Hallownest, the fantasy kingdom of bugs and beasts explored in the Metroidvania game Hollow Knight, is a haunt of many mysteries. The Metroidvania subgenre tasks players with exploring interconnected worlds, conquering ever greater challenges, and acquiring new abilities to progress. In addition to being one of the subgenre’s most lauded titles, Hollow Knight deftly utilises its tropes to aid the worldbuilding of Hallownest.
Much as new abilities expand your arsenal, new worldbuilding details add threads to the tapestry of Hallownest’s history. From the Howling Cliffs to the Kingdom’s Edge, you slowly map out the kingdom’s breadth and in so doing, piece together a compelling narrative. At the risk of spoiling some magical moments for those who’ve not yet lost themselves in this land, here are three examples of worldbuilding details that are conveyed through the shape of your journey.
Non-Linearity and the Bodies of Beasts
At the bottom of the Mantis Village, an area home to proud warriors, there lies a great door guarded by the Mantis Lords. If bested in combat, the lords open the door, revealing the entrance to a new area: the disquieting tunnels of Deepnest.
Like many Metroidvania games, Hollow Knight takes you on a non-linear journey, letting you stumble upon its wonders in different ways. Though some may enter Deepnest after battling the lords, others may fall into the heart of the nest, then find their escape blocked by the sealed door. Where this non-linearity aids Hollow Knight’s worldbuilding is in the gruesome sight beside the door: a heap of slain Deepnest beasts, speared and left to rot.
The emotions evoked by this image will be different depending on how you find it. After defeating the lords and walking through the door, I learned that the mantises had been protecting their village from Deepnest’s beasts – information alluded to by an engraving that states, ‘The beasts are kept at bay’. Finding the fate of the beasts’ failed invasion immediately after defeating their killers, I indulged the same pride held dear by the mantises, knowing that I had bested a mighty foe.
However, those who fall into Deepnest and find the locked door may instead wonder what terror lies beyond, capable of killing so many beasts which, given the danger of Deepnest, likely posed them many problems. The meaning of this door and the bodies beside it completely changes depending on how you approach it.
An Interconnected World and the City of Tears
Another area whose significance is influenced by your path is the rain-slick City of Tears. As Metroidvania games take place in interconnected worlds rather than having levels selected from a menu, they are well-suited to geographical worldbuilding, and the city demonstrates this well.
Resting in Hallownest’s heart, the city is a marvel of ornate architecture drowned by constant rainfall. It’s a wonder where the downpour comes from, as the kingdom is underground. Most players, myself included, enter the city from its left and encounter the wandering adventurer, Quirrel. As rain hit the windows, he joined me on a bench and wondered aloud about the water’s source, but had no answers to share.
Above the city is the Blue Lake, whose water leaks through cracks in the lakebed and falls upon the city below. Quirrel’s own journey culminates here. As a character defined by his self-proclaimed love of mysteries, here he states, having found the origin of the rain, that he is at peace.
Quirrel’s pondering in the city is one of Hollow Knight’s most memorable moments: musing on the downpour while piano notes are joined by the percussion of rain on glass. The memorability of this scene and the finality of Quirrel’s words on the lake shore tied these two areas together in my mind, and their connection deepened my own with Quirrel. We kindred spirits learned together that the lake shed the city’s tears.
Though many will meet Quirrel in the city, some may take a different route and miss this interaction entirely. In a later playthrough, I steered clear of the city. I mapped out a ring of graves and groves, wastes and waterways, leaving the city a blank space in the center. Its connection with the lake can still be noted on the map, but without a friendly face to share in this discovery, it may not be so easily made.
Unlike isolating games such as Super Metroid, one of the subgenre’s landmark titles, Hollow Knight’s lonely exploration is punctuated by friendly encounters. These moments shared with a fellow explorer caused me to associate the city with the lake, establishing Hallownest not as a disparate network of caverns, but as a believable world.
Developing Discoveries and a Kingdom Divided
On the subject of the city, only its west side is explorable at first, as two gates block the way to the east. In typical Metroidvania fashion, you’ll need to defeat fierce foes, revisit old areas, or acquire new abilities to reach the city’s east side. Doing so reveals a new facet of the kingdom’s culture: its stark class divide.
Where the city’s left side is bathed in blue and patrolled by common soldiery, the right is rich with red cushioning and home to besuited bugs. Where the west was occupied by guards derided for being overly devoted to their duties, and a blacksmith who ties his life to his work, the east houses Eternal Emilitia and the Gorgeous Husk, characters defined by sloth and status.
Even minor gameplay details in the city’s west side take on a new meaning through this lens. The spiked rooftops which punished me for losing my footing suddenly seemed like hostile architecture, denying the winged soldiery a moment’s rest. As you continue to grow and explore, so too do you learn the truth of those who once inhabited this world.
Secrets in the Sequel
Even four years after Hollow Knight’s release, I still find myself pondering the finer details of its world, and my imagination will only be further tested upon the release of the sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong. Where many of Hallownest’s mysteries have been deciphered, the new kingdom of Pharloom will be a canvas for explorers to piece together a fresh narrative.
What little we’ve seen appears to show a similarly split land, with rags and slums contrasted by gilded cities. With new protagonist Hornet actually possessing a voice, I look forward to gaining insight through her interactions with Pharloom’s divided clans. Though the genre remains the same, small differences like these open up more possibilities for the conveyance of worldbuilding in this kingdom haunted by silk and song.