Hollow Knight was born in the heat of a Game Jam.
Ari Gibson, William Pellen and Rohan Fraser – now known collectively as Team Cherry – got together for the intensive 72-hour videogame developing event that spawned their enigmatic insectoid protagonist.
“The simplicity we have in the characters and perhaps the simplicity in the style comes because we were working under the deadlines of a Game Jam to begin with,” Gibson says of his session in Adelaide, South Australia.
The world he is talking about is Hallownest. It’s dark – filled with fallen kingdoms and lost (insect) souls that wander through its black and blue luminescent landscapes.
Drawing on classic adventure games like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Faxanadu and Metroid from the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Hollow Knight aims to make the old new again.
“Those games have a simple structure of going on a grand adventure in to a strange world. We’re trying to carry that through. Our task from there is to start breaking those expectations as you play the game,” Gibson says.
“What’s initially set up as very traditional in the genre starts developing its own qualities as you progress deeper and deeper in to this strange world.”
Hollow Knight wields a nail as a weapon. As he advances through Hallownest, beating enemies and bosses and exploring deeper, he unlocks more abilities and shortcuts that allow the player to survive for longer and delve in to ever-weirder environments.
With two thirds of the development team being artists, it’s no surprise that the art takes front seat on the project.
Team Cherry - Ari Gibson, Rohan Fraser and William Pellen.
Rohan Fraser deals with the more traditional artwork on the game. He’s an illustrator, comic artist and traditional painter.
Ari Gibson is one half of mechanical apple, a boutique animation studio based in Adelaide, South Australia. His work in traditional animation carries over well to the game world.
“It’s not too different. There’s one big difference, which is a psychological, philosophical thing. With a game you know that people can poke around and explore your world at their own pace. When you’re producing an animation, you’re dictating the amount of time they spend on shots or objects you want them to focus on.
“Ultimately three months of work might make three minutes of animation. Whereas a game, you can produce three months of content and that gives the player a world to explore that they’re going to get lost in for hours. I think there’s something very appealing about that.”
William Pellen is the primary driver behind the technical side of the game – the underlying code that makes it all stick together. Hollow Knight is his first professional release.
“Ever since I was a kid I used to spend hours in class filling in A4 sheets of paper with level designs and instruction manuals for games. It wasn’t that long ago that I started teaching myself how to do it. I made some games in flash and released them for the web – free games,” Pellen explains.
“To be fair,” Gibson butts in, “a bunch of these games are momentously epic.”
“I started working on my first big project last year. It was a platformer that I think sparked Ari’s interest in working with me,” Pellen says.
“It feels very different. Until now, it’s all just been plugging away with something in my spare time on a small scale, just for fun really. The biggest change has been going on Kickstarter and the game becoming widely known.”
Team Cherry kept the game behind closed doors until they announced Hollow Knight on Kickstarter.
“Suddenly we’ve got an audience that we’ve been interacting with. We have a group of people asking using questions, interested in the game and giving us feedback already. It transforms the whole experience, it’s really good,” Pellen says.
As part of the Kickstarter, those who pledge higher amounts of money towards the project have the opportunity to design bosses and dungeons – or even be immortalised as a sort of beetle warrior themselves.
“So far that experience has been great. We’ve had people pitch ideas, saying that they want to pledge at that level, just making sure their idea is good. That makes us confident that we’re not going to end up in some crazy situation,” Gibson says.
Those games have a simple structure of going on a grand adventure in to a strange world. We’re trying to carry that through.
“The other benefit and the reason we came up with those rewards is that we’re working in a very surreal, strange, dreamlike world and we can incorporate a lot of different, disparate ideas and bring them together fairly seamlessly.”
The Kickstarter lists kooky possibilities that backers might suggest: the carnival of crustaceans, a circus-themed death trap with a crab boss battle at the end, or a robot graveyard, or a fiery volcano. The team expect the suggestions to be stranger than those.
“There’s this dream element to the game where the character can exist in other characters’ minds and dreams, so you have a lot of breadth for bizarre notions that the audience might concoct,” Gibson says.
“At those high backer levels, the people are pledging because they really believe in the project as well,” Pellen adds. “They want to work with us. They’re passionate about Hollow Knight and already love the style.”
Team Cherry are aiming for a Mid-2015 release for the finished game. The project has been Greenlit on Steam’s digital distribution platform, meaning it will be available for PC, Mac and Linux at launch.
In fact, they’d just finished a phone call with Nintendo – part of the publisher’s massive drive to bring indie games to their system.
“They contacted us, which was really nice. Everyone there was super enthusiastic. Really easy to work with as well – it’s very surprising how smooth and friendly that’s all been,” Gibson says.