Playing Hollow Knight reminded me of how it feels to play a horror game. I like to be in control, and I’m loss averse as a player; so part of me doesn’t enjoy walking through a new area, getting more and more nervous about what might happen, having made more progress since I last saved and not knowing if I’m going to lose that progress before the next time I’m able to save.

The thing is, there’s something really good about uncertainty, about the unknown, about discovery. And my desire for control can get in the way of me experiencing that; when, once or twice a decade, I actually play a horror game, I am glad to have done so: I don’t always enjoy it on a minute-to-minute level but I do at a broader level.

Hollow Knight isn’t, of course, a horror game. But I get a variation on that feeling every time I enter a new area of the game: I don’t have a map, I don’t know when I’ll get a map, I don’t know where the next save spot is. And, even if I do find a save spot, in some ways that makes it worse: now, if I die, I’ll be put back into that new, uncertain area, instead of being resurrected in a place I understand. Combine all of that with the corpse run mechanic, and I can be on my toes for quite a while as I come to terms with an area; doubly so if I had to pass through a one-way gate to enter the area in the first place.


The flip side, though, is: once I get used to an area, once I have the map and have an idea of what’s going on with the regular enemies in the area, once I know what to take care of in the environment and where the nearest stag station is, the mood changes completely. Sometimes, the area will almost feel soothing, pleasant to traverse through but with enough for me to do to prevent me from getting bored. Sometimes, there are sections where I still have to be careful, where I could die if I mess up a few times; depending on my mood and short-term goals, I’ll either avoid those sections or lean into them, but either way it’s a known quantity.

So there’s a different rhythm to my emotional experience: rather than the horror mood alternation of “things are definitely bad” with “things haven’t been actively bad for the last minute but a jump scare could be around the next corner”, it’s more an alternation between “I don’t know what’s going on here and I’m going to feel more and more nervous until I have a map, a save spot and a good path back to other areas” versus “I feel pretty much in control here and can relax if I need that, or I can pick a challenge if I’ve regained my strength”.

And, once I’m feeling secure, I have a range of different experiences I can look for, depending on what kind of mood I’m in. Maybe I’ll farm so I can buy something, maybe I’ll look for secrets, maybe I’ll fight a boss battle, maybe I’ll go for an environmental traversal challenge. I normally play console games in stretches of two hours or so at a time: with Hollow Knight that’s enough to let me go out of equilibrium and back to it several times, with one larger challenge (a boss fight say) mixed in with a few more medium sized challenges (the first foray into a new area, a difficult traversal puzzle, etc.). It’s a satisfying way to spend an evening.


I suspect that a more common point of comparison for Hollow Knight is the Souls series of games; I should play one of those games at some point, but for now all that I know about them is what I hear / read. My guess is that Hollow Knight is a much better match for my temperament than FromSoftware’s games, though: Hollow Knight uses some of the same mechanisms for building up tension, and ultimately it’s up to you to learn how to traverse the environments and creatures and challenges, but the environment is fundamentally not actually particularly grim or hostile: it doesn’t take too long before you come to terms with it and can reach a detente where you treat the environment with respect and it doesn’t get in your way too much.

I also read about people having to do quite a bit of offline research / learn from friends to play the Souls games well, because the game doesn’t explain anything and there are so many ways for things to go wrong. Hollow Knight takes a different tack (different from my imagination of the Souls games, at least!), which is also pleasantly refreshing compared to other games that I’m used to playing: it also doesn’t explain anything to you, and gives you a lot of choices, but that’s okay. Utimately there are a lot of different paths that work, and while the uncertainty about which path might be best in a given situation also added to my nervousness, it turns out okay.


That lack of explanation combined with a lack of prescription really was a surprise to me, though. The first two or three areas of the game don’t give you a lot of choice: your movement abilities are limited, so you don’t have a whole lot of choice other than to make it to the area’s boss fight, at which point you get a new movement capability which unlocks a few small areas to explore and exactly one new area of the map.

But then, once you get to your third or fourth area of the map, the possibilities start opening up: you have choices for the next area of the map to open up, and it’s not at all clear which to dig into next or whether it matters. That was a source of stress in a different way; and then, when the game threw a one-way gate at me after I did finally choose where to go, I was off balance for a while! That was interesting, too, though, seeing a slightly different rhythm to the way I was confronted with uncertainty; and, once I was past that, I felt secure with the game at a more fundamental level: the game would throw situations at me and give me choices, I wouldn’t really know what to do, but it would work out okay.


Also, at about that point in the game, I found myself really enjoying the game’s mechanics. At the start of the game, you’re just running, jumping, and hacking. But then you get double-jumps, dashes, and wall jumps; and the game gets a lot closer to “if you can see it, you can reach it”. And, at a more primal level: it just gets more fun to move around! It’s actually not quite the case at this stage that you can reach everything you can see, so you still have something to look forward to with future abilities; and future abilities will also turn difficult challenges into much more manageable ones, so you can stretch yourself now with difficult traversals and then enjoy them in a different way as your powers grow in the future.

Your combat abilities also change as the game goes on, both through new combat abilities that you learn and through an increasingly large palette of charms to choose from that change how those abilities express themselves. Honestly, I didn’t lean into this so much: it’s not my thing, I enjoy movement / environmental challenges more than combat ones. But I did enjoy the boss fights, or at least most of them: there’s still something satisfying about learning about a boss’s behavior, and improving your recognition and execution skills.


A very good game: reminds me that I like Metroidvania games and that I don’t play enough of them, and gives me a hint of design ideas that Souls games have brought to the fore and that are, rightly, lauded. And I’m also glad that those Souls ideas are starting to spread in less masochistic ways: it makes me optimistic about what the next half decade will bring as those ideas continue to percolate through the design landscape.

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