Atmosphere in Games (Hades and Hollow Knight)

The opening scene or sequence in a game is the most important, more so than any other medium. A film or an anime can wait to draw you in, often there is important groundwork that needs to be laid in narrative-centric media. A hook just sometimes has to take a backseat, and can be pushed off to the end of a first episode or act. Games don’t have that luxury.

Video games require you, the player, to participate in order to experience the game. A book might require you to flip a page, a film demands that you watch, but these are passive actions compared to the active involvement a game necessitates. And the competitive nature of the market means there is no forgiveness if a player loses interest in the first hour or even minutes. At that point you have lost a repeat customer for your sequels, DLC, or microtransactions, if you’re a garbage developer.

I am never going to forget the opening to Spider-Man PS4, both for how it handles the opening, and how it sets the bar. If you’re a layman to Spider-Man and Peter Parker, it’s an introduction to the messy scientist and superhero perpetually late on his rent, as well as his sense of obligation to help people. If you’re a lifelong fan, it’s a nostalgic trip through the webslinger’s history, including news clipping of clashes with classic villains, while also meeting this new incarnation.

Add that to a complementary track, Alive by the Warbly Jets, that hits its chorus just as Peter pulls his mask on and dives out the window. You’re thrown into the game’s wonderful web-swinging system, and the opening has already sold this game. To accomplish this is to have mastered atmosphere, the mood and aesthetic cast over your entire world, game play, and your player as they spend time in it.

Today I will be going through two of my favorite games from the last few years, Hollow Knight and Hades, and assessing how each places the player firmly in their heroes’ shoes.

HADES is the Best Video Game of 2020 - ScreenRex
Zagreus is often presented with two choices on how to proceed, here we see him making that decision in Elysium.

To start, I’ll run through Hades if you haven’t seen my review of it. Set in Greek mythology, Zagreus, son of Hades, strives to escape the Underworld and meet his mother. Along the way he collects the treasures hiding in the land of the dead, receives help from both Underworld entities as well as the Olympians, hoping to assist their newfound relative. Zagreus must fight hydras, gorgons, and all manner of Grecian ghouls, or run afoul of the business end of a Fury’s blades.

Hades is a roguelike, where your progress is randomized and reset upon death, and it’s built into the narrative. Gods don’t ever truly die, Zagreus merely washes away in the River Styx instead of meeting his end. Death is only the beginning of Zagreus’ journey through his father’s domain, but even success is no more than a starting line.

Hollow Knight, meanwhile, is the Metroidvania indie darling that brings a world of bugs in a subterranean kingdom called Hallownest to life. You play as the Knight, a small bug whose only defense against the horde of Infected insects is his nail fashioned as a sword. More powers and tools will come, but never easily, and you’re going to have to go out and find them yourself.

The Knight traverses the many regions of Hallownest, from the dreary Forgotten Crossroads, to the lush verdure of Greenpath, to the decrepit decay of the Kingdom’s Edge. He meets many fearsome bugs who seek to send him back to the last bench he sat on in a Soulsborne game play loop, but many friends and allies as well. Hollow Knight is 20 percent charting your path, 5 percent epic boss battles, and 75 percent just taking in the scenery of Hallownest’s diverse ecosystem.

Why the Knight appeared at the doorstep of Hallownest, he’s not quite sure. The story slowly expands through environmental storytelling in the form of cryptic monuments and ruins of a once great civilization, and bare scraps of lore and exposition. Like traveling Hallownest, the player is often forced to make their own way, even when it comes to the story. Needless to say, these two games couldn’t be more different, other than diminutive protagonists battling often literal swarms of enemies.

Hollow Knight on Steam
The Knight battles two bugs in the City of Tears.

Zagreus’ many escape attempts take him through the three potential afterlives: gloomy Tartarus for the most severely damned, the newly fiery Asphodel for the mediocre, and the vibrant Elysium, home to heroes. Only then can he devise a route around the three-headed guard dog, Cerberus, and through the last barrier his father puts in front of escape. Each realm is equipped with their own enemies befitting the uniquely deceased and drastically different color palettes, but certain themes are consistent.

The music changes mostly on the basis of what kind of fight Zagreus is engaged in, rather than where he’s fighting. It usually runs guitar heavy rock tracks reminiscent of Doom, but it’s willing to mix it up. The game often employs rustic music that lends to the ancient Greek setting’s authenticity, even if they usually prefer to hone in on music that emphasizes the brutal violence Zagreus inflicts.

The game’s sprite work is just legendary, especially as someone who longs for the days where 2D pixel art reigned supreme. However, I have even more praise for the character protrait of every deity, hero, or villain from Greek mythology. Hades does a splendid job of reimagining their characters in afresh ways that still pay tribute to their lofty origins, while maintaining a cohesive art style. No one ever feels out of place, or untrue to the mythic character they portray.

But atmosphere is all in the details, and Hades is rife with them. The way Zagreus’ feet leave fiery footprints wherever he goes, or how Alecto of the Furies refers to him as Redblood, because obviously gods usually bleed gold. I’m a lore hound for the games I play, and I’m already a fanatic for mythology, so the way Hades integrates many of the little details in its source material is enough for me to call it Game of the Year. It didn’t win, but Zagreus isn’t one to admit defeat so easily.

Hades – Video Game Review | TL;DR Movie Reviews and Analysis
And like any good game, you can pet the dog.

Hollow Knight’s world is a fair bit more ambitious than Hades, but that makes sense. You’re not making a mad dash for the exit, you’re a lost bug trying to find your place in a grand world slowly opening up before you. Hades loaded its production value into voice work and replay value, Hollow Knight crafts a world ripe for exploration and gradually hands you the tools to peel back a new layer.

The Metroidvania genre is defined by a map with paths that are yet inaccessible, and providing you with the means to open those paths. Hollow Knight imerses the player in the individual sense of going off the beaten path by letting you pick up most of the Knight’s potential upgrades in any order you like. Two playthroughs can offer radically different experiences, but the result is the same; you, the Knight, are cutting through the hostile world of Hallownest.

And while the music of Hollow Knight deserves just as much praise as Hades, I want to instead focus on its sound design. The crunch of the Knight’s nail against an enemy insect, the soft rustle of his cape as he takes to the air in his gravity defying leap. Each sound is precision designed to be as satisfying as possible, and it doesn’t just applie to the Knight.

The regions of Hallownest are ripe with their own sounds and idiosyncrasies, like the perpetual falling rain in the City of Tears, or the scuttling spiders of Deepnest. The hum of Cornifer the mapmaker is a constant source of comfort in the furthest reaches of the kingdom, and to this day I can still hear the sound of Cornifer’s wife Iselda saying “bop-a-nada” in the game’s gibberish style dialogue. Sound is one of the most important aspects of transplanting a player into a game, but Hollow Knight makes it look easy.

And then there’s how the gameplay supports Hollow Knight’s atmosphere. The brutally difficult bosses, unforgiving and treacherous terrain, as well as the rare friendly faces leave you with a sense of isolation. In the darkest depths of Hallownest, you only have one friend in the nail at your side, and that’s all you can trust your safety to. Forcing the minuscule Knight to clash with a colossal foe or desperately dashing past a daunting encounter fills you with an ineffable feeling of alienation. Hallownest might be ripe for exploration, but it offers up no secret freely, and it is a work of game design genius.

Hollow Knight/Nintendo Switch/eShop Download
Nothing like thinking you can talk to this guy only for him to immediately try and murder you.

Games are a special medium for their ability to transport you to any place with ease. Books and anime have opened the door to many worlds, but games do it effortlessly. As the intersection of art forms like music, writing, direction, etc., video games are especially equipped to take you anywhere a creator is willing to go.

Hades and Hollow Knight rank among my favorite games because they make that intangible factor of mood palpable. Every nook and cranny of these worlds is an organic addition to a fantastic world that is undeniably real. Both these games are loaded with so many secrets that I’d have to write a book to just properly evaluate them all.

I’ve barely talked about the combat in either game, though I risk never being able to stop. Intense combat with a deliberate difficulty curve and a wide range of tools at your disposal already create a deceptively deep game system. Then you introduce this combat in concert with the mood setting features I already outlined, and you receive a pulse-pounding experience where the character becomes an extension of the player. It’s a powerful feeling that is impossible to replicate outside of games.

But I’ve spent long enough sharing my feelings about these games, what I want now is to hear your thoughts in the comments, whether you agree with me or not. After you’ve done that, you can follow the Otaku Exhibition get an update whenever a new essay on gaming or anime is published. If that’s not your thing, you can follow over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I usually talk about the new games I buy in between replaying the same five games for the 32nd time.

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