Pathologic, Hollow Knight, and Why We Play Games

Mar 2024

I was re-watching Hbomberguy’s video on Pathologic recently, and a line that he foregrounded during one of the video’s transitions stood out to me.

Artemy: So it’s all about trickery to you?

Clara: No, no, I detest trickery. But if we ourselves are to suffer deception, our hands are no longer tied.

Having suffered many betrayals, I understood the line first in terms of the interpersonal. Chronic exposure to abuse renders you unable to create accurate assessments of reality and to evaluate other people’s intentions, which makes you an ideal mark for bullies. You may have difficulty detecting signs of deception, or more likely, you willfully choose to ignore those signs in order to preserve a (false) sense of safety, as the alternative, rebelling against your abuser, typically failed when you were a child and the abuser was a parent or other powerful adult. This coping mechanism can quickly become unsustainable if your abuser escalates their mistreatment of you. Forced to accept responsibility for the abuser’s violence, your self-image crumbles, leaving you incapable of completing basic tasks like emotional regulation. The only way to break free from this cycle is to realize that your abuser is responsible for your suffering and that you did nothing to deserve their mistreatment of you.

That said, it seems like the Pathologic devs were looking to make a different point. The deception in question is that of the video game. Players engaged in the world of Pathologic are likely to be frustrated when they encounter the kids in the sandbox and learn that the game world is simply the figment of a child’s imagination. In his video, Hbomberguy correctly points out that even if the canon explanation for the game world is that it’s pure fantasy, that shouldn’t affect a player’s motivation or investment in the world because, well, it’s a video game! It was never real to begin with, and your assumption that it meant anything more than the meaning you assigned to it was misguided all along. Whether the game world is “real” or not within the in-game universe is irrelevant. We must have some other reason for playing games, then. If we know it’s not real, then why are we playing?

Pathologic suggests that the purpose of the video game, like any other text, is to facilitate a conversation between developers and players. We keep exploring, talking to NPCs, and defeating enemies because we want to find out what the developers have to say about the game world and, more importantly, our own. This is one way to distinguish between a good game and a bad one, a game worth spending your time on and one that you can safely forget about – what are the developers trying to tell you? If the answer is “spend money on microtransactions” and not much else, consider how that makes you feel relative to the time you happen to be giving the developers.

Where’s the satisfaction in gathering all 100 hidden collectibles in a game like Uncharted 3? In exchange for your time, you get an achievement and achievement points that are, quite frankly, meaningless. Compare that to collecting 2400 Essence in Hollow Knight, a task that is similarly arbitrary but simultaneously much more meaningful: you discover new information about the Moth Tribe that explains why the Radiance is the source of the Infection. Moreover, this nugget of information tells you something about the nature of our own world. Some beings are obsessed with immortality and the perpetuation of their being into the future without limit. Some seek to achieve it by always being worshipped, never being forgotten. In the world of Hollow Knight, that drive leads to the absolute destruction of a society. Now that is a profound insight into our own afflictions, and a masterclass in how you turn a grind to collect 2400 Soul into something a player won’t forget.

The game doesn’t just save all these tidbits for endgame content. Instead, the world is populated with them, and they are the main driver behind your desire to continue your journey through Hallownest. I particularly remember hearing about how the Mosskin had to be evicted from their lands in order to make room for the Queen’s Gardens. It reminded me of our world, where powerful individuals regularly scheme to displace the marginalized in order to seize their land and use it for their own interests, whether commercial or recreational. As a result of the disruption to their indigenous lifeways, some Mosskin end up forgetting their creator, Unn, and worship other beings like the Radiance. When you meet Unn, though, she isn’t angrily scheming for revenge or dreaming of a return to the past where she was great. Instead, she lives quietly, understanding that not all things can last forever, that her time has passed. In exchange for your diligence in seeking her out despite the fact that she has been forgotten, she humbly shares with you a token of her power in the form of her Shape of Unn charm.

It’s this that makes Hollow Knight stand apart from other games, where it can be hard to find a satisfying answer to that question, “Why am I doing this?” A game that doesn’t attempt to answer this question, or whose attempt to do so falls flat, is not a game that I’m going to want to keep playing. In the worst case, it’s a game I’m going to actively resent for taking me in. Fortnite is a crude but effective example. Once you begin to ask yourself the question “Why play Fortnite?” and fail to come up with a satisfying answer, it becomes glaringly obvious that the real answer is perhaps more unpleasant. The more time you spend playing, the more chances you’ll get roped into spending money on exorbitantly expensive skins and cosmetics that will ultimately fatten executive bank accounts, all in exchange for your time wasted on a substandard experience.

It’s not just the core gameplay loop of exploration and lore that makes Hollow Knight rewarding to play. The games’ mechanics, and in particular the movement and combat systems, also have high skill ceilings that provide you with a sense of mastery when you pull off impressive feats that require precise inputs, like pogo jumping off of multiple enemies to reach a hidden area or defeating a boss without taking damage. The game is relentless in punishing your mistakes, but it almost never feels unfair. When you flawlessly move through the world using your dash, double jump, and wall hanging abilities and employ all of them to handily defeat a boss – that feeling is its own reward.

What’s more is that Hollow Knight seamlessly integrates game mechanics and narrative development. The best example of this is Void Heart, a charm that offers combat bonuses, has deep associations with the game’s lore, and represents your character’s development on a personal level. Once you understand that you were a tool, one of many, created in order to carry out the King’s plans at any cost, that you were never intended to be a full being but rather an empty Vessel designed to further the will of your creator, you can accept that your feelings about the “void” inside you are not about any supposed lack of worth, but rather an imposition that the King placed on you and all the other Vessels to limit your potential and control you, to ensure that you would do exactly as he said and be an obedient little servant. All so that everyone else could hide from Hallownest’s past even as it was coming to collect on what was due, while the ideal Vessel suffers alone in the forced seclusion of the Black Egg Temple for eternity. In flashbacks and Dream Nail dialogue, the King is always thinking to himself, “No cost too great…” and for him, there was no cost too great if it meant he could keep his playground where he was a god, where everyone both loved and feared him, where he was important. In “uniting the Void”, a physical manifestation of the idea that all things return to dust, you come to both understand and reject the King’s folly (ironically best represented by the light of the arrogant Radiance) and thus integrate your fractured selves, ending the cycle.

The fact that Void Heart can’t be unequipped once your memory is restored reflects how you’ve permanently changed thanks to your new understanding of your traumatic past as a being who was discarded after it turned out the King didn’t think you would be sufficient for the job of sealing away the Radiance. The fact that your Shade and other Siblings no longer attack you reflects a reconciliation between your various selves and other Vessels. You aren’t enemies, but rather natural allies against the cruel and thoughtless King who decided to lock you all in the Abyss and forget about you after he created you and didn’t want you anymore, who seized one of your own and raised him to be nothing more than an obedient slave, destined to suffer for eternity in exchange for keeping the King’s power fantasy intact. The worst part? His plan didn’t even work! [and the coward escaped without a trace once the kingdom was well and truly doomed.] Hallownest still crumbled because the Hollow Knight was their own being, had their own free will, couldn’t ever block out the temptation of the Radiance without fail. Consider the high price everyone else paid so that the King could carry out his poorly thought-out, last-ditch effort to save the kingdom.

That brings me to my only critique of the game’s narrative, which is that you never hear the Hollow Knight speak at all. I thought the game would provide an opportunity to talk to your fellow Vessel, to see how he feels about having been raised solely to be locked away. I wanted to hear all of his overwhelming and unbearable emotions, his suffering, his bitterness, his loneliness, his anger and righteous indignation. The self-stab action the Hollow Knight can perform in later phases of the fight against him expresses this narrative element, his cry for help and desire for relief from psychic suffering, through combat mechanics, but I wasn’t sure that was enough for me. Although the True Ending also provides some closure and narrative resolution, as you both return to the Void after banishing the Radiance, the Godmaster endings unlocked by the DLC indicate that Team Cherry weren’t entirely opposed to exploring endings where the Hollow Knight is both freed from the influence of the Radiance and his obligation to seal her away, and survives the process, meaning he is suddenly confronted with the crushing reality that he was manipulated and then abandoned in the cruelest fashion. Even if the Hollow Knight’s reaction to that betrayal is just mindless aggression towards anything and everything that lives, an attempt to communicate the tremendous suffering he has and is experiencing and yet cannot express, it would drive home what the devs spent so much narrative energy building towards, their commentary on the futility of power and the human costs of pursuing it, their nod to the people who are sacrificed in order to make the projection of power possible. There were some real narrative stakes there, and I think Team Cherry dropped the ball in this regard.

Of course, others may not agree

Now that would have given a very profound meaning to my time in the world of Hollow Knight. Of course, they did a fantastic job as is, and though I’m curious as to whether this was something that they considered, I can’t complain about the incredible experience Team Cherry provided with Hollow Knight. No rush when it comes to Silksong, either. This kind of artistic achievement can’t be replicated without a lot of consideration and thoughtfulness, and those take time.