Why I like… Hollow Knight (n°5)12 min

Conclusion

Well, I guess we’re done. The lore, the NPCs, the music (that one was a bit long), the graphics and the gameplay. So… why do I like this game so much ?

Truly beautiful

Let’s start with what’s obvious : it’s a beautiful game. I have a particular affection for 2D animation, and the style chosen for Hollow Knight is very drawn, adorable, delicate and always elegant.

The music is very rich, from the translucent layers of the Forgotten Crossroads to the Soul Master’s orchestra, Christopher Larkin manages to underline the lost richness of Hallownest with sometimes just one chord, using spot-on color and instrumentation (the Forgotten Crossroads precisely… the very first chord is almost like a Madeleine de Proust to me). The main theme, the famous leitmotif, adapts to all the emotions in the game, which is all the more disturbing since the vessels do not speak : the narrative dimension of the music must be even stronger and transcend the fate of the vessels.

Finally the story, simple and yet so rich, is complete, a tragedy that seems to be seen only through the prism of the melancholy of those who suffer it. However Hollow Knight manages to go beyond this haunting darkness, insofar as it’s also a game that explores a whole range of emotions.

Lights through the darkness

Although the darker aspects prevail and the story is inherently tragic, with each ending revealing its share of bitterness (when the little vessel and the Hollow Knight triumph over the Radiance at the cost of their lives) or desolation (when we take the Hollow Knight’s place, and, depending on the ending, Hornet finds herself trapped as the new Dreamer), the game is more than that, thanks to the versatility of the NPCs. It’s sometimes poetic, a poetry often tinged with shadow when we think of the encounters with Quirrel, but also kind (the Dung Defender is adorable) and even comical : Bretta writes fan-fictions after she’s saved by the Knight, Willoh continuously gives in to her desire to eat, Salubra rewards us with a kiss (Smooch !), or the Dash Master (who is not even an NPC), with his own statue, to the glory of speed, one paw raised to the sky. The game even offers us a character we love to hate, the unbearable Zote.
The Grimm Troupe DLC brings its share of humor as well (this series of articles will have its own DLC… patience) but above all the promise of a real show.
Even if darkness prevails, it is often illuminated, if only for a few moments, by a brighter chord, an intriguing character (Legeater), an awareness (Cloth in the Ancient Basin). And who knows which works will the Nailsmith and Sheo, the Nailmaster, create ?

And thus, by its great diversity, Hollow Knight has a vast metaphorical dimension.
The following part is a personal interpretation of Hollow Knight and talks about depression ; if you don’t want to read it, you can skip to the next title.

The depths of simplicity

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I discovered Hollow Knight completely by chance, looking for games that could make me forget a persistent melancholy, as I often say. It really only took me one picture to be fascinated by this game, even before I saw or played it. Watching the Dream No More end, and the disappearance of the last traces of the Radiance’s light was very cathartic, whereas the classic ending, logically called Hollow Knight, is still hardly tolerable to me.

On this blog I’m more interested in the artistic aspect of video games, often music – but not only – but I also like to analyze their metaphorical character, which can be very rich. Of course this interpretation, in the case of games with multiple readings (such as Journey) can be shaped by our own experience, our sensitivity, our state of mind, and it is quite naturally that, in response to my own loneliness coupled with a certain darkness, Hollow Knight turned out to be, for me, a metaphor of depression. The way the Infection is the Radiance’s response to oblivion, the daze in which it seems to trap the insects that succumb to it, quickly resonated with my own state of mind (it doesn’t mean that I secretly wish to infiltrate the minds of bugs all over the world ! By the way, for those of you who can speak French and would have some trouble in understanding what depression can be – what it can be because it can take several aspects – I suggest this video by Aelthan Ferragun). The vessels’ mutism was also similar to the inability to sometimes express this state of mind, for fear of being judged, but not only : sometimes you just can’t talk about it (even though you should, but you can’t force those things).

There was also this almost Baudelairean duality between this desire to reach the surface, the Temple, then the Hollow Knight’s mind in the Dream Realm, and the story that inexorably dragged us towards the depths, the Abyss, the Birthplace. Riping the Radiance’s face apart to make this pure, blinding light disappear was for me like freeing yourself from depression. It was, in addition to the quality of this game on all artistic levels (Christopher Larkin’s music is absolutely fascinating, to the point of absurdity ; I mean, it’s just absurd how beautiful it is. No, of course it’s not absurd. Talent, you know), another reason why I was so drawn to it.
But it’s only recently that I managed to finalize this metaphor and deepen it.

It’s been now more than a year since a certain pandemic has been “sweeping” the world and we are intermittently in lockdown or being imposed a curfew (it’s still the case as I write this article : lockdown for 4 weeks – again). My contacts with other human beings have diminished, but the most disturbing thing was to realize that this hasn’t fundamentally changed my social life, long since lost in the vortex of a jar of void mayonnaise (I played Stardew Valley a lot at some point, this explains that). But I managed to be around even fewer people than I already was, and that led to a strange feeling of somehow losing my individuality. I hadn’t changed, but by losing a good part of my contacts (though only related to my work) and the remaining ones being virtual (I was teleworking), not really being able to share my passions with anyone (hence this blog, which, if not shared, at least allows me to write), I had the feeling that I was even more of a spectator than usual, that I was no longer a full-fledged individual.
As I was writing this series, I came to rethink about the link between the Hollow Knight and their father, most likely the cause of the eponymous character’s impurity. As I have mentioned several times, notably in the first article, the Vessel has been elected, they’ve been considered to be superior, they’ve been individualized. But can one really forge oneself as an individual, even more so, accept oneself, without relationships, without being recognized by and as a friend, a companion ?

The little hero is not chosen by anyone, they escaped from the Abyss alone (a priori). They’re also pure, according to the queen, but their purity, as I explained in the article on NPCs, acts as a guide (a mirror ?) and often allows the NPCs they meet to accept themselves (Cloth at some point), they bring back to life these forgotten characters (the Dung Defender, so glad to fight), but they manage to do this without talking, without showing any preference to anyone (and that is also very important), any particular behavior towards others, except their strength, inspiring. And yet the question still arises : are they aware of this strength ? Are they aware of their sacrifice ? Do we attribute to them intentions that they don’t have, as it sometimes happens with some NPCs, such as Sheo ? After all, they’re only the player character, one might say…

But precisely, the fact that the little vessel is the player character allows us to make them human since we control them and can give them particular attitudes (we can have fun bowing to NPCs by looking down, we can bring Millibelle in front of Marissa in the Pleasure House if we do it right), it allows us to give back their humanity to those thousands of forgotten vessels. They have a very strange position, they are indeed the children of the Pale Beings, they’re called the Family, which is all the more confusing since they too were probably only seen as a function, in which they – supposedly – failed. Supposedly, since the king is not immune from a misjudgment…
Maybe the king was wrong, there were two Vessels, two kind of purities (is that even possible ?), and both were actually necessary to free Hallownest because it took the little Knight to make the Hollow Knight accept themselves, transcend their condition and defeat the Radiance.

Choosing the vessel as a playable character is a way to give us hope that we can build ourselves even in the most overwhelming loneliness. And allowing the little hero to accept the Void within them and to unify it in order to fight the Infection could be a way to make the Void’s darkness and the Infection’s blinding light two facets of our own pain : accepting your own darkness is the first step to freeing yourself from depression.

These are personal interpretations obviously, they are the most important ones for me, but of course they’re not the only ones.

There’s also something else that arouses my curiosity for the second game of this franchise.
The trailer of Silksong, the much-anticipated sequel to Hollow Knight, reveals some elements that reinforce an aspect of the game, which is not necessarily meant to be primordial, but which we can wonder whether it will be explored in Silksong : religion. The music of the trailer uses the theme of the Dies Irae, it is certainly not insignificant, some areas show bells, especially the one protected by a seal. In the first zone, Moss Grotto, there’s an old church ; and the Citadel of Pharloom, which Hornet must reach, is said to be holy.
There is already a religious dimension to Hollow Knight : both the Radiance and the Pale King were the object of great devotion ; the dead had their cemetery, the Resting Grounds. The very name Hallownest evokes a certain religious dimension, since it means “the sacred nest”, “the holy nest”.

Art at the service of a new work of art

More than a “beautiful game”, Hollow Knight really raises the question of what a video game can be ; it is a work (as in work of art) that tells a story through each and every art and element it uses : the sumptuous graphics, far beyond their apparent simplicity, but also the music which has an exceptional narrative dimension, more than just descriptive (I know I already said it, but I do not care !) ; the bosses are very carefully designed and some of their behavior reflects elements of their own story, such as Hornet and the Hollow Knight who parry in a similar way, illustrating their kinship ; and there’s the fascinating duality of the narrative : tens of thousands of words for a hero – heroes – that cannot speak.
This story is told through a gameplay that is both realistic (especially for the part dedicated to exploration) and poetic (the hero’s movements, especially the double jump, and the dreamnail’s oneiric dimension).

It is all the more vast as the game is long : NPCs are numerous and encounters frequent, their dialogue evolves and we witness their own quests, in a wide variety of destinies : if some of them get locked in said quest (Cloth, if she leaves Hallownest) others succumb to the Infection (Myla) in front of sad and powerless witnesses (Elderbug) ; some characters leave Dirtmouth, others stay, when they’re not unaware of Hallownest’s fate ; sometimes they’re just ghosts and the encounter is touching though ephemeral.
But while the game is long, it is also very well built, with a relatively linear progression at first (although even at the beginning in the Forgotten Crossroads we have a lot of choices and can explore quite a lot already) and then very open ; some areas seem less important (like the Hive, completely optional – yet Hiveblood is quite nice… And the Hive Knight is as adorable as the Dung Defender. Bzzz) but it is quite consistent with their place in the story.
It also adapts to all players, offering challenges of average to transcendent difficulty (sure, let’s face all the bosses from the game in one pantheon, it will be so much fun), whether in combat or in platforming.

Unify

Finally, artistically it is a game that unifies : to all the hand-drawn elements, it adds effects generated by Unity ; to music essentially made by computer, it mixes live instrumentalists ; to an unreal world only made of insects, it offers, much more than a realistic and ingenious setting, a oneiric story with yet deeply human emotions and questions.

Like the little hero who unifies the Void, Hollow Knight transcends contrasts, goes beyond oxymorons, exploring a world richer than just shadow and light, revealing a mosaic of melancholy that can free us, for a few moments, of our own obscurity.

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