Warning: This post will discuss the video game Hollow Knight and its story in great detail; it will be filled with spoilers.
For those of you who don’t know, Hollow Knight is a hand-drawn metroidvania action/adventure video game developed by Team Cherry as their first large-scale game. Its art style is a melancholy mix of insects, Tim Burton, Studio Ghibli, and a few play-sets full of Gothic architecture.
With its twenty hour campaign, forty if you’re going for one hundred percent, immersive art and music, tight gameplay, and memorable characters, it has quickly become one of my favorite games of all time. In this post I’m going to dig into the game’s artistic innards and arrange them into a beautiful slimy ensemble I can parade about the internet in. Less poetically and viscerally put, I will dissect the game’s background lore and thematic elements to create a cohesive theory regarding its true meaning. Everything in here is just my opinion, and is subject to change as I learn and think more.
Having seen an interview with Team Cherry, I know they did not consider the game Dark Souls to be a huge inspiration, but it is still very relevant to my discussion and provides an excellent frame for Hollow Knight’s thematic success, so I’ll start there.
I’ve never been a fan of Dark Souls (its arbitrary difficulty and blunt mechanics annoy me), but I’ve always recognized the things it does well. Its habits of communicating lore via item descriptions and level design are a great influence on the industry, but one interpretation of its lore/themes is what’s relevant here.
In the world of Dark Souls, lowly humans live in a world of immortal dragons with stone scales. The dragons contain the fire: possibly the greatest of all powers. Thanks to a traitor in their ranks, the humans are able to slay the dragons and claim the fire as their own. They build civilizations with it, enriching their lives beyond measure. Eventually, without the stone scales to contain it, the fire begins to fade. Humanity begins to lose its power and its mind, returning to the dark verminous state where it started.
Some have compared this to the eventual heat-death of the universe, the natural trend towards entropy, which is of course a very interesting topic for a sword and sorcery video game to try and embody. In my opinion, Dark Souls does not achieve that embodiment very well. Its lore is just a little too opaque, scattered, and focused on the particles rather than the distance between them.
This is where Hollow Knight comes in, as I believe it tackles similar existential issues with greater understanding, more appropriate harshness, and, to an extent, bravery. Like Dark Souls, Hollow Knight’s lore is not set in stone. (Actually it is if we’re talking about how the insect denizens of its world record their history, but we’re not!) It’s set in chitinous shell, so we must take all these assumptions with a grain of salt.
In the world of Hollow Knight there was a civilization ruled by an entity called the Radiance. At some point, a new great power arrived in the form of the Pale King. He overthrew the Radiance and started his own civilization, convincing a tribe of moths to banish the Radiance to the realm of dreams.
The Radiance, however, would not be forgotten. It slowly returned in the minds of the Pale King’s citizens, first as dreams and then as an orange disfiguring infection that transformed them into mindless slaves.
The King once again sought a way to banish the Radiance, and so began experimenting with another power he found deep in the Earth: void. Void is emptiness, will without ego, and could thus contain the Radiance like a cage. The King created vessels, creatures of void and shell, in the hopes one of them would be ‘hollow’ enough to hold all of the Radiance.
One vessel did succeed initially, but it was not perfectly hollow. Some shred of a personality remained. This ‘hollow knight’ was locked away, saving the kingdom for a time, but eventually its shell cracked and the radiance began leaking out again, into minds and bodies all over the land of Hallownest.
This is where the game starts. A new vessel emerges, moves toward Hallownest, and battles its way through the infection to reach the hollow knight, take the Radiance into the perfect cage of its shell, and save bug civilization.
This is also where my interpretation begins in earnest. I believe the point of Hollow Knight, its one dark statement that breaks free of its chrysalis and spreads its wings, like a black butterfly, is that ‘hollowness’ is… good. Correct. Right. Appropriate. It is not just a tool. It is the correct way to be, better than being a member of either the Radiance’s civilization or the Pale King’s.
Before we get into the evidence I must define hollowness (as I see it) a little more and describe its relationship to the bug characters of the game. Hollowness is a bug’s natural state of being. It is the presence of a mind with but a single drive: survive. Hollowness is bugs as we know them, creatures that live to live so their offspring can live. Hollowness is the absence of all ego and pretense, the absence of art, greed, lust, love, deception, reflection, and anything else that would separate a human mind from an arthropod mind.
With hollowness defined as an untainted will to live, we must now look at the bugs and what happened to them. All of the bugs of Hallownest, or whatever it was called when the Radiance ruled, started as hollow. They lived pure lives. Civilization, in both its forms, came as infection. It took hollowness from them, imposed rulers and rules, and they never even realized what they lost because they were caught up in the excitement of culture, war, romance, science, and a generally increased intelligence. Take a look at this poem from the game:
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.
This poem is the best single piece of evidence I have for my interpretation. The Pale King tamed their ‘savage souls’, which almost implies domestication: the taking and training of an animal so that it comes closer to civilization. ‘Base instincts were redeemed.’ In other words, the King made use of their natural power and abilities for his own ends. He treated their hollowness like a canvas and painted himself across it, with the Radiance being no better.
‘A world you gave to bug and beast as they had never dreamed.’ Of course they never dreamed it, as bugs had no use for dreams! Dreams are a byproduct. They are a vestigial function good only for transporting infectious agents into a hollow will. The game draws connections between disease and dreams because the desires present in one’s dreams are just as painful, just as damaging, as a viral or bacterial assault on your bodily functions.
There is more to the ‘Elegy for Hallownest’ poem, but it does not appear in the game, only in its text files. Here is the rest:
Our cherished dreams you granted and delivered more,
But in dismay you found too late our desires had no end,
What cost to tame our savagery? You gave your all and then gave more.
Yet still desires lay unquenched, more dreams remained, your energies spent.
Amongst it sprang a dreadful scourge,
That forced return our aggressive urge,
And turned us back to beasts or husks,
Our souls consumed by light above.
Within your corpse can still be heard the plaintiff cries of one,
Who took our pain, and loss, and dreams inside itself to…
Through its pain we found a truth that must now be confessed,
For nothing can contain such things but perfect emptiness.
These lines detail the return of the Radiance, but also the King’s inability to fulfill his subjects. Under my theory, they cannot be fulfilled because they no longer understand that being empty is the healthiest state. The last lines talk about the failed vessel, the hollow knight, and codify the power of void. ‘For nothing can contain such things but perfect emptiness.’ It says right there that the only solution to the endless hungers of intelligence, greed, and awareness is the complete absence of them.
With my theory stated, it’s now time to get into specific pieces of evidence from the game. I’ll do them one by one and try to keep it as organized as possible.
The Knight/the Vessel: Let’s talk about the player character. The first aspect I wish to address is the shade. The shade is what is left behind when the character dies: a black ghost. It is a single-minded entity that will attack you on sight, and your character is not back at full strength until you defeat and reclaim it.
The shade to me is one of two ingredients to a successful vessel. It is the hollowness, the will without ego, the insect’s drive to move, eat, and not die. The other ingredient is the shell. I’ll talk about that a little more when we get down to the Pale King, but it is important to note how vital the shell’s integrity is.
When the first hollow knight fails the only indication is a crack in its mask. Even when the player dies and loses their shell’s head, it does not crack. Even when the character’s health is low the bug merely flags and looks fatigued. It does not crack or chip.
The next thing I would like to note, which supports the nature of hollowness, is the character’s behavior, or rather the absence of it. The vessel has no personality, and that is not a criticism of the game. It says nothing. It has no notable body language at any point. It never expresses any emotion, or anything other than a will. It never shares an embrace, jumps for joy, dances, or flails with rage. The most emotive thing it ever does is sitting to observe something or pulling out its nail to challenge an opponent.
In human terms, the vessel is a sociopath. It experiences no emotion. Its only drive is to either survive or achieve its programmed purpose. In fact, the intelligent characters of Hallownest, those infected and damaged by non-hollowness, always project a personality onto the vessel.
Hornet, a rival bug, learns to respect it even though she only sees it fight. Salubra, a jolly vendor, kisses it and calls it divine as if it’s an adorable pet. Cloth, a shameful coward, assumes it is a fearless warrior seeking great adventure. Most notably, Bretta, a shy lonely bug, develops romantic feelings for the vessel, casting it as her lover and savior in her diaries. This brings to mind the disturbing reality of people often being attracted to or charmed by actual sociopaths, but here its sociopathy is just an expression of its hollowness, of it being a healthy bug.
Finally, there are some lines that pop up when the character remembers their birthplace, a deep cavern filled with void and discarded shells:
No cost too great.
No mind to think.
No will to break.
No voice to cry suffering.
Born of God and Void.
You shall seal the blinding light that plagues their dreams. You are the Vessel. You are the Hollow Knight.
These seem to almost perfectly define that state of hollowness I’ve been arguing for. ‘No mind to think’, ‘no will to break’, and ‘no voice to cry suffering’ are especially telling. It seems to be the Pale King saying that the character utterly lacks personality, ambition, or intelligence beyond what it needs to accomplish its goal. The king, in his ego, fails to understand this hollowness is the answer to all problems, and merely sees it as the answer to the Radiance, as he himself could not possibly be a negative force for bug-kind.
Purposeful Characters: This evidence points to the ‘healthy’ quality of bugs leading simple driven lives, lives that are closer to being hollow. Among Hallownest’s denizens many are overcome by infection and thus enslaved to the will of the Radiance. Those that aren’t, who have kept themselves functional and aware, are almost always characterized by a single driving purpose, sometimes very closely related to the simple idea of survival.
The nailsmith is driven only to improve weaponry. When he upgrades your weapon to its greatest possible state he asks that you kill him with it, as his purpose has been achieved. If you do not, you can find him later working on arts and crafts. Even denied he still follows the idea that he’s supposed to make or build something.
The Last Stag, who lives only to transport other bugs, talks about how he is reinvigorated by the ability to fulfill his purpose. He also hates the machines that might replace him.
The bees found in the hive, an area free of infection, appear as industrious as ever. In service to their queen, to her will, they are not vulnerable.
The mantis tribe, fearless warriors, also retain their intellect. Their pursuit of fighting skill and honor has created a rigid system close to hollowness, as they are harsh, cunning, and driven.
Simple townsfolk and shopkeepers are still scattered about, living rural lives and running their businesses. Meanwhile the pinnacle of their civilization, their greatest city, is filled with infected husks in finery who don’t remember a thing. The only drive you find there is in the bugs with military training or those obsessed with survival or power.
There’s no infection to be seen in the audience of the coliseum of fools, who endlessly watch warriors and beasts tear each other apart, perhaps due to its resemblance to the struggle for survival they all began in.
Quirrel, a bug you encounter many times and who can be quite talkative, eventually reveals he journeys only because a greater bug has willed him to. When his goal is achieved he is found lounging by a lake, and then disappears.
The City of Tears: This level in the game is the center of the Hallownest civilization. It has the grandest architecture and most notable cultural relics, yet it is characterized by sadness and constant rain. There, where the King’s civilization is supposed to shine, we find only regret, bitter hoarders, dandies overcome with infection, and even cannibalism. It is the sadness of being unfulfilled, of seeing riches, talent, and knowledge, and realizing it cannot make you whole. Only hollowness can.
Snail Shamans/The Collector: Throughout the game you will encounter a certain kind of being that seems to be more like you than the regular bugs of Hallownest. You, the vessel, are composed of a shell and an inky black void filling. Spells within the game are taught by or acquired from similar inky beings, who wear snail shells on their heads.
It is my guess that they are not actually snails, but beings of void that have taken up their shells as homes. Their magical power comes from what’s left of their understanding of hollowness. They are hollowness naturally seeping back up from where it was pushed down, further evidenced by the natural/holistic/spiritual aura of their homes and decorations.
You can enhance the spells you gain from them by fusing them with void, suggesting a common origin. In the City of Tears, in a laboratory, we find a snail shaman being experimented upon. The King’s civilization sought the power without the understanding.
The other void being you might encounter is the Collector: an individual living in a secluded, secure, comfy tower. They are characterized by the way they capture bugs in glass jars and babble about keeping them ‘safe’. They have a particular affinity for the simplistic grub creatures that the vessel saves from their jars throughout the game. This suggests a maternal perversion of hollowness: the desire to maintain the shells and bodies rather than the hollowness inside.
The Pale King/Wyrm: The King himself is one of the more enigmatic figures, so we’ll be getting into a few of my less-supported ideas. It does seem clear from the game that the king was ‘reborn’ in his diminutive form from a much larger creature as it died, called a Wyrm. There is a point where we journey inside the Wyrm’s shell and find the King’s brand upon an egg-like structure.
What I would like to explore is the idea that the King and the vessels, at least their ingredients, are related. First consider that, even among the simple designs of the bugs of Hallownest, the King and the vessels have many physical similarities: drooping lined cloaks, simple masks, and horns.
In the birthplace, where we see thousands of similar abandoned shells, we also find a black egg. When struck with the dream nail, a spiritual relic, it allows the vessel to relive a memory of birth/formation. Though the egg isn’t identical to the structure inside the Wyrm’s shell, they are of similar size. Add to this the dialogue you see when you dream-nail the remains of the King himself:
…Soul of Wyrm. Soul of Root. Heart of Void…
This suggest the vessels have the soul of Wyrm within them, though it could have been infused by experimentation rather than birth. My theory is that the ‘reincarnation’ of Wyrm to Pale King is actually a perversion of its natural reproductive process.
The simplistic grubs mentioned earlier, when rescued, wind up getting eaten by their elder. At first this seems morbid, like a betrayal, but background clues suggest this is a metamorphosis: a natural part of their life cycle. Perhaps the elder’s body will act as their chrysalis and they will eventually burst out.
I see this as a clue to the Wyrm’s life cycle. It grows gigantic. In the process, its soul might grow heavy and its intelligence might swell. When the pains of existence, of no longer being hollow, become too great, it either lays eggs or allows its offspring to fight their way out.
The Pale King may have lingered in the body of his parent. He might have feared the rebirth, the return to simple-minded hollowness. He may have resisted. All of the vessel shells may have been his siblings, bugs resetting their souls to start growing once again. This could explain the King’s odd appearance among his brethren, with a crown of horns resembling the mouth of Wyrm. He has improperly matured, stalled a hollow destiny in favor of death or infectious obscurity like the Radiance. As I said, the jury’s still out on this aspect…
Zote the Mighty: One of my last points is a minor examination of Zote the Mighty: a foolhardy wimpy blowhard who resembles the vessels. Nobody knows if he is a vessel or not, or merely wearing one’s shell, but he’s more useful as a comparison to the King and the Radiance. He is the opposite end of their spectrum, but representative of the same problem.
He is hopelessly self-absorbed, the opposite of a true hollow bug. He has father issues. He goes on and on about his talents and deeds, all of which do not exist, at least not in the way he reports them. The King has his civilization, and Zote has his fifty-seven precepts: a full list of pseudo-philosophical rules to live by. They are both ornate structures that could only be built by intelligence, but in the end are utterly pointless when compared to the simple acts of life. He is the fool that reflects upon his King.
The Game’s inflation: My final observation is a minor one. Team Cherry didn’t plan for Hollow Knight’s sprawling map and story to be as big as they became. They started with a simple goal of three locations and a final boss. As their inspiration and resources (through crowdfunding) grew, so too did the game. It became complex. It, in a few tiny places, bends under its own weight.
To me this reflects these themes once again. They couldn’t help but hone their craft and build their civilization, even as it took them further from hollowness. Even as it filled them up with the short-lived ethereal rewards of intelligence, friendship, and everything else we try to convince ourselves we need…
So that’s it! That’s my theory of Hollow Knight as it stands. There is more free content due, so there might be edits to this eventually. The message of the game, as read by me, may seem morose. By telling these bugs they’re meant to be hollow, am I not saying the same thing of human beings? Am I not calling our internet, our buildings, our medicines, and our art a lie?
Not exactly. Bugs are bugs. They’re different. Simpler. Still. Look at me, sitting here and poring over the details, the complexities of a work of art, long after I’ve finished playing. Thinking of it over and over and over. Sometimes my mind wanders to thoughts of the simple life, of a human wandering the wilderness for things to eat, because eating is how we live, and living is how we live. Hollowness as an end unto itself, the question and the answer.
Think about that, and then think about the moment after you achieve something, be it finishing a piece of art, a project for work, or a physical challenge. Think about how good you feel in that first silent moment when the achievement is done, dead, and gone. Think about how empty that moment is.