Halloween is right around the corner, and there is no more appropriate time to talk about fear. The origin of the holiday is literally people trying to scare away the things that scare them. Back on the topic of fear, I recently played the scariest, most stressful, and downright traumatizing game I’ve never had the joy of repeatedly dying in any game other than Bloodborne; Hollow Knight. It was a great action game… Wait, action game? Didn’t I say it was really scary? Yes I did. The game may not have been made to instill fear in the player, but truth be told, it was far scarier than any “horror” game I’ve ever seen or played. To be perfectly honest, the only time I’ve ever felt more anxiety than when playing through Hollow Knight was when I totally didn’t procrastinate and had to write a blog post at 3:00 am because it was due the next day. Saying this, I didn’t really understand why I found this game scarier than others. It wasn’t that violent, nor did it have a super creepy story or characters, but it did have three things going for it that set up a pretty traumatic playthrough; the difficulty of the game, the sound design, and the art.
Starting things off, Hollow Knight isn’t that hard aside from certain locations and bosses. If you’ve played the game, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then the general difficulty of the game comes from its downright sadistic enemy placement, along with it requiring a lot of quick movements and reflexes. Otherwise, it’s not too hard. You know a game isn’t too difficult when I can beat it. But personally, when I hear “sadistic enemy placement” and “needs good reflexes”, I would guess that the game has a lot of unwanted surprises. The game does, in fact, have too many unwanted surprises. The game developers being constantly out to make your life miserable, and the constant threat of death changes you. It changes you real bad. You start being paranoid. Scared every time you enter a room. Jumping at every. Little. Noise. You. Hear. And it’s amazing! Anyways, the topic of noise brings me to sound design.
First things first. The soundtrack of Hollow Knight is downright phenomenal. A good soundtrack is supposed to immerse you in the game’s environment, as well as sound really good, and Hollow Knight’s OST by Christopher Larkin kills it in both of those criteria. However, it’s not the quality of the music that makes the game scary and stressful. It was how it was used in tandem with the sound effects and ambient noises. No game is scary all the time, especially one that isn’t even a horror game, so the majority of Hollow Knight is spent running around and killing stuff with moderately cheery music playing in the background. Then stuff happens, people start eating each other, and spiders. There is an entire area dedicated to spiders. Spider enemies, spider bosses, spider NPCs. It’s at this point where the sound design picks up. The music gets more ominous, there are constant sounds of living, moving, hungry things in the background, and sometimes the music just cuts out for dramatic effect. This change happens when you begin to see the darker side of the game’s story, and the two work together really nicely to create a sinister atmosphere.
The game’s transition is even scarier. The charming hand-drawn animation style is used to show a lighter and darker side of the same coin. The artist uses a lot of black and grey combined with desolate scenery to make the player feel alone, and the feeling of being alone when everything else in the world is actively trying to kill you is not a nice feeling. The messed-up enemy design is focused around bugs, with all the nice little bug quirks that include them eating each other and being parasitical.
Overall, there are a lot of factors that make a game scary. Difficulty, story, enemy design, the fact that I usually play during the knight (pun intended). There are simply too many to detail them all without doing a full-on analysis. The game developers of Hollow Knight did a fantastic job creating the world of their game, and this article barely does it justice. Other than the artsy, intellectual side of the game people like me fail to comprehend, the actual gameplay is fantastic and I would recommend giving it a try if you’re into that kind of thing.
Here is the cheery song I was talking about.
And here’s the darker one. Can you hear the change?
All the pictures can be found below. None belong to me.