Hollow Knight, Place, and Telling a Rich Story

This has pretty big spoilers for Hollow Knight.

Last time, I made a fairly inoffensive assertion: that fiction and fantasy are great for exploring sensitive topics and uncomfortable truths. Arguably, it’s what they’re there for; gleaning some truth about ourselves through the stories we tell about ourselves. To this end, they’ll lather themselves in theme, reference, and allegory. Sometimes, they’ll imitate reality to make some point about about the times we live in. Sometimes, they’ll borrow motifs from the classics, or from ancient legend, in the grand tradition of Greek meditations on the human condition. Sometimes though, fantasy snatches from reality and myth to be additive rather than extractive. Not to dig below its topsoil and unearth some deeper truth, but to sprinkle a little fertiliser, and enrich the ground on which the story is built.

It’s something that games do better than other mediums. There’s something about being in a place, rather than just watching, or reading about it. Plot can hang around the sidelines fiddling with the curtains until it’s needed, while the stage itself becomes the star.

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Such is the case with Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight, a game about bugs. In a medium that lends itself well to world-building, Hollow Knight doubles down on setting; it’s one of those fantasies that’s all about place. It’s world is a tragic, decayed kingdom called Hallownest, a once teeming insectoid metropolis, gone to ruin. Once, Hallownest was great. It had a King, a Queen. They built a great Gothic city in a vast cavern. Now though, it’s a shell, a husk, and it’s expecting metamorphosis. The player takes on the role of only a little bug, but to everyone in the nest, you’re oddly familiar.

Hollow Knight presents a thoroughly adorable vision of life in the undergrowth, but it’s also grand, frightening, vibrant, and bittersweet. Throughout the entire experience, Team Cherry have tried to draw parallels between bug life and human life. Hallownest is basically a beehive or an anthill, spaces wholly alien to mammals, but it’s an oddly familiar little nest. Miner bugs dig out the hallways with miniature pickaxes, soldier bugs patrol empty promenades, and once, Hallownest had a King, a Queen. It’s a city, a nation, a civilisation almost; a weird reflection of ourselves with too many legs and the wrong number of eyes. Now though, it’s inhabitants are almost like zombies. They’re hostile, vicious, mindless.

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Hallownest is one of the most meticulously considered worlds I’ve ever explored. From the little nails the inhabitants use as swords, the fossils they use as currency, and the giant Stag Beetles that they use for public transport, every smallest detail of life in Hallownest has been speculated upon, and every effort made to build a believable vision of invertebrate existence in its doomed halls. There’s a character called the Hunter, who keeps a journal of the bugs he’s killed, and in reading it, you get a sense of just how carefully contemplated each creature’s place in the world is.

Hollow Knight though, takes more than a few pointers from Dark Souls, and it’s in the way it respects the player’s intelligence, by delivering few of these idiosyncrasies on a plate, that really impresses. It inscribes these details onto walls, paints them onto faces, and scribbles them between lines. They’re there if you’re looking.

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Hallownest’s eerie emptiness, and its story being about bugs, recalls Colony Collapse Disorder, a real phenomenon wherein the majority of bees abandon a hive. Notably, often the queen is left behind. In Hollow Knight, while everyone seems certain the King is dead or gone, there’s curiously little talk of the Queen having fled or died. In fact, depending on your interpretation (and so much in Hollow Knight is) she might well still be kicking around Hallownest. Whether Team Cherry had Colony Collapse Disorder in mind when building Hallownest is hard to say, but it’s unlikely they made a game about a big ruined insect nest without looking into the sort of things that ruin insect nests.

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Among the other threats to bee colonies are wax moths, reminiscent themselves of certain enemies in Hollow Knight, like the one above. Are these creatures natives, or invaders? For the most part, that’s left for you to decide. An enemy in the game called the Watcher Knight, actually enemies, is animated by little mites, similar to Tracheal mites which infest bees’ airways. It’s also reminiscent of one the most bizarre afflictions that affects insects: Cordyceps, a type of fungus that, well, just watch this mad shit.

Mildly horrifying if you ask me. It’s Cordyceps that seems to have been Team Cherry’s biggest inspiration for the mysterious infection that appears to have decimated Hallownest. Twisting their bodies, controlling their minds, it’s all too similar to this all too real parasite. Later in the game, the initially subtle infection becomes more pronounced, deforming and mutating enemies much like the real Cordyceps bursts from its victims’ husks. It’s all enough to warrant second glances at a certain suspicious fungi.

At the game’s climax, you encounter the Hollow Knight itself, seemingly a larger version of you. Depending on how thorough you’ve been in your exploration you might have pieced together that the Hollow Knight is a vessel, a desperate attempt to contain the mystery infection in one place. Dig deep enough, and you learn there were many such empty vessels, created and discarded for this very purpose, you among them. And you really do have to be thorough; Hollow Knight’s story, much like its subtle background details, doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

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Unfortunately for Hallownest, its one-time savior can’t contain the disease much longer, and the Hollow Knight oozes this horrifying plague from within its Temple of the Black Egg. Once defeated, you take the title character’s place, and absorb the disease. You’re then practically crucified by chains and trapped within the Temple to contain the infection. It’s a bleak ending, and one that’s lathered in very Christian imagery. You, the martyr, sacrificing yourself for the good of the nest. Not only that, replacing your predecessor martyr makes it a kind of second coming.

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It’s a pretty bold move to make the player character Arthropod Jesus, but I love the way it mythologises and subverts insect life-cycles. Normally, when say an ant colony, enters its reproductive stage, new queens mate with male ants (kings, you could call them) and fly away to found new nests. But Hallownest is no normal colony. It’s stagnant, decadent, it once had a bloated aristocracy. It’s a place that’s sick to its very core, and the best that can be hoped is quarantine. So its reproductive cycle is a twisted mirror, its new ‘king’ a sacrifice, a scapegoat in the Biblical sense of the word, all but sent out into the desert bearing Hallownest’s sins.

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In a hidden ending (there’s a few) that requires near 100% completion, and passing through some of the game’s most difficult areas, you take on a more Luciferian role, defeating the ‘true’ antagonist of Hollow Knight: a god-like figure called the Radiance. In this ending, you defy the cycle, and rise up with your discarded siblings to destroy what appears to be the source of the infection: a parasite-deity. It looks like a moth made of light, an ironic reflection of that old videogame proverb, “if there’s enemies, you’re going in the right direction.” In this ending, for better or worse, Hallownest gets the metamorphosis it needs.

In many ways, Hollow Knight is very reminiscent of Watership Down, Richard Adams’ classic tale of anthropomorphised rabbits. Both are adventure stories; both take place in hidden, almost mystical, underground worlds; and both draw constant parallels between humans and their own, non-human, casts. Crucially, Watership Down is famous for its intricately realised portrayal of lupine civilisation, particularly the mythology of it. The rabbits have their own culture, customs, stories, and poetry; they build habitats, cities, just like the insect inhabitants of Hallownest. For my money, Dark Souls is the least of Hollow Knight’s influences. Even your player avatar, as the game progresses, takes on a heroic, mythical, messianic even, significance to the more lucid of Hallownest’s inhabitants. It puts you in mind of Watership Down’s El-ahrairah, a folk hero in the rabbits’ myths, and a kind of Robin Hood or King Arthur figure. Remember, in the end (or at least in one of them) you take on the role of a sort of second coming, a new El-ahrairah.

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Now, Watership Down is a classic, a giant of children’s literature. Over the four decades since its publication it’s been bombarded with praise, compared to Homer’s Odyssey, even called a kind of “what-if” version of the Aeneid. If Hollow Knight stands in this grand tradition, Hallownest could be considered fallen Troy, and the game itself a “what if” where perhaps the player is Odysseus, returned to see what’s become of that doomed city. Or maybe it’s also the Aeneid, we’re Aeneas, and the “what if” is that he discovers a ruined Rome rather than becoming its progenitor. Look, I don’t seriously think Hollow Knight is the Iliad, but then Richard Adams never thought that about Watership Down either:

It’s only a made-up story, it’s in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.

I think Adams sells himself a little short here though. But then, his is a creation that’s grown well beyond him, and maybe he’d rather not piss anyone off by letting on what its really about. Like Hollow Knight, maybe its echoing of Greek epics is just a way to lend a little gravity to the tale, but who’s to say telling a story that’s flush with tradition isn’t worthy.

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I don’t think Team Cherry were trying to speak to some deeper meaning, they just wanted to tell a good story in an enchanted place. Hallownest’s decadence isn’t an indictment of the times we live in, and its disease represents real ones no further than them being based on real insect diseases. They wanted to tell a rich story, to borrow a little complexity from real life, to steal a little gravitas the greats. Like Richard Adams and Watership Down though, I think maybe that does them a disservice, even if Adams did it to himself.

Hollow Knight is all about place. Hallownest is a somber world, but it’s got history, and more importantly character, coming out of the walls like so many hungry termites. If all its theming, referencing, and symbolising lays a solid foundation for that, and I think it does, then give me more like it. If it’s all just style, why does it feel so much like substance? I think it’s a case of a great world well-built. It’s a magical place to inhabit, and I don’t think there’s any medium that does that better than videogames, and there’s few worlds worth exploring more, than Hallownest.

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