The world is dark. I’m sure you didn’t need me to tell you that, and in fact, you’re probably a little sick of hearing it shouted from the rooftops by this point. But the truth, my friends, is that this world is dark, desperately wicked, and on a seemingly quicker and quicker track to more of the same.
Cheery way to start out, I know. But it’s not my intention to bum you out and leave you hanging. I want to tell you a story, and though it may seem trivial at first, I hope you’ll stick with me to the end. It starts with my experience with a little game called Hollow Knight, and how the design choices of Team Cherry helped me see a thread that’s been woven through a lot of games that have helped shape the way I intake video games as a medium.
Video games have always been a sort of escape for me. After a stressful day when my mind just won’t shut down, a couple rounds of Overwatch or a long exploration session in Breath of the Wild tends to allow me to breathe and reset, hopefully enough so that facing the next day feels a little more doable. And because of that, I’ve almost always shied away from games with a darker tone. And don’t get me wrong; I do enjoy stories with a dark tone, but when it comes to a hobby in which I invest a fairly significant amount of time…well, let’s just say Detroit: Become Human isn’t exactly a great stressbuster.
But here is where my story begins. Periodically, I scroll through the PlayStation Store, searching for any hidden gems that may be marked down. Growing up as a Nintendo kid, I arrived late to the indie scene, and I’ve missed out on a good number of titles, some extremely well-renowned. One of these titles was Hollow Knight. I’d heard a friend raving about the game on Switch, but judging from the few screenshots I’d seen, I had little interest, mainly for the reasons I’ve already discussed above. Besides that…I wasn’t sure what it was, but it just didn’t look interesting to me.
But on one of my PlayStation Store browses, it was the pale face of the Knight that greeted me that day. The Voidheart Edition of the game was on sale for $15. Well, I thought to myself, what could really be the harm? One download later, and I booted up Hollow Knight for the first time.
The first thing I noticed about Hollow Knight is the fact that it’s absolutely gorgeous. The second thing is its tone, and this is what I want to dwell on. Hollow Knight takes place in a ruined kingdom called Hallownest, filled with ancient ruins covered in spider webs speaking of a long forgotten and irreplaceable past, teeming with the reanimated corpses of bugs that have ventured before you. The entire game is drawn in a muted color palette of grays, greens, and blues, with some standout moments of truly vibrant color thrown in.
But all of this oppressive atmosphere is contrasted by the design of your character: the Knight. They’re…adorable. My girlfriend, Michaela, often watches me play, and this is what she latched onto right away. Their design has all the hallmarks of a traditional children’s character, bar the iconic skull helmet. Their eyes are big, their head is disproportionately large, and their limbs are small and stumpy. Everything about them screams cuddly plushy, not hardened explorer of a fallen kingdom.
And yet, here they are, in a game that is unabashedly as dark and dreary as they come. I’ve already mentioned the reanimated corpses, but let’s not forget that this game involves acolytes who doomed their souls to eternal wandering through arcane magic and a bug having its children ripped away and scattered across the kingdom. And I’m not even halfway through yet.
It was that disconnect between an innocent-looking character and an oppressively dark environment that hooked me on Hollow Knight, and as I considered it, I realized that the concept isn’t as new to my gaming story as I thought it would be. Some of my favorite games from my childhood play on that same tension in some incredible ways.
Arguably one of the oddest games ever released by Nintendo is Luigi’s Mansion. While the last two games in the series have gone in a much more lighthearted and playful direction, the first game has a sense of eeriness and unease that still holds up to this day when I go back to it. I think what clinches that tone for me is the fact that, the whole time, I’m playing as Luigi, the cowardly and sheepish brother of the big N’s usual protagonist. There’s even a button dedicated to feebly calling out Mario’s name in an attempt to get some sort of response besides the mocking laughs of the spirits that haunt the mansion.
As I kept thinking back to these innocent heroes, my mind turned to our role as believers in the world today. We live in a world of darkness, one that seems bent on snuffing out any hope of truth or peace at any cost. And as much as we may be tempted to cry gloom and doom, this is nothing new. The world has always opposed truth. Look at what they did to the Word Himself when He came to us in human form. In fact, that Word promised His disciples trouble, and yet, in the middle of it, encouraged, if not commanded nigh obstinate hope.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Hope in the face of darkness isn’t as easy as it sounds, which you probably already know. But our Lord assures us that, at the end of everything, He is supreme, and we should take heart in that fact. And, in fact, those aren’t the only words Christ has for us as we navigate the twists and turns of life. In Matthew 10:16, He urges His disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” as they read the signs that precede His coming. Serpents are discerning, stalking along, watching and waiting from the shadows. Many of us would prefer to avoid any and all encounters with the scaly creatures, but Christ tells us to adopt their discernment in dealing with this world of darkness.
This is where the Knight comes back in. It’s clear that the Knight’s plunge into Hallownest came with at least a decent level of planning. Their innocence does not mean they’re unequipped or even not dangerous when they need to be. They’re armed with their trusty nail, and as they continue their quest through the broken kingdom, they learn to navigate the world around them with finesse and caution. We, as the player, are taught various moves that allow us to traverse areas easier, choosing whether to engage our enemies or avoid combat entirely. In our fight as believers, we must use that same wisdom and finesse, calling on the wisdom of God to help us navigate the situations of life.
So…be wise. Sounds simple enough. Maybe not easy, but it’s hard to argue with a command to use wisdom. But what about that tricky second part: “innocent as doves”? Innocence has, at least in my estimation, a negative connotation in our world today. The innocent are the ones who get taken advantage of, who are left in the dust by the competition, and who, ultimately, lose. Yet Christ tells us to adopt this self-sacrificial characteristic, even as we walk, as He Himself puts it, “as sheep among wolves.”
Faced with ever-present darkness, evil, and deception, we are not to stand as staunch heroes casting a defiant eye back into the face of evil, but as children of the King, following our Master with childlike faith as He leads us. And honestly, one of the best examples of childlike hope and innocence, even in the face of deep and overpowering evil, is Mario.
Like I said, bear with me. This thread goes deep.
In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Mario is faced with a potentially apocalyptic evil that threatens all the inhabitants of his world. The game gets legitimately oppressive and fearful near the end, with the final boss being an otherworldly evil with seemingly no weakness. But every time I go back to the game, even stretching back to my childhood memories, Mario’s bravery stands out here more than in any other game, mainly because of that oppressive evil. He — and I suppose, by extension, I as the player — stands as the only opposition between his world and oblivion. He will do what he knows is right. He’s never obnoxious or arrogant about it; he can’t even talk, for crying out loud. But he will stand in whatever way he can.
Wisdom and innocence, all in the face of whatever darkness or evil comes our way: that’s a delicate balance to strike, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m terrible at finding it. When I look at the world around me, filled with its hurting people, its liars and charlatans, its righteous warriors and passionate zealots, I get scared. I find myself shrinking away into my own little corner, with my games and my books, hoping that, just maybe, it’ll all blow over. And yet, that’s where my story began: in my corner, playing Hollow Knight, and wondering about that innocence in the face of iniquity. And as I followed that thread, I realized that I can’t stay in my own little corner, but that also doesn’t mean I have to fight the way the world fights. This train of heroes might just carry me somewhere entirely new, and I hope it does the same for you.
It seems with every new day, we hear news of another world-ending event, and we are tempted to despair. I myself have prayed some very scary prayers lately, echoing much of Elijah’s sentiment in I Kings 17 when he essentially tells God that “enough is enough.” And what makes things even more difficult is this pervasive idea that we must fight back with the same acrimony and hatred that we see everywhere around us. Perhaps this is another principle we can take from the Knight, though this time as a word of caution rather than an example to follow. Depending on the path you choose, some truly evil things can manifest behind that skull helmet. The things the Knight can choose to do can be horrifying, almost as if the environment that surrounds them has seeped into them. And the same is true with us. Let us keep in mind that innocence and wisdom go hand in hand, and without wisdom, innocence can quickly become a cover for the same evil we are trying to fight. But together, they form a seemingly impossible combination, and with our God, the impossible becomes possible. That’s how we are to represent our Lord.
When we look at our world, with all its hatred, confusion, and bitterness, it may seem like hope is lost, much like the glory of Hallownest, covered in spider webs and dust. Those webs remind us of broken pasts and speak of dismal futures. They fill haunted houses, abandoned buildings, and broken kingdoms. Their very presence actively discourages hope and peace. But what if we looked at them differently? What if, instead of simply adding to the dismal atmosphere, they instead stood in it, indeed acknowledging a lost past, but — if you look closely enough — also catching the light and glimmering hopefully in a dark world? These are the Marios and Knights in the darkness. These are the believers. They’re small, seemingly innocent, but they reflect the light in whatever way they can, standing as reminders of a hope that is yet to come on the outside.