Ramshankar
on systems, software & life

Why Hollow Knight is a masterpiece

Hollow Knight is a 2D, metroidvania, side-scroller game by Australian indie-game studio Team Cherry.

2D side-scrollers have had a resurgence in the last few years with the release of Ubisoft’s beautifully hand-drawn platformer Rayman Origins, its sequel Rayman Legends and Microsoft Studios’ Ori and the Blind Forest. These are AAA games made with large teams and a substantial budget. Although indie games are no longer small, hobby projects; the Hollow Knight development team is quite tiny in comparison. Nonetheless, consumers are concerned with the final quality of the product, rather than how much effort went into making it.

So what makes Hollow Knight worthy of being called a masterpiece?

Setting the tone

When you launch the game, you are greeted with a simple, Team Cherry logo in glowing white, set against a black background. This transitions into to the main menu screen. This screen uses the glowing white aesthetic in all its text. The background is dark, blurry and looks like some sort of a pit. The music is a slow, classical piano piece with distinct notes over a deep, broody violin score. The font is chosen to give a classic, historical vibe.⁠[1] Even the mouse cursor resembles a sword and is glowing white.

This isn’t your colorful, happy-go-lucky platformer. Right from the first logo screen, the style and tone are established. While many games attempt this, few do it as tastefully, carefully and consistently as Hollow Knight.

Consistency is pervasive and extends far beyond mere visuals into every aspect of the game’s design. As you play, you discover that this mysterious, glowing white substance is central to the game and its story.

The core design principle here is consistency.

Consistency is vital. It sets a baseline for what players can expect and allows the game to build a feedback of interactions. This builds trust with the player and makes their experience immersive and engaging.

The beginning

In wilds beyond they speak your name with reverence and regret,
For none could tame our savage souls yet you the challenge met,
Under palest watch, you taught, we changed, base instincts were redeemed,
A world you gave to bug and beast as they had never dreamed.

— Monomon The Teacher
Elegy for Hallownest

The game starts with the above quote. A short, minimally animated cutscene follows. During this scene you are introduced to the Knight, the main character of the game. The Knight is a cute, little bug with jet-black (hollow?) eyes, a ragged gray cloak and what appears to be a sword. At the end of the scene, the Knight is seen jumping into a deep chasm. The game starts, and you land on the ground with a loud thud.

Hollow Knight Opening Scene
The Knight - Gazing towards his destiny…​

The moment you land, you are given control of your character. There isn’t any tutorial. There’s no indication on what to do next. You’re left on your own to get a feel for the controls. You discover you react swiftly to the movement keys and that you jump higher the longer the key is held pressed. You discover you don’t carry forward any momentum when you stop or change directions and that your sword attack is short-ranged but blurringly fast.

We are thus introduced to another core design principle - discovery.

This principle of discovery extends far beyond just mechanics and into the level design and story. For this reason, I highly recommend playing the game without looking up any guides or walkthroughs.

Once you get past the first room, you see a small, innocuous beetle heading your way. You instinctively know to slash it using your sword. If you mistimed your attack, you receive a blow and take damage. You soon discover that healing yourself is not instant, requires holding the button for a short period of time and you are unable to move while you heal.

With just three simple mechanics (multi-directional attacks, variable-height jumps and immobile healing), the game has subtly introduced a wide array of possibilities. These don’t seem like much, but they have far reaching implications in gameplay.

The core design principle here is simplicity.

This principle of simplicity is not limited to these mechanics either. It’s fundamental to many aspects of the game including its music, graphics, gameplay and controls.

Feeling in control

Anyone who has played 2D side-scrollers before would agree that the mechanics of how you control your character is crucial. It can make or break one’s experience with the game.

Hollow Knight's controls are very accurate. They are often described as being “tight”. In practice, it means that your character responds to your input immediately and precisely. The more dexterous you are, the better you can control your character. Your character does not feel “floaty” to control due to a lack of momentum when changing directions. This is different from games like Dead Cells where your character carries forward momentum even after you stop or change directions.

As you progress into the next screen, you need to jump some platforms to ascend. Precise movement is required to make these jumps. Platforming skill becomes exceedingly important as you progress. I would contend that the game is best played with a keyboard or on a controller using the D-pad. Playing it using an analog stick is sub-optimal and could lead to unnecessary frustration.

Tight controls allow for better timing and you need to time your attacks precisely. The first enemy encounters are naturally easy, but this skill of timing attacks is introduced early albeit in a small way. Skills become gradually more demanding and remains an important aspect of the game.

The core design principle here is precision of controls.

Feeling lost

Hollow Knight has no distinct levels. Instead, it has one large 2D world (called Hallownest) with seamlessly, interconnected areas. Each area follows a theme with its own environment, items, creatures and music to keep things fresh while building the narrative. To access a new area, you often need to find a key, defeat a certain bosses or acquire some new ability. Since the areas are not linear, re-visiting areas becomes a necessity.

You start the game without a map, which leads to a fair bit of wandering and re-exploring. This may bring about a feeling of being lost and is a common complaint about this game. Impatient players will undoubtedly leave the game at this point. But rewards are great for those who persist. If you are persistent, keep your eyes peeled and remember important locations, the game slowly opens up a whole new world.

The beginning of the game can feel a bit slow. However, once you find something new, you don’t feel your time was wasted because it was solely your effort and not the game leading you every step of the way.

This is the game further cementing its nature. Although beautiful, it is brutal and unrelenting in its philosophy of not spoon-feeding the player with obvious clues. It’s a challenge that needs to be met and failure is a very real possibility. Approaching the game with this mindset makes it worth your time.

The core design principle here is delayed gratification.

The sense of pride and satisfaction that arises from overcoming a truly difficult challenge cannot be understated. It has a deep psychological significance related to function and meaning. There’s been a resurgence of difficult games, thanks to Dark Souls, but few games get the balance right.

Gameplay

The oft-used phrase, “easy to learn but difficult to master” is a rather fitting description for Hollow Knight. It constantly pushes you to become better at platforming and combat. It rewards you for making smart decisions and it does so without artificially altering its difficulty. There is no dynamic game-difficulty balancing (DGDB) going on here.

Charms

Charms are unique items that you find in the game. Some of them can be purchased from vendor NPCs, while others require defeating a boss or exploring a certain area. Each Charm requires a certain number of Notches (or slots) to be equipped. Once equipped, it grants you some bonus ability. Charms have bonuses that aid in platforming, navigation, accruing Geo, dealing more damage, healing quicker, etc. The game does a brilliant job of balancing Charm combinations. You have to mix and match Charms within the available Notches depending on how you intend to use them. Every charm has a noticeable impact and you always feel like experimenting and finding more efficient ways to progress.

Spells

Your first offensive option is using your sword, called a Nail. But as you progress, you unlock Spells that provide ranged or special attacks. Obtaining a Spell is permanent upgrade and do not need to be specifically equipped like Charms. Using Spells comes at a cost. They deplete your Soul although they do not eat into your health points.

Soul

Remember the white substance we mentioned in the beginning? That’s Soul. Each time you land a successful attack on an enemy, you gain a bit of Soul. Soul is also required to heal yourself. While healing you cannot perform any attacks and remain stationary. Rather than using health packs or automatically regenerating your health, your offense and defense are connected by your use of Soul. You get to decide whether to use it to recover lost health or to use it to inflict damage from a safe distance. This creates an interesting risk versus reward mechanic. How your choose to approach and execute upon it often has a major impact on the outcome.

Controls

Controls are kept at a bare minimum. Apart from movement keys used for platforming, you need just a couple of more keys for combat. By limiting input, the game becomes more approachable. It also let’s you focus on making creative use of the environment, rather than merely mastering input patterns. Simple controls make the game easy to learn, but the depth of combat makes it difficult to master.

Combat

Platforming is an essential part of combat and this ties into the Charms system. For instance, a Charm that enhances your movement speed, allowing you to better evade enemies, may be as useful as one that increases your damage you inflict. The depth of combat comes from an interplay of platforming, Soul management and your choice of Charms.

Safe spaces in Hallownest are few and far between. Through subtle means, the game introduces new environmental hazards and monsters. Over time, you become more nimble with the controls and heighten your sense of awareness. Despite this, boss battles can be quite difficult, but with every failed attempt at defeating a boss, you realize it was your own fault rather than the game being unfair. No boss in the game has random, inescapable attacks and all of them can be defeated without relying solely on luck. You cannot brute-force spam your way through bosses. You have to learn their attack patterns, evade when you have to and find the right moments when it’s safe to attack. You need to be smart, patient, precise and persistent to defeat them.

As with most games, bosses become harder as your progress, but Hollow Knight does an incredible job of increasing the difficult just by the right amount. Almost as if the game was designed with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in mind.

The gameplay loop is a well-oiled machine that carefully combines several aspects of its core mechanics. Everything in the game has a definite purpose. Every Charm, Spell, boss fight and ability was designed to provide a cohesive experience.

Thus we establish another core design principle - cohesion.

Art, level and sound design

I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.

— Winston Churchill
House of Commons (1952)

Hollow Knight has a distinct, cartoonish, hand-drawn art style. Characters in the foreground are vivid and drawn with bold strokes. The environments are shaded with slim outlines and tones that reflect the grim and moody setting. And finally the background is more blurred signifying depth and helps with focus and visual clarity.

Every area has a recognizable theme, through foliage, architecture and weather. The color palette and music are carefully chosen to convey this. Transitions from one area to the next is seamless. The environment flows organically while the music fades to an ominous silence and gracefully crescendos. While aspects of this design are employed by many 2D platformers, Hollow Knight does it perfectly, to the extent that you don’t ever have to open the map to identify the area you’re in.

The environment and enemies of an area introduce you to what lies ahead in subtle ways. For instance, the Husk Guard employs a shock-wave attack. Learning to evade it will later be useful when you face the False Knight, a boss who uses similar shock-wave attacks.

The environment also establishes how you can interact with them using your abilities. In one of the first rooms in the game, you discover that you must use your Nail to break parts of the environment. Later this becomes useful in finding secrets. Every ability you gain presents a new and useful way to interact with the environment. You often use have to use these abilities in order to progress. While you can’t consciously pay attention to everything, the game teaches you in subconscious ways.

Meeting Cornifer in Green Path
Meeting Cornifer in Green Path

Allowing you to explore the world in different ways, was a deliberate decision in its design. While it’s not an open world experience, it’s not completely linear either. Nearly every area has more than one way to access it. With several interconnected areas, this opens up numerous possible paths that you may traverse. Thus, if you encounter a seemingly insurmountable situation, there’s almost certainly an alterate path that you can take.

Furthermore, with creative use of abilities you can access areas and secrets that are otherwise inaccessible. The developers call it a “sequence break” and is intentionally left in the game. This incentivizes out-of-the-box thinking. It adds to the game’s re-playability without needing procedurally generated levels. Every corner of the world offers something compellingly valuable which makes for a more meaningful experience.

The sound design has also been crafted very meticulously. Cornifer⁠[2] the Cartographer, hums a distinct tune that let’s you know he’s nearby. Many of the NPCs in Hallownest have other audible signatures. The environments also emanates sounds that often alert you to its dangers…​ if you listen carefully.

Hallownest is brimming with details without ever being overwhelming. Hollow Knight paints a canvas that conveys both beauty and meaning.

Story

Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.

— Jean Luc Godard

I’ll keep this section spoiler free. Rather than reveal parts of the plot, I’ll tell you why I think the story adds to the game’s appeal.

The story isn’t straight forward and has a fair bit of cryptic and surreal dialogues. Like almost every other aspect of the game, you’re rewarded if you pay attention and can piece together the parts.

The dark, desolate kingdom of Hallownest drips with history, culture and interesting characters. Every NPC in the game is unique, peculiar, with their own story to tell. The game evokes a genuine sense of mystery without being cliché. The lore of Hollow Knight is deep and intricate, and even if you don’t pay attention to the dialogues, the atmosphere draws you in.

Meeting Quirrel in Temple of the Black Egg
“A traveller, you say?”

The game (and story) features multiple endings. Luckily, the most difficult challenges in the game are optional as far as the story is concerned. You don’t have to complete them in order to know any of the endings. But decisions you make in the game, do affect which ending you get.

The tale of Hallownest isn’t simple, it’s detailed and mysterious.

To some it may seem overly complicated, but I think it’s quite fitting given the nature of the setting and the richness of its lore.

Conclusion

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

— Aristotle's words warped by time

Hollow Knight is not a game without flaws. No game is perfect. Games that try to pander to a large audience, often end up pleasing just a few. Hollow Knight makes no attempt at being a game for everybody. As a result, the developers were able to make better decisions and end up with fewer compromises. They carefully chose and implemented an ideal set of design principles.

Every element of the game, be it visuals, audio, gameplay or story has meaning, purpose and beauty. It’s detailed without being overwhelming. It’s simple without resorting to fluff or filler content. It’s interactive art that is engaging, challenging and truly fulfilling when you overcome its challenges.

One of the counter-arguments made against Hollow Knight is that it’s a difficult game. While there’s merit to this statement, difficultly is just one aspect. The game is not difficult just for its own sake, but ties in with its overarching narrative. The game does a fantastic job of ramping up the difficulty by just the right, magical amount. It’s not difficult from the get go (like Cuphead, which was specifically designed that way).

From a technical standpoint, the game runs at a solid 60 FPS on modern systems. It’s available on all major platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, Switch, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. The only bugs I found in the game were those in Hallownest.

From a commercial standpoint, as of February 2019, Hollow Knight has sold over 2.8 million copies. On the PC alone, it surpassed 1 million copies sold by June 2018.⁠[3] This is a remarkable achievement for a game with hardly any marketing in a genre that isn’t very popular. The video game market is saturated and making a breakthrough selling games on Steam is incredibly difficult. By comparison, the average game on Steam sold ~500 copies in 2017,⁠[4] the year Hollow Knight was released.

Hollow Knight was sold at a price of around $15 on release. It’s often on sale and can be purchased for as low as $10 or even lower, which is quite a low price for a game of this calibre. HowLongToBeat.com estimates 51 hours for a completionist run. Personally, it took me about 60 hours to complete (not counting the DLCs).

Since its initial release, Team Cherry have released 4 additional content packs by way of DLC. They are free of cost and significantly boost the game’s value for money. While not all of the packs are major expansions, there is substantial, new content by way of areas, bosses, enemies, NPCs, abilities, charms and items.

Final thoughts

Hollow Knight reminds me of Diablo in terms of its setting. Others have drawn comparisons with Dark Souls. Regardless of where Hollow Knight drew its inspiration, it stands on its own, as a David among Goliaths.

Hollow Knight is the only game for which I’ve been upset that I didn’t pay more for it.


1. The font appears to be Trajan Pro.
2. Cornifer is a mosquito which explains how he travels to every area (except Deepnest, which undoubtedly is too scary a place, even for him).
3. Wikipedia - Sales figures for Hollow Knight.
4. YouTube - A deep dive into how games are selling on Steam.