The first friendly face that you see in Hollow Knight’s City of Tears is Quirrel, an explorer who travels the dead world of Hallownest trying to discover its secrets. He is sitting on a bench, pondering the eternal rain that falls outside his window. He’s glad to see you. “I too have felt the pull of this place,” he says, “though now I sit before it I find myself hesitant to descend. Is it fear, I wonder, or something else that holds me back?”
Hollow Knight (2017) plays the cards of its plot close to the chest. Here’s what you know about yourself from the start: you play as a bug, entering the lost bug kingdom of Hallownest, whose insect rulers have made a bargain that sinks some of its citizens into a half-life, driving them mad. One of the characters you meet in the game’s first few hours, who knows more about you than you do, calls you “little ghost.” Living in the world of the undead and lost, you only occasionally find others who, by accident or luck, have ended up here too.
Whereas the other regions of the game have mostly returned to nature, the City feels more recently abandoned. It’s a shell, and its inhabitants are compelled, even past death, to protect the wealthier bugs who once lived there. In one home, you can find a bug gone mad from time, surrounded by her hoarded treasure; in another, the ghost of an opera star will sing for you. If you ask around, you can discover the reason for the city’s eternal rain: it lies below an underground lake, which drips down onto the spiraled towers below. This is nominally the reason for the city’s abandonment, though no one who’s left really knows why everyone else has gone. As a sign near the entrance says, “The great gates have been sealed. None shall enter, none shall leave.”
From your moment of entry, then, you are an imposter. And yet, when you enter the City of Tears, you are entering yourself. You, too, are a shell lacking history; you can’t remember your own descent into Hallownest, and your goals—find three ghostly Dreamers, visit a mysterious temple that leaks sickly orange light— are opaque even as you complete them. When you’ve found two of the three, the game’s starting area morphs into a minefield, its inhabitants consumed from the inside by that same orange light.
Hallownest’s disease comes from a choice made by its gods a long time ago, a choice that birthed you. It’s a choice that’s in the midst of falling apart as you arrive. You see a few examples of its cost: Myla, a singing miner who is made mindless by the crystals she works around, or Sly, a shopkeeper who has a faint orange glow in his eyes. The gods are long gone, only you can see them, but their wake is all around you.
In her book The Ruins Lesson, Susan Stewart argues that destroyed cities are fascinating because they are ruined twice: once by disaster, and once by time. In cities like Pompeii and Dresden, “slow ruination has been wreaked upon their already destroyed forms; we are seeing double: the ruin of a ruin.” The City of Tears has been destroyed at least twice over, by rain and by abandonment. Its residents can only parrot their old routines, engaging in them alone or, incidentally, with you. If the city is a ruin, it still performs at least one original purpose: it keeps others, and the disease they carry, out. But it fails even at that simplest task; you got in, after all, and how different is the parasitical, mind-numbing light on the other side of the walls from the mindless devotion of the city-dwellers? The gods can hide behind their compromise, but here even the well-preserved lose something, whether it’s their dignity, their mind, or their life.
So where does that leave you? You are not meant to stay in the City; your purpose is elsewhere, above the giant underground lake and away from the pounding rain. Ultimately you, too, will be consumed by the light, either directly or indirectly, because that’s your job. The gates might open someday, its residents might rebuild and return, but if they do, you won’t live to see it.
And yet, when I come back to Hollow Knight after a long time away, I always go to the City first. It’s calm, and I like the rain; or, like Quirrel says, maybe it shows me something I can’t quite understand. The city at the heart of the kingdom, at the heart of the game, reminds us that preservation without compassion can be its own form of ruin—and that restricting who can keep themselves safe always comes at a price.