Knytt Underground: The Simultaneous Walk of the Faithful and Faithless
The developer of Knytt Underground, Nicklas Nygren casts himself as the arbitrator between those who believe in an impending apocalypse and those who think of it as a pile of religious nonsense. He inserts himself into Knytt Underground as an in-game character and occasional 4th-wall-breaking narrator, inviting us into the discussion, and ultimately leaving the answer in our hands.
The first and second chapters of the game introduce you to your playable character, Mi the sprite (aka, a knytt), as well as the basic mechanics of climbing on walls, jumping, and bouncing as a ball.
At the end of the first chapter, you meet your two fairy companions. These flying ladies stick with you for the rest of the game: Dora, the kind believing fairy, and Cilia, the potty-mouthed skeptic. Since Mi is mute, she can pick who speaks for her when she finds somebody to talk to. In those conversations, Mi has to decide who to send to speak for her. My Mass Effect brain assumed these were the obvious “paragon” or “renegade” responses. But there was no dualistic meter that told me where my karma was. And as a guy who typically goes full “paragon,” I was surprised to find myself responding more out of how the situation made me feel. Often, a sprite character would block my progress purely because he wanted my money (a very common occurrence in the game). It was surprising how much I liked Cilia’s style of response, sometimes consisting of, “Well, screw you too, buddy!“
In the third act, the high priest tells Mi that somebody in her family line has to ring the six bells of fate to awaken the gods of order and prevent the apocalypse. I sent Cilia to speak for me: “The mission is an utter waste of Mi’s talents. Why would the world explode because she doesn’t ring some stupid bells?” The high priest responds, “We have already chosen Mi, and our decision is final. She is not entitled to decline.” This answer does not make Cilia happy.
Knytt Underground is massive. It took me nearly six hours until I got to the first of the six bells of fate. I spent most of that time unhindered in my progression of the vast network of caves, tunnels, and subterranean communities. At least once every ten minutes, I would come across a screen with two or three diverging paths. I couldn’t commit to one route and just keep moving forward. So Mi, Dora, and Cilia would often have to put their bell-ringing ambitions on the back burner while I made them fill-in every empty spot on my map. With hundreds and hundreds of unexplored rooms on my map, I was tempted to simply spend the entire game filling in my map with blatant disregard for the objectives.
Mi commonly walks into a new room and finds a shiny object sitting just out of reach. This is where it becomes important to discover how to use climbing, transforming into a ball (which bounces with relative physics), and the colored firework powers in concert to get to the heights required to find the shiny item. The firework powers are always temporary. All except for the white ones empower you to elevate to locations unreachable otherwise (the white ones are for destroying robots). And all of them help you to get some kind of item. The shiny items are relics and artifacts from a long-gone humanity. They came in handy when it came time to bribe the sprites that troll the gates to the bells.
When I finally rung the first bell, Dora seemed pretty satisfied with how things were lining up with the prophecy. “Sometimes you need a bit of faith, Cilia.” she said. “…which is pretty much like saying ‘Sometimes you need a bit of imbecility!’” Cilia responded.
I met dozens of characters along the way. Some gave me quests. Others explained the way the Underground worked. Some characters existed purely to discuss religion. Other characters were interested in simply wasting my time. But one character that really caught my attention was Cilia’s father. Their conversation started a little rough, but it got a lot worse when her dad started talking about how people without faith go to the dark realms (Hell and Hades) when they die. “Will you EVER shut up about that?” Cilia asked. She then recounted the story of her formative childhood struggles with the reality of the gods. She recalled that her dad tried to calm her by detailing the torments of the dark realms. He tried to apologize for that. Then he said that she was going to come around. She just needed to start believing. It wasn’t long before she cut the conversation short.
Despite all of Cilia’s misgivings, it’s noteworthy that she chose to come along with Mi on this mission that she had declared a “waste of talents.” And when I finally rang the last bell of fate, she was the one who seemed the most curious about the results.
Knytt Underground seems to be for everybody who wrestles with the subject of faith – both believers and unbelievers. I picked on Cilia’s companionship in particular because I found her story the most interesting. She wanted to be a part of the faith experience - the long and involved quest to discover what the Underground was all about. She assisted in any way she could to help Mi reach all of the artifacts. She was right there with Mi as she performed the bell ringing rituals. She didn’t actually believe it was true. Nevertheless, she stuck it out and came with us on our mission of apocalyptic faith. She also became quite useful in bridging relationship gaps, connecting with various individuals that wouldn’t have helped me otherwise. I couldn’t have completed the game without her. She was just as important in discovering the truth as I was.
Knytt Underground captures the essence of religious and apocalyptic tension. But what caught me by surprise was how it creates a platform for believers and unbelievers to walk the walk of faith together: discovering what happens at the end of the road.