Two Knights and their Hollow Souls

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Two Knights and their Hollow Souls
September 21, 2019 Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Dark Souls and Hollow Knight are two brilliant, but very different, games with some common themes. How similar are the worlds of Lordran and Hallownest, and how deep do those similarities go?

Dark Souls is a game series renowned for its punishing difficulty. Since the release of its precursor, Demon’s Souls, in 2009, FromSoftware’s formula of high-damaging enemies, a low threshold for mistakes, and heavy consequences for failure has become something of a benchmark for difficulty in videogame journalism, with other challenging games such as Cuphead often being compared to Souls. But the Souls games are more than just a challenge to be overcome. They tell the tale of ruined and crumbling worlds, of gods fallen from grace, demons on the verge of extinction, and the populace consumed by a terrible, hungering curse. The undead-haunted land of Lordran is brought to gloomy life through tragic characters, breathtaking locations, and cryptic hints scattered in the darkest corners of the game. At the heart of it all is the eternal, conflicting cycle of Light and Dark.

In 2017, the indie developer Team Cherry released the Kickstarter-funded Hollow Knight, a roguelike metroidvania with high-damaging enemies, a low threshold for mistakes, and heavy consequences for failure. This naturally seemed very similar to Dark Souls, with the same steep learning curve for a newcomer and the same sense of accomplishment when finally toppling a boss five times the size of your character. In addition, it doesn’t take much exploration of the ruined, husk-infested kingdom of Hallownest to feel that it bears more than a passing similarity to Dark Souls’ Lordran. As a player delves into the fragments of the plot, from the very top of Crystal Peak to the depths of the Ancient Basin, they discover a mythic conflict between light and darkness, broken gods, and a great tragedy spawned from fear of the sinister Infection.

While I was rather late to the party with both the Souls games and Hollow Knight, I did end up playing the two back-to-back and was very quickly able to draw parallels. Early in my journey through Hollow Knight, I found myself matching the locations in Hallownest to locations in Lordran. The Forgotten Crossroads is bleak and home to weak, slow enemies and the first two bosses of the game, just like the Undead Burg in Dark Souls. The next area, Greenpath, is filled with lush vegetation and animate plant life, similar to Darkroot Garden. These comparisons continue throughout, with perhaps the most striking being the City of Tears and Anor Londo, both of which represent a central location in their respective games geographically and from a narrative perspective. It is in these wondrous cities, their former glory faded to shadows, that the knight of Hollow Knight and the chosen undead of Dark Souls gather together all the tasks they have completed so far, and are sent out to find their next, more impactful, challenges.

This is not to say that the worlds are completely identical. Lordran is heavily inspired by medieval Europe, with some areas being almost exact recreations of real places. The exterior of Anor Londo, for instance, looks identical to certain parts of Milan Cathedral. Also, the areas in Dark Souls twist and wind around each other in a disorienting yet cunning way. Any one point can be reached from any other with relative ease using the secret routes and shortcuts which riddle the game. 

Meanwhile, Hallownest is altogether unique, with its simple art style presenting a world created by civilised insects. The architecture has recognisable elements, such as street lamps and cemeteries, but everything is framed in an inhuman way. Tombstones are shaped like beetle shells, swords are called nails, and the currency is implied to be a strange kind of food. While it is still easy to become lost in the maze of caverns or tunnels in Deepnest or the Royal Waterways, every location in Hallownest is kept very separate from the others. The map, which the player gradually fills in, helps to demystify this, showing each location as a rough rectangle filled with its own tangle of paths and rooms. Navigation around Hallownest takes longer than in Lordran but is overall more straightforward and intuitive once the map is complete.

Regardless of how the player explores these games, they will encounter enemies and obstacles blocking their path. They again handle these in different ways, both playing to the strengths of their different genres. Dark Souls places a heavy emphasis on combat, granting players and enemies a huge variety of weapons and actions to use when fighting. While this provides great scope in how a player can approach any given enemy (one may favour a heavy weapon to stagger enemies, while another may prefer lighter equipment to more easily dodge attacks), the unifying theme in all methods of fighting in Dark Souls is commitment. Most attack animations are slow compared to other games, movement is highly restricted, almost every action consumes stamina, and any hits will often deal heavy damage with a chance to stun. Thus, every action is deliberate, fights becoming a test of judgement, and weighing resources and opportunities against the very real risk of a swift death.

Hollow Knight, by contrast, places more emphasis on speed and movement than risk and reward. There are no weapon, armour, or even cosmetic options for the player’s knight, and while equipping certain charms will favour different playstyles by tweaking the knight’s abilities in various ways, the core gameplay will be largely unchanged. The knight can move quickly, especially once the Mothwing Cloak and Monarch Wings have been acquired to allow dashing and double-jumping respectively. Fast, close-range slashes with the nail are the only real combat manoeuvre the knight possesses, and enemies will often have only one or two attacks of their own. There is no stamina to restrict these simple attacks or player movement, and no shields to block enemy attacks with, which all combines to emphasise the importance of speed and dodging. Some areas of the game, most notably the White Palace, are almost completely free of enemies, with the challenge being entirely based around platforming and the use of the knight’s remarkable manoeuvrability. Even the nail can be used to ‘pogo’ off enemies’ heads or hazardous spike pits, the sole weapon in the game becoming a movement tool.

Yet despite these differing approaches to challenge and obstacles, both Dark Souls and Hollow Knight culminate in similar ways (spoilers follow), with the player character facing off against a light-based deity. In Dark Souls this is Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight: a Zeus-like figure who used the power of the First Flame to defeat the dragons and bind the cursed soul of humanity to the light of fire. It is implied that in his fear of humanity’s inherent darkness, his act of ‘linking the fire’ irrevocably changed the nature of the world and the relationship of light and darkness. While he is portrayed in great majesty throughout the game, from the massive statues in Anor Londo to the church dedicated to his sunlight miracles, he is revealed as a shrivelled hollow when the player finally meets him.

Hollow Knight’s Radiance is, like Gwyn, a deity representative of the sun, though in a far more literal sense as she first appears as the sun itself. In keeping with the insectoid nature of the game’s characters, the Radiance’s true form is that of a white moth capable of blasting the knight with beams of sunlight and summoning a rain of divine swords. Unlike Gwyn, whose importance is made clear to the player right from Dark Souls’ opening cutscene, the Radiance is altogether more mysterious. Very few characters mention or know about her, and none call her by name. Two of the game’s endings are even possible without ever having encountered her. Nonetheless, if a player searches hard enough, hints at the Radiance’s influence can be found, such as ironwork fences wrought in her image and the Pale King’s references to ‘the blinding light that plagues their dreams’.

Despite their roles as sun-god final bosses, Gwyn and the Radiance take very different places in their respective stories. Dark Souls’ Gwyn foresaw humanity’s age of dark eventually overthrowing his age of light and took measures to prevent it, binding the souls of human undead to the First Flame and allowing the curse to be temporarily staved off if dark humanity was fed to the flame. Hollow Knight’s The Radiance, by contrast, was supplanted by a creature called the Pale King. The Pale King sealed her within a vessel of darkest Void, the eponymous Hollow Knight, to prevent her from spreading her Infection through the dreams of his subjects. 

The interesting comparison here is that the Pale King bears significant similarity to Gwyn in all but the aspect of being a light-based god. Gwyn feared the dark and used light to attempt to stop it. Meanwhile, the Pale King feared the Radiance and used the Void to attempt to stop her. However, both Gwyn’s and the Pale King’s plans were flawed; the undead curse continued to afflict Lordran and the Radiance was able to continue spreading her Infection from within the Hollow Knight. This leaves the player seeking a way to correct the mistakes of Gwyn and the Pale King, and ultimately succeed them as the new rulers of their lands.

The final contrast to mention is the contrast in tone. Lordran and Hallownest are both in states of ruin. Only a scarce few characters remain who are not hostile to the chosen undead and the knight, but these characters and their dialogue are vital to setting the tone of each game. Perhaps Dark Souls’ most famous character is Solaire of Astora, a knight known for his unwavering faith in the sun and his friendly demeanour. However, if his story is followed into the fiery Demon Ruins, he falls into depression and can eventually go mad when he discovers a parasite which glows like the sun. Similarly, Siegmeyer of Catarina is filled with valour and courage, yet as the player helps him he begins to feel more and more useless and is ultimately slain by his daughter when loss of purpose turns him hollow. Even Oscar, the first character to help the chosen undead, is killed by the player’s own hand. In Lordran, every character is acutely aware of the ruin and decay of the world, and the crushing weight of futility erodes away any optimism or sanity these characters may possess.

Meanwhile, Hollow Knight’s characters are surrounded by a similarly gloomy world, most of the populace has fallen to the Infection, and their mighty saviour, the Pale King, is missing. Yet Elderbug, the first character encountered, can have his pessimistic outlook changed through the simple act of bringing him a flower. Characters such as Cloth, Hornet, and Tiso refuse to give up on their convictions, even in the face of insurmountable odds. All draw some degree of comfort and confidence from even the smallest of things. Quirrel is perhaps the best example of this: an itinerant scholar who, despite his amnesia, never ceases to seek out answers. The player can often find him admiring some of the most spectacular views in the game, such as the City of Tears and Crystal Peak, and he always speaks of such places with satisfied wonder. By the end of his story he has reached the most beautiful and tranquil area in the game, the Blue Lake, and the knight can share a moment of silent contemplation with him at the water’s edge.

This, I feel, is where the games truly differ. Dark Souls will not, cannot, allow its characters to rest easy or satisfied. It does everything it can to drag the player down into its oppressive atmosphere, working on the basis that the greatest triumphs can only be won through the greatest of adversity. Hollow Knight is gentler, giving every cloud of tragedy a silver lining of hope. As Elderbug says after receiving the flower, ‘perhaps dreams aren’t such a bad thing after all…’