Whyyyyyyy? Sob, babble, sigh”. The strange figure in gray in front of me is outraged. I’ve ruined the damn flower again. I was supposed to carry it across the map in one go. Without getting hit, of course, because the flower is too delicate for that. Shortcuts are not allowed. Armor or shields don’t exist or are useless. But at least I can try as many times as I want.
I want to. One more time. In the depths of Hallownest lurk bugs and worms and flies and all sorts of tiny creatures, like I kind of am. Just imagining it, I hear it crawl and crackle strangely. The game is not for entomophobes. Instead of a sword, I wield a nail. Instead of dragons, I slay insects in armor. A miniature world that seems huge because my view is so close. And then, just as close, that sound.
I struggle through the dark corridors of the Resting Grounds, populated down here by half-decayed, jittering, moaning but unfortunately enormously powerful bugs. Fortunately, I can hear their wailing from afar and their attacks announce themselves in time with battle cries. Zing, zing, splosh, uuuuugh. Bug down, flower intact.
Hollow Knight is the closest thing video games have to ASMR. I think. At least to my ears, the sounds of the bugs feel pervasively close. Hollow Knight’s graphical presentation is bizarrely cute, the soundscape almost heartwarming if it didn’t feature such disgusting things. Splurr, splash, squish, wooosh – many of the sound effects are obviously made by mouth. They blend in beautifully with the gibberish given to the NPCs for the voice acting. This babble is reminiscent of childish secret languages. “Siiiiigh, Bapenada” is merchant Iselda’s greeting when I stumble into her map store. Willoh, who resembles a ladybug with a too-long neck, finds the mushrooms from Fog Canyon quite tasty, predicate “Suppa ella. Meerrma!”. And Nailmaster Oro introduces his lesson in martial arts with “Goa namé? Churro!”.
After a long but safe flight over Blue Lake, I arrive at the Forgotten Crossroads, but now, after several hours of play, they are infected with something sticky, festering, bacteria-like. That’s why they’re now called Infected Crossroads, as the text overlay tells me. Not only does the slimy parasite infest enemies and buff them up properly, I can also hear its pulse with a not very soothing heartbeat pumping from somewhere. I have the route and actions in this section firmly planned and need full concentration. Mosquitoes have been turned into screeching flying bombs here, but I know how to outsmart them. Again and again. When it gets quiet again, I’ve almost made it. A crackle reminds me in time to keep moving as a falling stalactite just misses me.
Getting hit – something that won’t happen to me on this run, of course – is bad and is therefore impressively presented in Hollow Knight. Team Cherry has opted for a special trick here: As if one’s own head is briefly submerged under water, all sounds, including music, are lowered to a minimum when a hit occurs, and a muffled hitting noise takes up almost the entire acoustic space. The whole thing lasts only a fraction of a second. It is enough to drill deep into the consciousness. Neurologically, there is probably little difference between a hit in Hollow Knight and a slap in the face from Will Smith.
It’s not far any more. After a brief acid bath in Green Path, I drop deep into Fog Canyon. Down here everything sounds kind of muffled, like underwater. At least that fits the jellyfish-like creatures, which thankfully float up and down here quite peacefully. Still, I shouldn’t touch them. Especially not attacking them. After their demise, some of them shoot their explosive, target-seeking core at me, from which I can escape in at most one of ten cases. Stealth is the name of the game. Almost seamlessly, the area transitions into the Queen’s Garden, my destination. There is a grave here where I am to lay the flower, as a final tribute to a grieving, distant (very distant!) friend.
I move serenely through the final rooms, past spike-shooting grass creatures and discus-throwing locusts. I’m faster than their projectiles, know this area and have come too far to let them take that away from me now. Just before the finish, of course, it has to be a tight thorny scrub, after all the platforming can’t go amiss. This run is the equivalent of the “hot wire” of the family parties of my childhood.
I survive this last skill check, not entirely without sweat on my brow, and find myself at said grave. The delicate flower has survived the journey flawlessly, I lay it down, in the place where, according to the inscription, “The child of traitors” rests.
The grave blossoms with a few white flowers. A ghost appears and thanks me with a bow. Nothing more. No fanfare, no item, no new path. That’s it. It’s silent. The only sound after a short disbelieving pause just my sigh. Bapenada.
Hollow Knight is Team Cherry’s multi-award-winning debut game, first released for PC in 2017, and is considered the Dark Souls of Metroidvanias. The development was largely financed via crowdfunding. The sequel “Silk Song”, which was previously planned as DLC, was announced in 2019, but has since been a long time coming.
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