No Cost Too Great: A Look at the Pale King’s Attempt to Save the Kingdom of Hallownest
Spoiler Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Hollow Knight. If you have any interest in the game, we strongly recommend playing it in its entirety before reading this post, as the game is best when experienced for yourself.
No mind to think. No will to break. No voice to cry suffering.
These are the words spoken by the Pale King as he attempts to fight the plague running rampant throughout his kingdom. This plague is special, because it doesn’t infect from the body, but rather the mind. The plague infects the dreams of the citizens of Hallownest, promising them power and slowly eating away at their ability to resist it, tempting them further and further until they succumb to it, allowing it to take control of their body. But how do you fight a plague that attacks from within?
The Pale King attempted to seal away the plague in a vessel. Vessels are meant to be mindless, will-less, and voiceless. No mind to think means no persuading or tempting the vessel to succumb to the infection. No will to break means the vessel’s resiliency can’t eventually be worn down. No voice to cry suffering ensures that the vessel is able to do its job in stoic silence. Vessels are born as children but also made from void, which can seal away the light of the infection, and are meant to be genderless, having no real sense of identity. However, as we will discuss, the Pale King was unsuccessful in his attempts, and the game begins as the plague begins anew in the kingdom of Hallownest…
There is no way to know the Pale King’s intentions with attempting to save the kingdom. Did he truly care about the denizens of Hallownest? Or did he just want to continue being worshipped and revered? Here, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he did it to save the people (well bugs in this case) for their own sakes.
You may well have heard of the Trolley Problem, a version of which is illustrated above. The Trolley Problem, introduced by Philippa Foot, imagines that a runaway trolley is barreling down the track at five people. There is a switch you can throw to move the trolley to the other track, where there is only one person. The question is, which action is moral? Certainly, one death seems like a better outcome than five… but if you pull the switch you are directly responsible for that one death! The American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson later wrote a paper that offers a slight variation in which the only way to stop the trolley is to directly shove a fat man onto the track. Foot’s own response was that it would be morally justifiable to steer the trolley to kill the single person, as that has a net gain of four lives. She argues that the positive duty to do good and save lives would in this case outweigh the negative duty of not hurting someone. However, Foot would argue that in Thomson’s version, since saving the lives of the five requires doing significant harm to the fat man, it would not be morally justifiable to shove him onto the tracks. Thomson would agree with the decisions, but not the reasoning. Thomson sees the true distinction as “deflecting a threat from a larger group onto a smaller group.” So steering the trolley onto the single-workman track deflects the threat from the larger group to the smaller, and pushing the fat man would be introducing an entirely new threat.
So how does this famous problem tie back to our underground kingdom? Let’s start by discussing sacrificing one non-sentient being to save many others. After all, if the vessels have no mind, no will, and no voice, would they be considered sentient? Although they can move around (and fight in some cases), we would argue no. Their lack of sentience is kind of the point, because sentience gives them a thinking mind which can be attacked by the infection. They can be likened in many ways to a biological robot (a robot that is technically alive, but not sentient or self-aware in any way). The vessels are technically alive, and they can perform actions such as moving or fighting. However, everything is either reactive or a result of their “programming” by the Pale King – there is no self-awareness, no thoughts inside their mines – much like a robot with autonomous protocols. In this case, using a single vessel to contain the plague seems morally justifiable. We are introducing a new threat to the vessel, but because vessels aren’t sentient, it doesn’t seem to matter. We wouldn’t care about pushing a rock into the path of the trolley, and likely wouldn’t care about pushing a biological robot if it would save human lives. As such, we shouldn’t care about sacrificing a vessel to save the lives of all the sentient beings of Hallownest.
Figure 2: The Pure Vessel, before and after being infected. Note the crack on their shell-mask, the tiny flaw the infection was able to make which allowed it to escape containment.
However, there’s a catch. The Pure Vessel, thought to be the perfect vessel for containing the infection, was not mindless. They were very, very close. But during their training for the process of containing the infection, they allowed themselves to think of the Pale King as their father for one brief moment. That single sentient thought acted as the tiniest vulnerability in their willpower, which needed to be absolute in order to keep the infection contained within themself. Over an unclear amount of time (but at least decades, if not centuries) the infection was able to slowly strike at this vulnerability until it eventually managed to break free of the Pure Vessel’s Mind and wreak havoc on the land once again. Additionally, during the fight with the Hollow Knight (The Pure Vessel, weakened by infection), they actively try to help you defeat themself at points, showing they are sentient enough to know what needs to be done. Both Foot and Thomson would appear to say then that sacrificing the Pure Vessel to save others would be immoral, just like pushing the fat man onto the trolley track. However, there is one additional factor at play here, and that is volume. The Pale King wasn’t trying to save five other sentient beings; he was trying to save the thousands, if not more, inhabitants of Hallownest. In that case, saving that many lives seems to be worth directly harming just one life. So the Pale King’s actions seem morally justifiable here.
Or that is, they would seem morally justifiable if only one vessel was made. The thing is, making a Pure Vessel was really hard. So hard, in fact, that it took not one, not two, but thousands of attempts. Before the Pale King managed to make a vessel he thought capable of sealing the infection, he made thousands and thousands of other vessels. Remember, the key to being able to do one’s job as a vessel is essentially to not be sentient – no will, no mind, no voice – just a biological machine of sorts. If every one of these thousands of vessels was unfit for the job, that really means that every one of these thousands of vessels was sentient, at least to some degree. Many of the vessels demonstrate strong will – another character even implies that the main character has a strong will. Other dead vessels are seen in various places throughout the game, places that the Pale King never would have sent them, so they must have gone there of their own accord. Finally, one vessel, Zote the Mighty (which is a bit of an oxymoron) has not only a mind and a will, but is the only vessel to be able to talk (likely due to some imperfection in the birthing/creation process).
This now changes our problem. Instead of asking if it is moral if we sacrifice just one or two sentient beings to save thousands of sentient beings, we are now asking if it is moral to sacrifice thousands of sentient beings to save thousands of sentient beings! Both Foot and Thomson would almost certainly agree that it is not. For one, why does the Pale King get to decide that one group gets to live and another must die? Certainly his primary duty is to the citizens of his own kingdom, but this sort of decision seems to be beyond his moral authority. Next, the Pale King isn’t just choosing who lives – he is actively creating children (with the queen, the Pale Lady), for the sole purpose of sacrificing them. This all feels incredibly wrong.
Figure 3: The Birthplace. Just how many were sacrificed? The number seems uncountable….
Then again, only a couple of vessels actually got sacrificed to the infection… so maybe the Pale King could redeem himself, were he to treat the rest as sentient beings and care for them as he cared for his citizens. But instead, he chose to throw them all into a pit. Literally. When your character goes to visit their own birthplace, the floor, walls, and ceilings are lined with nothing but the corpses of the other vessels. The Pale King gave them life, gave them sentience (although by accident), and then discarded them to die in a pit. In the end, not only did the Pale King give life to, and then take life from, untold thousands of vessels – he did so without actually saving anyone anyway. The trolley problem is no longer an accurate representation of the situation – a more accurate one would likely be an out of control trolley travelling in a circle, with someone shoveling babies onto the track to get ran over.
Although we will never know his true intentions, I believe we can never accept the Pale King’s actions as right, moral, or justified. It can be hard to stand by and let your kingdom crumble to ruins – but that was the outcome anyway. The Pale King believed that no cost was too great, and suffered the consequences by ultimately incurring that cost without any of the benefits it promised.
Dr. Brandon Packard is an assistant professor at Clarion University, where he coordinates the Video Game Programming Concentration and runs an online Game Creation Camp in the summer. His research interests are video games, AI, and machine learning, and the ethical questions thereof. He is also the founder of CU-GAME, an interdisciplinary academic institute for creating or talking seriously about video games. In his spare time, he enjoys playing video games and working on programming projects, and he has over 400 hours in his favorite game, Hollow Knight.