Warning: Spoilers ahead for Hades from Supergiant Games.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you how good Hades is. Even if you haven’t played it yourself, you’ve probably heard everything there is to praise about Supergiant Games’ near-perfect rogue-like.
You’ve read all about the snappy, variable gameplay that constantly rewards experimentation.
Friends have regaled you with tales of Hades‘ representation: how it features a racially diverse cast of characters; a non-binary god and a bisexual protagonist who can enter a polyamorous relationship. You know it features the latest in virtual dog petting technology.
YouTubers have espoused to you the virtues of its professional voice acting.
“Why can’t you be more like Greg Kasavin, the Creative Director at Supergiant?” your mother has bemoaned, as she lauds the game’s engaging story, clever dialogue and compelling relationships.
“Hey,” the monster under your bed has whispered at night, “have you heard about how Hades has a difficulty modifier that doesn’t detract from the story or gameplay experience?”
“Sorry honey,” your partner has said. “I can’t come to bed until I finish romancing this character. She’s just so engaging and her character design is so unique.”
But I’m in the mood to write something positive for once. So, consider this a light analysis and love letter to one of my favourite games of all time.
The Perfect Game for 2020
What’s more positive than a deadly plague?
As far as I’m concerned you can’t talk about Hades without addressing the fact it came out at just the right time.
Early access for Hades came to Epic in December 2018, and to Steam a year later. During that time it certainly built up a following. Supergiant Games may have been a small team, but they were by no means a small name, with Bastion (2011), Transistor (2014) and Pyre (2017) already receiving critical acclaim. Supergiant sold 700,000 copies of Hades during early access.
But when Hades left early access in September 2020, that following exploded. Within three days, over a million copies of the dysfunctional-family-simulator had been sold. Over three hundred thousand of those sales had occurred within that three-day timespan.
It makes sense that Hades would see a spike in sales after leaving early access.
Curious players had been waiting for the finished product to be released. Media outlets spread the news and put Hades firmly in the spotlight. Everyone and their gran was keen to prove themselves against the hottest new super-tough rogue-like. But an average of 100,000 sales a day?
Dearest reader, that is freaking buck wild. Not to mention the game’s staying power. Time has moved on and so has the industry’s fickle attention span. Yet Hades is still estimated to have over a million active players on Steam alone.
And as this article’s existence proves, not everyone is ready to leave the Underworld for good.
So how to explain the game’s overwhelming popularity? Games rise and fall all the time these days. We’re always chasing The Next Big Thing to play, or better yet, stream. And I don’t want to detract from how good Hades is. It’s practically perfect.
But, in 2020, a game about being trapped at home – struggling to maintain your relationships with the people you live with; dealing relatives from the outside world struggling to call you via dodgy signals; impulse buying; and taking up new hobbies like musical instruments and fishing – just carried a particular…resonance.
Listen, if we did a full analysis of Hades we’d be here for days. And whilst I’d love to spend hours with you discussing every dialogue tree, every myth alluded to, every developer interview, I’m on a deadline to get this to my editors.
So I want to focus on two major forces in Hades. The forces that I believe power the emotional arc of the game and its ludonarrative.
The first is alienation.
In Hades, you play Zagreus, son of…well, Hades. Your goal is simple: escape the underworld. Hades actually started life as ‘Minos’, back when it was but a starry glint in Supergiant Games’ eye.
A game about the Greek hero Theseus, trying to escape the minotaur’s Labyrinth. This concept evolved into the Hades we know and love today, and brings a major emotional dynamic that Minos would have lacked.
In Hades, you’re not just fleeing the land of the dead. You’re trying to escape your home. The one place you’ve ever known.
The catalyst for Zag leaving is discovering that Nyx, the personification of night, is not his birth mother. Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and Goddess of Verdure (that is, spring) is. She left Hades shortly after Zagreus was born.
The game takes pains to establish two things. One: Zag and Nyx had, and still have, a loving and nurturing relationship. Two: Zagreus wasn’t exactly happy in the House of Hades before. He hated and was terrible at his job. His father was distant and dismissive at the best of times and he was curious about the surface world and his relatives on Olympus.
But the inciting incident for Hades is the reveal that almost everyone Zagreus knows has been lying to him, for his entire life, about his heritage. The history of his family, his own origins, has been hidden from him, and the person with all the answers is out hiding somewhere on the surface amongst the mortals.
The familiar is made unfamiliar.
Isolation (Or, Alienation 2: Electric Boogaloo)
Zagreus, who already felt at odds with his father, is left feeling alienated from the House he grew up in. His long-time friends turn against him, or at the very least don’t want him to succeed in his escape attempts.
This is most clear with Meg, your implied ex and first boss of the game. But even Cerberus, your beloved hellhound, whines at the thought of you leaving, and must be appeased at the end of every run.
Your handful of allies are not in the position to fully help you. Both Achilles and Nyx are supportive of your cause but have to tiptoe around Hades.
Nyx secretly contacts Athena on your behalf and sneaks the Mirror of Night – where you unlock permanent abilities and buffs – into your bedroom.
Achilles, your martial trainer, offers advice and, eventually, looks the other way when you slip into Hades’ bedroom for an important plot point. It feels underhanded and perilous; their trepidation really compounds how foolhardy Zagreus’s scheme is.
Thanatos is the only Chthonic god (deity from the underworld) to show up and help you fight off enemies during a run, but it can’t be unconditional support; he has to frame it as a competition. And he’ll admonish you the entire time, for abandoning him, Nyx and the rest of the House.
Charon will sell you helpful items, but he’s doing this as a businessman, not a friend. Dusa is obviously fond of Zagreus, but she’s also too shy at the start of the game to hold a full conversation with you.
Eventually, you can free Orpheus and have him join you in the House, but unlocking this takes time. Orpheus is friendly, but he’s also miserable and utterly passive unless you pursue his sidequest.
Skelly is a willing punching bag, happy to help you test new weapons. But he is also a stranger and a slightly creepy one at that. He shows up in the courtyard without any explanation, gives you someone else’s tooth as a keepsake and dodges questions about himself.
Then there’s the Olympians. Summoned to your aid by Nyx, the Olympians are only too happy to bestow various boons upon Zagreus. They all have eye-catching designs and captivating, exuberant personalities. They at once feel like a faithful yet fresh take on the Greek mythos.
A huge, dysfunctional, often self-aggrandising family that are all universally ecstatic about the thought of Zagreus joining them on Olympus. And their help is essential if you want to make it out of the Underworld in one piece.
Yet, true to Greek legends, the Gods are also fickle. They constantly test Zagreus’ loyalty with “trials” in which you must choose one god over another – and face the wrath of whoever you snub. They lend their aid to Theseus, one of the bosses.
Your conversations with them are one-sided. Thus compounding just how lonely a run can feel.
As the story unfolds, and the player comes to understand the role certain gods played in Persephone’s disappearance, you start to realise you have as much to fear from the Olympians as you do the Chthonic gods.
There’s also Chaos, a being who is by all accounts neutral towards the affairs of The Underworld and Olympus. They offer Zagreus boons. This is more out of a desire to be entertained, but these always come with a catch.
The roguelike elements mean no two runs of Hades are the same. And whilst this is obviously part of the fun, keeping the game fresh, the constantly shifting rooms also contribute to defamiliarization. You never fully know what to expect, and whilst that can be exciting, it can also be stressful.
Heck, even the narrator constantly berates and belittles Zagreus. The fact is, at the beginning of Hades, you’re made to feel as if you have very few true friends, and most of those you do are kinda mad at you.
So who does help you unconditionally during your dungeon crawling? In each region of the Underworld, you have a random chance to bump into Sisyphus, Eurydice or Patroclus. All figures from Greek tragedies who tried to escape their fates and failed.
“Just. Like. You.” The game hisses.
But then something changes. As you keep playing, another major emotional driving force emerges. Hope.
It’ll take time, and a lot of gifts, but you can improve your relationships with the various members of the House of Hades. You can even get back together with Megaera if you’re so inclined. Above all, your relationship with Hades himself changes.
Completing the main storyline leads Zagreus to a place where he is valued as a member of the House of Hades, understands his family, and has a job and purpose which he both enjoys and excels in.
He understands his own self-worth, his relationships with those around him and with The Underworld itself.
Even the fates of those three tragic figures Zagreus befriends throughout his runs – Sisyphus, Eurydice and Patroclus – aren’t truly set in stone. Pursuing certain side quests allows you to help each of them.
Most Greek tragedies end in death, one way or another. But the subversion with Hades is that by virtue of being set in The Underworld – the same Underworld you’ve been trying to escape all game – death is not the end. Not for you or anyone else.
Hope is built into the game. It’s the perfect theme for a randomly-generated rogue-like. Thanks to Hades‘ permanent progression elements, death ceases to be a punishment.
The plot progresses regardless of your performance in each run. Every escape attempt makes you stronger. This is especially true if you turn on God Mode, the much-touted “easy mode” of Hades in which you gain a small amount of damage resistance every time you die.
The more you play, the more familiar the structure of the dungeons become. Yes, the layout of the rooms changes each time, but you’ll come to recognise enemies and traps. Alienation decreases, not just between Zagreus and other characters, but between the player and the environment itself.
And hope increases. Hades rewards players for experimenting with new playstyles; it’s a good way to keep the gameplay fresh after dozens of runs. Yet every player is going to have preferred loadouts.
The more familiar you become with the game, the further you progress on that journey from lost Zagreus to a Zagreus who knows himself, the more you’ll be crossing your fingers for certain chamber rewards.
For Sisyphus or Eurydice or Patroclus’s rooms to appear, for the bells that signal Thanatos’s approach. Eventually, you even unlock the ability to reroll certain rewards, gambling on the hope of something better.
So the engendering of hope is woven into the very fabric of Hades, in a simple yet pleasing metanarrative.
Hope Springs Eternal
And there at the heart of Hades is Persephone. In the original Greek myth Hades captures Persephone and takes her to The Underworld to be his queen (not cool).
In distress, Persephone’s mother, Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, plunged the world into winter, killing all the crops. An eternal winter is bad for mortals. What is a god going to do for entertainment without mortals?
So they made an agreement: Persephone would spend half the year with Demeter and the other Olympians, and then return to Hades for the other half. So was the cycle of summer, autumn, winter and spring created.
Anyone enduring a hard winter looks forward to spring, and summer. Hence writers, critcs and fans of the classics have been making the link between Persephone and hope for centuries.
Persephone defines hope not just for Zagreus, but for Hades, Nyx, Meg and many other denizens of the House, who are delighted when Zagreus brings her home (rest assured, Persephone and Hades’ relationship is much less…contentious in this version).
Like Persephone, Zagreus moves between the realms of the living and the dead. He even goes through a cycle, as the player completes run after run. And through it all, Zagreus never gives up hope that he will reach the surface.
Even when things turn out not to be quite that simple, he holds fast to the belief that he can make things better for himself and those closest to him. Sure, he might still be stuck in the house.
He has some buyer’s remorse about the musical instruments he’s acquired, and his walks outside are getting a little repetitive. But he is taking on new challenges and has found a way to work from home.
Even if others doubt him openly, Zagreus has faith. Faith in himself, his friends and even, eventually, that the pandemic will end – I mean, uh, that his father and The Olympians will make the right decision.
What better theme for a story about gods, than faith?