One of the best things about Hollow Knight is how often it makes you feel like you’ve uncovered a secret. There was a huge chamber hidden behind that breakable wall, and you just happened to stumble on it. What other secrets might you have missed?
This week on Kotaku Splitscreen, I talked with Team Cherry’s Ari Gibson and William Pellen about how they came up with the idea for Hollow Knight, how they fleshed out the game, who did the voices for all of the monsters, and which maniac came up with Millibelle the banker.
Also this week, Jason and I talked about God of War’s New Game+, the new side-scroller The Messenger, Dragon Quest XI, and of course, that fancy schmancy new Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay demo that CD Projekt Red finally made available to the public.
Download an MP3 here. The interview starts at around 45:00.
Among other topics, we discussed the notion of video game secrets, and how Gibson and Pellen learned never to underestimate the internet’s capacity to collectively work things out. Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation:
Kirk Hamilton: There’s so much in this game that’s very easy to miss. We’ve talked with a lot of game designers over the years about how you reconcile wanting people to see everything and knowing that you can’t just make them see everything without ruining some of that mystery, some of that surprise. How did you approach that balancing act as you were making the game, knowing that there are some secrets that some people—a lot of people, maybe—will just never see?
Ari Gibson: We didn’t stress too much about it. It’s probably obvious from the game, but we didn’t build something [where] we expect people to see everything as they go through. As we’re making content, all we think is that someone will probably see this stuff. And if people come upon it and uncover something new, and feel like maybe this is something that not everyone has discovered, that makes it more special for that person. That makes the experience a lot more impactful than feeling like, oh, I found this thing, but everyone’s probably seen this because the director’s hands have nudged me to see it.
William Pellen: [It’s] one of the things that we liked about playing old games like Zelda II or Faxanadu as a kid, especially because games were really new back then obviously, so the rules weren’t set in stone. It’s not like now, where everyone’s super savvy. It’s the feeling that there could be anything hidden around the corner. There could be any crazy secret or weird creature. In an attempt to replicate that, we just tried to make sure that there was stuff in the world that people had the feeling that if they did find a breakable wall or whatever, or hunt down a secret, there could be anything behind it. It could be, you know, a stinky egg. Or it could be a whole new area with its own boss.
Hamilton: I feel like the Hive is a good example of that. I stumbled on that. I played it after it came to Switch, so after all the DLC was out, and there was more to do there than I think there was initially, when the game came out?
Pellen: Yeah, we added a boss and a visual overhaul.
Hamilton: A boss that was surprisingly hard for me, actually, I’m not sure why. But that feeling of, I think I blasted through a wall and suddenly realized, oh, there’s this whole other area there. It was definitely cool, but I guess I could see both sides of it. Did you ever feel like there was a time where you were holding people’s hands too much, and you had to walk that back? You had to step back and say, they’ll find it, or they won’t, and it’ll be okay?
Gibson: I don’t think we ever felt like we were railroading people or anything.
Pellen: It’s easy to underestimate how good people are at finding stuff. I don’t think we overhid or underhid anything. Once you actually had people playing the game, you realise that something that you thought would take a week or two weeks to get found, it’s actually more like an hour. Even before people start datamining it, people smash though everything.
Gibson: We certainly recognise that the Internet is there, and will always display everything that exists.
Pellen: Yeah, and you know, if you want to go online and look up everything you’ve missed or play along, then that’s cool. And at the same time, if you’re keen on just going through blind and muddling through and you manage to stumble on one or two really surprising things, then that’s cool as well.
Hamilton: Yeah, I think I muddled through for 80% of the game, and then there came a point where I just had to start looking stuff up. Are there any secrets in the game that people have not yet found?
Pellen: No, I don’t think so. Because people can datamine.
Gibson: People dug up rooms that were half-finished, that were just disconnected from the game. Everything gets uprooted at the base level. It’s ridiculous. Half of the stuff that people have modded out of the game, we couldn’t even remember it was still in there, ourselves.