After some initial confusions, Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017) became one of my favorite games ever. It demands fluency in platforming, secret-hunting, and unforgiving combat, but the world unfolds into a magnificent sprawling journey.
The plot is deliberately opaque, and the metaphysics that drive it even more so. The basics are established early: the game's world, Hallownest, was once a grand kingdom of insects ruled by the “Pale King.” When we find it, it has fallen into ruin, overtaken by a glowing orange plague.
The game opens with this poem, describing the Pale King:
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
Right away, this rhetoric has many historic parallels. It evokes every colonial project to uplift and edify the locals: “The White Man's Burden,” “We Will Be Greeted As Liberators,” and so on. This is the first text we see in the game, even before any visuals whatsoever. It piqued my polisci-nerd interest immediately, and the rest of the game follows through splendidly.
The opening tutorial of the game contains several tablets addressed to “higher beings,” including you, a child of the Pale King. This is in contrast to the masses, seen as blank slates to be filled with whatever the King considers useful. The King's fixation on blank slates is a central theme of the game, and we gradually learn how it ruined both him and Hallownest.
The Pale King's power to expand and colonize is not absolute. Throughout the game, there are signs of competing polities that the King had to subdue, bargain with, or avoid entirely.
The City of Tears, the capital of Hallownest, is the base of his political power. Ornately-carved spires housed the aristocratic elite, no more resistant to the plague than any commoner. It is a hub of commerce and transport, the only region with two stag transit stations rather than one or zero. (More?)
Greenpath is a lush area under the care of Unn, an immense slug-god of verdant nature. She is also a Higher Being, and her dreams supposedly shaped Greenpath and all of its life. Public tablets advise wariness of the King, his city, and his plans. Nearby, Greenpath's blooms have been subdued into the Queen's personal gardens.
Near the bottom of Hallownest, Deepnest is a constricted maze of spiders and parasites. It has remnants of failed royal infrastructure, showing the King's sheer arrogance to ever think he could tame it.
A tribe of mantises can hold their own against both the King and the infection. They hold the line against Deepnest, but otherwise have no bond with the King.
No Mind To Think
A flaw in the King's plan emerged: if he can imprint whatever he wants on his citizens, so can any other Higher Being. Hallownest quickly succumbed to the Radiance, a moth-goddess of searing light who bears the orange plague.
The Pale King's only strategy to fight it was to make the blankest slate possible, seal the Radiance within it, and re-establish the status quo. He obsessively made and discarded thousands, if not millions, of children for this purpose.
Hollow Knight's open-ended gameplay structure is ill-suited to a straightforward narrative, so it leans heavily on atmosphere and mood to tell its story. The King's iconography marks his strongholds, and becomes rarer in the wilds. Architectural styles blend with overgrowth, (etc)
There are very few overt, non-diegetic objective markers in the game. Environmental cues and in-world signs point the way: scattered papers and humming lead you to the cartographer Cornifer. Official signage points the way to transit, the City of Tears, and the royal palace. The City of Tears has a public monument that explains the Temple of the Black Egg found near the start of the game. It seals the Hollow Knight, with the plague quarantined inside them. The monument reads:
Memorial to the HOLLOW KNIGHT in the Black Vault far above. Through its sacrifice Hallownest lasts eternal.
(Add something here?)
Despite the nonlinear structure, there are still key story milestones. Defeating the Broken Vessel, a failed attempt at a quarantine solution, is a turning point that decrypts much of the game's lore. It opens the way to claiming your inheritance, the King's Brand, and opening the pit of rejected vessels and their vengeful ghosts.
As you descend its platforms, to the lowest place on the entire map, you see one broken mask, then a cluster, then more, then a floor carpeted with them. (expand w/ Sibling details?)
Killing the Broken Vessel is also one of the triggers to transform the Forgotten Crossroads, the first zone of the game. It becomes the Infected Crossroads, its creatures Radiance-plagued and much more threatening. This is a clever way of making the first region relevant and challenging for the late game, and it advances the story once more.
The infection of the Crossroads converges story threads: the failed vessels below are linked to the failed vessel within the Temple of the Black Egg.
Life Goes On
Hallownest has a few surviving residents who are not Higher Beings, but are clearly capable of abstract individual thought. Some of them are visitors from foreign lands, but many are Hallownest natives. Are they in a caste between Higher Beings and the pliable masses?