Over the last two months, I’ve written posts about how Breath of the Wild is an excellent example of how to do settings and how Shovel Knight reveals the depths of its characters through gameplay. While I’m sure the Breath of the Wild sequel will continue to advance its worldbuilding technique, and the final Shovel Knight DLC will give more insight into one of its boss characters, I’d like to spend this month discussing how Hollow Knight can provide writers with some clues on how to write effective foreshadowing, integrate ambiance into their settings, and provide steady and discernible character growth in their protagonists.
Before we get into it, though, I feel a short explanation of the “Metroidvania” genre is in order. Hollow Knight is a platformer that abides by some of the basic tenets of games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (hence the genre of “Metroidvania”). There are two main aspects to a good Metroidvania: exploration and upgrades. A player can only get so far with the first one without advancing the plot of the game through the second one. There’s certainly been a bit of a resurgence of these kinds of games over the last few years, but I think Hollow Knight is one of the best Metroidvania games out there. So, without further ado, let’s learn what it can teach us about writing . . .
Sure, the “Show, don’t tell” techniques of Breath of the Wild are also used in Hollow Knight‘s gameplay by the little prophecies and ruins scattered throughout the world. Moreover, the Metroidvania genre as a whole has a knack at showing the player a later part of the game that they can’t necessarily access at the time. This might be an unreachable ledge or a boulder that’s blocking a path, but each time a character gains the skills to reach these new areas, then the story can progress. There is a small amount of backtracking that might occur in a story to revisit these areas, but it can be easier to fully develop a location that becomes more important later in the story once the protagonist is ready for it. For Hollow Knight, the most significant foreshadowing is right at the beginning of the game: a large, locked “egg” is a curious feature of the landscape until it eventually becomes the spot of the final boss fight. That’s some significant foreshadowing.
Other Metroidvanias have a fairly consistent theme throughout their worlds. Whether it’s exploring the underground areas of Super Metroid or the eponymous “castle” of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, there isn’t much variation between the different regions. True, there may be a “hot” area or an “underwater” area that require special skills to explore, but they all have relatively similar feels, comparatively. Conversely, Hollow Knight manages to uniquely present its different areas, both visually and audibly. The first level, Forgotten Crossroads, has some creatures scuttling about but is reasonably desolate. Contrast this area to the next one, Greenpath, which is teeming with life and overgrown with greenery. I could go on about areas like Crystal Peak’s echoing sound effects, the creepy sounds of the creatures in the Royal Waterways, or the downright eerie silence of The Abyss. The main thing to take away here for your writing is to include all the senses when describing a setting. What do you hear? What smells or tastes might occupy this space? What sets it apart visually from other areas your protagonist has visited?
3. Character Growth
As mentioned in the “Foreshadowing” section above, most Metroidvanias will block off part of the map from the player until they’ve obtained a specific upgrade. Whether this is a double jump, a wall kick, or a more powerful weapon, it’s always entertaining to see a character gain a new ability and be able to use it to advance their story. Many shounen anime series use this formula as well: the protagonist will learn some new technique that will increase their power so they can finally defeat a more powerful enemy. In Hollow Knight, I was also impressed by how the world of Hallownest evolved to match the main character’s progression as well, introducing stronger, “infected” enemies near the end of the game to rachet up the difficulty. If there’s no way to show that your protagonist is growing, perhaps consider what barriers they need to overcome to advance the plot.
While Hollow Knight is an impressive game, I’m certainly looking forward to its sequel, Silksong, to advance the story introduced in the first game. I’m sure it will follow many of the same rules of Metroidvanias, but it already looks like some of its game mechanics have changed enough to give controlling the “Hornet” character a much different feel than controlling the “Knight.” At any rate, I have high hopes for this sequel, as I’m always looking for quality Metroidvanias to play.
Have you played Hollow Knight?
Is revisiting old areas/settings from your story a good idea?
What have other Metroidvanias taught you about writing?