I’ve Been to Hell, Friends, and It Has a Name: Deepnest
The moment you feel comfortable with ‘Hollow Knight,’ the game pushes back. Hard.
Image courtesy of Hold to Reset
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Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for Hollow Knight.
Stab, jump, dash. Heal, take a deep breath, repeat. Move a few steps, careful to avoid a spike trap. Hollow Knight is oppressive, harsh, and spends its opening moments trying to grind the player into dust, but after a few hours of fumbling around, I’d started to exact some measure of control over the dangers around me. This moment happens in a lot of games, even challenging ones, where you internalize the game’s rhythms, allowing you to settle in.
Hollow Knight knows this, and the moment you’re feeling safe, it kicks you in the teeth.
Early on, there’s a familiar cycle to finding a new area in Hollow Knight. You start out without a map, resulting in a lot of blind walking from one room to the next, making notes in your head, and hoping the next section will bring the familiar hum of the game’s mapmaker, who you can pay a few dollars to chart the locale. Each area has new dangers, aesthetics, and enemies, but it remains comforting to follow a procedure that’s reliably worked out in the past. A lot of Hollow Knight works like this: encounter unfamiliar thing, figure it out, move on.
But then, while exploring an otherwise innocuous area, I fell into a deep hole, with no way to escape. In other areas of Hollow Knight, you can see the area around you, but here? Not a chance. You’ve in a basement with the lights off, and only a lighter to flicker off the walls. All around, the whispers of a million insect legs chatter against the rocks, as they explore the dark, on some mission of their own. Further off, the stomp stomp of something much larger, the kind of creature you’d normally be game to take on, but right now, courage is precious.
“Welcome to the Deepnest,” Hollow Knight cackles, “Good luck.”
It’s hard to express in words how dark this area is. It’s best understood through visuals:
And it’s not just your inability to see more than a few feet in front of you, it’s the way enemies spring out, as if a jump scare in a horror movie, and chase you from the darkness. The maze-y nature doesn’t help; the ground is constantly falling out, sending players spiraling to other parts of the map, without any sense of how you got there. No matter how slow and meticulous, it’s impossible to fully grasp what’s happening. I tried to take notes about my journey, but eventually just gave up, hoping I would survive long enough to find a way out.
More sadistically, a quick Google search for Deepnest reveals lots of players who, like me, did not intend to find this area—the game dumped them there unexpectedly and without prejudice. Currency is precious in Hollow Knight, and items get expensive quickly, which means you’re often juggling between a desire to explore more and Doing The Right Thing by heading back to town, spending what you have, and coming back. I ended up in Deepnest with nearly 1,000 “geo,” which I promise is a lot when less than 10 hours into the game.
There is almost no way the developer, Team Cherry, didn’t explicitly set this trap, a way to push players away from playing it safe, forcing a position of risk. I was audibly yelping during the moments where enemies would catch me off guard, and I’d be down to a single life, without a checkpoint in sight. Though dying would allow me to leave Deepnest—the game sends you back to the previous checkpoint—I would lose all my geos in the process, and without having found the mapmaker, all of my progress would mean absolutely nothing.
If I came back, I’d be starting all over again. Gulp.
There are legit reasons to compare Hollow Knight to the Souls games, and in this specific situation, I couldn’t help but think about Team Cherry doing their own take on Dark Souls’ Blighttown, probably the most infamous area from any Souls game. I say infamous because it was not particularly well-liked upon release for a variety of reasons: it was dark, the frame rate was abysmal (we’re talking single digits in an era before PC versions), and maze-like.
Even with a real framerate, Blighttown still sucks? Deepnest does, too, but in the sense that you’re miserable. Contrary to Blighttown, it’s well-designed, meant to push the player’s buttons because Team Cherry is trying to subvert your approach to playing the game. I spent three hours making my way around Deepnest, and never got comfortable. It was survival.
I did, eventually, find a map maker, and sketched out the depths of Deepnest, providing some relief. (Humorously, when you come across the mapmaker, he confesses to being too scared to go any further, and cannot provide a full map!) A few hours later, I’d more or less seen much of what Deepnest had to offer, but still no no escape! It’s at this point you begin to scan the map and look for tiny corridors you may have missed. It’s then I discovered a brutal joke Team Cherry hid in the level design.
See, generally speaking, when you enter a new area, the exit(s) are far away, forcing players to trudge along, explore, and die. That’s what prompted me to go further into this hellish den of bugs. Where else to go but down, right? Again, Team Cherry anticipated this. In Deepnest, you eventually learn the exit was staring you in the face. Once you fall into the hole, if you make your way to the right—seriously, it’s right by the entrance—there’s a way back up.
There is no reason for you to suspect the exit is so close, and so you run right past salvation.
When I escaped Deepnest, I put my Switch down, and nearly howled at the moon. It was like coming up for air, after a few seconds too many underwater. Then, I kept going, because there are more places to find, bugs to slay. And eventually, I’ll come back for you, Deepnest.
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