Grimm’s Hollow: Learning to Face the Unknown
One of the best games that I’ve played this year was Grimm’s Hollow. It was short and sweet, as the saying goes, but the story is top-notch. I know that it grabbed much of my attention for a stream, and I proceeded to buy the soundtrack to support the creators. Its message resonates with me: to not be afraid of what is inevitable, that is death, and what goes beyond it. As someone who fears death and its existential meaning, it was very important to hear while streaming late at night to fight off the fear of what’s going to happen.
Reaps and pastries
Grimm’s Hollow starts with the main character, Lavender, learning that she’s dead. Her first reaction is that the kids in hooded cloaks around her are part of a weird cult, and must escape as soon as possible to find her little brother. Lavender wants to find Timmy and escape from this place if she can. It turns out to be more complicated than that when she learns that Timmy is a ghost, the cultists are actually children like her who died before their own time, and they worked hard to make sure that they can gain enough spirit energy to pass on. We meet Grimm, a kindly head reaper who decides to drink tea with Lavender and answer all her questions about the Hollow.
Your goal is to find Timmy and then to find his soul so that he can return to life. Even so, the simplest plans in fiction often go awry the most. Most ghosts can’t go beyond mindless monsters, and the ones that try can get their butts kicked. Lavender soon realizes that Timmy’s soul is more valuable to others than she thinks, even if Timmy needs it more. She has to defend and protect it from a surprise foe.
Where does the gameplay come in, then? You have to fight ghosts. Avoiding or sparing them is not an option; I did try that in case this was an Undertale situation. Then I learned that if I didn’t shape up and level grind, ghosts would kick my butt. The ghosts are already dead, so they can’t be hurt. Lavender shared my feelings.
The game has quirky humor, with side characters providing some of the funniest dialogue. Ultimately, however, the story takes priority. That is where the game shines.
Who can you trust?
Lavender starts out not trusting Grimm. We can understand why; he is the epitome of death and can’t let her leave the Hollow. Like other incarnations of the ultimate reaper, Grimm is final, and his word is the law. He is also reasonable, as mentioned when he says that he allowed one reaper to become a Baker. We soon see why in the bad and worst endings; Grimm has to make hard decisions to save the Hollow and to make sure that his child charges are all right.
We find out that Lavender doesn’t really trust anyone. She explains to the Baker that once her father died, she had to step up and take the reigns of helping with the household. She got a job, started doing most of the household chores, and went to school pretending everything was fine. Yet Lavender had to drop most of her after-school activities, as well as give up any chance of being a normal kid. This resentment builds up, along with walls around her psyche. Lavender felt that authority figures and adults can’t be trusted because they can let you down when you need them the most. Even in the Hollow, Grimm is away right when Lavender thinks to call him for help.
We find out at the end that Lavender should have trusted Grimm from the beginning. Rather, we only learn in the Good and Best endings. Grimm comes to see Lavender beating up the Baker, and asks for an explanation. When he finds out, after feeding Lavender and Timmy some cookies and tea, he says that if Lavender had told him, he would have found Timmy’s soul that much sooner. Lavender, despite explaining her reasons, feels quite sheepish about it. The second and third caves could have been avoided completely.
The Baker is absolutely the worst kind of antagonist in the sense of delivering utter betrayal; he starts out as a good guy but then gives into temptation during a moment of weakness. He escorts Lavender through a training cave and talks with her about how he is too afraid to fight, and that’s why he does the baking. It’s good for you since the healing items can help you recover your necessary energy during a battle. (I hope to recreate the Deathlicious donuts as part of baking experiments and to figure out what exactly “deathlicious” means when translated into sugar, vanilla, and chocolate.)
Eventually, Lavender lets her guard down when the Baker reveals he is scared to show his face. Rather, his lack of face. The longer that Reapers spend in the Hollow, the more pieces of their body they lose. Lavender reassures the Baker that she likes him that way, and assumes it means they are friends now. That camaraderie doesn’t last when she finds Timmy’s soul; the Baker assumes the worst, knocks out Lavender, and goes to the cave with the portal back to life. Even when Lavender explains the soul is not for her, he still tries to sucker-punch her and fight for the soul.
In hindsight, some of the hints were there. The Baker mentions frequently that he’s not a good reaper, and the others lightly mock him for that. We learn that reaping souls is a mercy to the ghost so that they can move on rather than lash out in pain and corrupt their auras. Grimm was the one who decided to give him permission to bake in exchange for Spirit Energy. He’s shown to be fairly flexible and generous. All along, we had the answer in front of us about who was the real antagonist.
What is the lesson then? We don’t know who is friendly in life, and who isn’t. Authority figures can lie, and we want to trust someone who feeds us. All we can do is trust our instincts and pick up on any red flags before it’s too late. While Lavender grew as a person by doing the journey with Timmy and not involving Grimm, she also would have saved herself a bunch of trouble.
Many of the ghosts are in denial of their death. Lavender even feels sympathy for one who tells her where Timmy is and then mistakes her as a cold reaper that will just take his Spirit Energy as well. She’s forced to fight the ghost, who brought friends, to get her little brother back and safe in her pocket.
On the other side of the coin, we also see that fighting for life is as noble as allowing people to pass on and to let them go. Lavender clings to the hope that if she can save her little brother, then everything will be all right. In the good and best endings, Timmy is able to return to the land of the living and grow older. He fights for the will to live because he remembers, as we learn in the Best Ending, how Lavender risked everything to get him out of the hollow and into a safe world.
The ‘good’ ending is that you beat the Baker, and decide to spend your days in the Hollow, where Grimm knits you Timmy’s sweater as a present. It is very sweet of him, and yet Lavender cannot move forward. She wants to but is trapped. What’s more, her face continues to shrivel away. Grimm comforts her with knitting, and they remain friends over the shared secret of the baker.
The ‘best’ ending is the one where Lavender gains enough Spirit Energy to leave the Hollow and walk into the afterlife. You can only do this if you have reaped a lot of ghosts and administered the Spirit Energy to upgrading all of your skills and HP. I can tell you that it takes a while to get to that point, especially if you were previously playing as a neutral-pacifist and doing what you could to leave the souls alone.
It does seem strange that the best ending isn’t that you get to spend your days with Grimm, maybe even find a sequel with rogue reapers or ghosts that have gotten too powerful to defeat in boss battles. Instead, it is the most definite ending about what can happen after you uncover a way for reapers to attempt returning to life. There is a reason, however, that Lavender finds her peace when reuniting with the universe.
The ultimate meaning of Grimm’s Hollow
We all will die eventually. Our hearts will stop, our organs will decay, and we don’t know what comes after the funeral, or the cremation. The unknown is scary. Many religions claim there is an after, and fiction does as well. Ultimately, however, the truth remains beyond us. There could be an afterlife or nothing.
What matters, however, is that we eventually learn to accept the uncertainty and embrace it, regarding death or other matters. Fearing death as we live is not a way to spend our days. We instead should make peace with it, and keep finding our joys as the sun goes up and down, and even as we clock in to work during the middle of a pandemic. The little joys remind us why we get out of bed.
Lavender dies, but she ends up in a friendly afterlife. She’ll faint from exhaustion, but that’s about it. Since she can’t die again, the worst that can happen is ending up in the reaper infirmary and recovering with some cookies. It only gets worse if you faint in the final cavern, and all you can do is wait for Timmy to help rouse you. That is definitely not fun, especially as you get into areas with more ghosts.
It’s also emphasized that Lavender was surviving but not living when she and Timmy were alive. It’s hard to blame her; she had to work several jobs and run the household while her mother picked up the pieces of depression. The overwhelming responsibility made her cynical, with Timmy as the only joy in her day-to-day. Yet all it took was one freak accident, and Lavender ended up as a reaper. Being dead allowed her to reflect on her life and make peace with all of the tragedies and stresses.
The worst part is that the accident is Lavender’s fault. As we learn, she went for a walk on a cold night. Timmy followed her, and they tumbled and fell into a hole, as temperatures went below freezing. Lavender spent her last moments hugging Timmy, transferring her body warmth to him. Even in death, she puts Timmy’s well-being above hers.
That same accident can kill Timmy if you get the bad or worst ending. Unlike Lavender, he was allowed to remain a kid and nurture a cheery attitude even in the worst circumstances. Lavender realizes what she’s nearly lost when Timmy appears as a ghost, not even a reaper. She then doubles down on helping find a way for him to return to life.
With the Baker, he represents those who want to find ways to cheat death, in as many ways as possible. Whether it’s refusing to face ghosts or baking to avoid the drudge of the caves, the Baker has no courage. The Spirit Energy he receives as payment could upgrade him, but instead, he keeps it for an unknown purpose rather than decide to enter the unknown. He shows potential, such as when revealing his disappearing face to Lavender, but stabs her in the back when it suits him. The Baker would rather hurt others to return to life rather than decide to stay in the Hollow, helping out Grimm, or gaining enough Spirit Energy to move on. His indecisiveness and determination to go backward instead of going forward will hinder your journey in turn.
As mentioned, the creators accentuate the best ending, when Lavender level-grinds enough to beat the Baker and upgrade her soul into one that is “complete”. Grimm then tells her that, even though she can’t return to life, she can go into the afterlife where she’ll find inner peace and an ending. Lavender decides to do that, walking with Timmy until they go their separate ways. This allows them to say goodbye to each other, and for Timmy to ruminate on her sacrifice as he goes through puberty and looks outside the window, hoping to see a girl with cheek-marks and purple hair. He also knows what is beyond and has made peace with that.
Rather than find ways to cheat death or court it, we ought to find ways to enjoy life. From baking as a means of dealing with the stress of being at home to playing videogames with boss battles, there is more than one way to live. I know I’m going to enjoy some Deathlicious donuts and read some books I like. We do what we can to enjoy the little things before Grimm invites us for tea.