Goat Simulator, Snake Pass and Superhot all have something in common: they are very successful games whose lives started during a game jam.
And Hollow Knight can now join that club too.
Having released on PC in 2017 and on Switch during E3 2018, Hollow Knight has been an incredible success. Yet it was made by just four people, assembled under the name Team Cherry.
“We brought in friends where we could, for some voices,” co-director William Pellen smiles. “William’s mum did some voices,” adds co-director Ari Gibson. For those of you who are wondering: she voiced the White Lady, Marmu (for which she also got to pick the design, Pellen tells us) and shared the Mantis Lords voices. “My dad’s currently playing through the game. He’s looking for the characters that mum voiced,” Pellen laughs.
More seriously, he adds: “We had some extra art done by some interns but the core team for the vast bulk of the project was me, Ari and Dave [Kazi, technical director] developing the game and Chris [Larkin, composer and sound designer] on sound and music.”
And it all started at a game jam years ago.
“We’d known each other for a while and I was working in animation,” Gibson says. “William was actually doing web development and then in his spare time he was developing games and he sent me a demo for one…”
Pellen interrupts: “It was a simple platformer, a Mario type of thing.” Gibson continues: “It was quite cute. I played that and then contacted him about a game jam, just as a fun thing. It went well and we did a few of them.”
Pellen takes over, with the two co-directors finishing each other’s sentences like an old couple: “The very first one we did was called Hungry Knight and actually features the same character as Hollow Knight.”
Gibson smiles: “Not just the same character but the same sprites that we ended up using in Hollow Knight. The third one was a three-day game jam and we didn’t hit the time frame right but we still developed it and we ended up developing what probably was the very beginning of Hollow Knight. That was a side scrolling platformer using the same sprites.”
That game jam had a pretty interesting theme: ‘Beneath the surface’.
“We were keen on making another game with the character that we had,” Pellen says. “A simple insect world that we just kept working on until we decided that potentially we could publish it, like a professional product. We set up the Kickstarter at the end of 2014.”
And that’s how Team Cherry came about, in Adelaide, Australia.
A FEW TINY BUGS
Having raised $57,138 AUD (£32,381) for the project on Kickstarter, Team Cherry got down to work, with the scope of the world they were creating sometimes being a challenge.
“Not one or even two things in themselves were super hard, but we just kept going and going, so there was a lot of it,” Pellen says. “Then when it comes time to pull everything together, it can be hard to consider the effect of everything you do on everything else in the project.
“Just one simple thing and the project can break and it can sometimes be really subtle and hard to track down. Stuff breaking and then having to fix it is fine but the worst is when the same thing breaks and you don’t know why. That’s the hardest, the most annoying stuff to deal with.”
Hollow Knight being the team’s debut title (at least of this scope) and with Hallownest being such a vast and rich world, the team decided to go for simplicity when possible. That’s what motivated them to go for hand drawn 2D.
“It was probably the easiest part of it as compared to other 3D projects,” Gibson says. “A lot of my background is in 3D and it’s a technical hell compared to just drawing a bunch of pictures and William is also an animator though he doesn’t advertise that much.
“So we’re both very comfortable working with drawings and timing 2D characters and bosses and that kind of things. The drawing part of the game is the least of really making it. It’s assembling the game itself that takes the time. To draw a few little tiny bugs in Photoshop is simple,” he laughs.
‘A few tiny bugs’ actually means over 150 enemies with a distinctive design and attack style, not even mentioning the NPCs.
But Pellen adds: “The bugs make for simple characters, which are nice and easy to put together.”
The same logic applied when it came to designing The Knight, the title’s main character, which was sketched by Gibson for the very first game jam.
“The main character is probably just built from what is the simplest way of representing something bug-like that behaves like a knight,” he explains.
“It’s probably also built from a lot of technical restraints which is sometimes good for creativity... Putting a little cloak on a character is good because you can’t see their arms,” he laughs. “Just try to create something graphic and basic because obviously whatever your protagonist is, you’re going to be drawing it a thousand times over. So it certainly helps when there’s not much to it.”
Just one of the many reasons behind Hollow Knight’s success was people comparing it to Dark Souls, which drew a wealth of new players to the title. Although when we first mention what we believe is an intentional inspiration, Pellen interjects immediately:
“I hadn’t actually played much of Dark Souls when we were making the game,” he laughs. “I played a fair bit of it after because people talked a lot about how Hollow Knight was like Dark Souls. I think we were referencing a lot of games that Dark Souls references so maybe there’s a lot of connections there.”
Gibson mentions Dark Souls’ “gloomy and oppressive” atmosphere, but apart from that Team Cherry’s inspirations lie elsewhere.
“A couple of games that we played on the NES, things like Zelda 2 or Faxanadu,” Pellen starts explaining. “You know the original Zelda... It’s actually stuff that people probably don’t think of at all. For me it’s just things like A Link to the Past and Majora’s Mask… These are games where they crammed in as many odd moments as possible. And that’s the stuff which is really interesting.”
Gibson continues: “In those earlier games, there’s a sense of the unknown or at least of discovery, of not knowing what the extent of the game you’re playing is, and maybe that was the lack of the Internet at the time but we were definitely trying to capture something of that when we were making Hollow Knight. The game just keeps expanding beyond what your initial expectation of it was.”
And Pellen to conclude: “There was that sense in all those games that anything could be behind a broken wall or around the corner and you can’t see the end of it. And then I think probably that same feeling that we were going for was hit by Dark Souls, where people were presented with something where they really didn’t know what was coming up.”
As for the genre, Team Cherry wasn’t necessarily going for metroidvania, though both Pellen and Gibson mention Metroid and Castlevania as inspirations.
“We weren’t even that conscious of genre or anything like that,” Gibson says. “We’re just trying to make an adventure and a world. Some things would come from Metroid but certainly other parts would come from Mega Man or from Mario games and the charms system obviously comes from things like Paper Mario. Genre is very useful as a classification for people when they put things on a shelf but we don’t want to feel constrained by some expectations for what a game in a genre should be.”
Pellen adds: “We just put that altogether in a way that we think is fun and allows you to discover things.”
When asked for advice for devs who’d like to make their own metroidvania, Team Cherry’s answer once again is just to avoid thinking about labels.
“Maybe don’t worry too much about being a metroidvania,” Gibson smiles, with Pellen adding: “Just make something that you’d really want to explore. Don’t worry too much about things like ‘I really like a brand new mechanic’. Just pick a really interesting world, dig through, make it connected and open.”
Gibson continues: “A world can just mean a cast of interesting characters in a small setting and that can also be a great way to approach it. It just needs points of interest and connections to be made. Fill it with surprises and unexpected events and you’re done!”
While Team Cherry would “love to bring Hollow Knight to other platforms,” Pellen tells us, the studio is busy working on the title’s upcoming DLC, Gods and Glory, its fourth content pack. And then after that, Hornet, The Knight’s rival protector of the kingdom, will be added as a playable character – a stretch goal of the Kickstarter campaign.
By the end of our chat, it was clear that unearthing that sense of discovery was what Team Cherry was most proud of in Hollow Knight.
“The stuff I like reading from people is because there’s a lot of paths you can take through the game, a lot of people give these these really detailed accounts of their own path and they talk about how it feels like their own,” Gibson says.
“And they start to talk about it in a forum and someone else replies: ‘What?! I’ve finished the game and I haven’t seen half of what you’re talking about’ and then someone else says: ‘Oh I actually came into this area from the other side’ and that surprises everyone.
“People feel that the journey they had was their own, had its own shape, and that is one of the things that we were really conscious to try and give people. So I’m happy that we did that.”