mentioned source)
The Radiance is a being of Light, a higher being even more luminous than Essence, a form of energy that dreams are made of. The Radiance gave birth, from Light, to the Moth tribe, which in return idolized her, but without possessing any form of intelligence. They were only guided by their instinct. This tribe had the ability to manipulate dreams.
One day, a Wyrm (an immense worm) came to die at the edge of Hallownest (Kingdom’s Edge), its corpse, the Cast-Off Shell, rotting, disintegrating into white ashes like gloomy snow covering the ground ; yet this Wyrm changed appearance (Metamorphosis ? Rebirth ? There is an egg inside the Wyrm’s corpse, which grants you the King’s Brand) to become the Pale King, a radiant monarch with a crown and the features of a small bug, just like the inhabitants of Hallownest.
He granted them sapience so that in return the inhabitants would venerate him, this king who promised them an eternal kingdom. And he kept his word : the Pale King, with his wife the White Lady (also a higher being, shaped like a root and apparently constantly growing) built two underground transport networks : a tramway and, better, a stagway (ring the bell and a stag will burst in, kindly growling, taking you wherever needed).
He also built the City of Tears, the capital of Hallownest, and the Royal Waterways that support it. This is an aspect I will develop in Thursday’s article on graphics & gameplay, but one of the distinctive characteristics of the Pale King is that of an engineer, in a way : Hallownest abounds with elevators and lever-operated doors that shows a great architectural virtuosity, which blends very organically with the lush vegetation and the chromatic palette so distinctive of some areas, essentially Greenpath and the Queen’s Gardens. The City of Tears is a feat of engineering in itself : it is built below a huge lake whose cyan-hued water seeps through the stone without ever collapsing, recreating the illusion of a perpetual rain which can sort of “resonate” with the sweet melancholy of some of the inhabitants (don’t you think so, Quirrel ?). The kingdom was also protected by the Five Great Knights : Dryya, Hegemol, Isma, Ogrim and Ze’mer.
This worship of the king extended to spiders, jellyfishes, mushrooms (which were also endowed with intelligence)… and eventually to the Moth Tribe. The Radiance was thus forgotten by her very own creations. She then wished to remind them of her and began to infiltrate the dreams of almost all creatures in the form of a light as blinding as a sun ; they tried to fight against this memory, but the Radiance was able to bind the bugs’ minds to her own, unleashing an Infection that may have been unintentional at first, but soon the Radiance was able to control it, so as to enslave nearly all of Hallownest’s creatures, infecting them both physically and mentally.
Faced with the Infection, someone, or something, had to be able to completely annihilate this light : what could be better for that than the pure darkness of the Void ? Indeed, not far from the White Palace, at the very bottom of Hallownest, in a rather disturbing place, full of meaning, the Abyss, there’s this odd substance that can be found ; it can attack, it seems almost sentient, like a strange Vantablack (but apparently, there’s something darker than Vantablack now) that could be tamed by light, but could just as easily absorb the purest light, that of Radiance, and make it disappear forever. The king discovered this substance and began to experiment with it.
In order to channel this Infection, the Pale King decided to create a pure thus perfect container for this plague, a Vessel, which would be able to contain it and seal the Radiance away. He gave birth to thousands of little vessels, children of the two Pale Beings (the Pale King and the White Lady), which all but one (a priori) ended up at the bottom of the Abyss. These vessels, brothers or sisters (they have no gender), were born from the union of two souls, the king’s – soul of Wyrm – and the queen’s – soul of Root, as well as from Void. Indeed, when the vessels die, their shell shatters and releases a Shadow made of Void. This substance seems to attack indiscriminately, and needs to be unified in order to act differently, and contain the Infection.
The supposedly perfect Vessel, with no mind, no will, no voice, so empty and pure that it could contain this corruption, is the Hollow Knight, the eponymous character. The Pale King chose them, raised them (we can see him briefly sharing some time with the Hollow Knight) then chained them in the Temple of the Black Egg (that escalated quickly !), alone. To ensure that this Vessel would continue to protect the kingdom, the king sealed the entrance of the temple by putting three insects into a deep sleep : Monomon the Teacher, Lurien the Watcher, and Herrah the Beast. Herrah agreed on the condition that the king would unite his soul with hers ; she then gave birth to Hornet (also known as The Gendered Child, seeing as all the king & queen’s children have no gender, except for her).
The Hollow Knight and the three Dreamers all retained the Infection and the Radiance in the Dream Realm. It could no longer infect insects.
However, the Vessel was not entirely pure, perhaps because of the time spent with their father the king, and the Infection seeped again into the minds of the people of Hallownest (that’s what we can see in the introduction of the game : the Hollow Knight’s shell broke, and we saw a very bright orange light : the Dreamers’ seal was broken and the Infection spread again). Most people died, sometimes piling up in some areas of the kingdom, leaving only a few of the inhabitants still unharmed. Those who were alive but infected remained underground in the kingdom, working in Crystal Peak, or attacking any healthy insect, probably manipulated by the Radiance herself. Of all the species of Hallownest, however, some of the mantises avoided getting infected : the other mantises, led by the Traitor Lord, invaded the Queen’s Gardens.
The Pale King suddenly disappeared as well as the White Palace where he lived, while the White Lady, ashamed to be related to the creation of the Vessels, locked herself up in a cave guarded by one of the Five Great Knights, restricted her movements (to prevent her from developing further and creating new Vessels) and became gradually blind. Unable to move, she doesn’t know that Dryya, the knight who used to guard her, is dead, but she is aware that the Infection is back in Hallownest.
All the impure vessels piled up in the Abyss (sealed by the king after the Hollow Knight was chosen), nevertheless it seems that some managed to escape, as some of them are found in Hallownest ; they died, notably one who seems to be a victim of Hornet : was it a test ? She is an outstanding fighter, and each one of her encounters engages us in an acrobatic and virtuoso battle. Another vessel ends up dying not far from the Abyss, at the bottom of the Ancient Basin (we will study your music in detail, Broken Vessel).
But above all, one of these vessels fled from the kingdom, before returning, nail in hand, in order to save Hallownest : the Knight, who is no other than the character the player controls. Did they hear a call from the Radiance, or from the White Lady ? Or even from the Hollow Knight themselves…
To eradicate the Infection they must therefore defeat the Radiance, by accessing the Hollow Knight’s dreams. It is only after a thorough exploration of Hallownest that the Knight unseals the Temple and present themselves before the eponymous Hollow Knight. At what cost ?
Higher beings with human flaws
A story born from oblivion
Although Hollow Knight features deities (in any case higher beings, who are able, at least for one, to give life to creatures, the Moth Tribe, and for another to give them a form of intelligence), the story of Hollow Knight is based on deeply human feelings.
One of them, and maybe the key element, is the fear of oblivion, the fear of being forgotten. The Radiance has been forgotten and wanted to remind the Moth Tribe of their creator. One can imagine that it is all the more painful for her that the kingdom gives much importance to remembrance, to homage. We see it through the memorial dedicated to the Hollow Knight, surrounded by the three Dreamers, and the statues of Dream Warriors (Gorb in the Howling Cliffs in particular). Above all, the veneration towards the Pale King is boundless : idols in the shape of the king are made and owned, the whole kingdom is built in his image since its architecture is based on Hallownest Seal, which shows the king’s crown. On the other hand, the Radiance is barely mentioned, and her only statue is out of sight, inaccessible and damaged, as if abandoned, at the top of Crystal Peak.
A sacrifice now unknown
Yet, despite this apparent emphasis on remembrance and the sacrifice of the Hollow Knight, this oblivion I mentioned is also that of the vessels, more precisely the vessels’ fate : the Abyss was sealed after the departure of the Hollow Knight and only someone with the King’s Brand can enter it again ; Leem, the collector (well, not THE collector ahem), surrounded by relics, puts his finger on the fog surrounding this inscription on the fountain, the Hollow Knight memorial : little is now known about this story, this sacrifice, and this is probably not a good sign. The Pale King is surrounded by a mysterious aura, his arrival seems quite unexplainable, and if his crown reminds us of his former identity as Wyrm, we find similar traits in the Radiance, what could be the reason ? How could this monarch be reborn and rule the kingdom ? And above all, what could have led him to this blindness, this madness ?
The whole kingdom seems locked in oblivion, like Bretta, who was actually forgotten, lost in the Mantis Village (although Elderbug remembers her afterwards) or Quirrel who has lost his memory and is inexplicably drawn to the kingdom.
The construction of individuality
A second key element for me in the story of Hollow Knight lies in the metaphor of the choice made by the Pale King, by choosing one of the vessels as the Vessel, the Hollow Knight.
All alike ?
When you see them together, piling up at the lowest point of Hallownest, in the depths of the Abyss, the vessels are different, they have a distinctive shell (not each one of them, which would be slightly time-consuming, but we can see different shapes) ; this is interesting – even necessary – from a graphic point of view of course, but more than that it is important insofar as it individualizes them, whereas they are presented as identical (given the function for which they were created) and above all without mind, without will, without voice… Yet they are indeed different : since only one of them was considered perfect, it should mean that the others were not like them.
A Void with a Soul
It is true that the vessels are not only made of Void, since they’re children of the Pale Beings, and share as such the soul of a Root and the soul of a Wyrm, however we don’t really know what those two souls give them…
This Void is not nothing, it is not absence, it is a substance, or even more, since it has been opposed to Radiance before, apparently. And the creatures made of Void, at least the vessels, have reactions that assume more than consciousness : the Broken Vessel extends a paw to their sibling in a last gesture of despair. The Hollow Knight twice has meaningful gazes : as they’re about to leave the Abyss with the king, they turn one last time to the depths ; at the end of the Path of Pain, they’re seen looking at their father. Much later, when they’re fought, they let out piercing screams that stun during the combat.
But above all there is this vessel whose aura escapes no one ; most of those who meet us immediately attribute superior fighting qualities to us, a strength despite our small stature. The queen herself recognizes our superiority over the Vessel chosen by the king, but for her, our superiority is our purity ; but what does this purity represent, fundamentally ?
The purity of the depths
The choice (that of the Pale King) gave a strong individuality to the Hollow Knight. The origin of their impurity is not mentioned in the game, the White Lady simply evokes an “idea instilled”, however it seems rather obvious that it is those very moments spent outside the Abyss, in the company of their father, that have tarnished the supposed purity of the Hollow Knight. For if we can think that the king did not recognize the initial impurity of the Vessel, we can also interpret that he did not imagine that by choosing them he was, from the Hollow Knight’s point of view, giving them a special place, which could alter their purity.
The Hollow Knight was recognized, in a way, by their father, by the king moreover, and I find that if we take some time to think about it, the game raises an important question, a deeply human question : is the importance some people give us, sometimes by becoming friends, partners, essential to help us “building” ourselves as individuals ? It is in the conclusion (Friday’s article) that I will explore a more personal interpretation of Hollow Knight‘s story.
Beyond the way people look at us
Finally, this metaphor of how we shape our personality, how we accept our individuality, is found in the way some characters are treated. Some are seen through their function only : essentially the king and the Hollow Knight.
The former is almost exclusively presented as a sovereign, little is known about him since he was, according to Leem, living as a recluse in his Palace ; therefore it is difficult to get a complete picture of the king, of his character, except for what he accomplished as Hallownest’s monarch, and the sacrifice he imposed on the Vessel. It is this sacrifice that characterizes the Hollow Knight in their entirety, as a negation of their potential identity, an identity that they possess because of their supposed impurity. It is an idea that has been transposed in an astonishing way in the music of the game, using essentially two themes (leitmotif, rather) very rightly associated for one with royalty, for the other with the vessel(s) : the music of the fight against the Hollow Knight in particular shows great narrative virtuosity. We will talk about it at length on Wednesday…
There is another character seen in a partial way, it is the Radiance. Almost by metonymy, she is only seen as the Infection, as this plague that she’s spreading ; she is only known by the pain she feels, by this distress of having been forgotten, and by her response, which almost takes the form of revenge.
In the end, Hallownest is seen only through the prism of the melancholy that seems to have descended upon it. And faced with this, the playable character, their silence, their supposed purity, brings a very particular response. They will act as sort of a mirror, something that will allow NPCs to find answers, to evolve ; and at the strongest moment of the game, as the Hollow Knight seems to struggle to escape their function, their forced condition as a Vessel, mutilated by the Radiance or even themselves, it is the little Knight that will allow them to accept it, to transcend it by joining them to help them give the final blows to the Radiance. And it seems that this was their mission in a way, since the Family disappears when the Radiance is defeated.
That’s why, despite all the care given to the NPCs (which we’ll see in more detail tomorrow), their characters, so varied, their destinies as if locked in the soft yet deep darkness of the kingdom, no character from Hollow Knight fascinates me more than the little hero.