Our theme for the month of March is “cities.”
Hollow Knight is an indie game from developer Team Cherry, which was released in 2017 and has since become one of the most successful and beloved indie games ever. The game has you playing as “the Knight,” a small bug who wields a sharp nail as a weapon, and you must explore the various regions of the insect kingdom Hallownest, uncovering mysteries and defeating enemies.
For a game about bugs, Hollow Knight is surprisingly dark, thematically speaking. There’s plenty of humorous moments in the game, but the setting is largely a kingdom in ruin, and most of the places you visit have already met with one grim fate or another. There’s the Fungal Wastes, the Resting Grounds, and even The Abyss—that one’s pretty intense. The most memorable though, to me, is the City of Tears.
City of Tears is the first “destination” of the game—that is, it’s the first place that’s been hinted at before you arrive, and it turns out to be a central focus, both in terms of plot significance and also physically, on the map. So you end up spending a lot of time here.
There are three main features that characterize the atmosphere of City of Tears. First, it is always raining here. If you are out in the open, you are getting rained on alongside the rest of the city, and even when you are indoors, the sound of the rain on the rooftops is an almost comforting constant.
Second, there is a piano theme playing in the background, which seems to mimic the rainfall in its rhythmic patterns, arpeggiating downwards over and over, and is held together by a hauntingly beautiful vocal melody, sung overtop of its accompaniment in clear, somber tones.
Finally, the decor. In the center of the city, there is a large statue of three figures standing in a circle, surrounding a taller figure with a large, horned mask. Underneath, a plaque reads:
MEMORIAL TO THE HOLLOW KNIGHT
In the black vault far above.
Through its sacrifice Hallownest lasts eternal.
Though the full truth of this memorial is unclear at this point in the game, it’s at least obvious that something tragic has happened. The statues imply something ominous about whatever sacrifice must have taken place, and the conspicuously empty city surrounding them calls into question the purpose of said sacrifice. Not to mention that the three additional figures aren’t even mentioned on the plaque. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
A little ways deeper into the city is a building you can enter where the music suddenly stops, and all you can hear is the rainfall outside. Through a doorway and past some curtains, there is a tall, feminine, translucent figure, floating with butterfly wings, who addresses the knight:
“Welcome to my stage, little one. I am Marissa, a songstress of some renown, though given the sorry state of this place, you may find it hard to believe.
“Huge crowds once flocked to hear me sing, then something changed. The audience, once so enraptured, began to leave. I continued to sing, yet my voice fell silent upon their ears.”
If you choose to, of course, you can immediately leave at this point. But if you accept her invitation, there’s a comfortable spot nearby where you can sit down and look up at the songstress.
“Perhaps you’d care to listen to me sing? You’ll be the first in an age to hear it.”
Marissa doesn’t just invite the knight to sit and be her audience, she effectively invites you, the player, to pause, take your hands off the controller for a moment, and just listen. As you do, and as the ghostly songstress resumes her song, you begin to hear that same voice that has been singing as part of the background, now accompanied only by the sound of steady rainfall outside.
It is perhaps the only genuinely restful moment in the course of the whole game, and to me it is deeply, profoundly emotional. Focusing your attention on just the melody of the song makes even clearer the range of feelings being expressed: it is melancholy and mournful, yet hopeful too; wistful but also somehow at peace. And it is the only example in the game of diegetic music: that is, music that is being heard by not just the audience but the characters in the game as well. Christopher Larkin’s score is amazing everywhere in the game, but here it is especially striking because you realize in retrospect that the knight has been hearing it all this time, too. For all we know it’s the only music they get to listen to.
If you speak to Marissa again after listening for a while, she says,
“Even if it’s only you, it’s a wonderful thing to have an audience again.”
Hollow Knight is just a game. And City of Tears is just a location in that game. But my time there sticks firmly in my memory, years after I first played the game, even more so than some places I’ve been to in real life. When you visit somewhere in a single-player video game, there is something so personalized about it—the environment reacts only to you, and every discovery feels like it invests you deeper in the story of that place. The experience is tailor-made to captivate you, and it works.
I’m only twenty-three, and I’ve lived in one place most of my life. But I have had the privilege of playing a lot of incredible video games, exploring the worlds therein, and discovering some amazing places, virtual though they might be.
Philip Rienstra (‘21) majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. They are a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. They’re currently living in Grand Rapids with their partner, Heidi.