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Building Hallownest: What Makes a ‘Solid’ Game

31 Days of Horror



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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