This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that's likely to be on our list of "games we should get around to playing", and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. Read part one of our Hollow Knight playthrough here!
This is the finale of our Hollow Knight playthrough, and Kate is really enjoying the peace and quiet (when she's not fighting tough bug-bosses)...
I have never particularly enjoyed platformers, but I can appreciate the art of a good jump.
Much like a really good burger, the perfect jump is about the art of simplicity: The height, the pitch, the velocity and a little technique known as "coyote time", which gives players a little bit of leeway on what counts as the edge of a ledge, are all the lettuce, tomato, and onion of your video game burger. When people start messing with that formula, their burgers may look good, but they always end up being too wet, too big, or too overwhelming.
But a jump is almost always just a jump: It's a discrete unit, in which one button press = one jump. There are wall jumps, there are double and triple jumps, but the single, one-button jump (without external factors like the player's forward momentum, or the presence of obstacles) is usually the same height, same pitch, same velocity. Developers need a solid base to build everything else on, like the positioning of platforms; players need to know that the world can change, but their abilities are always reliable.
Hollow Knight's jump is not that. Instead of being a discrete unit, a "Press A To Jump", the game gives you a "Hold A To Jump Higher" jump. Suddenly, you are put in charge of your own positioning, and at first — especially as a disliker of platformers — I hated it. It felt too floaty, too imprecise, too unpredictable.
But much like any game, once you've given it some time, it becomes second nature. I don't even notice myself making minute adjustments to my jumps, because it's just muscle memory. I can't imagine how much confidence it must take for a developer to go against the grain on a decision as fundamental as a jump, and while Hollow Knight certainly isn't the first-ever game to do it, it's far and away the most pronounced usage of the mechanic.
The floaty jump is just the first of many things that Hollow Knight does differently. But it's not my favourite thing. My favourite thing is that Hollow Knight loves silence.
If you watch just about any audio designer showreel these days, or watch a single Marvel movie, you'll know that a soundscape is massively important to the atmosphere of any piece of media. Ambient noise, much like audio design in general, is something most people only notice if it's done poorly. Take a
look listen to the various ambient sounds in Minecraft, most of which are layered on top of one another to create an overall soundscape:
It's not that Hollow Knight doesn't have ambient sounds. It has plenty, in fact. But they come together to weave a soundscape that's about emptiness — hollowness, if you will — and it's another bold, brave choice that paid off.
Every area has a fair amount of echo, making it always sound as if you are in a cave. There is sometimes rain, sometimes wind, and almost always some haunting piano music, bassy thrum, or ethereal choral drone in the background. Every noise that belongs to a being, either friendly or threatening, is made much more purposeful when everything else is quiet. Much like a bug, your ears become more sensitive to new and unexpected sounds — like the tiny, pleading squeak of a Grub in trouble, or the menacing scree of one of those bastard aspids.
This cavernous, empty feeling is compounded by the backgrounds — even though the game is always 2D, each area has a tremendous amount of depth, achieved with a combination of lighter colours, blur, parallaxing, and foreground elements in silhouette. You always feel as though you're in some colossal network of caves and underground arenas.
And that silence is present in Hollow Knight's traversable areas, too — not just its sounds and its backgrounds. So much of the game is empty space, filled with a solitude that can either be beautiful or ominous, or sometimes both. Even the save spots tie into Hollow Knight's themes of respite and pensive moments — instead of being statues, books, or glowing spots that allow you to save the game and recover health, they are benches, giving your lil bug a chance to take a moment to breathe.
Most games give you a sense of purpose and belonging, but Hollow Knight seems to take place in a civilisation that has already met its ruin. Corpses litter the ground. Ornate gravestones lay knocked over. An ancient battlefield looks like snow-covered hills, until you start to see that the hills have helmets and spears. This is a desolate land, and you are but one bug.
Obviously, that's the point. You have turned up after a bunch of things happened (although I'm not at the end yet, so don't spoil it! I don't know what all of those things are!) and you are alone. You are tiny. You are unaccompanied. You are mute. You have no help, and as some
people bugs seem to believe, no hope either. That's what makes it so exciting: The silence, the emptiness, is unnatural. And what do we do when things aren't right in video games? We fix 'em. Mostly by hitting things with other things until they explode.
I'm not a game designer, but if I were (and possibly the reason I'm not), I would be way too scared to make half of the decisions that Team Cherry made on Hollow Knight. Why not just stick with things the way they've always been — a world full of stuff, full of noises, full of sidequests and a jump that was perfected back in 1985? Why reinvent the wheel?
Because the wheel isn't always interesting. The wheel is something we take for granted. Some of, if not most of, the best games of our generation are the ones that aren't afraid to rip up the rulebook. The ones that don't feel bound by genre or convention. Hollow Knight is, in many ways, a very typical metroidvania — but the things that Team Cherry chose to iterate on have changed the game for future developers.
And if there's a message to take from this? Maybe we should all be as brave as Team Cherry. You have the option of sticking to the path and proving that you're just as good as other people — or forging your own path, and being the best in the world at doing something different.
Did you finish Hollow Knight this month? Let us know in the comments!