A Letter To Hollow Knight Silksong
I miss you. It’s been too long since I’ve heard from you. Today is February 14–some may refer to it as Valentine’s Day, but it’s far more special than that. It’s the day I and so many others got to see you for the first time. Your announcement trailer debuted on this day, three years ago.
I haven’t heard much about you since.
Following your incredible reveal, we managed to connect at E3 2019–I was amazed to finally play through a portion of Pharloom, a kingdom both eerily similar and vastly different to Hollow Knight‘s Hollownest. And then Team Cherry continued to tease me with snippets of information about you in blog posts that stopped in December 2019, as well as articles published in magazines like Edge and [lock-on] (I read them all–my sustenance in these trying times). Every once in a while, I hear an update about you via Team Cherry’s Discord server, like how you wouldn’t be at E3 2021. Oh, and there were those coded riddles that Team Cherry posed to the community last year–those were pretty cool!
For now, I’m fine with all these small teases. I wish I could see more of you, but I am content to simply know that you continue to exist.
There is one topic, however, that I’d love to hear more about sooner rather than later: your map. You may be a sequel, but you’re a game that started out as an expansion to your predecessor. So it stands to reason that would mean you have elements of the original Hollow Knight in your DNA, including its map.
Aka, the best part of Hollow Knight.
I love Hollow Knight because it limits itself to a traditional map. Most video games don’t–they have in-game GPS systems. Most “maps” in games automatically tell the player where they are and immediately reveal what the area around the player looks like once you visit a new location for the first time. Maps can’t actually do that. When a person opens a paper map in real life, it typically takes them a minute to figure out where they are based on what’s around them and where they’ve been. And even once they figure out where they think they are, there’s little they can do to know where they are beyond finding a noticeable landmark.
Hollow Knight’s whole gameplay loop is built around this premise. The game wants the player to get lost in its world. And the first time someone plays through Hollow Knight, they will. A lot. Enough times that it may become frustrating. Hollownest is a deeply confusing place to explore–as difficult to get through as it would be if someone were dropped into a city in a foreign country without access to Google Maps and told to find their way to a location they’ve never been to before. But that confusion serves a purpose–it forces you to fail, early and often, teaching you the most important aspect of Hollownest.
That this is a kingdom built on the remains of failures.
A king failed to share power. A goddess failed to forgive. A prince failed his fellow lords. A father failed to love his children, and then really screwed up by loving the child he shouldn’t have. A princess failed to protect her home. A trio of dreamers failed to contain a nightmare. A society failed–its people succumbing to a disease as difficult to understand as the fleeting remains of a lingering dream, and as inescapable as a thought you’re told not to think.
In Hollow Knight, its people have learned through failure. So it’s only apt that the player does the same. First, in failing to understand where they are and what they must do, before then failing to fully comprehend what the unnamed knight truly is, and then finally coming to terms with the failure of not knowing what said character is fully capable of.
With each failure in Hollow Knight, the player learns more about the world–maybe they make a discovery of how not to fight a specific enemy or learn where they shouldn’t go. And if they stop to think about those failures for a moment and try to discern why the game is putting them through such hardship, they may begin to see the dark (but immensely intriguing) narrative slithering beneath its gorgeous visuals and wonderful soundtrack.
It’s an admittedly slow process, and one that doesn’t pay off until players have made quite a bit of progress through the game. But the emotional pay-off of those reveals–of finally understanding both how and (more importantly) why Hallownest has been so carefully designed by a too-proud king seeking to hide his and his people’s failures–is incredible. One of the best I’ve ever had from any game.
But I’m just prattling on. I don’t have to tell you this. You know all this. And if you were to leave this system just the way it is, I wouldn’t be mad. I welcome the chance to once again fall victim to a mystifying metroidvania and scrape and claw my way towards understanding what’s going on, where I have to go, and what I need to do.
All that said–I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that Hollow Knight’s map system isn’t the most approachable. Having beaten the game and figured out its secrets, I know why its map is designed the way it is, but I also know that such a map has prevented many players from being able to see why Hollow Knight is so good.
So as incredible as Hollow Knight’s map is, I ask that you, Silksong, make a few changes to how you befuddle the player and draw them into Pharloom and the story of Hornet. Instead of making the Compass an item that needs to be bought, maybe just give that to the player from the start (with an option to toggle it on or off) to help folks who struggle with spatial awareness and will find it difficult to use the limited map. Hollow Knight already does such a superb job nudging the player towards the City of Tears before freeing them to pursue whichever path they choose, so consider utilizing those same clever environmental details throughout the whole experience, not just during the first part of your story. And having an NPC who’s an adventurer that players can regularly refer to for advice (like your parents in Chicory: A Colorful Tale) is another great optional consideration for a game with exploration at its center. Players will likely still get lost as they climb to the top of the kingdom of song and silk, but regular signposting and optional hints is way more helpful for getting people back on track than relying on players being stubborn enough to eventually find the way forward.
I don’t mean to be too critical before you’ve even had a chance to show people what you can do. But there are a lot of naysayers around the original Hollow Knight. And though I’ll never admit it to them (please burn this letter upon reading it), I can confide in you that as much as I love Hollow Knight, those people are right. That game is brilliant, but it’s also deeply unapproachable for anyone who hasn’t already bought into wanting to complete the experience, and just plain inaccessible for lots of players. I don’t want that for you. I want you to be better.
But again, I’ll just be happy to see you again, regardless of how you look. So let’s set a date to meet up–I’d love to see you at the next Nintendo Direct. Maybe we can meet up near the end? I’ll go and find you next to all the other games that shadow drop-release.
A humble fan