Archives in Video Games: Hollow Knight
Hallownest has fallen to ruin and infection. The Pale King is dead, the Radiance long sealed away, but not even the purest vessel is infallible. What secrets lurk below the surface? What sacrifices will be made? Only a void-hearted warrior can begin to set things right.
Hollow Knight is a 2017 kickstarter-funded 2D Metroidvania action-adventure game created and produced by Team Cherry. Since its initial launch, the game has added several DLCs with a forthcoming sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong, in the works. The premise of the game, more or less, is you play as a cute little bug knight intent on fixing the last remnants of a devastated kingdom full of insects, arachnids, and all other kinds of creepy crawlers. It's as adorable as it is gross as it is philosophical as it is an existential crisis in the making. And as someone who's watched a lot of playthroughs, it's a feast for the eyes and ears with gorgeous visuals, interesting and complex characters (Zote, you darling bastard!), and a soundtrack that is worth listening to all on its own.
As with a lot of games of this nature, exposition is provided through character interaction and dialogue as well as data markers that the player discovers within each new area. In Hollow Knight, this takes the form of record or lore tablets and Hunter's Journals, both of which are archival in their function rather than their intent. The lore tablets are the most prevalent in the game, providing the knight with piecemeal history as they work their way through the maze-like geography of Hallownest. There isn't an overall structure to the sequence with which the knight finds the tablets, so the information is vague enough to fit together upon later review. In many ways, the knight (and the player) has to take on an archival role of assessing and arranging a mostly complete history with disparate records that don't necessarily have a chronological order.
The Hunter's Journals are a codex of enemies the knight encounters within the game that updates after a set number of interactions. It's mostly an excuse for flavor text, but there are still insights to be gleaned from the in-game bestiary and the writings of the eponymous Hunter. And while the knight does have an encounter with the Hunter early in the game, the character is primarily stitched together via the journal entries. Like the lore tablets, the player takes on the role of archivist as they build an image of the Hunter through context clues and the Hunter's general disposition within the descriptions provided. It's similar to how an archivist builds a finding aid.
Even in something as mundane as an inventory or a quick biographical note, the voice of the writer comes through in ways that aren't immediately obvious. The same goes for descriptive tags and keywords in that they provide evidence of accepted terminology and labels that don't always age well upon review. Still, it's not only a window into the time period but the person constructing the document, which adds an extra level of historical and institutional knowledge.
The primary archival encounter of the game, however, happens in the Teacher's Archives. Located in scenic Fog Canyon, the archives is situated in an acid lake, surrounded by acid pools and hoards of jellyfish-like creatures called oomas and uomas. One such creature, Uumuu, is a boss-level guardian of Monomon the Teacher. Monomon is one of the three Dreamers along with Herrah the Beast and Lurien the Watcher. The three were instrumental in sealing away the titular Hollow Knight now filled with the infectious Radiance. To keep the Hollow Knight sealed, the Dreamers put their bodies in eternal stasis. The only means of defeating them is to enter the dream realm and skewering them with your nail.
Monomon herself is actually quite fascinating when you read up on the lore of the game. She was the Pale King's Chief Researcher and a great teacher of Hallownest; and of the three Dreamers, she's the one who sees the value in what the knight is trying to accomplish. She understands that their efforts to stop the Radiance have failed, so when the knight arrives to destroy her, she readily accepts her fate. She even has her former apprentice, Quirrel, take down an added level of protection she placed on her stasis chamber to make the knight's job easier.
The interior of the archives invokes a mad scientist's laboratory, which makes sense based on Hallownest's history of experimentation with the void and bestowing sapience on other beings. Monomon appears to have been studying the uomas and oomas, but she could just as easily been experimenting on them. It's not covered anywhere that I could find, but I wonder how Monomon, who is an uoma, gained consciousness while the rest of her species remained unawakened. Was the gift of a mind and identity given to her by the Pale King? Did she achieve it on her own? Give me that sweet Dreamers DLC, Team Cherry! I have a mighty need!
The archives is washed in bright, almost neon greens to contrast with the more natural greens seen in other areas. There are lore tablets galore as well as preservation chambers everywhere, including the giant one containing the sleeping Monomon. Unfortunately, nothing archival actually happens in the archives. Like all areas in the game, the archives are there to be mapped out, fight the boss, and move on. It's an archives in name only situation since we don't really get any interaction with archival materials beyond the standard lore tablets and updates to the Hunter's Journal. Not that every archives featured in a video game has to act like an archives in the real world. That's not the purpose, nor the responsibility, of the game. Hollow Knight needed a place for Monomon to sleep and they came up with an incredibly beautiful yet wildly different set up compared to her sister dreamers.
Although, I will say I like the imagery of the Teacher and, one would assume, Archivist, represented by a jellyfish type creature. Jellyfish are otherworldly even to us human-folk; the way they float along the oceanic currents, vulnerable yet deadly in the right circumstances. They represent something unknowable and alien, which makes them the perfect conduits for knowledge keepers in a game like Hollow Knight. I'm not saying archivists should adopt a jellyfish mascot, but we should adopt jellyfish as our professional mascot.