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Building Hallownest: What Makes a ‘Solid’ Game

31 Days of Horror

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There are two kinds of games: ‘solid’ and ‘liquid.’ In a liquid game, the elements don’t all mesh together, making it feel haphazard or unfinished — like Sonic Boom, where an unfinished overworld populated by NPCs who want nothing to do with you, as well as a consistent lack of direction, makes the experience feel thrown together. Liquid storytelling instruments make very unpleasant noises (like the trumpet, tuba-sounding, confetti-spitting weapon you can find in Sonic Boom for some reason). However, in a solid game, every aspect of the design comes together to create one cohesive storytelling instrument. For example, take Hollow Knight. Every character you meet and every upgrade you can purchase serves the journey into Hallownest and its history.

From the opening of Hollow Knight

The thing that makes Hollow Knight a solid game is cohesion: the unity of the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and narrative to its thesis. The most solid games are those in which everything ties back to a statement of meaning or intent (or sometimes several). These statements tell us what the game is about, why it exists, and what it hopes to accomplish within the player.

In Hollow Knight, there is nothing extraneous hanging off the edges of the experience; every character, mechanic, and line of dialogue serves a complete and specific, non-negotiable purpose. Its statement of meaning is one of uncovering forbidden unknowns, of mysteries, and using the mechanics of the game to reinforce the feeling of discovery, such as purchasing a pen to update your map as you progress.

Based on this, the singular thing into which all the elements must feed is the development and presentation of what is left of Hallownest — the ruins within which the mystery lies — and making it a place worthy of exploration. Several facets contribute to this:

The Art

Hallownest art
A save point in the depths of Hallownest

The art and music contribute much to the somber air that permeates Hallownest. Hollow Knight‘s visuals are simple and highly stylized, with cute, almost chibi-gothic, white bug faces contrasting with the purple darkness of the ruins. The world, characters, and enemies are hauntingly beautiful; the deeper you go, the more remnants you find of this ancient civilization in the form of arches, roads, and entire Stagway stations, all of which have a spidering, latticed metal look to them, painting for the player the skeleton of a once highly developed society.

This emptiness is matched by the music, which is (outside of boss battles) very soft. The score consists of gentle piano notes, the steady hum of violins, and the plucking of a harp. During mini-boss battles — like the fight with the large pill bugs — the music cuts out and is replaced by a fast, melody-less thumping, which heightens the tension without breaking the muffled atmosphere.

The simplicity of the style and music together give the impression that the ruins, when left undisturbed by bugs like you from above, are a very quiet place. There isn’t much here with cause to make noise. This sensation of ancient stillness is the crux of Hollow Knight‘s haunted atmosphere; the game is not about reacting to what is here, but what used to be here, and the quiet implies that absence.

And it’s more than just the music and style; everything you see plays a part in the greater narrative. Every fallen statue and ancient Stagway station (if you’re paying attention) hints at the thing that destroyed Hallownest.

The Writing

Hallownest writing
A conversation in the hub down of Dirtmouth

The characters you find in your explorations of Hallownest expand on this feeling in their dialogue. The first NPC you encounter is an old insect residing in Dirtmouth ( “The Fading Town” ) named Elderbug. He tells you he is “the only one left to offer welcome;” everyone else has gone down the well to explore the ruins beneath. None have returned.

He warns you to be wary if you follow, for “the air is sickly. Beasts go mad and travelers are robbed of their memories,” making the ruins sound cursed, even alive. Sly, the owner of one of the Dirtmouth shops, compounds this, describing the ruins as “hungry.”

The picture of Hallownest as something that devours is affirmed in NPC descriptions of its size. As the Knight explores the ruins and awakens parts of the town by rescuing lost adventurers, Elderbug reveals a little more about the ways things have always been. For instance, fast-travel is conducted through the Stagways — train station-like areas which, upon being discovered, allows the Knight to call a large transport beetle.

The first Stagway the player is likely to find leads back to Dirtmouth, which serves as a hub. After the Knight unlocks the door to the long-dormant station, Elderbug muses that he never thought he’d see such a thing; the Stagway was closed even before his time. He’s heard the “glorious tales…[a] web of tunnels, running all through the kingdom,” but this place has gone unknown, untouched, for generations.

The greatest narrative implications, however, are contained in the Hunter’s Journal — a compendium of the beasts of Hallownest obtained from “the Hunter.” The earlier it’s obtained, the bigger the mystery before the player grows, depending on how many dots one can connect from the notes to personal observations. Those paying attention might start forming disturbing questions about the ruins — what brought the civilization down, and more importantly, if they might still be here.

One of the first entries will be the charging bugs encountered soon after the first drop into Hallownest; maybe the eighth or ninth is Sly, a merchant from Dirtmouth. Upon finding Sly, he is in a daze, muttering to himself and surrounded by a noxious orange cloud. Talking to him shakes him out of it.

But what’s that got to do with the attacking bugs? Looking in the Hunter’s Journal, unlocks this entry about that initial charging bug:

“The remains of a bug, animated by a strange force. Wanders the ruins where it once lived.”

The charging bug is dead, and has been reanimated by some power in the ruins. Looking very closely reveals that its eyes are the same orange as the cloud around Sly. And the deeper the Knight goes into Hallownest, the more — and bigger — orange-afflicted creatures players will find. All of them are confused and dazed, like Sly, or extremely hostile, like the orange-eyed bugs.

From all of this, it can be reasonably assumed that whatever wrecked Hallownest is still here, actively infecting everything inside — the aspect of the ruins Sly described as “hungry” earlier. This mysterious way of writing perfectly incentivizes players to keep digging deeper into Hollow Knight, even as it makes them more afraid of what they’ll find.

The Tutorials

Hallownest tutorial

But Hollow Knight isn’t just a solid game; it’s the solid game, and the thing that cinches this is its tutorials. One of the hardest things to for a developer to do elegantly is to teach the player the mechanics of a game in ways that hint at the larger narrative.

Hollow Knight begins with an intro comprised of a fall, and a wall — or rather, a series of locked doors that are placed to show you how to use your weapon, the nail.

Three things happen here. First, the Knight falls a long way, which tells players that even before he gets to Dirtmouth — let alone Hallownest — this land is already a good distance underground. Second, there is no fall damage. And third, the road ahead is barred. In addition to forcing players to discover which button causes the Knight to slash with his nail (thus breaking the walls), there is some storytelling here as well with these walls. They imply that nobody has come this way in a while, and when they did last, they locked the door behind them.

The last door you break down is much bigger, and it takes something like twenty hits before it shatters — something monumental lies ahead, and this is crossing the threshold. From there, the Knight falls down even further into Dirtmouth, and it seems like there’s no way he’s ever getting back up.

As well as building an implied world through the things players interact with, tutorials in Hollow Knight are sometimes also accompanied by brief, cryptic texts invoking the “Higher Beings.” The first of these the Knight comes across involves the collection and use of Soul as energy for Healing. This tutorial is found by interacting with an object that might be a gem or a mirror, and the following words are inscribed on it: 

“Higher Beings, these words are for you alone. Your great strength marks you amongst us. Focus your soul and you shall achieve feats of which others can only dream.”

Below the text the game depicts an illustration of your new power, as well as simple instructions on how to use it.

This gives the player a specific and personal mystery that adds to the abandoned aesthetic of the world; now both Hallownest and the Knight are keepers of a secret (Hallownest of the ancient, animating power, the Knight of its identity). Who are the Higher Beings? Who left this marker here as a sign for them? What does this imply about the Knight, and why have they journeyed to the ruins in the first place?

This tutorial, and others, mark the player as special — “marked amongst us.” We are immediately connected to something Other, a thing of great power, by virtue of what we the character — and no one else — are allowed to accomplish.

Everything ties back to the mystery, to that which awaits players in the heart of Hallownest, and to intensify their desire to find it. Hollow Knight is about what happens when an entire world becomes liminal space; Hallownest is now a place between, a thing to be traversed, where once it was a destination. This is a game about exploring the skeleton of the “last and only civilization,” and appreciating what it might once have been — as well as what it has become since the fall. And the solidity of Hollow Knight rests on everything serving that journey and all the questions that inspire it.

Kyra Merchen is a student at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, currently studying art, theatre, and video game theory (yes, really). She’s really, really sad they never made a new Pokémon Rangers game for the Wii and will fight you for cheating on the Mystery Dungeon personality test.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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