Hollow Knight, Metroidvanias, and Storytelling

Before playing, I didn’t think that Hollow Knight was about a kingdom of different bugs and insects. The Knight just seemed like a cute little protagonist. 

And then I got hurt by running into the first bug. Well, at least I can fight against my fear of particular bugs (read: spiders) in this game. Or at least attempt to.

The exposition of the game set a mysterious mood that left me curious. The early inscriptions imply a prosperous kingdom in Hallownest, but the dark (and hard to see) tunnels below say otherwise. Being actively attacked by other bugs definitely cemented that. The music shaped this exposition further; the somber mood really made me pause a bit as I explored. Perhaps my experience with Undertale led to my hesitation to hurt other bugs, but the game set the stage for my main question: what happened here?

Mechanically, it was hard to get a hang of the controls and attack effectively. I happen to be bad at any sort of platformer game, so I often got hit needlessly as I fumbled with the keys. Being able to attack in all directions took a while to understand, but I could immediately see the use with enemies being able to attack you from above. This, to me, felt like a subtle reinforcement of the setting: despite what little you know about what has happened, the environment makes it clear that there are hostile encounters around most corners, and so you should watch for any danger from any direction. Even though I had only discovered a small fraction of the full map, the sheer amount of paths to remember along the way only made me more alert to danger. 

Personally, I love exploring all the lore from games, so I ended up watching and reading lots of Hollow Knight content after trying the game. As most video game lore is, Hollow Knight’s world is extremely complex. That complexity is hidden behind the expanse of the map, certain interactables, and certain characters you can talk to. Even then, you might not notice it as you concentrate on the combat mechanics. This brought up an interesting discussion point during class: how similar is this game to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and is Metroidvania a good platform to tell such a complex story?

For the former question, my group’s discussion generally agreed on the point that Hollow Knight was a unique story, certainly influenced by the short story but not necessarily a retelling of it. The child in the short story was known to the people of Omelas, but the kingdom of Hallownest is largely unaware of the Hollow Knight. There is some similarity with those who are aware of the Hollow Knight and feel guilty (such as the White Lady) and those villagers who walk away from Omelas, but the two stories can be treated separately. The reading for this week views Hollow Knight as a game that responds to the short story with the element of player choice, allowing players to decide for themselves whether or not to maintain the system in Hallownest, which is unlike a reader’s passive experience in reading the story. The inclusion of player choice is undoubtedly powerful, and if the player knew of the short story beforehand, they might walk away from it with a different, more empowered perspective after playing Hollow Knight

However, the genre of the game might not lend itself to having a clear and direct tie to the short story. To obtain all the details of the lore, players would have to go out of their way to explore every nook and cranny, follow up with certain characters, and piece together what they know along the way. Coupled with the expanse of the map and the (difficult) mechanics, the time spent would be significantly long, and not all players are willing to do that. Most players would have to rely on other dedicated players and lore junkies to discover all the bits, and then take the time to read up on them. Solely from the player experience in-game, many details can be missed. Thus, I personally came to the conclusion that the story of Hollow Knight is unique and can provide a narrative experiment in reader/player agency with the Omelas Dilemma, but it stands alone as its own experience. If it wanted to tell a more direct story, then perhaps a different genre might be better. Hollow Knight is still fantastic regardless, but it was interesting to think about the various strengths and weaknesses of game genres.

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  1. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the impact that the Metroidvania genre had on the way the Hollow Knight story was told. I wonder, what genre do you think would have been most effective if the goal is to try to retell the Omelas story but in a more interactive way? Is it a weakness that Hollow Knight was not a direct retelling of the Omelas story?

  2. I think adding to Rachel’s question, I think that there is some appeal of having a story that alludes to Omelas, but not overbearing the game with its themes. I always thought that Hollow Knight’s story was not the direct focus but rather a way to enrich and give a sense of direct to the game.

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