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Saturday, Oct 1, 2022

Maneuvering the endless maze in “Hollow Knight”

Photo of ghost-type thing
Photo of ghost-type thing

Some of life’s most interesting pleasures are those that are acquired. It could be riding a bike for the second time as you feel your confidence growing with fewer wobbles. Or cooking a new dish again, with fish that emerges hearty brown rather than coal black. Or it could be finally hearing the first budding echoes of that song you are learning on the guitar. For me, the video game “Hollow Knight” is one of those acquired pleasures. 

The first time I played “Hollow Knight,” I was lost, frustrated and generally confused as to where to go and why. So I quit. The second time I played, I was lost, frustrated and generally confused, but I was having a blast.

“Hollow Knight” was developed by Team Cherry for Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One over the span of about a year and a half. It was  initially released on Feb. 24, 2017. The player takes on the role of a nameless bug referred to as the Knight. The Knight arrives at the humble town of Dirtmouth, where houses and stores stand neglected in the ashes of time and only the pensive Elderbug remains. The Knight goes down a hole into Hollownest and the journey begins. What steps they take next, what challenges they rise to, what mysterious depths they delve to explore and what fellow bugs they help along the way are all up to the player.

The progression of the Knight, and thereby the player, is what the game builds. When the player first enters the Forgotten Crossroads and makes their way through this desolate kingdom, they have so few abilities at their disposal with which to dismantle enemies and maneuver the world. The player does not even have a map to guide their path forward. They just have the two stubs they call their feet and the nail they carry on their back as a sword to fight off foes. 

On their journey, the player sees many paths that are impassable. A jump that is just ever so slightly too far to make. A path that is tantalizingly close, if it just was not for that pool of acid inconveniently in the way. A black, pulsating wall that pushes back any attempt to cross. All of these setbacks restrict the player to a single path. This restriction is what led me to quit the game the first time. But the second time, I managed to defeat the Mantis Lords and earned a power which allows the Knight to hold onto walls. With this newfound ability, the game opened itself up to entirely new routes, paths and fights.

The core of “Hollow Knight” is the repetition of exploring, fighting and growing. New obstacles offer players new and engaging ways to utilize their newfound skills. And in turn, those once insurmountable obstacles and fights can be overcome by the player with their newly awarded skills. Though the game has impeccable lore describing the history of the wyrm species and bug inhabitants in this now-plagued cavernous city, some of the best ambient music I have ever heard and genuine moments of anguish and levity, it was this core loop that kept me coming back, like a moth to a flame.

Sometimes, this strength became the game’s greatest weakness. Within the game, I would often find myself at the end of a hallway and think, “Why am I here? Did I miss something again?”  I would then pull up my map and see a room across the world that I had not discovered, only to discover that this path, too, was inaccessible.

Much like an acquired taste, the challenge of reaching new territory only increased my desire to discover what lay beyond my reach. The difficulty made the end result all the sweeter. When I eventually made it there, it felt like closing a window full of tabs after a long research paper or finally sitting down after a long run. It’s a feeling of relief that you knew was coming, that you had held in the back of your mind and that has finally arrived. This feeling came with each slight bit of progress, each small secret discovered or each bug squashed, and it only grew as I sunk deeper into this world.

The format of “Hollow Knight” is that of challenging difficulty, and one that the player may even need a break from occasionally. But because of the rewarding feeling it can provide through the exploration of the world and the growth of the Knight, it is well worth the wait.