A musical score is a great way of guiding the player’s emotions. It can offer important clues about the world the player inhabits and indicate the severity of the obstacles being encountered. The 2D action-adventure title Hollow Knight, developed by Team Cherry Games, is an excellent example of this.
In the game, you play as the character Hollow Knight who must explore a ruined kingdom buried beneath the ground. Along the way you’ll collect power-ups, discover new areas, and defeat ancient evils, with your actions underlined by a hugely atmospheric soundtrack by composer Christopher Larkin.
The music for Hollow Knight presented many challenges for Larkin. The most significant being how to create an evocative score with distinguishable leitmotifs. He employed several solutions to achieve this, like using dynamics and varied instrumentation to differentiate tracks from one another, maintaining contact with the development team to ensure the score matched their interpretation of the characters, and taking the time to listen to a variety of influences for new ideas.
According to Larkin, the initial brief that he received from Team Cherry was to compose a soundtrack demonstrating a sense of "dark elegance using minimal instrumentation”, but that remained “classical and melancholic.”
The score includes numerous tracks featuring little more than piano and strings, though there are certainly sections where he felt it was possible to add some intense sounds and instrumentation into the mix.
“We definitely started with the soft piano and viola in the opening menu and "Dirtmouth," but we pull out all the stops for the boss battles.” says Larkin.“That said, the melancholy and a certain sadness is still evident in a lot of these, underneath the crazy runs and shredding.”
“There are some areas that have very unique instrumentation,” he adds. “We have harp, marimba and other earthy tones for "Greenpath." We have very Gothic, cold-sounding organ for "Soul Sanctum," and we use Kalimba, wine glasses and guitar harmonics to give the shiny, crystal sound for Crystal Peak." In these situations, the visual qualities and the context of the areas have a large impact in the choice of instruments and sounds.”
Some of the tracks required additional musicians and live instruments in order to bring them to life. On "City of Tears," for example, Larkin employed the talents of soprano singer Amelia Jones to achieve its ethereal quality. While, across the soundtrack, Timothy Cheel’s viola playing contributes a variety of emotions.
Soprano Amelia Jones can be heard on the "City of Tears" track.
“Adding live playing gives the score an element of human touch, and a certain organic sound,” suggests Larkin. “But I think what it really does is give an extra dimension to the musical content. A new interpretation of a melody or idea which I otherwise wouldn't have done.
He elaborates, “Where I couldn't get the live performance in, I try to always sculpt my sequenced score to imitate live players. I'm always thinking about how and where the players need to breathe, or change their bow, even if it is the computer playing it back.”
The impact that this has is that it makes each theme feel more individual, as performers can contribute their own nuances to the piece.
While writing the soundtrack, there were several occasions when taking the time to exchange ideas with others helped to improve the finished score. One clear example he notes is with the boss theme Hornet.
“The team and I would always discuss the layout and the character of each area at length," says Larkin. "But even then, things didn't always go right the first time. In the case of Hornet for example, I sent the team a sketch of the track which, while it sounded cool, had quite a heavy bass riff."
The dev team noted that Hornet's character is quite sophisticated, elegant and swift despite her deadliness. By better understanding Hornet’s character, how she moves, and how she behaves, Larkin was able to alter the track to better suit the animations and the artwork that the development team had put together.
This comes across in the completed version of the track, as her movements are matched by a more elaborate string accompaniment that implies her speed and grace.
This wasn’t the only input on the soundtrack however. Larkin listened extensively to multiple composers while creating music for the game, including contemporary and classical artists.
“Joe Hisaishi has always been a big influence,” Larkin says. “You can definitely hear that in the piano and strings pieces. Same with James Newton Howard and his beautiful romantic cues from King Kong.” He continues, “Classical music also finds its way into my work, especially Mahler and Rachmaninov in developing long themes, as is evident in the White Palace.”
Referencing a diverse selection of music was extremely important for Larkin. It led him to try out lots of new ideas during the process of recording. The "Mantis Lords" theme is a notable example of this.
It was intended as a deliberate nod to the music of Vivaldi and has a sound unlike anything else on the score. This can be heard by the prominent use of harpsichord and its frantic arrangement. These qualities contribute significantly to the characterization of the Mantis Lords, giving them a particularly threatening and regal presence.
The effect of all these measures is a soundtrack evoking a proper sense of place and character, while also fostering an emotional response from the player. Though the score is clearly linked by its elegiac tone and recurring piano, you never really hear the exact same combination of sounds or a similar intensity from the individual tracks.
It’s because of this that Larkin’s score can be considered a success. By drawing from a wide range of voices and inspirations, and making intelligent use of equipment available to him, he managed to insert a great deal of personality into the score. His leitmotifs add greater detail to the world, and also to facilitate the game’s storytelling.