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Column: Futility and the beauty of devastation in Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight is a behemoth in the indie games’ scene, lauded worldwide as “the Metroidvania to end Metroidvanias”. Created by the Adelaide-based Team Cherry, it follows the adventure of the unnamed Knight as you explore the wretched ruins of the underground kingdom of Hallownest.

Hollow Knight is a behemoth in the indie games’ scene, lauded worldwide as “the Metroidvania to end Metroidvanias”. Created by the Adelaide-based Team Cherry, it follows the adventure of the unnamed Knight as you explore the wretched ruins of the underground kingdom of Hallownest. As you uncover the truth behind the plague, the Pale King, and the mysterious Dreamers scattered around the map, it becomes clear that Hollow Knight examines the idea of futility, and how there can be beauty found in it despite the tragedy of it all. Your quest is to uncover the truth behind the plague running through Hallownest that is reducing its citizens to their basest instincts. Surrounded by ghosts and walking corpses, it is hard to shake the hopelessness of your situation—and yet it is impossible to deny the beauty of the devastation that surrounds you. 

Hollow Knight’s world is intimidatingly yet wondrously vast, boasting over a dozen discrete biomes complete with their own enemies, lore, and winding secret passages. From the Forgotten Crossroads at the centre of the map, to the industrious Crystal Peaks in the north, all the way to the sealed Abyss in the south, Hallownest defies explanation, is shaped by legend… and is utterly, unequivocally dead when you find it.

Metroidvania (a name that comes from the games Metroid and Castlevania, pioneers of the genre) centres around exploration as the main register of gameplay. Players are thrown into a sprawling world with little to no direction and certain areas of the map are locked until they unlock new abilities and are able to return. Secret passages, exciting upgrades, and the joy of discovery are all mainstays of Metroidvanias. As the modern epitome of the Metroidvania scene, Hollow Knight is no exception, providing its attentive players with shortcuts, brand new areas, mix-‘n’-match Charms that diversify the player’s abilities, and compelling snippets of lore that fill up the mysterious world of Hallownest.

However, just as the player’s exploration yields progress, too soon does it throw Hallownest’s despair back into sharp relief. The full story of Hallownest’s demise is not given. It must be earned, painstakingly pieced together from Lore Tablets, NPC dialogue, and, failing all else, from the tragedies told by the environment itself. A friendly, wise caterpillar tells you of the corpse of the old king, flaking away and coating an entire section of the map in ash. The prized knight of the dead queen bee protects her corpse, hoping without hope that she will one day rise again. It is entirely possible to complete the game without bearing witness to the true extent of the devastation of Hallownest, but Hollow Knight excels at cultivating the curiosity of its players, drawing them even closer into the story of the kingdom’s collapse.

Modern fantasy lives under the spectre of Tolkien. His seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, has been instrumental in shaping the character of modern fantasy, transcending both genre and generations. Terry Pratchett has likened Tolkien’s work to “a sort of mountain… Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it's a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it's not there at all”. Aesthetically, Tolkien and Hollow Knight seem completely distant from one another. There are no elves or trolls or orcs, and for much of the early game there is barely even a clear quest. Yet Hollow Knight’s story of kingly devastation is not free of the mountain of Tolkien. Rather, Hollow Knight is standing atop it.

Broken elevators and locked doors remind the player that people have gone before them, and crucially, have never come after. The enemies that you fight are citizens and workers; corrupted by the Infection and set to wandering sites of destruction for years. You never find a special ring or a strange, riddling creature under the mountain, but both Hollow Knight and Tolkien’s works are situated firmly after a grand, fantastical golden age. I have heard it said before that nobody writes fantasy if they are happy with the state of the world as it is. If we take this to be true, then Hollow Knight is a mediation on the terror of decline and, in turn, the beauty of devastation.

Part of the piquant tragedy of Hallownest is the inevitability of loss. Although the player may be fighting to save the kingdom (and might even succeed, against all odds), there is little that they can do to reverse what has already been done. One of my favourite NPCs is a cute little miner bug called Myla, who sings mournfully to herself in the dark and tries her hardest to remember the forgotten words to her songs. Myla’s memory condition worsens significantly, and rapidly, as she succumbs to the power of the mysterious plague-like “light” that is infecting all the other inhabitants of Hallownest. Upon gaining a specific and mandatory power-up, Myla is lost entirely, becoming hostile and unresponsive to the player. There is nothing that can be done to stop this.

When I first played the game, I quit and retried the section over and over, trying to figure out what I had done wrong, attempting to curb a tragedy that had been established far before my arrival. In the end, I had to concede that Myla’s demise was unavoidable. The only thing I could do was give witness to her decline, and—when she finally turned her pickaxe onto me—as swift a death as I could manage. It’s a bit of a dramatic emotional response to have for a 2D bug, but a quick Google search showed me that I was hardly alone in trying to circumnavigate the impossible. I found video after tragic video of people reacting to Myla’s fate. She has garnered fanart, fanfiction, and thousands of impassioned pleas for her safety. The Hollow Knight speedrunning community has even determined a wickedly hard speedrunning route to avoid Myla losing her mind. Myla’s death is emblematic of the tragedy that permeates Hallownest. Loss must happen, even the loss of beautiful, innocent things.

And yet, the player rages against that inevitability anyway. After all, not all sites of loss are purely tragic, and not all graves are merely sites of mourning. Wonderful things hide in the cracks—often only uncovered through hard work and grim perseverance. One of my favourite parts of the game is the optional Delicate Flower quest, where the player is tasked with transporting a flower from one side of the map to the other to lay on the grave of the Grey Mourner’s dead lover. A single hit from an enemy will destroy the flower, forcing you to start all over again. Many players give up on the quest before finishing, or never even find the quest until after they’ve completed the game.

When you finally do complete the quest and return to the Grey Mourner, she grants you your reward, declaring that she had never thought compassion could triumph over cruelty. After her final speech, the Grey Mourner disappears to her rest, never to be seen again. The player is left standing in an empty house, one Mask Shard richer and entirely at sea.

…Is that it? Is there more to that story that needs to be told? No; like Myla’s doom, like the fall of Hallownest in its entirety, everything has already happened. The Knight cannot undo what has been done between these two lovers. The player is merely given the privilege to bear witness to this last moment of peace.

The player’s fraught relationship with agency is taken to its extreme through the potential endings of Hollow Knight. I won’t spoil them in detail, but the weight of the responsibility that rests on the Knight’s shoulders is made unflinchingly apparent early on: “A difficult journey you would face, but a choice it can create. Prolong our world’s stasis or face the heart of its infection.” In a way, the same choice must be made for Myla, or for the Grey Mourner, or for the dozens of other bugs that you can encounter along your travels. Prolong suspended suffering, breeze past on your quest to rescue the heart of the kingdom—or face what has gone unfaced for years, and give the devastation of Hallownest the witness that it deserves. Hollow Knight never forces the player towards any specific choice, but with every step of the way it encourages the player towards the latter, celebrating what slivers of joy and beauty can be snatched from the jaws of the kingdom’s fall. After all, as the game itself puts, it is “a special thing… to cherish these sights, even in their decay.”

 
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