The topic of free will is always an interesting issue for a video game to tackle. The most famous example of games exploring the subject is the Bioshock franchise – notably Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Each of these titles discussed the nature of freedom in a space where players were constrained, their actions limited. Bioshock did this by examining linearity in games, confronting players with characters who told them where to go and what to do. Infinite took a different approach as it introduced alternate universes while showing that certain events always happen regardless of players’ choices. Each of these provides a fascinating take on the nature of freedom and independent action in their own right.
Hollow Knight behaves differently in its examination of free will. Instead of asking you to consider whether or not protagonist the Knight has freedom, it makes an assumption from the beginning that they do not. Despite the open ended and exploratory nature of the game, the story itself is characterized by an expectation of service from the Knight – but it’s one that can be turned on its head, if players are willing to overcome great challenge for it. In order to understand this struggle, we first need to take a brief look at the story of Hollow Knight and its major actors. The lore of this game is rather daunting, so we’ll be covering just a short summary of the events by looking at four of the most significant figures: the Radiance, the Pale King, the Hollow Knight, and the Knight.
The Radiance, the Pale King, and the Infection
The Radiance is the secret main antagonist of the game, effectively a deity of light. She is depicted as a moth-like being who, long ago, held sway over the minds Hallownest’s bugs, bringing them together in a hive mind. This gave the bugs unity, but at the cost of any individual free will. The Pale King was a Wyrm on par with the Radiance in terms of power, and is also depicted as a being of light. Years before the events of the game, he shed his Wyrm form to take on a shape more like the bugs of Hallownest and granted them all individuality. The bugs, now with minds of their own, turned their backs on the Radiance, and she faded from the world until she existed only as a distant memory within the Dream Realm. While the Pale King’s gift may seem preferable to being a simple drone, it came with strings attached – he expected worship from Hallownest’s denizens, which he received aplenty. Many references to his deific status can be found in the game, from the King’s Idols to the residents of the White Palace.
After a time, the Radiance attempted to be remembered by the citizens of Hallownest. She began to encroach on the bugs’ minds, which clashed with the Pale King’s individuality. This led to the Infection, a disease that spread throughout the kingdom and brought it to the brink of ruin. The Pale King used the ancient force of Void, a natural enemy to the Radiance and light, to create a Vessel capable of containing her. Vessels were developed by combining his own offspring with the Void, and in time he created the Hollow Knight – a completely empty being, without free will. This Vessel became the Hollow Knight and the Pale King somehow forced the Radiance into them, intending for her to be trapped there as there was no mind to bend.
The Flawed Vessel
The Hollow Knight was, however, flawed. The Radiance was able to find purchase in their mind, which allowed the Infection to continue spreading, ultimately destroying Hallownest. The game’s story begins after these events, as the Radiance is on the verge of breaking free, and the Knight arrives in the kingdom. The Knight is one of the Pale King’s children, a discarded Vessel who was thought to be imperfect. They are now the last hope to contain the Radiance and preserve the remains of Hallownest.
The Will of the King
When examining the story of Hollow Knight, one might be able to accurately say that neither the Radiance nor the Pale King are heroic figures. They each seek to exert a form of control over the residents of Hallownest – the Radiance through a hive mind, the Pale King through worship. In fact, it wasn’t specifically the Radiance who caused the Infection, but rather her influence reacting poorly to the individuality that the Pale King gifted to the bugs. Their status as beings of light connects them to the theme of power and dominance that runs throughout the story.
The player character – the Knight – is a Vessel built to contain the Radiance. If players just progress through the game, without seeking out any secrets, then they will embody that purpose. The story ends with the Knight defeating the Hollow Knight and absorbing the Radiance themselves, fulfilling the Pale King’s directive. This is a rather bleak ending – but it’s not the only one.
The secret ending sees the Knight overcome a wide array of obstacles, many of which are hidden away in the world. There are several hidden boss fights, a tough-as-nails platforming sequence, and some lore to parse through in order to access a fight with the Radiance herself. This is definitely not what the Pale King had in mind, and it is a true challenge – the battle is one of the hardest in the game, with multiple stages where attacking is nigh impossible and the Radiance deals twice as much damage as regular foes.
It is in these two endings that the question of free will arises. The first asks you to follow the path laid out for you and enact your role just as your creator envisioned it – and if you do pursue this ending, it can be argued that the Knight is a Perfect Vessel, one with no will of their own. The second ending, however, lets you choose for yourself to save the kingdom, and it punishes you for it. Everything about the second ending – the boss fights, the platforming challenges, the Radiance herself – is unusually difficult, forcing you to endure harsh punishment as you push forward. In this game, freedom is not natural to the Knight. It’s something that they need to strive for.
With so many games that treat their discussions about free will as rhetorical questions that are almost always answered in the negative, Hollow Knight poses a different dilemma. Freedom is possible, it tells us – but it’s not free. The only way we can really, truly be free is if we’re willing to fight for it – and to not give up until it’s ours.