Sug Head: Of Jump Boots and Locked Doors
Sug Sub: "Hollow Knight" has a "nothing to prove" attitude that conceals sidescrolling delights
"Hollow Knight" doesn't come on strong. Opening quietly, players find themselves in control of a diminutive cartoon hero let loose upon the game's inscrutable, purple, blue, and black environs. There's a brief - and inscrutable - intro cinema that sets up no plot of any kind, serving much more as an invitation than it does as an exposition. Once the player takes control of their expressionless, skull-head, cute-yet-creepy, empty-eyed little hero, they quickly learn that there are no super-wicked-cool actions or moves they can use. No powerful combos, no magical spells, no actions, in fact, beyond moving left and right, jumping, and attacking.
It is an entirely unspectacular beginning to what is (in terms of this journalist's ten hours adventuring, still in progress) an absolutely extraordinary sidescrolling platformer.
While most of the critical praise that has been heaped upon "Hollow Knight" has been for it's hand-drawn graphics and visual art style, the real good stuff in the game lies hidden within and under its chitinous bug-shell: it disrobes slowly, shyly, and sadistically, shrinking from untoward advances into nebulous shadows, and responding to overt force with punishingly brutal admonishments. As they say about the Sahara Desert, "The desert teaches by testing," and so does this game. Even as it crushes and kills you (sometimes through thousands of papercuts, other times through truly brutal acts of seemingly impossibly unfair annihilation at the hands of bosses), it opens tiny little pinpricks into its own design, all of which seems to unfold in addictive blend of geography at once designed for speed-runners, skill-based technique-freaks, and puzzle-solving/next-unlock obsessed explorers.
We are balls-deep into the design ethos I have described as "Of jump boots and locked doors," that delicious type of sidescroller where the challenge is to figure out which powerup is necessary to get past obstacle X to get to next powerup Y to get past obstacle or boss Z. This game design (now commonly referred to as "Metroidvania") is best exemplified in "Super Metroid" (for the SNES) and the superlative "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night," (for the Playstation).
In less than capable hands, this genre is an abattoir of tedium in which giant chunks of my life are slaughtered in sacrifice to the gods of meaningless frustration: I hate games in which the geography is its own "puzzle." Very much like a poem, I don't believe that the medium of the videogame should be something in which the audience is actively made aware of the fact that they are expected to "solve" something - especially given that usually these "puzzles" are so blatantly contrived, infuriating simple design devices meant to pad out the playtime for an otherwise entirely uninspiring and derivative game.
In "Hollow Knight," however, the developers manage to achieve the rarely-accomplished goal of concealing the "puzzle" and "exploration" aspects of the game within the sheer joy of actually playing it. Simultaneously, the game jealously guards its secrets (and your character's powers, upgrades, and abilities), only giving them up after deeply satisfying challenges of mortal combat, or 3x's-5x's-27x's re-exploration of previously visited map areas searching for dead-ends. Along the way, we are strung along nicely by a mysterious, strange, and highly stylized storyline - even as we become more and more engrossed in trying to find out more about the main character itself.
Eventually, you turn your little anonymous primary-attacking hollow knight into a badass daredevil, mastering the tricky twists and misleading turns of the game's many areas (spoiler alert: until you reach the explosive foliage and neon-leafy-green-ness of the garden area, it is entirely possible to miss the fantastic-throughout 2D art and backgrounds in the game), as well as learning and mastering the perfect timing and behavioral patterns necessary to destroy your foes, well... ultimately (however slowly) the game will win you over before you even realize that you have, in fact, become the "Hollow Knight."