WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the story of Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games is one of the best games I’ve played in ages. A loving homage to the 8-bit NES games of my childhood, it is both nostalgic and fresh, with challenging platforming and boss fights, lots of secrets, an intelligent loot system, and an original epic chiptune score by Jake Kaufman. All of these factors make for an amazing game, and tying it together is a well-told and surprisingly emotional narrative with memorable characters and bosses that really define the world you’re playing in. This focus on emotional storytelling raises Shovel Knight above the status of the traditional platformer, in which story is generally less important than action, into the realm of art. The storytelling is achieved primarily through Shovel Knight’s conversations with other characters, which are brief so as to not detract from the action, but manage to develop each of the characters’ personalities and motivations, making Shovel Knight’s quest feel much more personal than the stories from the games in which it draws inspiration. At the crux of the story is Shovel Knight’s relationship with Shield Knight and the resulting rivalry with Black Knight. This is developed through Shovel Knight’s repeated encounters with his dark counterpart, and Shovel Knight’s dreams in which you really sense his deep feelings for Shield Knight, all of which works to make the conclusion of the game all the more satisfying. It’s amazing how well the story is defined through such limited interaction, and the story resonated with me so much that it is these memories of the game, more than the action, that will continue to linger with me in the years to come.
Shovel Knight is not the mute, two-dimensional character that so many platformers have adopted in the past. He speaks fairly often, giving his actions within the game context, and is given a tragic backstory to augment his shovel-hacking ability. The titular character of the game starts out as a broken man, having lost his partner, Shield Knight, through a dark and powerful magic. He goes into retirement, but when evil confronts the land again, and the Tower of Fate where Shield Knight fell is unsealed, he comes out of retirement to kick some enemy tail. The introduction to the game gives you context for the action, not unlike the old games platformers it was based off of, such as Castlevania and Mega Man. Generally speaking, however, those older games dropped character development beyond the initial story, whereas Shovel Knight continues to develop as a character as the game progresses.
Rather than just beating people up for the shallow reason that they are bad and he is good, we see through Shovel Knight’s interactions that he lives by a code where he tries to avoid conflict when he feels it is unnecessary, often trying to talk his way out of a fight, but never backing down against those who prey on the defenceless. He is a paragon of justice, and his personality is defined to act as a perfect foil for The Order of No Quarter, knights with huge egos who have pledged allegiance for various reasons to the game’s primary antagonist, The Enchantress.
In true Mega Man style, each member of The Order of No Quarter has their own stage, with traps and enemies that are reflective of the boss’ theme or powers. In Mega Man, these stages work to define the character of the stage’s bosses whose motivations were rather shallow, but Shovel Knight takes this a step farther by defining these boss knights’ character against Shovel Knight’s through conversations between them prior to each fight. The Order of No Quarter are seen to be fighting for various personal reasons related to their own ambition rather than blindly following The Enchantress for the sake of ‘evil.’ For instance, King Knight gets raised from a lowly servant to become the King, and Treasure Knight is able to take advantage of the chaos sewn by the sorceress to secure all his ill-gotten gains.
The boss conversations are short, and yet manage to turn what would otherwise be straightforward ‘good versus evil’ boss battles into a battle between righteousness and dishonour. The satisfaction of beating each boss amounts to more than simply being able to learn enemy attack patterns and time attacks; Shovel Knight’s conviction is at stake. Rather than each boss feeling merely like just another roadblock towards the game’s final encounter, every victory feels significant, as if you are removing a scourge upon the land independent of their service to the larger enemy.
A notable exception to the Order of No Quarter is Shovel Knight’s rival, Black Knight. You fight with him several times, over which you learn that their feud goes back a ways. His motivations are initially unclear. You see him engaging with The Enchantress, and though he refuses to fight for her, he also continues to impede your path to The Tower of Fate. Eventually it becomes apparent that Black Knight is aware that The Enchantress is actually Shield Knight, who has been transformed by the dark magic. All of a sudden their feud makes sense, they’re fighting over a woman. Black Knight has been trying to prevent Shield Knight from hurting, and possibly killing, Shield Knight. This is not mentioned explicitly, but by pacing out the encounters with Black Knight and dropping hints here and there, a portrait of their feud, much larger than what is actually presented in the game, is made apparent. Black Knight admits that he’s not strong enough to take The Enchantress down, and this admission plus the knowledge we gain of his love for Shield Knight transform him immediately into a sympathetic character. What’s amazing is how all of this character development is accomplished through very limited exposition.
Shovel Knight does not escape his battle against The Order of No Quarter unscathed. While he is strong, we see he is not infallible as he requires rest, and slumbers by the fire between stages. This gives the character a distinctly human quality, sets the game’s quest within a more realistic timeline, and provides the backdrop for one of Yacht Club Games’ most clever methods of character development: Shovel Knight’s dreams. In these sequences, Shield Knight is falling from the sky, and after a few moments of fighting off a swarm of enemies, the prompt “catch her” appears on the screen, and in slow motion you must rush over as she falls. The outcome is the same whether or not miss you miss catching her (Shovel Knight wakes up), but does it ever feel horrible if you miss. These sequences are brilliant, as they manage to convey without words Shovel Knight’s pain and regret over losing Shield Knight, and in waking up upon catching her you can genuinely feel the loss that one feels when waking up from a pleasant dream.
These sequences also turn out to be a form of foreshadowing, as after you defeat The Enchantress and Shield Knight is freed from the power of the dark magic, you must catch her one last time, but this time for real. The game’s creators do such a great job of building up emotional expectation through the interrupted dream sequences that the realization of those dreams is made all the more potent. Having Shield Knight then fight alongside Shovel Knight in the final battle is a sweet touch that shows how well they work as a team, and why they were considered a force to be reckoned with. When Shovel Knight is knocked out and Shield Knight stays behind to offer protection while Black Knight carries Shovel Knight away, the worry that she is gone for good after having finally found her again is palpable, and had me clinging to my 3DS during the credits to wait for the final payoff.
Yacht Club games has truly created something special in Shovel Knight. The story elements of the game are quick and never detract from the action, but for all their brevity manage to define a much larger world which is easy to get lost in. The protagonist’s personality and motivation become well-established, and his enemies no less so, leading to rewarding, weighty encounters. Most importantly, the player is allowed to take a glimpse into the heart of the character he controls, something which is all too rare in games. ‘Rescuing the Princess’ is such a common trope in video games, but so rarely do we really get a sense that the hero actually cares for her, or even feels remorse for having lost her in the first place. Shovel Knight takes what we loved about the NES era and combines it with a unique storytelling aesthetic that allows the player to truly resonate with its hero, proving that you can have a fast-paced and action-packed platforming spree without sacrificing story to do so. I dig it.