I started playing Hollow Knight (2017) with the mistaken belief that it had come out in 2016, around the same time as Hyper Light Drifter. Actually – the story gets worse – I bought Hollow Knight because I’d actually confused it with Dead Cells, which I also thought came out in 2016 alongside HLD. Turns out Hollow Knight and Dead Cells came out at the same time, but it was a year after Hyper Light Drifter, so I’m confused and wrong on almost every point. Anyway. Let’s talk about genre in Hollow Knight.
The immediate comparison for Hollow Knight is Dark Souls. Some people get a bit uppity when you compare things to Dark Souls, but frankly those people can fuck off. One of the things about genre in video games is that it works in terms of game mechanics just as much as style or tone. In some ways, you could probably argue the mechanics are more important. Hollow Knight draws a number of mechanics from Dark Souls, and that’s the type of genre relationship that we’re focused on today.
As an initial example, then, Hollow Knight has you collect currency from fallen enemies. When you die, you lose that currency, and you have to go back to your corpse and retrieve it. Or – well, there’s a shadow that bursts out of you when you die, and you have to return and kill it to retrieve your currency. If you die on the way there, a new shadow is created at that death-location and the old one disappears – along with all its currency. Obviously Dark Souls has a similar mechanic: if you die, you drop your souls, and you have to make it back to pick them up again. And if you die on the way, a new soul-puddle is created at that location and the previous one is removed.
As another example, Hollow Knight is big on shortcuts. You take a complicated and difficult route through an area, and then at the end of that area you find a shortcut back to the start. Dark Souls has some pretty classic examples of this technique: for example, in Anor Londo you’re locked out of a cathedral. You climb up and around the cathedral, get inside, make your way to the inside of the front door, and open it up. If you die after that, you don’t have to go round the side again – the front door is open. Now, other games before Dark Souls might well have drawn on these sorts of techniques. Hollow Knight boasts an interconnectedness that’s seen in the best parts of Dark Souls, but also in your classic Metroidvania. As far as genre is concerned, nobody’s arguing that everything here originates with Dark Souls. We’re just associating it with Dark Souls as a key point of development within the genre.
There are a bunch of other similarities between Dark Souls and Hollow Knight – a mysterious story that must be pieced together slowly over the course of a game; a number of seemingly innocuous gameplay elements with secret metaphysical significance; enemies and bosses that will fuck you up real quick if you’re not taking care; and a healing mechanic that may or may not get you killed. Regarding that last one – in Dark Souls, you can heal, but you have to stop moving and take a swig from your health bottle, and in that time you might get spanked by whatever you’re fighting. Hollow Knight has basically the same thing – you can stop to heal, but something’s probably going to spank you. So with boss fights, for instance, you have to find the pause in a series of attacks – find the spot where it’s actually safe to heal. Personally, I’m actually finding that you can’t heal in some boss fights. You just have to tank through. Not taking damage therefore becomes more of a priority – you can’t get hurt because you don’t have the space to heal.
So genre in video games is partially a mechanical thing. And, as I’ve said many times before, those game mechanics inevitably have a certain thematic emphasis. In Dark Souls, the cycle of death and resurrection means that, in one sense, you can never truly lose the game. It’s never going to stop, right, you’re always going to be brought back. The only two options are fighting through to victory, or giving up, as illustrated by the various instantiations of the Crestfallen Knight. This cycle equally applies to Hollow Knight. You’re always going to be brought back. The question, then, is this: what’s the theme attached to the mechanic in Hollow Knight? Is it the same as in Dark Souls? Or is Knight trying to add its own spin? At the moment, I can’t really say. There’s not really a comparison for the Crestfallen Knight that I know of. And in some ways, Hollow Knight has a much busier feeling than Dark Souls. There’s a central safe area, similar to Firelink Shrine, where all your saved NPCs wander off to. Many of them run shops or own buildings up there, so it feels like more of an active society than the kinda loose clusters of people you find in Dark Souls. These aren’t just the remnants of people drawn together from across the world, they’re the original community coming back together. To put it in the crudest terms possible, Hollow Knight never feels as grim as Dark Souls. There’s certainly plenty of death and morbidity, but to me it never feels as grim, just tonally. It feels like a much chirpier game than Dark Souls. And that potentially detracts from the existential angst of the resurrection system. It’s not a bad thing, per se – it just means that where one game element has a particular tonal function in Dark Souls, it doesn’t have the same function in Hollow Knight. Genre is partly a mechanical thing, but mechanics don’t always carry the same symbolic or tonal implications. So there’s a really interesting little effect – we’ve got one mechanic as sort of a hub, and then a bunch of different usages and contexts all spinning it out in different directions. It’s not so much subversion as variation, a clear instance of the diversity and complexity of genre within video games.