Read Write Play: Hollow Knight

My initial reaction while playing Hollow Knight was that the fighting art and sounds were extremely intense. Many times when I swiped my sword, whether there was an enemy in front of me or not, I would get to see a huge explosion and a dramatic sound to go with it. I have never felt more powerful in a video game before. On the flipside, if I got hit by an enemy, this also caused dramatic animations and sounds. This fighting visualization felt much more intense than other video games and almost felt funny because it didn’t seem to match up with the cute little character I was playing as.

After playing through the game a little more and reading the paper “The Ones Who Walk Away from Hallownest: Hollow Knight’s Radical Response to the Omelas Dilemma,” the game became less funny. I thought that the parallel between the story in Hollow Knight and the “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the idea that people are willing to let others suffer to uphold the quality of their own lives was really interesting to think about. Something that the paper didn’t discuss that I think would also be interesting to think about is the element of authority. In Hollow Knight, the Pale King is the authoritative figure for the world and decided that the Hollow Knight should have to suffer with containing the Radiance. In the Omelas utopia, I would assume that when people find out about the suffering child, they are told by authority figures in their lives that they should be fine with it. Even when someone has moral qualms with something that they are complicit in, it can be difficult to go against the word of authority.

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist that ran a series of experiments in the 1960s to test people’s obedience to authority. In these experiments, test subjects were asked to administer increasingly higher electric shocks to another person. The experimenter would be in the room with the test subject and continue to insist that the test subject must continue to administer the shocks. Many test subjects continued to administer the electric shocks, even at the highest levels. The findings from these experiments were important in potentially explaining the mindsets that can cause events such as the holocaust. Milgram states that what “people cannot be counted on is to realize that a seemingly benevolent authority is in fact malevolent, even when they are faced with overwhelming evidence which suggests that this authority is indeed malevolent. Hence, the underlying cause for the subjects’ striking conduct could well be conceptual, and not the alleged ‘capacity of man to abandon his humanity . . . as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.’”

The author of the paper suggests that even though the Omelas short story only provides the reader with two options, to continue to be complicit in the suffering of the child or to leave the Omelas society, there are other potential options such as choosing to stay and trying to create change somehow. But how realistic is this? When every authority figure is telling you to do something, psychology shows us that it is difficult to defy them. It is hard to understand what the choices presented in Hollow Knight are suggesting in terms of what a person in the Omelas utopia should have done, or what people should do in the real world more broadly.

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  1. I think that the fact that the choices are difficult to unravel is actually realistic to what real life is like. in real life, moral decision-making is difficult to process even as adults making choices. However, I wonder if games should/have to confine to the moral questions of human life? When we have fantastical world-bending elements, I think it’s also somewhat reasonable that our moral dilemmas don’t need to exactly align. Rather, these game situations can serve as a proxy for more complex moral dilemma questions to take place.

  2. I loved the reference to the Prison Experiment. The idea of authority is very interesting to me, and it makes me think about the role of authority in games (as an onboarding, as a game mechanic, as a narrative element). In this game, we aren’t really given a lot of info at the beginning why we follow the rules and choices that we do, and that authority (and the choice to break it) is discovered in the future. Is that not similar to real life? I think that this idea of complicity could have been further explored by the game developers, though, to drive home the Omelas dilemma in the game.

  3. Hi Rachel,
    I loved your parallel analysis of the experiments from the 1960s and how authority can play a role in decision-making. I agree with your opinion about there are more than two options and its not a linear choice to make. There are so many different factors that can play into a person’s psyche and authority’s power dynamic with the general person is definitely one of them! Unlike the short story, I like how Hollow Knight gives you some sort of agency with the ending as explained in the paper.

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