The hopeful wreckage of Hollow Knight - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The hopeful wreckage of Hollow Knight

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These are dark days in the kingdom. A mad king, anxious to capture lightning in a bottle, has brought devastation on us all. A few plucky survivors eke out an existence, huddled atop the corpse of an empire, looking not forward for livelihood, but down, into the dank cadaver depths. Adventurers, fools, and mad men seek their fortune plunging into these spoiling innards, risking life and limb for a chance at life on the tenuous limb of civilization.

No, this is not yet another article on the ramifications of the Donald Trump Presidency; the game I’m describing is Hollow Knight, developed and published by Team Cherry. The premise bringing us together today is “millennials in the wreckage,” considering how games are reacting to the cultural and generational sea changes that are occurring today, and how the millennial attitude is shaping stories and the way they are told. In what ways is a distinctly millennial aesthetic taking shape in games?

In my opinion, Hollow Knight is a game about the excess of capitalism and the fallout of the aftermath. The Souls-esque malaise of a fallen kingdom destroyed by the rapaciousness of the powerful, the penury and struggle of the NPCs living on the edge, not insane or nearing insanity, but often exhausted by the struggle, or finding new life in what the world now is. Like millennials, these NPCs (even the regular baddies) just seem to be struggling to make their way in the world, often beset with resentment or frustration. What do you think, Drew?

Considering we're still dealing with horrible treatment of unpaid interns and people trying to scrape some "exposure" together on Twitter via a few hundred thousand retweets - I'd say we're at a prime crossroads for critique of capitalism via video gaming. But we're talking about Hollow Knight, and while I can see what you're going for in the details of the game, I'm not sure the overall effect suits it. The greatest strength of Hollow Knight's narrative is in the weathered hope of both the protagonist and the denizens of Dirtmouth, signaled both in art style and dialogue.

Hollow Knight boasts a lovely hand-drawn style that recalls the dark period of American animation, specifically Don Bluth. By dark, I'm not talking about quality or lack of financial success. Rather the darkness came from evolving the early Disney and Warner Brothers style to something aimed more at adults or children with a fatalistic edge. The blank hopeful expression of the little beetle knight you control is a great extension of this. Its smooth white head, save for the two little points, instantly evokes a skull, but the pureness of the white and wide-eyed expression are of a hopeful child. If there's anything distinctly millennial about Hollow Knight, I'd say it's in this combination of wide-eyed youth constantly carrying reminders of death wrapped in the body of an insect being squished.

The dialogue hosts similarly death-riddled hope. There's frequent discussion of dreamers the player needs to wake up, though the void that seems to await the dreamers is of little comfort. The most heartbreaking and inspiring is a relic of the older generation, a tunnel bug who hopes it can find its comrades, only for the player to stumble on a hub with corpses and long-empty shells. I love that this moment is despairing but not treated as the end, as empty shells just mean the younger generation moved on. Sometimes it's amusing, like the older beetle knight who gets caught up in various predicaments and insists it'll be able to get itself out of its problems. That may play into another millennial fear, constantly bailing out the older generation too high on their success to see the problems they're creating for the next.

What I'm wondering is if this is really distinct to millennials or not, and how your idea about Hollow Knight being about the excess of capitalism fits in.

I hadn't considered your read of Hollow Knight's visual design, but I see what you mean in hindsight. It's a skull, but almost like a sugar skull; there's something sweet to the macabre. My read of it was stoic, almost relentless. I saw the gaze of a corpse with its eyes wide open. That and, when striking some enemies with the Dream Nail, you get some interesting tidbits.

Soldiers prowl the streets, thinking "Must...Protect...The city..." Rich plague-infected bugs try impotently to beat the protagonist to death thinking "You smell of the poor," and things like that. What I got was that the game is a story of being trapped; Dirtmouth is trapped by a history that was written before it existed, the enemy NPCs are trapped by their identity being subsumed by their roles in the society, and the ruin itself occurs from the top-down. It's the fault of the greedy wanting more, not the fault of the guard who protects his/her city even in living death. Even the protagonist and the others like you that you take down as bosses are slaves to a purpose forced on them, although I think that's an arguable point.

What makes the game most millennial, to me, is the combination of Metroidvania design and that sense of hope. Like, flowers can even grow in a graveyard is the feeling it gave me. And given the Super Metroid style of play (down to having a Shinespark sequence to navigate through spikes and all), it definitely calls back to the childhood of millennials.

So what I'm seeing is a game that's referencing a childhood classic in Super Metroid, with a message that cautions against the powers-that-be in the king and enemies like the Soul Master. The suffering cogs in the machinery that allows the city to thrive. In a sense, I'm seeing it as a story about exchange, which brought me to capitalism; the people who lived in the city and served the king, up to the Soul Master. The king who reached for more than he could have and in his excess toppled the kingdom. And the survivors who are still chained to the place because...well, how else will they make a living?

The whole game, despite being about a dead kingdom and a dying village near a graveyard, is all about making a living. Making a living after the fall of a kingdom. Making a living when your husband is a jerk who runs off to explore dead caverns where he could be slain. Making a living when your only job, to be a taxi, disappears. It all feels like the struggle of economy to me. Then the protagonist, with its wide, staring eyes, both cutesy and corpse-like, shows up to do something about it. And from what I can tell, in the true ending, it ends up being about helping its kind avoid the same bondage it's in. It feels so much about roles and place and economy. The answer to "What comes after the fall?" seems to be a lot of economy.  Even after the apocalypse, your boss still demands you come in to work.

You bring up some good points there, especially in the flipside of the dialogue where so many are obsessed with material accumulation that follows them into death. It gives characters like the relic collector a fatalistic greed. The kingdom has fallen, and the Geo currency is useless to the relic collector, so that begs the question of just who is the history of the kingdom being chronicled for. Considering the way things have gone in our side the screen, maybe the relic collector is planning on opening a private college or museum collection that just so happens to have a 50 Geo admission fee for whoever comes to settle in the remains.

The remixed gameplay of past action platformers brings up something that bothers me on how these types of games are labeled. You used the term Metroidvania, which is so common at this point that most gamers understand what you're talking about with the term. But is it accurate? Metroid was all about being alone in a hostile environment securing incremental upgrades to turn your enemies into tools, while Castlevania (at least until its recent pathetic years) embraced B-movie cheese and tight level design while giving you ways to dispatch your enemies in increasingly flashy ways.

Hollow Knight and its spiritual counterpart Momodora, which I'm also playing and thoroughly enjoying, feel more interested in exploring our present moment than rehashing the past. Mechanically, sure, that means we've got a bunch of hacking, slashing, and power-ups to acquire before we're able to move forward à la Castlevania. But Hollow Knight has a great way of turning those power-ups back against the player. I think here of the badge skill that nixes the pushback the beetle knight experiences when it hits an enemy. By the time I received that, I had gotten so used to the pushback in my dance with the enemies that I constantly overcorrected my movements and went headfirst into them more often than not. Even the charge moves, previously the source of screen-clearing magic attacks or firm lines of destruction, had dubious use. The whirlwind attack didn't afford me much control, the dash attack had great range but was awkward to pull off, and the time it took to charge for a standing strike was better spent getting my distance and plotting a few strikes instead of planting myself for one.

Almost every gift comes with a drawback. Get a shield for when you heal yourself up? Okay, you may end up relying on healing more and get soft on dodging things. Speed up your dodge recharge? Super! But unless you're cautious with your movements you'll end up flying into spikes, pits, or gigantic baddies. The underlying message seems to be, "Here are some powerups, boy aren't you happy you've got these? Well they may kill you, so be careful how you use them." I think that fits well with your idea, and am curious about your response there before we move on to how damn much the dreamer "fights" freaked me out.

That's a great point on the Metroidvania tag. We aren't making tools of our enemies (not even really mining past minds for their insight into the future like Super Metroid) nor are we having fun with schlocky tropes like Castlevania. In that sense, to me, it's more RPG than a lot of other games in the same vein, because our protagonist grows on meetings. The power curve seems designed based on a kind of synthesis that works itself out in play. I fought the Dung Defender (who I loved), and got a medal that let me stink like him. Then I earn a badge that lets my healing charge release spores. Combine them and I become a living stink bomb! Looking at the play from a metaphorical position, it feels like this is growth of the protagonist from vessel to...person? Bug? Whatever it is, there's certainly a sense of growth through experiences.

I didn't consider what you're saying about the power ups, but now you've got me recalling a specific experience. Right after beating the Soul Master, I wandered around and ran across the Flukemarm and tried to use that dive attack that you get from the Soul Master. I was immediately destroyed; and that's when I learned that lesson you're talking about.

There's almost no universal gain in Hollow Knight. It seems to be a lot more about personalization instead of power. Hell the main beneficial powers you gain through the game are about exploration and not combat. It feels like the game cares a lot more about you seeing new areas than killing what's in there. That was a shock for me, because I love killing new baddies.

What freaked you out with the dreamers? For me, it was that they didn't fight back. I expected a huge battle of epic proportions. Instead, they just took what I had and keeled over.

Quite a few reviewers I respect talk about how the first time Dark Souls, which you name-dropped earlier, clicked for them was in those moments where you felt heavy and far from safety. That feeling's never occurred to me. The most I've felt from any Souls experience was relief or rage, with a gentle nod to Scholar of the First Sin for getting me into a melancholic groove. But the journey to Beast's Den, where I tackled the first dreamer, had me on edge from my first steps in to the moment I murdered something in its sleep.

The trip made me feel useless. The heavily wooded collapsed like rot to drop me into more darkness and death. I became pathetically grateful for the few enemies I could comfortably tackle so that I could get one measly sliver of health back. The constant shifting of noises in the background and rustling of the leaves put me so firmly on-edge that I started having a mini panic attack when I was down to my last drop of health and dashing my way to hopeful safety. I was far away from the quietly reassuring piano of Greenpath, and the slightest twitch of anything made me fear for my life.

You'd think that sense of uselessness would have abated when I reached the end. It didn't. I found out that the dreamers, who are built up to be on par with Metroid's Ridley or Castlevania's Death, are so completely oblivious to my existence that just about anything or anyone else could have done what I did. My existence mattered so little that I couldn't even have the cathartic joy of a boss fight. All that was left for me was panic and murder.

It threw the sense of relief I got chatting with other characters into question. What does it matter if I save this one bug when all I'm doing is perpetuating a parasitic cycle by murdering those who came before me? Would the blind groupie bug still revere me if it knew what I was doing in the depths of the kingdom? I was so shaken by the totality of my uselessness that I had to finish Hollow Knight to see if my actions would mean anything. In the case of my first play-through - I don't think they did.

That super interesting to me, as the dreamer sequence made me feel like maybe they're collaborating with me or contrite. Like the one that Quirrell, I think, sets free. He says that she agreed or believed that the protagonist could pull it off. So I started to think "Maybe they don't fight back because they feel complicit? Or just want it to end?" I hadn't considered that I might just be beneath their notice because of that first dream sequence that nets us the Dream Nail. I thought they wanted to die/wake and wanted it to end. They wound up feeling like accomplices. That didn't make it feel any less ugly, because it still felt like a murder and not a battle, but it helped.

For me, that's the linchpin to the game, thematically: collaboration, or maybe more positively, a community of exchange. I need Cornifer to keep mapping places out, even at the plain cost of his marriage. I need the stag beetle to cart me around. Hell, I even need that creep collecting artifacts to pay me. There's an economy in play at all times, whether it's the infant of one in Dirtmouth or the ghost of one in the City of Tears. Even that grandfather grub was paying me to save his kin. Everyone was getting something, but the original trouble that created the setting was caused by someone trying to get something without equitable payment. It just feels so mercantile.

The dreamers, however, seem to have nothing to gain. They are beyond us, but still go along with what we want. Which made me ask what the hell did they want, and Quirrell suggests it's the same thing that we're after. They'd give their lives as payment for services rendered. And like you said, in the aftermath, I'm not sure it was a worthy trade. Of course, there's more than one ending, so maybe the lesser endings (as opposed to the true ending) are about not rendering equitable service to their payment? Either way, it feels to me like a quintessential millennial struggle; shouldering the debts of our forebears while trying to figure out how to make our own way in a world that doesn't seem to give a shit what our joy is (unless we are Cornifer, who finds life in the danger of his cartography).

I think this wave of retro games supports the idea of a millennial searching, because so many of them begin after the ruin of things. Momodora, Hyperlight Drifter, and on. Hollow Knight is one of a series of games where developers and writers are considering where we, as a generation, can go, by using design callbacks to classic titles. I feel like Hollow Knight is considering community, economy, and - in spite of its despair - hopeful about what will be, and honestly, that gives me hope, too.

Feels a bit weird that we've arrived at this point where you're the optimist and I'm the pessimist.  It may be that Hallownest reminds me of a once-bustling town with cracking streets and dried up fields.  There's something lonely about each step with the few friends left who seem convinced of their righteousness in staying.  Though I suppose this means your read of Hollow Knight as a land of post-capital wreckage is on-point.  After all, we need only look at the shells capitalism has left cities in after resources are gone.

I wish I had a reason to trust the bugs telling me that death is what the dreamers want and their dialogue hints at the contradiction of their existence.  They speak of the seal that needs to be broken but also tell the little shadow to fade away and let them sleep in peace.  Considering the barrel rolls my anxiety was taking me on during the trip to Herrah the Beast, I have to trust my gut, and question why I'm even here in the first place.  The next generation of stag beetles had it right - time to forge our own path instead of devoting our time to the footsteps of those who came before.

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Posted by Andrew

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