Sunday, June 9, 2019

Hollow Knight and the joy of exploration | Dave Critiques #42

Hollow Knight is the best game I have played this year. I love it so much that after finishing my first playthrough with the bad ending and 76% world completion, I immediately started up another game and have been following a guide to see and experience everything I missed. So why do I love the game so much? That’s actually an easy answer, the exploration. There is so much to explore in Hollow Knight that even near the end of my playthrough I was opening up new areas. The scope is impressive, especially for a game made by such a small team. So why was the exploration so enjoyable? Well that’s what this video is here to answer. If you have any interest in playing Hollow Knight I advise you to go do so, and come back and watch this video once you’re finished. For everyone else, let’s continue.

In my notes I wrote that Hollow Knight is “A Metroidvania without signposts”. The more time I spend with that sentence, the sillier it seems. Most Metroidvania games do not have signposts, and Hollow Knight actually has quite a lot of them. What I think I meant was that a core feature of the genre is that from the opening areas of the game, there are sections that are inaccessible until the player gains the right upgrade. Whether it’s Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, or even games like Dark Souls, progression is fairly linear until a good portion of the way through. If that’s the case, why is there a joy of exploration in all these games despite their initial linearity? Well part of it is the tease of being able to access a new area later. When coming across an area we can’t get to, an idea has been planted in our mind that once we gain some new ability, we’ll be able to come back and see what’s hidden. We might get tired of all the teasing however, so from the start of the game we should be constantly finding secrets. Hollow Knight is full of hidden pathways with rewards at the end of them. Oh sure some are just geocaches or emblems that can be sold for more currency, but there are charms, grubs, mask and soul upgrades, new abilities, spells, bosses, and even new areas. That chime that sounds when a secret is uncovered is always a delight, and on more than one occasion following a breadcrumb of secrets and chimes led me somewhere I hadn’t been before, or opened up a new pathway to a place I had.

I think this enjoyment of secrets and their rewards play into the general aesthetic of the world as well. Hollownest is mysterious and hostile. Who is our character? Why have they come to this place? Just what happened to turn all these bugs into mindless killing machines, and can we do anything about it? We’re not wanted here. The inhabitants will kill us at a moment’s notice, and that combined with the treasure creates a sense of adventure. It’s like we’re raiding tombs. We’re excavating the secrets of this place, and where that doesn’t result in a tangible benefit, it at least can result in a sense of understanding.

I do wonder how much of Hollownest is required to visit for completion, and how much is optional. Until the City of Tears I think the path is fairly linear. Most players will beat the False Knight in the Forgotten Crossroads, walk into Greenpath, fight Hornet, and then take the path from Fog Canyon to the Queen’s Station. They’ll go into the Mantis village in the Fungal Wastes, gaining the wall jump ability before entering the City of Tears. After defeating Soul Master Crystal Peak is accessible, but if you saved up enough geo and bought the lantern, you could beat the Mantis Lords and go into Deepnest. You could even unlock the Royal Waterways and find yourself in the Ancient Basin. I think that the game wants you to go to Crystal Peak or Deepnest. Both lead to the Resting Grounds where the Dream Nail is acquired. From there it’s as simple as finding the dreamers in locations you’ve already visited, and defeating the Hollow Knight for the bad ending.

Now if you want the good ending, you do need to visit more of the world. You need to go to Kingdom’s Edge and fight Hornet again for the King’s Brand before heading into The Abyss for the Shade Cloak. You need to visit the Queen’s Gardens and defeat the Traitor Lord to meet the White Lady for part of the Kingsoul, not to mention travelling around the world to upgrade the Dream Nail to access the White Palace. I had thought that this meant that the only truly optional areas were the Howling Cliffs and the Royal Waterways, but to get the upgraded Dream Nail you most likely have to fight Gorb, and Isma’s tear certainly makes exploration easier.

Is the magic trick Hollow Knight performs simply the sheer amount of exploration and secrets on offer? I imagine that even a dedicated player without the use of a guide would be finding new parts of the world on subsequent playthroughs. How much of the joy of exploration is due to the benches? The more you explore, the further away you travel from a safe space, and the greater the tension. You might stumble upon a boss, die, and have to trek back, fighting your shade before seeing if you can take revenge. It could be the cartography. How the new additions to the map aren’t recorded until you make your way back to a bench. The further I played, the more joy I had in filling out every section of the map. Like I was mastering my understanding of the game space, even if I wasn’t a master of the platforming and combat required to traverse it.

Which is funny to say because the combat and platforming are such a prominent part of the game. I’d say the combat may even be the focus. It’s a simple, yet elegant system. The nail is short and can be slashed in front, above, or below while in air. Unlike other games, this downslash needs to be timed. The short nail is what made the timing so frustrating for me, and the downstrike was one aspect of the combat I never felt comfortable in my ability to execute. 

That feeling of not being able to grasp the downstrike echoed my general mood regarding the platforming. I never became comfortable with the wall jump. I’m used to a feather touch with wall jumping. Brush up against a wall and repel off. In Hollow Knight, you need to grip the wall. More time is needed before the jump can be executed. Throughout the whole game I never felt comfortable with movement and combat. I became more adept at using these systems as I played, but I never felt at ease controlling the Knight. Despite this, I do want to compliment the game that despite my frustrations with what I feel are two thirds of its core experience (the platforming and the combat), I enjoyed the exploration and atmosphere so much that I am playing through it again, and have been singing its praises to anyone who will listen.

When No More Heroes was released, one of the criticisms of the game was that its open world was empty and didn’t hold much for the player to do. I can no longer find a source, but I remember reading that Goichi Suda implemented this on purpose. He was making a point on how he found the open worlds in games like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas boring. I remember that being the first time understanding that a part of a game could be made frustrating or tedious to communicate an idea to the player. Since then I’ve come across other examples, most notably in the games of Fumito Ueda. Ico is a small boy, so his combat is nothing more than flailing about with a wooden stick, and Argo and Trico from Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian are animals who don’t always listen to the player’s instructions. They have their own autonomy.

I’ve always found this idea troubling because it can be used to excuse bad game design. Even if a designer says they put something players dislike in their game for a specific purpose, the execution of what they were trying to accomplish may not have been successful. What this means is that a lot of what we see as “good” or “bad” design can come down to a player’s interpretation, and the reasoning behind it (as it can with any decision made creating a work of art). I bring this idea up because the frustrations I had with the Knight’s controls could be for such a reason. The knight is a nobody. A failed experiment. One of tens of thousands. It could be said that the only reason the Knight accomplishes anything of renown is due to the help of the player, although he did pull himself out of the Abyss and leave Hollownest before we have a chance to control him. Who the Knight is creates a reason why I might find the platforming a little slipperier than I would like or the combat overwhelming and without a sense of power. It could also be why the game revolves around soul and healing. Like the Knight, you as the player are far from perfect. You’re both going to make lots of mistakes, but the game has given you a way to be able to keep going when that happens. Hallownest may be the home of the Knight, but it is unknown to the player, and as I found the exploration of Hollow Knight the most compelling aspect of the game, getting to uncover every nook and cranny of Hallownest felt like the Knight and the player coming to understand the world, and maybe even themselves, a little better.

Thanks for watching. One fear I had about starting the game again is that as I’m now familiar with the world, the exploration might no longer be as enjoyable and I’d be left with the elements that frustrated me in my first playthrough. I’m happy to report that is not the case. Part of the reason why is that I missed so many areas, hidden paths, and even bosses on my first playthrough. Through my research for this video, I have become more confident with my charm choices, and the use of spells, so the combat has become less frustrating. I’ve increased my skill with the down slash and with the platforming, but I am dreading having to put these skills to the test in the White Palace. This second playthrough is making me love the game even more.

So now I’d love to hear from you down in the comments. What is your experience with Hollow Knight? Was the exploration the main draw for you as well, or was it the combat and the platforming? If so, what about the platforming and combat do you enjoy so much? If you enjoyed the video, why not buy me a coffee? There’s a link in the description. If you’d like to help the channel in other ways, please like the video, share it on your favourite social media sites, and subscribe if you haven’t already. Until next time, I hope you’re all having, a wonderful day.


  1. hey - i found this post via Critical Distance! answering your call for responses - I made a 5 minute podcast about the music over here - hope you find it interesting!

    1. Hey hey. Sorry for taking so long to respond. I only saw the comment today. I tried leaving a comment on your soundcloud but after a couple tries I gave up. I enjoyed what you had to say. Keep up the good work!