Modern game design is a complex art. We live in an era where it’s not enough to rely on nostalgia, or the rose-colored glasses of players eager to relive their childhoods, where evoking those earliest memories of joy with a controller in hand is more difficult than ever. There is an ever increasing wealth of high quality experiences vying for gamers’ attention; the indie revolution has meant that, while it’s easier than ever to find the tools and acquire the expertise to build your own game, the level of competition is also higher than it’s ever been.
This especially true in the platformer space, which means for teams like the one at #TeamCherry it’s more important than ever to create a game that doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia. It’s important to also blend the tried and true elements of platforming (fast-paced, frenetic action, tight responsive controls) with modern design elements and conveniences that players now expect as a matter of course. And since we also live in a very visual era, where the first trailer, screenshots, or the first glimpse of a game being played during a Twitch livestream can create a lasting impression of the quality of a game, it’s also more critical than ever to craft a striking visual aesthetic that will draw and capture your intended audience’s attention.
Something old, something new...
Considering what a tall order all this amounts to, it’s even more impressive that Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight manages to deliver. The core of the game, an action platformer that demands precision, reflexes and a growing mastery of its dodging, dashing and striking, is a dazzling blend of 2D side-scrolling platforming and modern design. It feels smooth and responsive, and every failure feels like your responsibility, the way it should in a best-in-class platformer. But on top of the excellent controls and gripping action sequences (which for better or worse now represent the lowest barrier of entry for indie platformer success), Hollow Knight introduces modern wrinkles that lend it a necessary sense of depth.
Players collect charms that unlock new spells and abilities, and need to select which of them to equip at any given time. This extra layer of strategy adds a sense of progression and player agency that serves as a carrot to motivate players to fully explore it’s gorgeous world. Collecting charms and swapping them in and out as circumstance dictates elevates the action in Hollow Knight, ensuring it never feels like a mindless side scroller. It also innovates with novel ideas like the Dream Nail, an item that lets you enter the minds of the characters you encounter, and evolve and upgrade your abilities so that you feel increasingly more competent and powerful as you battle your way through its spectacular world.
A Knight in the woods
Speaking of setting, Hollow Knight also delivers on that other critical design axis: aesthetic. It features some of the most gorgeous 2D art in indie platforming, and makes excellent use of parallax scrolling to impart a beautiful diorama effect. The world of Hollow Knight feels hand crafted and thoughtfully constructed to imbue it with a sense of atmosphere that’s rare in 2D experiences. It’s also populated by a huge cast of strange and memorable characters, and even enemy design contributes to the sense of a unified, carefully considered aesthetic. Encouraging players to explore and deviate from the beaten path by tucking interesting content into side areas or hidden portions of the map makes the world of Hollow Knight feel rich in mystery and possibility.
Hollow Knight excels at taking some of the essential elements of classic platformers that hearken all the way back to the 8-bit era but using them in a modern context, surrounding them with a robust suite of features and options that feel wholly contemporary. And it’s starkly beautiful in a way that doesn’t feel front loaded; it draws you in with snappy eye-candy but it continues to change and evolve its aesthetic in subtle (or overt) ways as you navigate through its micro-scale gothic universe.