Hollow Knight: Mechanics and Dynamics

Hollow Knight is a 2D action-adventure game that I’ve spent many hours playing (mostly with enjoyment, occasionally with frustration and huge doses of patience).

The core aesthetics of this game are narrative, challenge, and discovery. There is a whole lot of dynamics that contributes to each one of these aesthetics, but in attempts to keep this in a reasonable length I will mainly be discussing the dying mechanic / dynamic, and how it is one of the main / more unique contributors to the challenge aesthetic (I was originally going to write about all three but it would have been way too long)

In Hollow Knight, as the player explores the world, they inevitably kills many small ubiquitous creatures along the way (to be fair, most of them are also trying to kill the player as well). Each time the player kills one of these creatures, the player earns geo (the money / currency in this universe), and each time the player attacks a creature, the player gains some soul. Soul can be used to perform more advanced attacks, or restore health, and is stored in a “vessel” quite similar to a gas tank (in that there is a maximum capacity). Geo is often necessary at certain parts of the game to advance further, when purchasing maps, or obtaining helpful items.

A screencap from the game. The soul vessel is in the upper left and circled in red; the geo indicator is boxed in green.

The map of Hollow Knight is also incredibly expansive: the world is split into several areas, which the player discovers one-by-one. The player enter each area without a map, and must explore the area blindly until they find Conifer, a map maker who tends to appear in nooks and sells the player a partially completed map in each area. Without said map, players are unable to tell where they are in the area. This makes it particularly difficult to enter and leave a new area, especially since new areas often come with new types of adversaries, mixed in with the always-present challenge of platforming.

With such an expansive map, Hollow Knight designates very few save points: the save points are all benches, where there are only 2-3 in each area.

The entire map of Hollow Knight! Each colored section is one area (note that each rectangle “room” can span multiple screens, as a frame of reference). Each red marker is a bench location.

All of these mechanics contribute to the dying dynamic, which Hollow Knight is known for. When the player dies, they respawn at their last save point (a bench). the player respawns with no geo (money) and the playerr soul vessel’s max capacity is reduced to ⅔ its original max capacity. 

In order to restore the soul vessel’s max capacity and regain all the geo the player had before dying, the player must return to the location where the player died, where a shadow-like figure (termed “shade”) will be waiting for the player. The player must fight and defeat the shade in order to restore the player’s vessel and regain the lost geo.

Fighting shade as part of the dying dynamic. Notice how the vessel in the upper left is cracked, indicating reduced capacity; there is also 0 geo 🙁

If the player dies before they are able to defeat their shade, the old shade effectively dies, and a new shade (wherever the player died this time) emerges. Once again, the player respawns at a bench; however, all the geo that the player had before dying (the first time) is no longer recoverable – it has effectively died with the previous shade.

This dynamic is ever-present in the game: it causes the player to effectively go bankrupt and restart their money collection efforts; it’s nearly inevitable as players die in areas that they have just discovered (this is one of the most frustrating parts, trying to find the shade in an area that you have no map to and are unfamiliar with); and it makes the player continue to go back and try again. 

While this dynamic pretty clearly feeds into the challenge aesthetic, it also ends up feeding into many other aesthetics as well: for example, much of the mysterious lore in Hollow Knight is only uncovered by piecing together monuments, scriptures, and dialogue found in different areas of the expansive world; by forcing the player to continue to rediscover and re-enter areas of the world through this death dynamic, they are able to engage more deeply with both the narrative and discovery aspects of this game.

Anyways, 10/10 game — there are so many other things I could talk about for the other aesthetics but this would simply be too long! 

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