Upon loading Hollow Knight, I was engulfed right off the bat with a tidal wave of sense-pleasure. Everything felt so satisfying — the animation of swinging my sword and even just moving my character, the sounds of breaking objects that I thought were part of the background like the plants and shells, the overall mood and atmosphere of the world, and more. There was so much attention to detail that it was palpable, and I felt like I could enjoy just moving my character around and slashing at objects and the occasional weaker-looking enemy for hours with no stress from just the sense-pleasure (though I will say, my experience with Undertale and the discussions we had about it made me initially question whether I should or should not harm the seemingly hostile bugs, given that I was a bug myself — like is this okay for me to do??).
Aside from the sense-pleasure however, there were aspects of the game that made me think that perhaps I might not be the best suited as the target audience for this game. I admittedly did not get very far, which certainly may have contributed to some of my thoughts regarding the game, but I think I personally find non-linear progression difficult to navigate. For example, part of why I did not get very far into the game was because I ran into a difficult boss that I could not get past after having chose a certain path in the enormous map of Hallownest. I was not sure if it was difficult for me to get past because it was not a path I was supposed to go down yet given my current level of progression in the game, or if it was just because I lacked skill. In any case, once I got stuck there, the realm of other possible routes I could go down in Hallownest became a little too overwhelming. I can definitely see how the vastness of Hallownest might appeal to people who really enjoy the discovery type of fun, where the vastness seems more exciting than overwhelming, but for me, the decision paralysis I faced with the number of routes possible discouraged me from continuing to play. I found myself wishing that the direction of the game, as well as the difficulty-curve, was a little bit more guided and a little bit more linear so that it felt like I at least had a better sense of what I was doing/what I’m supposed to be doing. Again, I think a large part of this is due to the games I’ve played before, and the types of games I like.
But this experience made me wonder — how might this type of non-linear progression affect the efficacy of telling the narrative and lore of the game, especially for someone like me? Part of our small group discussion we had in class about Hollow Knight was about how we all shared the experience of finding it difficult to piece the story together from the vague bits and pieces of dialogue from the NPCs. We recognized that perhaps this was because we all similarly are not very well-suited for the embedded narrative genre, or because none of us had made it particularly far into the game — but at the same time, there are embedded narrative games that can do this more effectively than what we each saw in Hollow Knight, such as Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch. So maybe it’s just not done as well in Hollow Knight? Or is it because none of us had made it far enough in the game? To me, it felt more like a game where the fun derived from the narrative was secondary to the main type of classic Metroidvania fun.
Either way, after having read and watched videos about the lore and story of Hollow Knight after playing, I’m still not entirely sure I’m convinced of the idea that Hollow Knight is an intentional extension of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I think the game’s primary moral dilemma of there being a sacrificial “Hollow Knight” that must suffer for the sake of everyone else in Hallownest is certain very similar to the moral dilemma presented in the short story of Omelas. The actions you can take to face that moral dilemma do also serve as a way of engaging with the moral dilemma by giving you the agency to make whatever choice you want. So there are certainly parallels. But I think that’s really the only aspect that the game shares with the short story, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that the developers of the game very intentionally aimed to re-tell the story through this game based on those similarities alone. It might have taken some inspiration, but Hollow Knight is so much more expansive and so unique in its atmosphere, mood, and overall narrative that it almost seems insulting to the game to reduce it to being a mere extension or retelling or response to the short story.
Maybe I’m reading into it too much, and the similarities in the moral dilemma are all that the author of that paper wanted to point out, but those were some of my thoughts regarding the comparison. Overall, despite me facing some difficulty and decision paralysis, I did thoroughly enjoy the sense-pleasure aspect of the gameplay. I do think I would like to spend more time playing this game once I feel like I have more capacity to use my brain more.