A new DLC chapter has come and gone, and this slacker fangirl hasn’t talked about this game in ten months! It’s time we changed that.
Rather than overanalyze Specter’s campaign just yet, however, I’m going to take a moment to spread the love to all our DLC Knights – and beyond! It’s time we looked at how Shovel Knight uses its own game mechanics to convey characterization. For reals, it’s something even the game’s developers took into consideration when crafting each campaign.
Now, when you think of good characters, what comes to mind? Personality? Dialogue? Dimensionality? Absolutely! Click on that “characters” link in the left-hand column (do iiiit…), and you’re sure to find these attributes already addressed. With Shovel Knight, I’d like to explore mannerism and movement.
This game may be a throwback to the 8-bit era, but the wonders of modern development give opportunity for more expression in the world our Knights inhabit. Villagers do more than stand at counters or wander two-dimensional streets. They cook meals, measure and study potions, play with hoops and sticks (or…not).
This is a world made alive by its people and creatures, moving and behaving with real emotion. And our Knights? With most of their faces obscured by helmets or masks? Can they exhibit that much life as well? Ohhhhhh heckyes. And then some!
For our DLC heroes (or anti-heroes), dialogue and motivation establish groundwork for who our characters should be. Shovel Knight is an honorable warrior and civil in conversation, even with rivals. Plague Knight is verbally antagonistic but also communicates certain insecurities. Specter Knight is cold, determined, and attempts emotional distance from circumstances and others (but only succeeds to a point…).
If desired, the developers could have given canned movements to these characters – reskinning the different Knights as necessary but retaining a basic movement pattern. Instead, they crafted unique movements for each protagonist according to their prescribed personality:
Shovel Knight’s stride is bold and determined. He pumps his arm in a manner displaying strength and confidence. Plague Knight’s is looser; he doesn’t hold his staff at the ready but lets it swing carelessly in his hand. His attacks carry a degree of unpredictability. And Specter Knight, he leans into his run with his scythe poised for attack – relentless yet emphasizing stealth.
(And I’m sure we can also look forward to King Knight’s swagger in upcoming DLC.)
In a (good) platformer, you can’t have drawn-out dialogue trees to establish the nature of your characters. You can’t give them fifteen minutes to expound on backstory. It’s a medium which operates (literally) in forward motion. Aside from the level bookends which progress the story, how will you explain your characters to the audience? You use the best tool available to you: movement through the levels.
A trained writer will do this too, yes? We know a shy character will move differently from a social character, who will move differently from a depressed character. If you wanted, you could go completely Dickensian and give your cast members identifying verbal and/or physical tics. This is why even in scenes with no dialogue, we can still understand a character completely through how he or she moves. It’s called “body language” for a reason, you know.
And when they’re not moving through levels? Well, Yacht Club Games still uses “show, don’t tell” to excellent effect with quiet moments to offset the platforming chaos.
Even here, in no movement, we can understand Specter Knight. Can you tell what he may be feeling? This is the power of a character’s physicality. It’s something nearly every human being can immediately relate to.
Shovel Knight is the property of Yacht Club Games. There are many ways to play this game.