RWP: Hollow Knight

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.

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  1. It is interesting that you and your group members felt like it was hard to piece the story together because of the non-linear format, but that you also felt that other games like Dear Esther and What Remains of Edith Finch incorporate non-linear storytelling more effectively. I wonder what it is about a game like What Remains of Edith Finch that makes the storytelling more effective? Is it maybe that there is less of a need to actually piece the stories together and that each small story can exist on its own?

  2. I think that by taking creative liberties, Hollow Knight has extended beyond the Omelas dilemma. In that way, it takes and translates a short story into a more interactive medium, and I think that this argument that there are parallels, but it does not convince you completely, is actually a good sign that the developers took the game beyond the original motifs! However, I wonder – like you – when we translate mediums from one to another, what affordances do we miss out on from the respective mediums.

  3. I loved your analysis of the non-linear progression of the story. I think it does provide some disadvantages, but there are also some benefits to it! I think exploring the vast world and piecing the holes in the story is an interesting “side-quest.” I do agree that it can be confusing and hard to navigate, but I feel like Team Cherry intended it to be like that as you play as a character that has lost their memory.

  4. I agree with your thoughts on the relationship between the game and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The inspiration was clear, but Hollow Knight stands alone in its unique rendition of the theme with its expansive world and lore. As for processing the lore of the game on its own, I do think it demands a lot more from the player in order for them to develop the larger picture. I also watched a few lore videos as well, and even then there are still some unexplained things. While one can’t always expect a game to tie up all loose ends, perhaps Hollow Knight was meant to leave players with bits and pieces. Just an interesting thought!

  5. Hi Jiwon! I’m definitely in agreement with you on how Hollow Knight’s narrative feels pretty detached from the sense-pleasure / mechanics portions of the game — do you think that if the narrative were spelled out more clearly that it would’ve contributed to feeling less lost? Personally I feel like the narrative is more of an optional thing that adds a bit of context and spice to the sense-pleasure aspects, but not a requirement of enjoyment, and I ended up not really thinking about it at all during my playthrough.

  6. Hi Jiwon, I enjoyed reading about your experience. I think our first impressions of the game is very similar. I thought the game was beautifully animated and there was so much satisfaction in moving the knight around. While the story itself was non-linear and all you really get are small fragments of dialogue from the NPCs, I thought that it added a level of mystery and incentive to the game. I wanted to learn more about the identity of the knight we were playing as and how the city turned out that way so I just kept grinding.

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