Not so long ago, I invited a friend to meet at my workplace in order to discuss the group project we were working on. As we walked through the area and I was explaining the e-cafe and esports arena, my friend remarked that she’d never been there, and had never considered going. She was not, as I found out, into video games.
That stood out to me. Video games have always been a part of my memories. My dad is an original gamer, playing Dungeons and Dragons and Magic the Gathering way back in the 80s - he studied electrical engineering because computer engineering simply didn’t exist back then. I grew up watching dad play Supreme Commander and Lord of the Rings Online and ached to join. In primary school, everyone in my grade would run to the computer room during break times to play Poptropica, Moshi Monsters, Plants VS Zombies and more. When I got my first laptop, dad gave me (an illegal copy of) Unreal Tournament and we played together. During lockdown, the only reason I stayed sane was because I played video games and League of Legends with friends over voice call.
Video games are central to who I am. Trying to think of a life without games is like - it shatters my reality. These games not only explore other worlds, from the fantastical to the mundane, it also paints love and beauty into every scene. We were both film students, so I knew she loved the expression of humanity through art, but had she never experienced the stories in video games?
How can I explain the hours I spent, exploring a broken crossroad, tasting the dust on my tongue? How can I explain the moment I stood in a city that cries, surrounded by memories that clung to the rain soaked buildings, chasing a dream? How can I explain the way my heart jumped at the word challenge, the way I cheered when I was finally recognised?
Video games aren’t always about the story. In the beginning, narratives were merely explanations as to why you, the playable character, is doing what the game play requires of you. Donkey Kong is reportedly the first game to have a narrative, with a short scene showing the player’s girlfriend being captured by an ape at the beginning of the game. It doesn’t do more than set the scene with a gesture to the characters, but this is where it all began. Where video games became a medium for stories.
Welcome to the beginning of Pixel Stories. In this series, I will write about stories told through video games, exploring the many ways they are written and told. I will first begin with Hollow Knight, a 2017 game by Cherry Studios.
It is categorised as a metroidvania, a type of game that utilises a connected world map that players can explore on their own path. No one plays the game the same way, and are guided through power ups and abilities to unlock new areas.
The fights are hard. Death will come over and over. You will find yourself back at the save point, gnashing your teeth and sweating heavily, and yet return to the boss to try one more time. If you’re like me, and have little to no experience with games like this, it is excruciating, and so very rewarding.
The world of Hollow Knight, called Hallownest, is deep and wildly varying; each area has its own atmosphere, architecture, mood, music, taste and style. The Forgotten Crossroads are dusty like a sealed attic. The City of Tears is mournful, a pale imitation of its majestic heyday. The Abyss is startlingly, terrifyingly, still.
Access to new areas is rewarded through exploration. Either by picking up an ability or beating a boss, slowly Hallownest unravels to you.
And who are you? This strange creature that wears a horned mask, that wears a lifeless cloak, that is spoken to but never replies. Who are you? Why do you explore this place? Why do you walk these broken hallways, searching for something that is never given? It is never told to the player what your goal is. You fall from the ceiling and the game begins.
The story of Hollow Knight is never told. It is hinted at, through minimal dialogue with other characters, text attached to power ups and through the desolate architecture of Hallownest. There is a story that is begging to be told, but when I play, it feels like I am at the funeral of history.
The characters have passed away, the storytellers have forgotten the play, the murals and statues are broken. The world has moved on, and yet there is something about Hollow Nest that sobs, begging in a broken voice, please remember me.
This is what we know: the Pale King ruled Hallownest, freeing the bugs from the Infection. The corruption lingers at the edges, and the Pale King must act. He draws on the power of the void to neutralise the Infection, sealing it within the emotionless and thoughtless Hollow Knight, a being made of the Abyss, and sealing them into the Black Egg.
Somehow, the Infection still persists. The Kingdom falls. Many, many, many years later, the Knight returns to Hallownest with nothing but a broken nail to fend off foes. Why have you returned? When the kingdom has long collapsed, when everyone has died, why do you return?
If there is one thing that Hollow Knight absolutely rules at, it is selling an atmosphere. When first arriving, Hallownest is an exciting place to explore. The world is open to you; you are an explorer. You start in at the Crossroads, exploring where bugs used to travel. You grow used to the mechanics, fighting your first boss and grinning with exhilaration when you finally succeed. You continue on, finding Greenpath. It’s a vivid landscape at odds with the Forgotten Crossroads, teeming with greenery and hot air.
You’re getting better at fighting and exploring. You pick up a power up and talk to another being, Hornet. She’s intriguing, but you can’t really understand what she’s saying. It’s okay, that will come in time. For now, you have new areas to explore. The City of Tears is incredible.
You devour these areas with a burgeoning hunger. You know that every area is a treat, that brings something new. The music is beautiful, another great package, hand in hand with the art style. Every place is new and exciting, and you know your way around the map better than you do of your own suburb. You descend, going deeper underground.
That's when you’re immersed, when you’re so far into the game, when you live and breathe Hallownest, when you’re so used to seeing yourself as the Knight and all but become them, you encounter That Thing.
The Ancient Basin is quiet. The sound of crawling bugs is there to keep your ears preoccupied, and when you kill them, only silence. Still, you push on, exploring this old place. When you get to the end of a corridor, you step inside, recognising the room for a boss fight. The corpse on the other side rises.
The corpse is a mirror of you. Same horned mask, same grey cloak. Its cracked and broken, the amber glow of the Infection spilling from behind its mask. THE BROKEN VESSEL the game announces, and you ready your nail.
When you stagger free from that fight, when you finally put that thing down, you enter the Abyss, and realise that isn’t the last of it.
Because those shadows emerging from the black ink are you. Siblings, the game calls them. Even the death screen of Hollow Knight is a lore event.
Looking at my friend, who has never played video games, who just isn’t interested in it, how can I explain this dawning horror? This ache inside of me that is desperate for answers? For a story that barely has written word to it, for a story that is mostly fight scenes, of up down, dash, stab, down, stab, dash-dash, stab, this game is… beautiful.
Because through all the fighting, Hollow Knight is a story about siblings, and going through fight after fight, death after death, in order to save your crying sibling, putting their pain to rest. You don’t know why you’re there, except you have always meant to come back.
Hollow Knight excels at placing the reader/player in a cleverly crafted self insert, presenting the Knight as a character to project on to. Once the player is at home in their new skin, they discover the Knight, and by extension themself, isn't a mere stranger that has stumbled into Hallownest. It is through this set up that the story of Hollow Knight, while small, hits hard.
Thank you, Knight. I had a wonderful time.