Hollow Knight’s Tutorial Is A Design Masterclass

For those of you who don’t follow my every move, which will be all of you, I’ve been playing Hollow Knight. A game that I played for a few hours and then bounced off many years ago because, for the most part, I hate metroidvanias.

There have been exceptions to this rule, like Carrion, Yoku’s Island Express, Guacamelee, and a few others, but Hollow Knight didn’t get the benefit of the doubt, and I cast it aside.

However, upon picking it up a few weeks ago, I’ve already explored all of Hallownest, collected all the Grubs, beat a tonne of strong bosses, got through the White Palace, and I intend on at least trying to complete the Path of Pain, so wish me luck on that.

The whole time I was playing and regretting setting this one down many moons ago, I wondered what I could do to make up for this gaming treachery my younger self committed, and I thought about a full retrospective and critical analysis of the game. Because, you know, no one’s ever done that before, right?

But then, I had a thought, and it takes us right back to the start of the game when we drop into Hallownest for the first time, and make our way to Dirtmouth.

I believe that Hollow Knight’s King’s Pass Is A Design Masterclass, and I’m here to explain why.

The First Minute

I suppose the best way to do this is to break things down into microscopic parts, because most players will maybe spend ten minutes tops in this area before they make their way toward Dirtmouth, but despite the fact that this is such a brief moment of an otherwise huge adventure, there is so much to unpack here.

hollow knight tutorial

Let’s begin with the very moment that you drop into the first screen and begin your adventure. Immediately, before you have even been given control of the little knight, we have already learned that there is no fall damage in this game. Not to mention that with the great soundtrack, the ambient noise, the Vengeflies flying across screen, and the minimal HUD that pops up on screen, the game immediately creates a thick atmosphere in this area.

You’ll then gain control of your little knight, and if you’re an inquisitive and perceptive player, you can head immediately left, and on this opening screen alone, you are taught two Metroidvania staples are alive and well in Hollow Knight. If you’re willing to look for them, there are hidden paths all over the place.

hollow knight metroidvania style

And, if you look directly above you, you see an opening you cannot reach yet, signaling that right from the word go, there is an area of interest that you’ll need to make a note of and come back later.

Not to mention, this area allows you to collect Geo, establishing Hollow Knight’s currency early on, and giving players that early injection of dopamine of finding Geo Clusters to gain early-game cash.

We haven’t even gotten off the starting blocks, and we already have a great understanding of some basic concepts.

We then move right and hit a roadblock, which the game urges us to attack, which obviously teaches us how to attack, but also teaches the player that portions of the world are destructible, and just because your way is blocked doesn’t mean that it isn’t a viable way forward. Which then teaches us to attack walls and structures as a habit, just in case the game is hiding a secret from us, which you will come to find, it often is.

hollow knight team cherry creators

Then comes the first enemies, a couple of Crawlids back-to-back. This gives you the chance to engage in early combat, and these encounters, depending on how proficient you are, teaches you a lot of things without a lot of it even registering.

In this moment, you learn that if you strike an enemy, unless you are moving forward and holding the direction you will be knocked back with recoil. not to mention, you learn that this game does not show you the health bar of the enemy.

Plus, it’s a small detail, but again, it’s a very clever design. Near the second enemy, you’ll notice a dip in the ground, and this is not a coincidence, as if the player hasn’t worked out how to jump yet, this little dip forces them to do so to progress onwards.

And speaking of jumping, the next platforming section teaches the player that holding the jump button for an extended period offers a higher jump, as the standard press of the button won’t allow the player to jump high enough to reach the platforms ahead.

hollow knight sharp falling rocks

But the learning in this platforming section still isn’t done, because the game uses an environmental hazard in the form of a sharp falling rock to teach the player that dragging your heels when platforming will only lead to being punished, and it’s better to move fast and take risks to get better at the game’s movement.

This is a piece of design that I have seen work its magic in real-time, as when my wife decided to play Hollow Knight, she found this out the hard way countless times in this early section of the game.

In most other games, she would be a methodical and careful player who would agonize over every movement, but Hollow Knight’s immediate feedback for slow players forced her to pick up the pace and, dare I say, Git Gud. And she’s beaten Hornet 1 so far, so it seems to have worked pretty well.

Just to keep you in the loop, you’ll have been playing for maybe a minute by this stage, if even.

Constant Learning But Never Overwhelming

You then find the first interactable object in the game, and this is one of the rare tutorial menus in the game where it explains how SOUL works in Hollow Knight, which essentially allows you to heal from any damage that you have incurred fighting the Crawlids below.

You may be wondering why the game doesn’t immediately tell you this when you take a hit, but this is also intentional.

hollow knight soul

You see, the game wants you to be able to get through the section below at a minimum before it gives you the information that allows you to heal, as this might give you a false position of competence when the game ramps things up slightly ahead.

You are then introduced to your first flying enemy, a Vengefly, and while you can lure it down to ground level and attack it side-on, the reason the game does this so early in a safe setting is to teach the player that they can attack upward, and attack while jumping.

This will come as second nature to most players, but the placement allows you to confirm this early on before environmental hazards come into play.

hollow knight tutorial enemies

Then, the game puts all the teachings into practice in the optional area to the left, where players will need to break open a doorway to reveal the secret, platform up a path, kill a flying enemy, and be introduced to the spikes below.

And, if this goes wrong and you fall into the spikes, the player also learns that this is an immediate loss of 1HP and a respawn, rather than an invulnerability window that allows them to hop out before getting stabbed again.

You go maybe a whole ten seconds after this without learning anything new, but then at the top of the next platforming section, you come across a Lifeblood Sac, and if you’re brave enough to hit it and wipe out the little bugs, you’ll learn that these bugs add additional health masks, and most likely by the time you exit King’s Pass, you’ll have lost these again, signaling to the player that not all health gained comes back by using SOUL.

hollow knight fury of the fallen location

You’ll then have a few moments of normality again before the ground will give out from beneath you, and you’ll fall into a new area; again, there is a lesson to be learned here that will serve you well in areas like Deepnest, for example.

The ground isn’t always going to be there to support you, and you need to be alert at all times. Further feeding into the idea that, despite these cute and cuddly visuals, Hollow Knight is a game that will punish you time and time again if you let it.

Then, after a small platforming section with falling projectiles comes what I would consider to be the most interesting addition to this tutorial area of all. The area that leads you to the first available charm in the game, Fury of the Fallen.

In this section, the player will be faced with a long pit of spikes. on their side, you’ll have a Geo cache, which will reward them for discovering this area, and for many, they’ll think, I can’t get across.

I guess I need to come back later, and they’ll turn on their heels and leave. However, this area is immediately accessible, and as soon as players learn that they can Pogo on objects, enemies, and hazards, there will be a lightbulb moment that will lead them straight back here eventually.

hollow knight charm tutorial

You see, through the art of Nail Jumping, the player will be able to cross this hazardous area unharmed, and will be able to get their hands on a useful early-game charm that may dig them out of some tricky situations, and this is superb Metroidvania design, as this serves as a reward for perceptive players in the opening stage, but equally, adds value to the opening area.

Meaning as soon as players have access to the Mantis Claw, they will likely return to see what they can find, and this will then lead them to the Howling Cliffs and all the joys that they bring. It’s this interconnectivity that makes Hollow Knight’s world so successful, and it starts right from the beginning.

hollow knigth Howling Cliffs

Then, just before you exit this area, the game will have you explore an alternative pathway after falling through the floor, and this will teach the final King’s Pass lesson. Shortcuts are regularly available, and you should make it a priority to open them up, because backtracking and exploring areas multiple times is a must.

Then comes the moment you break through the doorway and jump down to explore Dirtmouth, ending the tutorial, but despite the fact that you have been playing anywhere from 5-10 minutes, you know all the core mechanics and basics needed to exist and interact with the world of Hallownest.

More learning happens along the way, such as learning the sound cues to signal that Cornifer is nearby, or that Benches are to Hollow Knight what Bonfires are to Dark Souls. But the fact that the game manages to deliver so much key information with practically no prompts or menus whatsoever is staggeringly good design.

The Real Adventure Begins

I feel like this isn’t even an exhaustive analysis of this tiny area of the game, as this is before we even get into the absolutely amazing sound design that continues throughout Hollow Knight, courtesy of Christopher Larkin.

The outstanding visuals that immediately give you a sense of place, and a feeling of being a small fish in a big pond as soon as you enter Hallownest, and if you want to get really into the weeds, you can even look at the Tablets you encounter referring to you as a Higher Being and begin to extrapolate theories surrounding Vessels, and the Pale King himself.

In short, it may be the first thing Hollow Knight has to offer, but this is an exceptional piece of onboarding within this timeless Indie gem.

Now, you may have just read this ramble about this area and be thinking to yourself, why is he focusing on this throwaway area of the game when there are so many more interesting areas to discuss?

And I agree that King’s Pass is an area that will feel like a distant memory by the time you enter White Palace or explore Kingdom’s Edge, for example.

However, without King’s Pass and it’s ability to give you all the tools without ever compromising on the immersive atmosphere of the world, Hollow Knight would have never set the tone and atmosphere as impressively, and as immediately as it does.

You can kind of look at King’s Pass as Hollow Knight’s elevator pitch. The developers work off the imaginary premise that the game will only have 5-10 minutes to wow players and sink its hooks in before they immediately bounce off the game and choose to play something else.

And in that short period, it managed to do so much to engage, educate, and enthrall the player, without ever being too overwhelming or overbearing. 

and playing it back now, it makes me wonder what a young Callum thought when he decided to give this one a miss, as this is one of the first Metroidvanias I have ever played that made me think, ‘Huh, this isn’t just another Metroidvania, this is something bigger.’

And I was right. It’s a goddamn masterpiece.

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