After exploring Hollow Knight‘s beautiful lore in the first article, there is another particularly engaging element in this video game, which brilliantly shows all the variety and fluidity of emotions in the kingdom of Hallownest. The analysis of our little bugs continues with the non-player characters, or NPCs. Hollow Knight‘s NPCs are indeed the object of a very beautiful development.
(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)
In a game of this extent, it is rather logical to meet many NPCs, even apart from enemies. They have rather usual functions, however, their treatment is such that they take an important place in both the story and the game experience, without ever being intrusive.
The usual suspects
Some of them are merchants and allow the Knight to buy accessories and upgrades, as usual in a video game : Iselda, the faithful wife of Cornifer the cartographer (who hides in each area of Hallownest, singing vigorously, and goes back to his store, snoring vigorously, once his work is done) ; Millibelle, a most dishonest banker (but she says “Kallala” to greet the Knight and it’s amusing)
The Forgotten Crossroads are also home to the small store of Salubra, aka Charm lover, who for a fee provides us with charms, these beautiful amulets that improve our abilities.
It is always amusing to notice that those NPCs sound like they talk about money all the time ; they (briefly) speak an imaginary language, and we often hear “Geo”, Hallownest’s currency, in the syllables they pronounce.
On the other hand you can also earn money thanks to Relic Seeker Leem, who is always eager to tell us more about the kingdom’s history.
Some of the merchants have a very strong, ahem, “relationship” with money : Leg Eater, Sly (and his prices increasing again and again) or Tuk insist heavily on the need to pay them to obtain their precious merchandise, in the case of Leg Eater you even have to pay to have the right to see his merchandise, sorry, sorry, I meant to write “something nice”, then pay for the charms themselves. One could say that this is classic behavior for merchants, however I find that here their greed is not insignificant : in a kingdom where almost everything has been lost, you hold on to what you have left, or if you get rid of it, you expect a compensation.
Money is also very nicely integrated in the game, from Geos that fossilized over time in the “rough” areas (Forgotten Crossroads, Kingdom’s Edge, Deepnest & Ancient Basin) to the more elaborate yet abandoned chests (mainly in the City of Tears)
Auxiliaries, better, companions
Hollow Knight is a rather long game, especially for a metroidvania (it takes a few dozens hours to complete it, and Silksong will most certainly be even longer), so it can feature more solid encounters and longer quests, through repeated interactions with the same NPCs ; this allows to build a relationship between the player – in place of the playable character, since the Knight doesn’t seem to feel anything – and said NPCs : they then become, for some, almost companions.
That’s why other characters follow us throughout the game and provide valuable assistance ; among them, there are Quirrel, Cloth and Hornet. And as I started to analyze in the previous article, the regularity of those encounters coupled with the silence of the little hero (and their… innocence, one might say ?) leads the characters to look at themselves, to the point of making important decisions. Quirrel and Cloth are particularly touching.
A mind like ours ?
There are many encounters with Quirrel, who soon gives us a sweet nickname (in French he says “mon minuscule ami”, which means “my tiny friend” ; in English it is very slightly different : “my short friend”) ; he raves about the City of Tears and the origin of the water that constantly showers the capital of Hallownest ; he also warns us of Hallownest’s dangers and after a solid help during the fight against Uumuu, boss of the Teacher’s Archive, vanishes near the Blue Lake, having finally discovered this cyan water that was causing the perpetual rain on the city.
He lost his memory, it’s only after the fight against Uumuu that he regained his memories and remembered why he was so drawn to Monomon’s Archives. Perhaps this is the reason why he quickly bonded with the Knight, when they both found themselves in front of the Temple of the Black Egg at the beginning of the adventure ; it’s a bit hard to talk about “memory” for our character : we know nothing of what happened between the time they escaped from the Abyss (it is not explained how they escaped) and the moment they returned to Hallownest. They can’t communicate anything, neither to the player (there is no internally focalised narrative and the Knight doesn’t write anything except for updating the maps) nor to other NPCs since they have neither mind nor voice ; they’re very mysterious but the simple fact that they’re always venturing further and further into the kingdom makes them an outstanding fighter. It is partly this aura that often draws NPCs to the hero, but in the case of Quirrel, it is perhaps the unfathomable nature of the hero’s mind that attracts Quirrel, himself without memories at that moment, simply guided by his instinct to the Archives.
Quirrel seems to have an interesting backstory, and connected to one of the Dreamers, it is quite logical that he is also the hero of a short comic strip made by Team Cherry, in which he precisely meets Hornet.
They don’t judge me
Cloth is a fighter who wanders just like the Knight ; she overcomes her fears and regains her confidence only to unfortunately perish in battle, helping the Knight.
She hides but is not afraid to reveal her weaknesses to the Knight ; perhaps in her case, the silence of the little hero reassures her, because nothing in them seems to convey any judgment : indeed, she introduces herself as a fighter but fears the increasingly repulsive and infected creatures she meets, especially in the Ancient Basin, where she can be saved from Lesser Mawleks. What could almost be humiliating for Cloth allows her, thanks to the absence of judgment of the little hero (they can’t blame her, in the way that they probably can’t feel anything similar to this) and the example they seem to be setting for the gentle warrior, to overcome her fears and, one would think, move forward.
Part of my family
As for Hornet, we can’t really talk about companionship (“ah, you seem nice ; let’s fight !” it’s not quite that atmosphere, that would be the Dung Defender – I love him, he’s just adorable) : she’s suspicious and we understand it : we know that she’s the daughter of Herrah, one of the three Dreamers, and the Pale King. She too is aware that the Infection has returned, and must be sure of the intentions, and the strength, of the little Knight : she must therefore subject them to increasingly difficult fights, while guiding them (in front of the fountain she tells them where to find the King’s Brand, and at the top of the Abyss she talks about the decision the hero has to make as they can either replace the Vessel or face the Radiance – in fact, there’s a third possibility, Hornet, but you won’t like it…). The way she perceives the hero evolves, from contempt to a form of admiration, what they’re accomplishing – accepting the Void within them and unifying it – is extraordinary, and Hornet in turn will know how to help them when the time comes.
There are also NPCs who have nothing but their own story to offer ; like poor Bretta, who got lost near the Mantis Village (well, she has a mask shard to offer) ! The Knight rescues her and Bretta falls in love with them : indeed, she starts writing fan-fictions about them and decorates her home with a Knight plush toy (I can’t blame her, I happen to have that very plush toy). And posters. And a hug pillow. And (too many ands), should the Knight sit next to her on a bench long enough, she blushes. It’s all the more adorable that the Knight falls asleep (or loses consciousness ?) on her shoulder after a while. Cuteness overload.
Make him stop !
This won’t happen though, if you decide to rescue Zote. Zote the Mighty, a knight
of great reknown as unpleasant as possible and not predisposed to modesty, author of 57 precepts either full or devoid of common sense. If he is lucky enough to be rescued (several times) by the Knight, he ends up seducing Bretta. He is also a poor fighter (his weapon, Life Ender, is made of wood, and he is incapable of doing anything with it).
His voice is the game’s true Infection, and yet, at the bottom of this sea of mediocrity, there’s proof of his clear-sightedness : his last precept, in which he invites the hero not to dream, since it is from dreams that the Infection locks us away.
But more than their rather classic function, non-player characters in Hollow Knight stand out in that they all seem to be trapped in a multifaceted sadness, or meet a gruesome fate.
A mosaic of melancholy
Many NPCs have a moving, if not poignant story ; I have already mentioned Quirrel and Cloth, but they’re not the only souls lost in their melancholy. The Nailsmith has a blacksmith’s shop deeply buried in the City of Tears ; reclusive, unaware of the world he belongs to and its profound changes, he improves the Knight’s weapon throughout the game and once his work’s done, he asks the Knight to kill him ; he wants to feel the edge of the purest blade he has ever forged. If he is spared however, he goes to discover the world and makes a beautiful encounter : Sheo, a former Nailmaster, who has become a painter unlike his two brothers, Oro and Mato, who remained fighters (screenshot made by InkScarlet, CC BY-SA 3.0, available on Hollow Knight’s French wiki – cropped).
Myla’s destiny is also quite moving, as she succumbs to this kingdom’s plague. When we first encounter her, she’s singing a funny nursery rhyme in Crystal Peak’s mine ; shortly afterwards, Myla becomes in turn infected and attacks us like a regular enemy ; she kept on digging and both the Infection and (I guess) the crystals altered her state of mind, as illustrated by the voice acting that goes from overly adorable…
…to ultimate zombie :
And if you don’t think it’s that bad, here’s what she thinks when she’s infected : “…How much longer… KILL IT… How much longer… DANGEROUS… How much longer… KILL IT… How much longer… KILL THE EMPTY ONE… // …How much longer… must I dig…? “. Yep, this is indeed the Radiance (in capital letters) that orders her to kill the little hero. And to dig, I assume.
This melancholy is reinforced by the fact that happiness systematically appears to be over, happy moments no longer seem to belong to the present : for example, in one of her dialogues (triggered if we wear the charm obtained by defeating the Dung Defender) the White Lady wants to see Ogrim again, she recalls happy memories. What were those ? Unfortunately, she says nothing more.
However, this isn’t the only game with a dark atmosphere ; take Bloodborne for instance, Father Gascoigne’s story is just overly sad : he no longer recognizes his wife Viola who came to look for him and he kills her, and you have to break the news to one of their daughters after killing Gascoigne himself (after that, it’s even more gloomy) ; but where in Bloodborne it seems difficult to imagine any glimmer of hope or sweetness (and then, you have to admit, The One Reborn is not particularly pleasant to look at, I love Bloodborne, I find the bosses extraordinary, but we’re rather dealing with monsters in general, right ? I mean, I wouldn’t have Darkbeast Paarl as a pet…), in Hollow Knight, the characters are for the most part just adorable (except for Zote, whom I refuse to qualify as such !), they simply were overcome by a torpor, like that “deep sleep” in which the kingdom has fell : its melancholy is all the more touching because it is very nuanced.
Playing with the diegesis
On the other hand, there is an NPC who just wants to eat us, making sure not to reveal her culinary desire (we can discover that near the mushrooms she’s eating there is an insect that probably could not manage to escape her cruel appetite). This is Willoh, a kind of… giraffe insect (?). She’s not the only one, since Salubra has her eyes, rather her mouth, on us ; as for the Midwife, she’s insisting a bit too much about her staa-aarving, if you want my opinion.
It must be pointed out that Hallownest is also full of dangers, and the game often plays tricks on us : when she finds herself rich enough, Millibelle runs away from her fake bank with our money. We find her later on in the Pleasure House, and we can even recover more than what she stole from us by hitting her shell with our nail, but in the meantime, nothing could let us know that we would get our Geos back ; it also makes us do something a bit disturbing, as we’re hitting her over and over. The only clue about the greedy banker is very hidden : if we wear the Dreamshield charm or one of the charms that make small bugs or spiders appear and hit the enemies in our place, they will attack Millibelle, betraying her uncharitable intentions.
In the same way, at another time, we are proposed to deposit all our fortune in a fountain, to honor the Pale King. In reality you only give 3000 Geos, but there is no way for us to know that beforehand.
Some grubs are actually mimics and attack us : after that we are on our guard even in front of these creatures no matter how frighteningly adorable they are : even the things that seem safe to us aren’t safe any more, like when the Forgotten Crossroads become the Infected Crossroads and the area is no longer filled with casual enemies but with deeply infected, kamikaze bugs ; finally, an intriguing Doppelgänger turns out to be a more than irritating boss (less however than the Watcher Knights in my humble opinion), the charming Nosk.
Are we playing or are we being played with ?
But beyond the traps inside the kingdom, therefore linked to the diegesis, to the universe of the story, in a video game there can be a sort of manipulation of the player by the developers… As we approach the Hunter’s lair in Greenpath, we hear the same music as before entering the False Knight’s boss room/chamber : is this kind of sound effect diegetic ? Is it in the scene ?
Some music is indeed diegetic : in the tramway or in this resting room in the Queen’s Gardens, there is a loudspeaker playing the music you always hear when you’re on a bench (Reflection, in the soundtrack).
Usually there is no visible sound source, so the music shouldn’t be considered to be diegetic ; there, we see the speakers, the source is in the scene, so the music is diegetic. So afterward, what about the rest of the music ? What about this “beware – something – wrong – is – about – to happen” sound effect ? Is the little Knight supposed to hear it ? You would think that they’re not, but who knows ?
The same holds for Nymm (this is the only element from Grimm Troupe that I will mention for now) who relentlessly plays the theme from Dirtmouth on the accordion after the troupe is banished. It’s very accurate, there are even the little F sharp octaves when the theme is played again. In this case, the music is diegetic, so was it before ? But Elderbug only mentions this music when Nymm plays, so we can guess it wasn’t…
The question is all the more important because, as I will develop at length in the third article of this series, music has a great narrative dimension and often seems to depict characters or places…
So there is this manipulation of the diegesis so as to play with the player, convinced of an imminent fight when they’re about to make a “mere encounter”. It’s not necessarily new, but what is very convincing here is to blur the lines about what is diegetic or not, to succeed in making us believe that everything is in the game and to make of Hollow Knight an even more coherent experience…
An organic treatment
In spite of the very established features that are common to almost any video game of this genre, the way NPCs are treated feels particularly natural in Hollow Knight.
A variety of relationships
First of all, it is realistic. I’ll talk a lot about it in Thursday’s article on the gameplay, but Hollow Knight, although set in a world of anthropomorphic insects, is an exceptionally realistic adventure where every aspect has been perfectly incorporated into the narrative.
As such, we don’t have the same type and amount of interactions with all the characters : some of them befriend us, like Quirrel and Cloth, or even Sly, to whom we are actually closer than we may think through our mere purchases. Others, well, we save them or listen to them and that’s it. There are those we cross paths with a few times, but with whom the distance remains, like Tiso. Finally, there are those who don’t talk to us, but whom we can still splash, of course ! There are many different levels of interaction, giving these encounters a very human touch.
More than we think
But more than anything, NPCs have a changing role ; Sly, the merchant, will bring us information about the history of Hallownest : he’s actually a great Nailmaster, like the three brothers Oro, Mato and Sheo. Some characters prove to be famous fighters and help us : the most striking is undoubtedly the fight with Cloth ; she’s the one who gives the final strike ; she dies but her ghost expresses her gratitude : she’s happy to have overcome her fear and fought alongside the Knight, whose courage she seems to admire (yet is it courage ?). However, the game blurs the line and it is a much sadder story that is told through Cloth : she constantly mentions her companion Nola, who’s presumably dead ; the fights she’s looking for are always more and more terrifying, and she herself is afraid of them, but we then understand that she is not looking for anything else but to join her dead companion…
An enemy becomes an ally, a merchant unveils a great past, a new friend becomes a partner in combat, and sometimes the indomitable boss tells the story : after defeating him, the Dung Defender, one of the Five Great Knights, alone in the Royal Waterways, remembers his companion and friend Isma. Dead and surrounded by plants, Isma’s tear has become a fruit that allows the Knight to swim in the acidic waters of Hallownest.
It is thus in a very organic way that Hollow Knight‘s NPCs adopt the different roles of friend, enemy, storyteller or merchant. There’s a reason why there are tens of thousands of words in Hollow Knight‘s script ! Some of them are engraved on stones, but most of them are said by the characters, in particularly spot-on interactions, through words or animation : like when Quirrel, in the City of Tears, turns to the Knight when the latter sits on the bench to rest, before talking to them.
Elderbug raises a worried paw (in addition to emitting a faint cry) if the Knight tries to join the Forgotten Crossroads without greeting him.
Or the three Mantis Lords who stand up and bow to the Knight after they have defeated them : the Knight has earned their respect.
The voices of Hallownest
For the player, the bond with all the NPCs is often created all the more easily because when they speak, they use very recognizable and rather funny syllables, which makes them particularly likeable…
…But we have sympathy for them even if they don’t speak at all, by the way.
There’s a strong variety in all the different voices ; I doubt that there are many voice actors (the developers themselves having taken care of several characters each) but they all show great versatility in their vocal abilities : Cloth goes from the most infinite softness to a demonstration of strength.
And the Midwife has two voices just as she has two faces. Chomp !
The attentive ear
All of these interactions have one thing in common : during each one of them, the Knight, who is small in stature, stares at them, politely raising their head. As they have no voice, they do not speak, but rather listen calmly to each one of the words spoken by Hallownest’s inhabitants.
But of all the NPCs, none is for me more touching than Marissa, the beautiful singer, now ghost of the Pleasure House in the eastern part of the City of Tears. Her audience has left, yet she remains, and sings for all eternity.
To honor her singing, the next step in this series will be a deep study of Hollow Knight‘s music and sound design. See you soon… Well, see… You know what I mean, right ?