Path of Pain analysis

Path of Pain end scene analysis 

by Sumwan#6019 and ColdWhie#1163 

Introduction

Released on the 26th of October 2017, the Grimm Troupe content pack added a hidden sub-area to White Palace. This sub-area is the Path of Pain, the hardest platforming challenge in the game. At the end of this challenge, a scene is shown featuring the Hollow Knight and the Pale King. 

This document will examine this final scene and the role it plays in the overall narrative of the game. First, some background information will be presented including a general description of the entire Path of Pain. A short history of the Hollow Knight will be given after which the actual scene will be analysed. Lastly, several counterarguments will be addressed and a conclusion will be drawn.

Background information 

Some background information has to be examined before the Path of Pain scene can be analysed. This information is related to a specific line of dialogue of the White Lady.

When listening to the White Lady, she comments on the Hollow Knight, explaining why they were not fit to seal the Radiance:

Prior to the content pack’s release, it was not clear what tarnished the Hollow Knight, though there were prevalent hypotheses attempting to explain this dialogue.

The most common hypothesis stated that the idea instilled was what the Pale King said to the Hollow Knight during the scene shown before Void Heart is acquired:

This hypothesis argues that this dialogue made the Hollow Knight aware of their purpose which gave them a sense of duty. This was the idea instilled that corrupted their purity and eventually made the Hollow Knight develop a mind and will.

The other hypothesis which was common before the Grimm Troupe’s release was that the Hollow Knight was always impure even before the Pale King’s above-mentioned dialogue. The evidence they had for that is that in the scene where Void Heart is acquired, the Hollow Knight looks back at the Knight when the Knight tries to climb on the platform. This look supposedly shows that the Hollow Knight already had a mind of their own. 

After the Grimm Troupe’s release and the reveal of the Path of Pain, the first hypothesis became less plausible due to new evidence which could explain the White Lady’s dialogue. This will be examined in the following sections after some general information has been explained first.


Path of Pain general description

The Path of Pain is a sub-area that can be accessed by breaking a wall in White Palace. A Seal of Binding is present upon entering the area. 

Near the entrance is a tablet which says: 

This “harshest punishment” to witness the “secrets sealed” is the platforming that is required to progress in the area. During the platforming, Soul Totems depicting the Hollow Knight are shown. The music that plays is the second half of the track Sealed Vessel, the music that plays during the Hollow Knight’s boss fight.

After the last platforming section, there is a fight with two Kingsmoulds. Upon defeating these Kingsmoulds the last area opens which shows the “secrets sealed” that were mentioned at the beginning. 

This scene shows the Hollow Knight and the Pale King in the White Palace. They turn to look at each other before the scene ends. After this, the Knight wakes up outside the Path of Pain’s entrance in White Palace.

The Seal of Binding journal entry is also unlocked after viewing this scene. Its description says:

Before analysing the final scene of the Path of Pain in more detail, it is important to get a clear picture of the background of the Hollow Knight in order for the analysis to be fully understood.

The Hollow Knight

The Hollow Knight is one of the many children of the Pale King and White Lady. The children were born from eggs that were put in the Abyss in an attempt to create a Vessel suited to seal the Radiance. In the Abyss the eggs were filled with Void which caused the children to be born with Void inside them. More detailed information can be found here.

The Hollow Knight was chosen to seal the Radiance because they were judged to be a pure Vessel. “Pure” meant they had no mind, no will, and no voice. They were raised in the White Palace and eventually sealed inside the Temple of the Black Egg. However, the Hollow Knight turned out to be not pure in the end and failed to contain the infection for eternity. 

Taking this history into account, the scene at the end of the Path of Pain and the White Lady’s dialogue can be connected to each other. This will be analysed in detail in the next section.

Analysis of the scene

As was stated in the general Path of Pain description, the scene at the end of the Path of Pain shows the Hollow Knight and the Pale King sharing a moment together. The entrance text mentions that this scene is a sealed secret. Because the Hollow Knight is currently sealed in the Black Egg and the Pale King is dead, it can be understood that this scene is a memory.

This memory was so secret that the Pale King locked it behind “the harshest punishment”, meaning the hardest platforming challenge in the game. It was something that the Pale King wanted no one to see. The Seal of Binding at the entrance was also used because this memory was “of great importance”. This was all because the moment and the look that the Pale King and the Hollow Knight share show that there was a bond between them.

It explains what the White Lady meant when she mentioned that the Hollow Knight was “tarnished by an idea instilled”. This “idea instilled” was the bond between the Pale King and the Hollow Knight. This bond caused the Hollow Knight to become impure. This is also emphasised by the Sealed Vessel music and the Soul Totems of the Hollow Knight, which make it clear that this scene is supposed to reveal something about the Hollow Knight. 

The Path of Pain memory is a sealed secret because it shows that the Pale King was responsible for the kingdom’s fall. By not being completely heartless he corrupted the Hollow Knight’s purity which caused the infection to break out again. By sealing this memory he wanted to prevent anyone from finding this out.


Counterarguments

There are several common arguments that attempt to refute how the Path of Pain scene is explained in the above-mentioned analysis. These counterarguments have some differences but usually rely on similar justifications. 

The first common counterargument is that the Path of Pain scene only shows that the Pale King personally believed the bond was the cause of the Hollow Knight becoming an impure Vessel. The second common counterargument states that the Path of Pain only makes it clear that the bond contributed to the Hollow Knight becoming impure, but it was not the only factor or the main cause.

Both of these counterarguments use more or less the same reasoning for their claims. They explain that the Hollow Knight was already a little bit or entirely impure when they looked backwards at the Knight during the Birthplace memory which is shown before Void Heart is acquired. 

This look supposedly shows that the Hollow Knight already had a mind or “the beginnings of a mind”, because they made a decision on their own. Sometimes this explanation is combined with the claim that all Vessels are impure because the Void has an inherent mind and/or will, therefore the Hollow Knight is impure from birth.

Narrative issues with these arguments

The counterarguments presented in the previous section might seem valid at first glance, but they cause several issues in the Path of Pain’s significance to the game’s narrative.

The Birthplace scene

The first issue is that it is most likely not the purpose of the Birthplace memory to make it clear that the Hollow Knight is impure. This entire sequence is focused on the circumstances of the Vessels’ birth. It shows the reason why the Hollow Knight was considered a pure Vessel (having no mind, will, and voice), which was why they were chosen to seal the Radiance. It also teaches something to the player about the Knight, because it reveals the circumstances of the Knight’s birth. 

The look in the Birthplace scene is different from the look in the Path of Pain. The Pale King and the Hollow Knight are looking at each other in the Path of Pain because this is supposed to imply that a bond formed between the two. They are standing together in White Palace, taking in the view, and sharing a moment together. 

The Hollow Knight turning their head is most likely just a reaction to the sudden attempt of the Knight to climb up on the platform, as the Hollow Knight walks away with no hesitation afterwards. It was not meant to show that the Hollow Knight is already impure. If it did show that the Hollow Knight is already impure in the Birthplace scene, then another issue arises.

The Path of Pain scene’s meaning

When the Birthplace scene is considered to show that the Hollow Knight is already impure, or when all Vessels are seen as being impure from the moment of their birth, the scene in the Path of Pain becomes meaningless to the narrative.

The Path of Pain itself is the hardest platforming area and is supposed to give a meaningful reward at the end. We know this because the entrance text says that after the “harshest punishment” it is possible to witness “secrets sealed”. The final scene is meant to reveal secrets, revealing something that was not known before.

The Seal of Binding journal entry also says that the seal seen at the entrance is used to preserve something “of great importance”. This shows that the scene at the end is supposed to be meaningful.

As was discussed in the analysis section, if the final scene makes it clear that the bond between the Pale King and the Hollow Knight made the Hollow Knight impure, then it shows to players that the Pale King was responsible for the kingdom’s downfall.

If the Path of Pain scene does not show what made the Hollow Knight impure, then the scene loses its significance to the overall plot and makes it completely underwhelming as a reward for the hardest platforming challenge in the game. 

The scene would still show that the Pale King had a heart, but this was something that was already known from several other lines of dialogue. For example, the memorial statue in the City of Tears honouring the sacrifice of the Hollow Knight:

More examples of the Pale King having a heart are the Mask Maker calling the Abyss the Pale King’s “great shame sealed away”, or the lore tablet in the Ancient Basin saying in the Abyss lies “the refuse and regret” of the Hollow Knight’s creation:

In conclusion, if the Hollow Knight was already impure then the plan to seal the Radiance would have failed with or without the bond. This makes the Path of Pain scene completely lose its significance, even though the expectation is set that it is indeed important. 

Keeping this in mind, it becomes less likely that the Birthplace scene is supposed to show that the Hollow Knight was already impure, or that the Hollow Knight should be considered to be impure from the moment of their birth.

Conclusion

Taking everything into consideration, the Path of Pain scene shows the “idea instilled” that tarnished the Hollow Knight which the White Lady mentions. The Path of Pain scene is supposed to be a huge revelation for the player as a reward after completing the hardest platforming in the game.

This revelation is that the Pale King was responsible for corrupting the Hollow Knight’s purity. He caused the kingdom’s downfall by not being completely heartless. This explains why the memory was sealed behind such a difficult gauntlet because he did not want anyone to know about this.

If this is not the meaning of this scene, then it reveals nothing of relevance and nothing new, which undermines the expectations set by the game. Therefore it does not seem likely that any other meaning can be attributed to this final scene.


This document was written by Sumwan and ColdWhie. For more information or questions, please contact us on Discord (Sumwan#6019 and ColdWhie#1163) or Reddit (Sumwann and KrigeV).

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