Spoilers for Hollow Knight and Mystical Ninja starring Goemon (computer games).
In one of my first posts I talked about the jarring writing in Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight. Some people bristled at the notion, praising the high quality of the game’s story, and thus missing the point. The story of Hollow Knight is excellent, it just so happens that it is not told very well through the game’s words. Where the game truly shines (apart from the very definitely final boss) is the way in which it tells a story without using words at all. In fact, it is one of the few games I have played which I would describe as improvable by reducing the word-count and not mean it is an insult. Let me explain.
Working out the bugs
Hollow Knight is told partly through exposition but mostly through non-verbal means: scenery, animation, and music. Motifs are used extensively in all forms, but there are many other blogs and vlogs and the like which delve into all that, and you can find them for yourself, although I will give you my favourite with which to start. (Some music theory recommended but not necessary, as long as you have heard of the beetles.)
The reason why Hollow Knight is able to link all these things together is because it has been conceived as a whole. It is a demonstration, therefore, of the advantage of planning a work, establishing the links between characters and themes, and finding a way to foreshadow as well as refer back to diverse events, prompting the audience (the player in this case) to make connections, sometimes even unconsciously.
Other games do this as well: The Legend of Zelda and Metroid series both spend a lot of effort telling a story without words. However, sooner or later, the words have to be incorporated and those are often the areas where these games are in danger of weaker writing as well, so it is not limited to Hollow Knight.
The story is fairly simple, partly because the creators were quite happy to leave questions unanswered and mysteries unresolved, which is a powerful tool of immersion when executed properly. This tool works in Hollow Knight because the story that is being told is the story of Hallownest, its rise and downfall, and so the precise natures of the Pale King and White Queen are largely irrelevant to the narrative’s internal cohesiveness and the resolution of the main elements of the story. The mystery, the themes of forgetfulness and loss, these are woven together to form a powerful part of Hollow Knight’s world, allowing unresolved peripheral elements to draw us into the narrative emotionally and intellectually, and yet still be satisfying without resolution, save for one abysmal exception.
The theme which leads us to the true final boss is one example of this craftsmanship: light as it attracts insects just as the unknown and promise of knowledge tempt humans. Forgetfulness and loss are also closely entwined: leaving Hallownest costs a bug sapience, and as Hallownest declines, more and more of its culture and history vanishes, and although the noble sacrifice of the Hollow Knight (who is revealed not to be the main character!) will be remembered, his failure to succeed is forgotten, whereas the Knight’s self-sacrifice is doomed to go unnoticed, save perhaps by Hornet.
Even those parts which could at first seem to have come from out of nowhere (fnar!) are foreshadowed (double fnar!) in most cases. The Godmaster DLC’s content is the only exception which springs to mind and, in many ways, I think it represents a “What if?” scenario rather than a true final ending, rather like Bioshock: Infinite’s Burial at Sea. This I assert on literary and philosophical grounds, and certainly not because I still have not beaten the Radiance even once.
There have been some stories told in quirky language which have been great. The bizarre translation of Mystical Ninja starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64 was a work of accidental comic genius as a result of the serendipitous confluence of the translators’ tenuous grasp on at least one language, censorship and, apparently, reality.
Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic and The Void (also known as Turgor) are interactive litanies of quasi-English, but the surreal settings of the games are, by happy accident (I assume), augmented by the strange translations/implementations.
This has not been the case in Hollow Knight. In the other games listed above, the grammar tends to be accurate enough, it is the particular register of lexical elements which make for a strange experience. In Hollow Knight, some parts, most egregiously the confusion of lies and lays, are simply wrong.
Because some parts are wrong, the attempts to make the denizens of Hallownest communicate in quirky or disturbing ways can instead come across as forced, awkward and grating. This damages the game’s ability to clarify important elements of the story through the occasional interaction because the credibility of the device is compromised. This also damages the engaging but delicate atmosphere which the game is trying to create. Elementary mistakes and mismanagement of stylistic devices, like reliance upon gerunds, make the encounter with Herrah banal because she cannot be taken seriously; Monomon ceases to be a mad scientist and becomes a tedious stereotype and so on.
This is a terrible shame because it means that truly superb story-telling is being undermined by the writing which should support it.
That said, Hollow Knight is easily worth the time required to go through its story and observe how planning the components of the story as elements of fiction, narrative devices, and thematic devices can be extraordinarily rewarding. Hollow Knight deserves its accolades without question and, as long as the player can look past the flaws and pay attention between heart-pounding swings of a nail, he should find an excellent model of world-building and story-telling to shine a light on his own work.