You are a bug, a bug that has decided—for one reason or another—to make your way over to a distant town. As you make the huge leap into a town called Dirtmouth, your journey into the unknown begins. There’s a sense of isolation mixed with a distinct feeling of having just missed something monumental that carries on throughout Hollow Knight, and despite unravelling parts of the story, it never quite feels like you have the entire picture by the end.
Hollow Knight is so expansive, it’s hard to believe it was constructed entirely by a team of three guys. Ari Gibson, William Pellen, and Jack Vine make up Team Cherry, the Australian-based game developers behind this game—one of the best of the past few years, if not the decade.
But why is it so successful, and why is it different from anything I have ever played? There are so many excellent things about this game, but in this case, I am going to focus on what makes Hollow Knight so special for me on a personal level, as well as what makes it so engaging to play: its worldbuilding.
Hollow Knight is all about a descent into the unknown, and that descent carries throughout the game; you just keep exploring, sinking deeper and deeper into this mysterious land beneath the surface. This world is teeming with hostile life, yet you are surrounded by environments that indicate this world was once a civilised society. So what happened?
Throughout the world, there are stone tablets you can read that, more often than not, are very cryptic and written in a very “churchy” language that is designed to be vague while sounding important. Take this tablet found in the Fungal Wastes for instance:
“This border bounds the twisting, scratching things.
Their dead sire, once of honoured caste.
Their sealed mother, but the common beast.
No peace with them we make.”
I have finished this game, spending well over 100 hours on it, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what this means. But this kind of mystic babble is scattered all over the world. Sometimes, it makes more sense as time goes on, but in this case it is entirely left to the imagination, keeping you on your toes. Although it may seem like you have uncovered the majority of Hallownest’s secrets by the end, you most certainly haven’t.
This mystique is part of Hollow Knight’s charm and why I am constantly drawn back into playing it; I honestly find it hard to get tired of it (apart from when I spend a good few hours on a particularly hard boss). The world is so big and densely packed with “stuff” that it doesn’t get old for me. So many questions get left unanswered, and it keeps you hooked.
The visual cues scattered around the world also add to this sense of the unknown or, rather, the sense that you are missing many pieces of this huge puzzle. There are countless tableaus of various dead beings that each tell their own story. For instance, when you defeat two of the Elder Baldurs, you venture into a side room and see the remains of so many of their kind piled up. Now this kind of scene is both harrowing but also extremely intriguing. Why are they all gathered in this one place? Was it a breeding ground for them? What killed them? Your imagination can run wild.
The same can be said for the many scenes of dead adventurers who carry the “Wanderer’s Journals,” which you frustratingly can’t read, but you are given little snippets of information from them when you sell them to a vendor. Yet again, this gives you the sense that you aren’t fully privy to the history of Hallownest.
Team Cherry go all-in with the Metroidvania elements of the game, constantly teasing areas of the map for the player that you can’t quite get to yet, enhancing the notion that this is a massive world and you aren’t aware of it in its entirety yet. For instance, I distinctly remember coming across The Hive. I could hear this buzzing and had no idea how to get to it; I spent so long trying to get there only to find out I couldn’t yet. But this idea that there was the potential to discover a beautiful beehive was so engaging for me, and I was desperate to find out more about what a beehive would look like in the world of Hollow Knight.
The visual cues aren’t just in the world; when you go to the map, there are so many times where you can see an obvious entrance to another section of the map, but you have no idea how to get to it yet. When you do get there, it is always so rewarding because each new section of Hallownest has a gorgeous visual language that always takes my breath away. From the lush, overgrown plant-life of Greenpath to the vibrant pink crystals of Crystal Peak, each area is distinct. This visual language runs deep and gives you the sense that each area has a rich history and identity while also guiding you through the map and leaving you wanting more by the end.
I have only scratched Hollow Knight’s surface with the elements discussed here. The world is absolutely teeming with content to explore and discover, and although I have poured hours and hours into this game, I am convinced I haven’t seen it all. In fact, in an interview with Game Maker’s Toolkit, Team Cherry stated that:
“Just having it there out of sight from most players makes the world more truly alive. Much of it exists to convey a sense that there’s always something else waiting in the unexplored recesses of the world – fearsome enemies, strange characters new areas, powerful items etc.”
(The World Design of Hollow Knight- Boss Keys, GMTK, 2019)
There is nothing I love more than a bit of mystery—they keep me hooked, and they always instill a sense of awe within me. This is why Hollow Knight works for me on such a personal level. It is one of the most well-crafted games I have ever played, and it will continue to suck me into the world of Hallownest for years to come.