I’ve been having some pretty brutal struggles with insomnia these past few months. It’s a double-edged knife, really: the hours of being too tired to do anything yet still unable to sleep has helped to reawaken a love of jazz music, but they also make stuff like blogging seem less toothsome.
I’ve been re-reading Moby-Dick for the first time since my undergrad years. It’s such a strange, wooly novel, given its stature in American letters. Everyone knows about the central plot of Captain Ahab’s mad quest for revenge against the white whale, but no one seems to remember how all the stuff relevant to that amounts to only a fraction of the tome. Herman Melville deliberately frustrates his central narrative by burying it under encyclopedic descriptions of whaling lore, stories-within-stories, soliloquy and other odd tangents. Even the novel itself seems to be reluctant to start, what with the endless (and often humorous) epigrams placed before the first chapter. It’s a literary exercise in mystification, chafing at the limitations of its medium all the way through.
Wait, I was supposed to be talking about Hollow Knight, the 2017 indie metroidvania that everyone’s been chatting about, and whose grotesque, goth insectoid aesthetic uniquely resonates with my own twitchiness.
Until quite recently, I would have said that the metroidvania subgenre (by which I mean a platformer with an organically designed world that you must explore using gradually unlocked abilties and equipment ) is an evolutionary dead-end, that Metroid didn’t create a new grammar upon which future games could build so much as it made a novel use of the existing 2D grammars; that it’s thus very hard to make a game that is like Metroid without thus having level and character design that cribs excessively from Metroid.
Although I still kinda think there’s some truth to that, I’ve tempered my thoughts a bit to admit that Super Metroid did not exhaust the possibilities of the subgenre, and that there’s more out there for some adventurous games to uncover. In the case of Hollow Knight, it succeeds paradoxically by copying what Metroid did in the first place: tying together disparate genre strands in a unique fashion; there’s nothing truly original about any one particular facet of Hollow Knight, nor does it bank heavily on any particular gimmick (“it’s Super Metroid…with a twist!”), but those individual facets have never been assembled in such a way, nor in a manner which brings such a sense of grandeur and epicness to the metroidvania.
There’s a certain aesthetic sleight-of-hand involved in the very idea of the metroidvania. Platformers by their nature present the most abstract and video-gamey of environments, with its floating floors, bottomless pits and whatnot. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that its codifier, Mario, has always embraced an aesthetic of cartoonish surrealism. To try and shape the platformer into something that feels like a coherent world involves a lot more subtlety than other genres. There’s a specific sort of surface ambiance required that neither boils down to the level or art design, but which somehow gives the affair the necessary dream-logic required for you to buy into it.
Anyhow, Hollow Knight begins with you, an unnamed, beetle-esque creature arriving at the edges of the fallen insect kingdom of Hallownest and…well, that’s that. You’re not provided with any introductory exposition or reason for poking around aside from your own curiosity. Which is one of the game’s big strengths: it shuts the hell up and lets the gameplay and environment do the talking most of the time, with even the actual dialogue with NPCs typically being more evocative than informative.
And when you’re in the tunnels of Hallownest, one thing that quickly becomes clear is the massive scope of the game: this is a huge, labyrinthe world designed for you to get lost in, and where there can be hours between real points of interest. This is abetted by the unorthodox mapping system, which took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out, and which is designed to often keep you in the dark, cartographically speaking. All this would be a tad excessive (and the game can indeed be criticized for some copy/paste level design if you’re so inclined) were it not essential to the game’s aesthetic, which is exactly just one of exploration on an epic scope. You’re supposed to get lost.
And there’s something rather thrilling about spending an hour or so poking around some same-y corridors only to stumble upon something completely unexpected. A few hours into my first time with the game, I felt as though I had essentially seen what the game had to offer, only to arrive at something which seemed to tell me that the “real” game was only just beginning.
This is where Hollow Knight’s own brand of metroidvania dream logic shines: that feeling of being deep (perhaps out of your depth) within some ancient, cthonic structure that extends out in all directions. It’s the kind of mood that very few metroidvanias succeed in articulating on their own terms.
Which indicates how Hollow Knight understands a crucial bit of charm, not just to Super Metroid, but to a lot of classic video games in general: the idea of the video game as a sort of mysterious black box, filled with secrets to uncover. It’s entirely possible to cross the finish line without ever seeing entire massive chunks of Hollow Knight’s world, or even being aware that they exist at all. Some aspects of Hollow Knight are almost a little too elaborately buried, actually.
The net effect of this is a little bit similar to the original Legend of Zelda, of all things: there is a critical path that the game wants you to discover, but only via exploration and trial and error. It’s a completely different approach from Super Metroid, which keeps you on a critical path that only loosens up at certain points.
You have a sword (or “nail”, as they call it), and wind up in frequent close combat with an impressive array of different grotesque foes, and an absolutely stupid amount of bosses. It all has a fast, fluid, Mega Man X sort of feel (particularly the X games that let you play as the laser sword-wielding Zero) while adding another wrinkle: striking enemies increases a resource called “Soul” which can be used to heal. But healing requires you to hold still for a time. So there are a lot of interesting strategic choices to be made in terms of whether you can or should heal, and how aggressive you should be. There’s a stupid amount of bosses too, which is something of a joy for me as a boss connoisseur. Half the fun of the game is just mastering the combat.
Hollow Knight is beautiful to look at, in spite of featuring a rather drab colour scheme. It comes down to how the game is animated, which is specifically done to look like a traditional, 2D animated movie, and which is probably the most successful attempt I’ve seen in a game. Not so much in terms of texture, but rather in emulating the sort of parallax effect that a multiplane camera would create. The character designs suggest an older, 1920s-30s look without being an overtly nostalgic throwback. I loved how none of them could properly be described as conventionally cute or pretty.
Tonally things swing on a pendulum between more cartoony fair and stuff that encroaches upon horror. To my mind, it works. Although, I was a kid who was raised on Don Bluth movies, so the link here may be more plausible for me than for others. It’s a sort of “Dark Souls meets The Secret of NIMH with bugs” thing, and I love it.
But this does lead me to consider what is perhaps the critical flaw of Hollow Knight. While it’s clear that the developers have internalized a lot of Dark Souls’ lessons on evocative world building, its influence goes a little too far: as you put the pieces of the story together, the big picture looks a lot like…..Dark Souls. It’s a facsimile, albeit a very competent one. It holds the game back from feeling truly revolutionary and unique.
(it’s also possible to get stuck in a certain location without the item required to make navigating back out a sane thing to do, but that was partially my own fault).
Still, to be honest, I like this game far more than I do Dark Souls, albeit for rather subjective purposes. My reflexes in general seem to be a lot better on a 2D plane (the true adversary in Dark Souls, as it has become clear to me, is the camera), and the art style is more to my liking. If it is just a clone, it’s one that nevertheless manages to boil down a lot of what I like about Dark Souls into a more palatable essence. More than that: I think it’s the only metroidvania I’ve played that can really stand toe-to-toe with Super Metroid, and that one sure did crib a lot from Alien.
Among indie games, I think only Shovel Knight approaches a similar stature for me (and now, annoyingly, I keep confusing the two titles in my mind). And, among the current generation in general, it’s pretty high up there.